Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Free Parenting Series

Our new classes, The Free Parenting Series, start in March. Visit our website for more details.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

I can learn to be me?

by Chris Shaw, MAMFT

Lack of love fuels our search for identity.  When humans feel valued, they seem to build bonds with those who love them and emulate what they see and hear.  However, if an adult is not secure with who they are, they will have a difficult time when their child becomes like them.  Social learning theory teaches that we learn by observation.  Children are apt to do as their role models do; parents are key role models. Parents and children can easily find themselves in similar situations simultaneously.  When we as adults are not valued in our career or in our intimate relationships, how can we provide care and love for our children?  How do we identify ourselves as “adults” now and not as the child that we used to be?  I believe that it is important for us at each successive stage of life, to revisit the question of who we are in light of our experiences and redetermine which factors we choose to let describe us.

Our identity is our choice. How we interpret the events in our life matters.  It is easy to recall our stories and lose sight of the larger narrative that our lives play a part in.  Despite our best attempts to base our value off of others' opinions, human lives do not need the approval of others to have value.  Our irremovable image of God is the imprint of worth, despite our own perception of what we consider to be “successes” or “failures.”  I believe that the life that we live is best lived within this context.  Maybe we have made mistakes and we regret our choices.  We can feel like we are living under the constant weight of them. Yet these choices are superseded by the love of God.  Each of us has certain co-dependent-like tendencies so that unless others love us, we cannot be okay with ourselves.  Yet when we are able to experientially know that we are valued by God, we also begin to build bonds with him and become like him.  The need for acceptance from others loses importance.   

A child will also desire to fit in and gain the acceptance of their peers as well as their adult relationships.  They want to know that they have value.  Lest I communicate that human love has no worth, it is important that both children and adults experience love from their key caregivers in life.  Despite your best efforts to reassure them of their self-worth, children may still be hesitant to believe parents since the draw to be acceptable to their peer has immense importance to them.  Children need genuineness from us.  They draw much of their identity from caregivers, not only through verbal communication, but also in the way we communicate to them by tone, and non-verbal cues.  How do you show with your full self, that your child is important?  Unconditional love speaks volumes. Communicating to them their value despite grades, their behavior and your own life struggles, teaches them that negative statements of peers have little meaning.

If we teach our children that they need to be “fixed” in one way or another, they will likely assume that they are inherently flawed.  It is challenging to help children develop into themselves rather than molding them into who we desire them to be, or who we think they are.  Take the time to care about who your child is and who they are becoming.  Instilling in them pride for effort, regardless of outcome tells them that it is the heart which matters.  This also shows them that their worth is not based on appearance, achievement or number of friends; not that these things are unimportant, but that they are secondary, not primary.  Too often we miss the most important things by focusing on the small things.  It is good for us as adults to remember this for ourselves as well.  Keeping our own priorities in order models for our children better than words can ever do.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

"Mom, why don't others like me?"

by Chris Shaw, MAMFT

The wounded child cries out this question as they look for affirmation.  It has a profound depth that the child does not yet understand; for what human being exists who does not want to be loved?  I don't know why, exactly, but knowing that we are loved gives us peace.  It doesn't objectively change us, but it does affirm for us that we matter and have value to the world around us.   Maybe this objectively changes us: having an internal sense of peace and believing that we are acceptable to others.  Isn't that what children do when changing hair color, adding a new wardrobe and becoming like a certain sub-culture.  Are they seeking after that internal sense of peace and security which tells them that they fit in or trying to find the answer to their identity.

Adults also often look for the answer to who they are.  Maybe as a child they came to a sense of self, but as they have grown up, they reflect upon their path in life, and where they are today looks different than what they had imagined for themselves.  We wrestle between our perceived identity and who we really are.  Two major stages identified by Erik Erikson occur from the ages of 12-18 and 35-55.  In many households, these two periods of life intersect with one another and provide challenges for both parents and their children.

In adolescence, the developing child is seeking to discover who they are. Erickson postulated that the major challenge for adolescents during this time was to discover their personhood or else remain in a continual state of internal flux.  When other children do not accept a child, they can be left wondering how they will fit in.  They then tend to seek avenues to make themselves acceptable.  Can a parent help their child see themselves as loved and can that be enough to overcome the pull from peers?  A significant limitation on this is that at the same time, according to Erikson, parents are often in their own struggle to find themselves.  Parents are still discovering what it means to be “in charge.”  They are attempting to balance work, family and friends.  Career struggles, marital problems and feelings of inadequacy as a parent can override helpfulness to children.  Many of us thought life would get easier when we “grew up,” but instead, the difficulties outweigh ease.
Both of these seasons of life seem to deal with similar issues yet with different circumstances.  Whether we can admit it or not, in we all need the sense of security and peace which comes along with knowing who we are.  Adults need to know they are loved regardless of perceived successes or failures in life.  Children are in their early struggles to believe the same thing.  We shame ourselves with who we should be rather than resting in who we are.  During each successive stage of life we must continue to find ourselves and rediscover who we are in light of who we want to be.  In the next article we will look more specifically at the ways in which we can both as adults and as children come to experience this state of self-understanding and internal security.

Monday, September 10, 2012

It’s All in the Family: The Impact of Parental Health on Kids

by Alyssa Hasson, MAMFT

Kids are like mirrors… they reflect the emotions of the adults they live with. Take a moment to consider the implications of this statement. If the emotional health of your children is so closely connected to your own, it’s worth evaluating your own emotional health and exactly what you are sending out to your child.

If you were to pause right now and think of three words to describe your emotional state over the past 12 hours, what words would you use? Do your words have happy undertones, like the words joyful, refreshed, relaxed, inspired, and confident? Or have you chosen words like frustrated, anxious, irritated, stressed, and discouraged, which reflect sadness, anger, or fear? Whichever set of words you have chosen, chances are high that your child is experiencing those same things!

Research in neurobiology (the workings of the brain) has revealed that our brains are equipped with mirror neurons. According to Daniel Siegel, author of Parenting from the Inside Out, “Mirror neurons may also link the perception of emotional expressions to the creation of those states inside the observer. In this way, when we perceive another’s emotions, automatically, unconsciously, that state is created in us.” This means that when your children perceive emotion in you, their brains automatically create the same emotion in them. This is great when you’re feeling happy and relaxed. But it’s not so great if you’re in a chronic state of stress or anxiety. Parents who are experiencing chronic or acute stress, like job stress, financial/economic stress, and/or family stress (including situations like a divorce or marital strain, the loss of a loved one, the addition of a new family member, or even the behavioral problems of a child) should be especially mindful that this stress is being picked up by the mirror neurons in their children. It’s important to note, also, that such stress and anxiety is being communicated even if you think you are hiding it.

Stressful situations seem to be a fact of life. While you may not be able to change the situation, you do have the power to change the way you are internalizing it, and thereby the way it is affecting your children. Keep yourself healthy and balanced by practicing self-care. Self-care is an important, and often overlooked, part of parenting. Simply put, it means taking care of yourself. Self-care is different for each person, but generally speaking, it should include meeting your physical needs (like regularly eating healthy meals and getting enough sleep) and managing your emotional needs by doing things that help you release and relax. I like to think of self-care as getting back to who you are, apart from the roles you play and the stresses that claim your time. It can be tempting to put self-care on the back burner, but remember the benefits that come with being balanced and having stress and anxiety under control. Children can only be as healthy as the family that they live in. Your own emotional health is an important piece of the puzzle!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Many Myths of Divorce: Part 4

by Emily Suggs, LPC

Myth #4: "A stepfamily is basically the same as a nuclear family."
Most children of divorce will experience a stepfamily or " blended" family within the first five years after their parent's divorce.  Even though the parent who is remarrying may be excited about the future with their new spouse, children usually are not welcoming of their parent's remarriage. They may fight against every effort you make to include your new spouse into the family. For children of divorce, their parent's remarriage is shattering the dreams of biological parents reuniting.   It is important for parents to acknowledge that stepfamilies are very different than the nuclear family they may have experienced. Therefore the expectations and rules will need to look different. It is as different as football is from baseball. Can you imagine if you used the rules of football to play a game of baseball? Or vice versa? It just would not make sense, and it would be pretty chaotic. Stepfamilies can be very chaotic when operating under the impression that blending a stepfamily occurs quickly.

Stepfamilies need time to adjust to all the new changes. There will be new rules, new expectations, new responsibilities, new living conditions, new parenting styles, and many new relationships (step siblings, step grandparents, step parents).  Patricia Papernow in her book Becoming a Stepfamily shares that it takes an average of seven years to blend stepfamilies together. On occasion, when the children are young and the adults work at connecting the family, this process of blending your stepfamily can occur as quick as 4 years.  However, stepfamilies facing various conflict and turmoil can take as long as 9 years to blend. 

Most couples do not enter the marriage believing it will take this long to build a healthy stepfamily. They usually are looking for a "quick, painless blending process" says Ron Deal , author of The Smart Step Family.   Deal compares blending stepfamilies to cooking in a Crockpot. It takes "time" and "low heat (intentional efforts)."

One of the greatest challenges stepfamilies face is the role of being a stepparent. Stepparents often expect their stepchildren to respect them as a parent immediately. Yet children may resent their new stepparent.  In order for a stepparent to build a healthy relationship with a stepchild it requires  spending regular time one-on-one. This more effectively addresses insider/outsider tensions and children’s losses as well as loyal binds the child may feel .   

In Deal's book, The ReMarriage Checkup, he reminds couples it is essential to be on the same page when it comes to stepparenting. The following are the three key guidelines he gives to stepfamilies:
  1. Biological parents must pass authority to the stepparent.
  2. Biological parents should build trust in the stepparents.
  3. Stepparents should move into the relationship and discipline gradually.

Even though children may be resistant at first, a strong stepfamily can be very beneficial to children over time. It can teach them that even though their parents' marriage did not work out, there are second chances in life. The key is to keep the long-term goals for the family in perspective by exercising patience, understanding, and communication. The following are a few helpful resources for stepfamilies:
The ReMarriage Checkup by Ron Deal
The Smart StepFamily by Ron Deal

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Many Myths of Divorce: Part 3

by Emily Suggs, LPC

Myth #3: “If a new significant other makes me happy, it will make the kids happy too."
Despite how difficult the marriage or the divorce may have been, most divorced parents feel remarriage or a long-term relationship will be a part of their future.  Sometimes this happens sooner than later after the divorce is final. Family and friends may even encourage you to start dating and meeting new people. It appears to be a good idea and may even feel like the right thing to do. Yet for children, there can be some long-term effects to bringing a new person into your child's life too quickly.  

Research has indicated that children of divorce need approximately 3-5 years to heal and adjust to their new life.  But studies show that often men remarry within one year and women within three years after the divorce is final. When this occurs, a child has more life changes and hurt to balance. Following a divorce, children need their parents like never before. They need time to cope and adjust to their new lives. They need support and encouragement that things are going to be okay. They need protection and guidance from additional stressors. "Refraining from serious dating or relationships in the first year after separation gives children and parents the minimum adjustment period. If your breakup is extremely troubling to your child, you might consider waiting even longer" (Neuman, 359).

Even though parents may be excited about the possibility of finding new, affirming relationships, children do not usually share the same excitement.  Some parents even believe that whatever makes them happy will make their child happy too. It sounds good, but it is not true. Despite the age of your child, chances are your child will view your new friend as a replacement for the other parent. Such thoughts will usually trigger significant feelings of loyalty to other parent, anger towards the new friend, fear of the future, and sadness that their parent is moving on in life.

A child's perspective is often very different than what a parent's perspective is when it comes to dating.  Children tend to struggle with four specific areas when they find out their parent is starting to date or wants to introduce them to a new friend.
  • When a parent announces they are dating a significant person, children often are faced with the shattered dream that their parents will not get back together. Many children hang on to the hope and dream of their parents' reconciliation even years after the divorce if final. But it is usually when the parent starts dating that the child is faced with the finality of their dreams.
  • Often children feel closer to their parents after the trauma of a divorce.  Engaging in a new relationship takes time and energy. Children may lose some of the time they have been able to experience. They may also feel that you are more excited about spending time with your new friend or may even be jealous of the time and attention the new friend is receiving.
  • There is a hurtful message children may assume when parents date: "I am not good enough to make my parent happy."  When parents seek companionship, children often feel rejected. After a divorce, the parent-child relationship commonly changes developing a new dynamic.  Even when the child understands the difference between the parent-child love and romantic love between two adults, it still is difficult to not feel good enough when parents start dating again.
  • Lastly children struggle with the fear of future rejection. Children of divorce experience several losses. It is difficult enough to heal from the changes that have occurred. When another person becomes a part of their life, it is common for kids to fear the loss of that relationship too.  It is important for parents to be careful when and how they introduce significant others to their children. It is dangerous to introduce every person you may date because children may quickly get attached. Even though adults understand the difference in what constitutes a serious relationship, children are seldom able to understand this.

Now you are probably wondering how to find future happiness in a relationship when it can be so difficult for your child to accept.  There is hope if things are handled slowly and delicately.  Here are some guidelines to making dating after divorce a healthy experience for both you and your child.

  1. The first thing that should be done long before you begin dating is to openly dialogue with your child that a time will come when you will starting dating again. Explain to your child that just like she enjoys making new friends and spending time with them, so do you.
  2. Timing is everything. Be careful not to introduce your child too quickly to someone you are dating. It is common for children to not know who their parent is dating until the relationship gets more serious. When the time is right for your child to meet the significant other, remember they do not have the same feelings or attachment that you might have. Give them time to get to know the person like you have had time to do.
  3. The where, when, and how is a very important thing to consider. When you decide it is time to introduce your child to your new friend, be sure your child is not tired or distracted (at the end of a busy day or after a soccer game). It is best to take place at a pleasant, neutral location. The first meeting should not take place at your home. The meeting should not exceed an hour and a half. For young children, 30-45 minutes is usually all they can handle. If the child is older, choose something age appropriate and centered around doing things they enjoy. It is best not to use family gatherings or special events (birthdays, recitals, etc.) as a first meeting place.
  4. Remain sensitive towards your child's feelings when it comes to bringing a guest into the family home. Children need your friend to respect the boundaries of their time with you. It may produce stress and strain if your friend begins stopping by every day after work or spending long periods of time in your home. This can produce uncomfortable feelings of anxiety in children, but they may fear they will hurt or upset you so they will not say anything. Overall children desire for their parents to be happy, but this does not mean children do not have strong emotions or opinions about the changes that are taking place. By recognizing and acknowledging such feelings and thoughts of your child, he stands a greater chance of adjusting in a healthy way to these changes that are occurring in his life.

Neuman, M. Gary. Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastle Way.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Many Myths of Divorce: Part 2

by Emily Suggs, LPC

Myth #2: “If my former spouse was a “BAD” parent, there won’t be any sense of loss for the kids.”
In families experiencing divorce, the term "bad" parent is often subjective. Usually there is so much hurt and anger between parents they tend to point fingers and bring to the surface the downfalls of each other.  For children, they do not need to be subjected to their parents disagreements and anger. However, children often feel the tension and see themselves caught in the middle.

Both consciously and unconsciously,  parents attempt to pull children closer to them by either becoming overly involved, over- indulging their children, or communicating  negatively about ex-spouse.  Sometimes parents even go as far to share too much information with their child. The boundary between adult information and child appropriateness can get blurry when a parent's anger and hostility towards the other parent takes over.  Some parents can expect their child to take on a surrogate spouse role. This is especially true when the parent feels abandoned or rejected by their ex-spouse. Such dynamics can  lead to emotionally unhealthy expectations placed on the children.

In working with children of divorce, one of the biggest stressors that children face is the feeling of being caught in the middle of their parents. It is very common for children of divorce to feel they need to choose one parent over the other. They struggle with which parent they should pledge their loyalty. By sharing too much information with children, parents are only hurting their children.  Such communication leads to children feeling confused, angry, and overwhelmed.

 Sometimes there already exist a strong middle ground between a parent and their children. If there is a parent who has spent more time with the children prior to the divorce, then children may have a stronger, closer relationship with that parent.  During the divorce, children may feel a closer tie to that parent because of that "middle ground" or connection that was already established prior to the divorce.

Children can be very perceptive. They recognize discrepancy between what one says and what they experience. Divorce is an adult problem between the parents, and children should not feel responsible for adult problems. When asked directly, parents will respond that they do not want their children to experience such feeling, yet the parents' behavior communicates otherwise.

Below are some important tips for parents of divorce to remember in order to help prevent children from being pulled in the middle of their parents' conflict.

  • Avoid making negative comments about your ex-spouse to or around  your children.
  • Remember most communication is nonverbal and children watch how you communicate about their mom/dad.
  • Don't ask children to carry messages to ex-spouse.
  • Don't argue or fight with ex-spouse in front of the children.
  • Be careful about asking nosy questions when children return from visits.
  • Respect your child's feelings towards their parent (positive or negative feelings) and do not attempt to tell them what they should feel.
  • Respect your ex-spouse in front of your children!