Thursday, October 25, 2012

What is a Good-Enough Parent?

Psychologist, writer, and researcher Bruno Bettelheim coined the term "good enough" parent. It's a useful one.

It reminds parents they don't have to be perfect to do a really good job at parenting. It gives parents hope, because most insightful, conscientious parents are able to reflect on their own shortcomings as a parent. Sometimes it isn't until we become parents ourselves that we develop more compassion for our own parents, ourselves, and parents everywhere who not only are raising children, but also trying to support the financial needs of the family, balance work and family, meet multiple children's needs, and  stay happily partnered. Parenting is a big job if it's done well.

Sometimes part way into living out the dream of having a family, loss occurs. There may be a death or a divorce which creates even more challenges: moving, financial stress, single parenting, more isolation, and even less support. The parenting needs to continue, and sometimes there is hardly time for a parent who is going through loss or crisis to catch their breath. Conversely, having children to rally and refocus for after a huge loss can be helpful and grounding. I am often supporting people in just this situation in my counseling practice, and try to help the person see their role in helping their children through a family crisis as a good choice for their attention, as opposed to dating again right away, or something else.

As a family therapist who has worked with children, teens, and families for more than 20 years, here are some of the traits I think good-enough parents need:

1.      The ability to apologize when you blew it, overreacted, etc. –sincerely, and from the heart.

2.      Being present, as much as you can and still support the family. Being present also means that you are available emotionally, not focused on an addiction or your own compulsions.

3.      Listen more than you talk. Most parents lecture far too much, especially with teens. If you listen more, you'll be amazed at how your child or teen may open up more.

4.      Follow through. Do what you say you are going to do. Be count-on-able. My own children are in college and have launched into adult life, and I still feel that being a parent of your word is critical to your credibility with your child.

5.      Have traditions and rituals for connecting with your children and family. Think mealtimes, family activities you do together, worshipping together, one-on one dates with your child/children, homework help.

6.      Be your authentic self. A parent with good self-esteem, a sense of purpose, and a sense of humor all make you more real to your children. Express yourself with your own little twists that are uniquely you. I personally love serving breakfast waffles for dinner sometimes to mix it up, and love playing the board game Apples to Apples with the whole family. Hmmm, that gives me some excellent ideas for when my girls are home Thanksgiving weekend from college!

7.      Be consistent. Try your best to have regular meals, bedtimes, and homework times. Try to set and enforce clear family rules fairly and calmly. Speak softly and carry logical consequences.

8.      Encourage your child. My theory is that each child is different (have you ever noticed your differences from your sibling, if you have one?) Our job is to figure out who we've been sent, and how to help them develop their natural strengths and interests.

9.      Do not compare. Don't compare your child to their siblings, to you at their age, or to their friends. All of those comparisons create distance between you and your child, tension between siblings, and are not useful. Communicate to your children that they each have a special and unique place in your family and your heart.

10.  Don't give up. Some stages are magical in the parenting journey. Others are heart-breaking and upsetting. You are the parent, and good-enough parents go the distance.

11.  Be warm. Express your love for your child. Point out their strengths. It is in childhood that we learn to attach successfully with others, because we first learned how to securely attach to mom and/or dad.

12.  Play together. Can you remember when your parents played with you, or taught you to do something they enjoyed? Those positive experiences put something into your account with a child, so that when you have to discipline, there is something on account from which to withdraw.

So the good news for parents is: you don't have to be perfect. You can be good-enough, and that's just fine. As Bettelheim wrote, "not only is our love for our children sometimes twinged with annoyance, discouragement, and disappointment, the same is also true for the love our children feel for us." For everything to work, we don't have to be perfect as parents, and our children don't have to be perfect for us to love them either.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Good Mood Basics

How are you sleeping? How are you eating? Do you exercise?

When I am concerned about a client's anxiety or depression, these are some of the first things I want to know. If you are not sleeping or eating well, it can make your mood problems much worse. Exercise is a wonderful, natural mood stabilizer.

Sleep is a huge issue for most people in modern life. A number of studies show we still need as much sleep as our great grandparents did in 1900, but we get much less. We also sleep less than people did in 1950.

Many teens are especially short of sleep. Teens have major changes going on in their bodies, and need more sleep than adults. It doesn't help their moods when teens are overtired. Many teens are up past midnight on school nights, and then have a very difficult time getting up for school in the morning. Many teens send and receive text messages late into the night.

Sleep researchers recommend we gear down our brains in the last hour or two before bedtime. There are physiological challenges that we get from the impact of computers and television in the pre-bedtime hours. The light from each of these technologies can activate our brains, and make it harder to fall asleep.

Experts suggest that we downshift in the last hour before bed by doing something quiet, like reading, talking with someone, or listening to music. A relaxing shower or bath could also set the stage for a peaceful entry to sleep. Lowering the light intensity in the room during the winding down time period can also help ease sleep.

Good sleep hygiene also includes keeping your bedtime and waking time as consistent as possible, 7 days a week. Big variations in either time frame can mess up your sleep cycle. Getting into a good sleep pattern will help your mood. If you have trouble staying asleep, don't lie in bed tossing and turning. If you can't get to sleep after 20 minutes or so, get up, change rooms, and do something quiet, like reading until you feel sleepy. Go back to your bedroom when you are tired. We want to associate the bedroom will peaceful sleep. This is why it's best not to study or keep a home office in your bedroom.

What about stabilizing your mood with good nutrition? Many people skip breakfast, and begin their day with nothing in their stomachs. Other people skip meals. We do best with something nutritious every 3-4 hours. If you have a busy day planned, pack up some portable healthy snacks and take them with you to work or school. You can also stash some snacks in your car trunk.

Many teens eat no breakfast, and then skip lunch at school. If your teen has a tendency to do this, you may want to take them grocery shopping with you to pick out healthy, portable options. You may also want to make the 3:00 or 4:00 time frame the main meal of their day, as it is when many teens are at their hungriest.

If you are not sure what you should be eating, or what number of calories you should be eating, even one session with a good registered dietician can be extremely informative and helpful. My favorite dietician is able to help you make a grocery list of snack and meal items that fit your lifestyle, and are easy. Eating well can help reduce anxiety and depression symptoms.

Limiting your intake of alcohol and caffeine is also key to stabilizing your mood. Alcohol is a depressant, which can make depression worse and complicate any medication you may be taking. Caffeine is a stimulant which can make an already anxious person more anxious, and interfere with your sleep cycle. Limiting sugary foods will also help you get off the mood roller coaster!

For my patients that are anxious or depressed, I also want to make sure that they are exercising if their doctor has given them clearance to do so. It's amazing what a 30 minute walk a day can do to increase endorphins, and give people a needed mood boost. It can also help you sleep better.

Feeling bad? Start with the basics of sleep, eating well and exercising regularly. They are simple ideas, but they each have a huge impact on how you are dealing with your emotions, relationships, and life challenges. If you need more help, consult a good therapist who does cognitive therapy to reduce depression and/or anxiety symptoms.


Monday, October 15, 2012

How do you Relate to Others?

Someone gave me a tip on a terrific book this last month, about a little known book with a very powerful idea to teach us. The book is Leadership and Self-Betrayal by the Arbinger Institute. I found it ready for easy download onto my Kindle through Amazon. I have never seen it in a bookstore, even though it has been out for about seven years.

How do you relate to other people? There is a simple but elegant concept in this little book that I think pretty much all of us could use. You can apply this concept to your relationships with co-workers and your boss, your friends, your children or step-children, your partner, your parents, your siblings, and your neighbors.

The concept is, basically, that we all relate to other people in one of two ways: either from being in our own box, or out of it.

When we are in the box, we relate to other people like they are objects. We depersonalize them. We see ourselves as important, valuable, and benevolent. We fail to see our own shortcomings. We feel justified in not being relational, kind, or fair-minded with others because we delude ourselves that they don't matter, or they don't deserve it.

When we are out of the box, we relate to other people as people. We recognize that other people have their own story, and their own hurts and limitations. When we step out of the box, we don't assume evil intent on the other person's behavior. We watch our own tone, so that we are not hostile, demeaning, cold, or acting better than. We don't justify cruddy behavior on our part by pointing out someone else's misbehavior.

You can operate in or out of the box in any situation. You may have to correct your teenager about being more responsible with money. You can scream, yell, threaten, and demean (operating from the box), or you can choose to discuss the money situation calmly, and set limits and consequences in a more mature, grown up tone (operating out of the box).

In Leadership and Self-Deception, the main character is a middle-aged man who learns this concept at work from his new employer after he has a run-in with a direct report who makes a mistake. As it turns out, every employee at his new company gets trained on this concept. The character soon identifies that he is not only relating to his employees from atop a big box, but also his wife and teenage son who have been having problems. In the book, we get to see all the shifts that happen when one individual gets out of their box. It causes a chain-reaction of good shifts in other people.

I particularly liked the concept of self-betrayal. The book teaches that when we don't do the right thing for others---both those we know and complete strangers---we actually betray ourselves.

This book is an easy read, and a paradigm shift that could change your family, your work day, and ultimately, your life. Think about tearing down your box today, and stick it out for recycling. Taking responsibility for doing your part to make things better, with your partner, children, co-workers, family, and friends is a huge step towards being your best and most healthy self.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Building Your Support System

Are you getting enough support? There are different kinds of support, and different people in your life may be able to fill different support roles. It's important to recognize that each of us needs support, identify your potential sources, ask for the support you want, develop new support systems, and recognize your own role in supporting others towards their goals. There is lots of proof that support from family and friends not only correlates with more success in achieving academic, career and personal goals, but also helps people cope better with challenges, loss, and setbacks. Strong support can help you deal better when things in your life are stressful.

Even something as basic as getting in shape and getting to a healthy weight, or taking better care of your health is easier to achieve if your friends and family are supportive. Your family can help your efforts by encouraging you to do active, calorie-burning activities with them, or being careful about what they bring home from the grocery store. On the flip side, family and friends can influence you negatively by undermining your health efforts, whining when you make healthier choices, or insisting on the traditional high-fat foods or sedentary activities you have bonded over in the past. Some studies report that the weight and health choices of our family and friends can be a good predictor for how we are going to do with our own food and exercises choices.

Asking for the support you need is key. Your partner, family, and friends may be very willing to help support your goals if you ask. They are not clairvoyant, so don't assume they won't help just because you haven't asked. Be specific with your important support people about how they can be supportive of your goal. You may be very pleasantly surprised!

Great relationships require MUTUAL support, meaning that you not only ask for it yourself and receive it graciously, but that you also ask the people you care about how you can be more supportive of them--and do it! Strong relationships are mutually supportive, not one-way.

There are different kinds of support and different roles that need to be played. Think about a goal that you have, and list the various kinds of support you could use. For example, if you are working on getting in better physical health, perhaps you could list: walk with me, go to the gym with me, make encouraging statements, use care in choosing groceries that are brought home, choose restaurants where I can find something healthy on the menu, etc. Next, think about who you can ask to help you in each area.

There are different types of support:

Emotional Support-listening, encouragement, being there, celebrating your progress towards your goal with you

Practical Support- tasks, errands, assistance

Challenging Support-motivating and questioning if you are doing what you need to do to get to your goal

Informational Support-Gathering information, teaching you skills

This week, you may want to have some fun, and add some interest to your conversations with your key loved ones and friends about how you can be more supportive of them, and ask them for the specific kinds of support that will help you achieve your own important goals.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Giving up the Blame Game

Blaming others for your circumstances never works. It makes you more of a victim. It puts you into a passive, helpless mind frame. It's not a mentally healthy neighborhood to hang out in. It's negative, and it keeps you stuck and powerless to improve things.

You can hear people blaming all around you. Like these statements:

"I'm all stressed out because of my boss."

"My teenagers drive me crazy."

"My marriage is bad because my (wife, husband) does (x, y, z)."

"I've always had bad self-esteem because of my childhood."

"I can't control my anger because people upset me."

"My health is bad because of my genetics."

"I can't save any money because of my kids."

The truth is that there are givens for all of us----your partner, your genetics, your personality, your earning power, but there is another huge untapped influence for most of us also. That powerful influence is our thoughts and our behavior choices.

Diabetes might run in your family, but you can get great information on how to lower your risk with diet and exercise and work on that plan every day.

You might get hot-headed with anger, and come from a family of bad anger role-models, but you personally get to choose learning some better skills, and using them. To do less than this is to choose the easy way out and stay in your comfort zone of unskilled behavior.

Mentally healthy people take some authority over their own thoughts. They realize that negative thoughts breed more negative thoughts and behaviors. What we think about truly expands to fill the space available inside us. Weeding out your own negative, maladaptive thoughts is each person's responsibility. A good therapist can teach you how to scale back those distorted negative thoughts in a couple sessions. Everyone needs to "take out their own trash," meaning manage their own thoughts.

How do I know that this is possible? I have had the privilege of working in counseling with individuals who have overcome incredible odds, including abusive parents, poverty, multiple significant losses, and the betrayal of others, and yet adjust their thinking to have their experiences make them softer, gentler, and more full of loving kindness for themselves and others. They go onto full and emotionally rich lives after amazing hardship, and it deepens their appreciation for the goodness and light in life.

To move past blaming others puts you in a better position to take back your own power over your own life, both your present and your future. When we abdicate responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, we are stuck in a bad neighborhood called helplessness.

When we take responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, and actions, and our part in making any situation or relationship better, that's when better things can happen in our present and future. Owning our own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors is a hallmark of emotional maturity.
When stressed, the mature person exercises more and sorts out their negative thoughts and feelings that keep them churned up. The mature person realizes that part of not being stressed out is showing humor and flexibility, and doing good self-care. Dealing with your own stress, rather than taking it out on others, is essentially a choice.

You can choose to make blame unnecessary in your life, because as you take responsibility for where you are now in your life, and where you want to go, blame becomes irrelevant. What really matters as time passes is enjoying moments with those you love and doing things you are passionate about. Both of those things are so much more fun than blaming.