Parents and Teens: A Few More Comments (Part 2)

I think a big part of parenting teenagers is self-control as in controlling oneself, not trying to control one’s near adult. If I can be more resilient as a parent then maybe I can parent more effectively. Psychologists call this “differentiation” and it is the ability to separate emotions from thoughts. When  thinking becomes clouded by emotional responses, we become undifferentiated. Families with lots of emotionally reactive reasoning used to be called “undifferentiated ego mass.” Lovely description of a family isn’t it?

Back to some comments about parenting teens with an understanding that no one does this perfectly. So first,

— Give up on being a perfect parent or having a perfect kid. Reality is more helpful than perfectionism.

— Don’t push your power, your age or your wisdom. Just because you own the mortgage on the home does not mean that you have the right to coerce or pummel your teens into compliance.

— Believe in your teen’s hyperbole. Exaggeration and overstatement is a favourite in adolescent communication. You don’t need to correct her. Anyway, she might just be the best Math student on the planet.

— You don’t have to be your kids’ friend. Accept yourself as a parent and learn to be good at it.

— Value what he or she has to say even when you disagree or have a different opinion.

— Speak quietly especially when the tension is rising. Tension goes up, voices go quieter and everybody listens more intently.

— Be careful of quick decisions. Quick conclusions are soon problems.

— Admit when you don’t know something. This is easier to do than you think. And your kid will appreciate your incompetence and see it as common ground.

So you might ask, “Did you do all these things?” Uh, no. I just did my best like you. But I wish that someone told me some of this while I was an undifferentiated ego mass.

Parents and Teens — Some Comments (Part 1)

For 5 years when I first started my work as a Psychologist, I worked for Family Services in West Vancouver where I focused on dysfunctional families referred through the public school system, police and probation.

I thought of these kids as “BC’s best” and mostly they were hopeful, resilient, and crafty and making the best out of some tough and tense circumstances at home and at school. They were also hard to handle – it was easy for me to talk with them as they got to skip school to “go see the shrink.” I remember one parent who asked if I knew of a monastery in Africa where he could send his 16-year old son. (Didn’t know of one.)

Some of the parents were excellent in loving and guiding their kids and some were clearly working out their own difficulties in marriage and life through their offspring. Some of these kids became the “Identified Problems” of the greater family tension.

Along the way, I worked up some principles for parents living with teens. These days I am having a resurgence of parents seeking help with their kids and I thought this list might make some sense to some. If nothing else, it might help parents remember what they hoped for when they were teens.

So for parents, in random order as it occurs to me…

— Be careful about criticism of anything. Even when you think you are only making a comment, it may well be experienced as another of a long list of judgments.

— Focus on your teen’s emotions. Kids “naturally” emotionally reason and this can seem illogical to you as a parent.

— Think about what depression looks like in a teen. Sometimes it is in withdrawal and sometimes it is in acting out aggressively. When your child is acting hurt and harmed, wonder about how his inner life is going.

— Say as little as possible and especially about your own experience, unless asked. When kids talk they want to talk and not listen to your thoughts.

— Don’t believe in “teachable” moments. Let your kid talk without your interruption.

— Ask questions that can be answered. Questions like, “Do you want to suggest with me 3 or 4 ideas from which you can choose?”

— Experiment in thinking in non-absolutes. If you have a 70% good relationship with your kids, then celebrate that. Don’t overly prod and provoke the 30% that is not the best.

Okay, that’s enough for today. In fact, that’s probably enough for a few days. I will post a few other ideas in a bit.

My Arms Tell My Story (Stella Marcia Ducklow)

This article is written by my lovely niece Stella Ducklow on osted in MindVine and it speaks of the bodily geography of self harm. Stella is my older brother’s daughter from Halifax. I don’t get to see her much but I think that we usually “click” in spite of my middle-classness. You see Stella is edgy, a tattoo canvas, an artist and writer, a former student at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in photography, an advocate for the mentally ill, a roller derby player — not middle class at all. Initially, photography was a hobby and a way to get closer to her father who is also a photographer. It quickly became Stella’s medium for expressing her struggles with mental illness, for helping others through teaching photography and for raising awareness.Here is the piece she wrote for Ontario’s MindVine:

I recently had an awkward experience where my cafe manager caught a glimpse of my forearms and thought I had been in a recent accident. She held my wrist and glanced at the row of keloid scars and said ‘my dear, did you scratch yourself?’ I just  shrugged and  responded ‘no, those have always been there’ and went to fix the milk stand. I think we were both kind of embarrassed.

There isn’t really a social etiquette for this type of thing yet, it’s like goiters and nose jobs, the unwritten code is that although you can see it is not proper to address it.

It’s not a secret whatsoever that I’ve had a long battle with self harm. My arms tell that story. Too often I let the scars speak for me, because it’s easier to have people accept or reject me upon appearance than it is to actually risk talking about it. Because, like everyone else: I am afraid. I have cultivated a well honed persona that makes me appear outgoing, braised, and unaffected by stares of others. However, to this day I cannot utter the words ‘cutter’ ‘self harm’ or ‘stitches’ without having my stomach drop with shame.

To read more of this article click here and to read more of Stella click here.

Thanks Stella for writing. I admire you dear one. (Uncle Paddy)

It is Where I Belong

Someone asked me the other day why church is important to me. For me, it is sort of like asking why my family is important to me. It is where I belong.

I know lots of people and many I know well. Some of these people I may tell my story to and I listen to their experience too. But in church, like in my family, there is so much I don’t have to say to be known and know that my belonging is not questioned.

This is probably obvious but psychological research finds that a sense of belonging increases meaningfulness of life. We feel our lives are meaningful when we feel we belong. I think that this is one of the reasons why people marry (rather than “live together”) and why they marry when they discover they are pregnant. “I want my child to know she belongs” is what is often said.

Here is an idea: close your eyes for a minute and think of two people or groups to which you really belong. Now consider how much meaning you feel in your life. (I just did this with the thought of my two grandsons – our granddaughter is due any day now – and “out of the blue” I feel my life has meaning.)

Note: this is not about what others give me (recognition say) or provide for me (a place to be known); it is what I am when I am with them. Now I can clearly see this with Jasper and Lucas – I am Poppa. I know who I am, where I belong, and in the mystery of our shared “us,” I have meaning.

Some people don’t know they belong. I had 2 clients yesterday who basically said that to me. One was married (and she with 2 kids) and one was single, 37 years old and into weekend hooking up when what he really wants is to be married with kids and to belong.

I want them to have family, I want them to have church.

“Bid Theory” and the Spirit of Marriage

Of all the people who marry, only 30 per cent grow towards a quality of marriage that they hoped for when they started out. So says Ty Tashiro in his book, “The Science of Happily Ever After.” A lot of us divorce or separate, and many maintain a “just reasonably content” compromise, and a few of us are “happily ever after.”

By the way, this is true if one is a faith-follower or if one is something else from the spiritual-psychological neighbourhood.

Seattle’s John Gottman, the current marital-parenting guru, has studied married couples for four decades and distilled the nature of their success – and it is completely ordinary. “Much of it comes down to the spirit couples bring to the relationship. Do they bring kindness and generosity or contempt, criticism, and hostility?”

According to Gottman, people whose relationships thrived “scanned the social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully.” Those who gave up on their marriages more than often scanned for their partner’s mistakes.

This part of Gottman’s research is obvious to those who identify gratitude as an evidence of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18-20).

Gottman found the key to success in the everyday interactions between couples. He calls them “bids.” Say my partner makes a thoughtful and generous dinner for the family and asks for my response with the hope of some appreciation. I thank her blankly, because I’m immersed in my own thing. She has made a “bid,” according to Gottman, for my attention and appreciation and I didn’t deliver. And neither do the kids for that matter.

Did you know that the majority of “bids” between unhappy couples go unanswered or worse, dismissed with contempt?

Here is something interesting: when Gottman examined the decades of marital data, he found divorcing couples responded to bids only infrequently, less than a third of the time. What about couples that thrived? They approached and appreciated the bids nearly 90% of the time. They had “emotional intelligence.”

Seems simple enough but sometimes hard to do.

(Adapted from a July 2014 Vancouver Sun article by Michael Pond.)

My New Anxiety Mantra

Anxiety manifests physically before your brain can figure out what’s going on. You might feel it in your gut or in your breathing. But watch yourself to see what happens with you.

Today I was doing supervision with a fellow psychologist and she asks 3 questions of herself when she is anxious. I think that I will try it with myself and I recommend it to you as well.

First question: “What am I anxious about?” and give yourself some time to figure it out. It might surprise you that it is not what you first think it is. If you think a bit deeper, you might find a thread of anxiety that runs throughout your emotional life. And it might not be the current circumstance or tension you are dealing with.

Second, “Whose problem is it?” Most anxious people take on the upset feelings of others in their emotional world (e.g. mothers, teachers, neighbourhood children…) and think it is theirs to worry about. Again, think it through and get to the truth.

And #3: “Is there anything I can do about it right now?” If not, let it go. At least until you figure you need to pick it up again.

Now I have a weird disclosure to make. I use the “Reminders” app on my MacBook to tell me when I should start to worry about something! When I put a time clock beside the thing I am anxious about, my iPhone gives me a ding to remind me to be anxious. I laugh when I see that I have reminded myself to worry. Weird isn’t it? Reduces my anxiety though.

Empathy — When Something Good Is Done

When I am confused or worried, I want someone to listen without rushing or concluding or pronouncing. It irritates me when someone dismisses me with “look on the bright side,” or for those theologically persuaded, “God is doing something good.” I don’t want to be equally dismissive, so I look for the “giver’s” good intent and try to not take it deeply. What do you do?

Empathy is the ability to know and experience the consolations and desolations of another. It is a spiritual discipline, a social skill and a profound respect; it is a relationship and a friendship that matters deeply.

Empathy is not sympathy where the “giver” feels good about the giving. It is not solution focused, or panacea finding, or conversation concluding. Sympathy is a reactive protection from getting involved. It is limbic un-thoughtfulness.

I want you to watch a lovely 3 minute cartoon on what empathy is, what caring is. Brene Brown is the speaker with the words behind the drawings. To hear more of what she has to say, look at “The Power of Vulnerability.” Want to see even more? Check out her genius TED talk.

Appreciative Inquiry for Couples

“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Appreciative Inquiry is a theory of change that is used in parenting, marriage as well as lots of businesses and organizations. Unlike theories of strategic planning that focus on correcting faults, Appreciative Inquiry looks towards what is best about what already exists.

It is important in marriage counselling where couples have forgotten how to give attention, affection and approval. And it is important in simple neighbourliness and parenting as well as in teaching.

Couples have found that they grow in their relationships more truthfully in a way that problem-correcting counselling does not permit. Venting hurts is most often a rehearsal for the next conflict or problem. Appreciative Inquiry is a positive rehearsal for positive change.

Here are some questions I typically ask my couple clients to help them focus on what is true, noble and right in their partnership.

1. How are you contributing to ingenious solutions in your marriage by being yourself? And what about your spouse?
2. How are you excellent for your spouse? (How is your spouse “good value” for you?)
3. What one valuable thing are you doing to protect and care for your family while still doing your life and work?
4. Can you describe together a positive practice that you consider important to add excellence in your marriage? (Note, you might not be doing this right now though you could in the future.)
5. What do you currently regard to be the most enduring and secure thing about your marriage?
6. Describe the skills you use to solve problems and resolve conflict within your partnership?
7. How is being “carnal” or “in flesh” important to you and your partner?
8. What are some key factors that keep you in sexually and emotionally faithful?
9. How is conflict essential to making a good marriage for you and your partner?
10. What do you imagine that you will say has been the best of your marriage 5 years from this month?
11. How does your spouse most love to be loved? How do you most love to be loved?
12. Assuming time and money are not current obstacles, what one great thing would you love to do again with your partner?

Note: this is not positive thinking as in ignoring life’s problems; it is upward focusing about the problems. It is solution focused rather than blame / responsibility focused.

A Stranger Interview (or “Free Coffee for Free Thinking”)

Most of us keep to ourselves and the one’s that don’t are often referred to as “extroverts.” Introverts, those that gain energy in smaller groupings, however, are often the best at intimacy and are usually great in 1-on-1 conversations.

In some of my teaching, I ask my students to do “stranger interviews” with people outside their social / religious / age / race / gender constituency. 10 interviews with 10 strangers about the most important things in life.

My favourite series of interviews was by a student who interviewed 10 beggars on the Granville Mall. His criteria? They had to be beggars and they were willing to give him 10 minutes of their time to talk about intrusive matters for $10. That’s right, he paid them 10 bucks. (Other students have put up signs in coffee shops that say something like “free coffee for free thinking.”)

And I ask people in my counselling practice to do the same. “Talk to 10 people this week who are outside of your particular world and ask them 5 or 10 things.” Here are some example questions (any question can be asked but these are illustrative):

  1. Do you believe that you have a “call” for your life and if so, do you think you are living it?
  2. What is the essence of your “you”; that is, how are you unique, gifted, valuable to your personal world?
  3. What will “they” write on your tombstone (assuming you will have one)?
  4. If you were to design a T-shirt, what would it say / show on the front and back?
  5. Do you have a code of ethics – either formal or informal – that provides a structure for your life?

There are three parts to an interview. The first is “the ask” where you simply ask, “May I talk to you for a few minutes about things that are important to me?” This is pretty anxious for both parties but it is hard to turn down. The second stage is “the Q+R” as in question and response. Not so much answers to fill-in-the-blank, census-type questions, as responses to thoughtful considerations. And the last stage is “the wrap” where thank yous are offered and spontaneous emotions are experienced. Some people say things like, “this is the best interruption I have had all month.”

So here is “the ask” – “Will you take an hour out of your email-checking life to engage a stranger with some of the most important things of your life?”

Planful and Mediated Separation

First off, I know that “planful” is not a word, but it should be, so I have invented it.

This blog is about mediated separation when one’s partnership goes all wrong, when person one is a distancer (emotional cutoff) and person two is a pursuer (“do this, do this”) or when nothing changes and nothing gets done.

It is about how to separate the relationship in a way that allows the couple to talk some sense rather than rant, and to make some changes rather than just quit.

Some couples get back together through this process and some don’t — but it has to do with a person’s choice, rather than just guilt and coercion or storing up and blowing up.

You can read about it on my web site under “Tools — Planful and Mediated Separation.”

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