Thursday, October 24, 2013

Are the Kids Too Busy?

In the Sunday, October 13, 2013, "This Life" column of the New York Times, there was a great article written by Bruce Feiler called, "Monitoring the Giggle Index," which brought up some interesting things for parents to consider. How busy is good for children, and when is it too busy? Several children and teens I see in counseling are feeling stressed about just how many after school activities are on their plates.

Feiler reviews the literature on this topic, including "The Over-Scheduled Child," "The Pressured Child," and "Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids." He points out that in recent years there have been responses that perhaps the concept of stressed out and over-scheduled kids is either overstated or a myth. While there are lots of good things about keeping children and teens busy and channeled, I always like parents to check in with the kids from time to time about how it's going.

It could be that playing 2 sports or taking 8 dance classes a week worked last year, but maybe it's not working so well this year. When school pressure accelerates, there have been changes at home like a divorce, an activity that was positive becomes a negative, or a child or teen is anxious or depressed, it's probably time to revisit and discuss with them what the right mix would be now.

Feiler points out that, at times, it can be hard to find that fine line with enough activities so your child can develop skills and outside interests that boost self-confidence, and when it's overkill. When parents are driven and successful, they can project onto their children. Parents might be anxious themselves, or  overly well-intentioned about helping the kids get into college or play a professional sport.

Most children and teens need a balance with both enrichment activities and down time. Many introverted kids and teens have told me they need some quiet time after extroverting all day with people at school. It's good to be able to dialogue with your child about what they are enjoying, and what the right mix is.

One Jungian psychologist interviewed for the column, Polly Young-Eisendrath, who wrote "The Self-Esteem Trap," feels that some parents in our generation are too wrapped up in every detail of their children's lives. Young-Eisendrath feels that parents can be obsessive, and that time to just hang out in the same room together is also important. Down time, both individually and together as a family, with cell phones and electronics off, is very important.

What can we do to avoid mistakes with making the kids too busy? Pay attention to make sure the activity is motivated from your child's interest, and not yours. Is your child or teen happy or giggly when you drop them off or pick them up from activities? Do them seem exhausted and burned out? We also need to be careful about the words we choose as parents, and the impact they have on our children. Encourage teamwork, or participating in the play, rather than getting the key role or
 maximum playing time. In the real adult life that we are preparing our children for, you don't always play quarterback or get the starring role.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Something to Look Forward To

We all need something to look forward to. Do you remember being a child, and the amazing feeling of anticipation and excitement you may have felt as summer got closer?

What are you currently looking forward to in your life? If you don't have something you are excited about coming up, maybe it's time to set a goal and make some plans.

Mental health and wellness depend upon having some hope, making plans, and working towards making your dreams happen. Whatever your budget, having a day trip, or a weekend away planned, or beginning to save for and research a trip a year or more in the future, helps you not to get stale or bored. There is something about the planning and anticipation that is good for our outlook. This forward action shows that you are taking responsibility for keeping yourself interesting and curious about life.

Everyday life can get repetitive and a bit boring unless we soul search and introspect on what some healthy goals might be for checking experiences off our bucket list, make plans to reconnect with people who matter, and find ways to challenge ourselves.

Perhaps you have always been curious about traveling to a foreign destination, or want to go back to school, change your career, try dating again, or set some other personal goals to develop yourself and keep your self growing and fully alive.

Many life changes, like overcoming a loss like divorce or a death of a parent, can become opportunities to reinvent yourself and grow some more. Some people dread the children leaving home, or impending retirement, when these can be chances to explore new aspects of yourself that you have not had a chance to develop. Even as we age, we need to keep setting goals and growing.

There is something exceedingly healthy about setting some plans and working to make them happen.
Setting your intention can be very powerful, and help you manifest some of your fondest wishes into happening. What are you excited about in your life? What are you looking forward to in the next few weeks and months? If you can't think of anything, that's the perfect time to begin planning an adventure or a goal you can get excited about. You'll be glad you did.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Enough Said

A new movie is being released this week called "Enough Said," starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini, the actor from The Sopranos who passed away earlier this year. It's a film that explores dating and re-partnering in mid-life, and how complicated it can be.

When they meet, both Dreyfus (Eva) and Gandolfini (Albert) are about to have their only daughters leave for college. They are both single following their divorces. Their first date is a very humorous experience, as is the scene where Eva first meets Albert's daughter.

Their new relationship is tested by Eva's friendship with Albert's ex-wife, played by Catherine Keener, who is extremely expressive about all her pet peeves about him. Ultimately, the film makes us consider how rare love is, how we need to set boundaries to protect and honor it, and about the value of truly accepting some of your partner's imperfections, just as they accept yours. Loving someone isn't as much about finding the perfect person to love as it is being the most loving partner you can be.

There is also an interesting theme about adolescent daughters and their mothers, and the process of learning to separate, letting them individuate and letting go some. There are several mother-daughter pairs in the movie, all resolving that conflict differently. The daughters are also trying to figure out the right way to navigate through the changes that need to occur in the mother-daughter relationship as they prepare for launching.

There are several bittersweet elements in the movie, such as when Eva and her daughter's father, long divorced, say goodbye to their daughter, Ellen, as she leaves for her flight to start school at Sarah Lawrence. As Eva is tearful and visibly upset, her daughter's father shares the tender moment and tells her, "We made a good person." Long after the divorce, there are often moments that are bittersweet in this way for divorced parents as their children go through developmental milestones (often, not always).

Director Nicole Holofcener did a good job of directing, injecting some humor and some really reflective, deeper themes about love and relationships. Sadly, this was one of Gandolfini's best projects as he went against character and beautifully underplays his part so that it feels effortless and natural. Good relationships are rare and deserve protecting.

Friday, October 11, 2013

What Do the Children Know?

Children may be the smallest people in the family, but they sure notice a great deal about what is going on in their families.  I am often amazed about the observations that children and teens can make in counseling with me about what's happening with the adults. So, what are some of the things they notice?

They notice if there is substance abuse going on. Children as young as 6 have told me that they worry about mom or dad's drinking. Teens are smart and are savvy enough to know if parents are using pot, prescription pain meds, or something more. They get scared when parents are driving them while intoxicated or high on substances. The worrying about parents' alcohol and drug use can make them depressed, anxious, have difficulty studying or enjoying their time with friends. What kids know about substance abuse in their families can make them feel scared, different, or isolated. These worries about substance-abusing parents can take a child or teen off track developmentally from what they should be focusing on.

Children and teens know many things about how the relationship is between their parents. They notice how you treat each other, and if you are affectionate, kind and relational with each other or not. They notice if you spend the evening together or ignore each other. They notice if you like each other, and have date nights.  Children notice whether you treat each other with respect, or you badmouth each other.You actually give your children a template or script for their future relationship or marriage, whether positive or negative.

Children notice all the little nuances of your parenting style. They know if you have an anger problem, or you don't follow through, or if you can be manipulated. They crave fairness and  reasonable limits and rules that are consistently enforced. Be careful not to play favorites if you have more than one child, because children can tell if you favor the child that looks like you, or has your same birth order, or your gender. It's best to make each child your favorite. Be honest about what you are feeling----if you are mad, sad, hurt, tired, or overwhelmed. Your kids can read your non-verbal cues anyway, so don't bother. You can role model being honest about your emotions, and coping with negative emotions in a healthy way.

Children also take notice on how you deal with money. I've seen a number of children who worry about their parent's finances. If your spending is out of control, or you buy things when you are feeling down, be aware that the children are watching.

The kids are also watching how we eat, manage our weight, and our fitness. Our example is more powerful than anything you can say.

Are you a faithful spouse or are you looking for affairs? Are you able to resolve conflict in a mature way, or do you scream and tantrum? Are you responsible with your choices, or selfish? Do you hold on to resentment and grudges, or are you able to forgive others and apologize when you are wrong? In these areas, and in many others, your life is your lesson for your children, and school is always in session.

As I continue to learn from my patients who are children, teens, and families, being someone's parent is a huge job that should remind all of us to keep working on our own growth and maturing. The children are definitely watching. All children and teens deserve parents who are stable, can be counted on, kind, loving, and interested in what the children are doing. Being an adult who your children can respect is a wonderful goal that can keep us in touch with becoming our best self.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Beautiful, Useful, or Sentimental: The Spiritual Practice of Letting Stuff Go

Minimalists proclaim the motto that we shouldn't keep any possessions in our home that aren't either beautiful, useful, or sentimental. Letting things go physically is a good metaphor for letting other things go that should also be released, like resentment, anger, grudges, jealousy, and conflict you can't remember who started. It turns out that letting some things go that we no longer need is really good for our emotional and mental well-being.

I got started thinking about this letting go of stuff process as my husband and I prepare for the big annual garage sale that's held in our community each October. We both had households before we met, so now we have my set of stuff, his set of stuff, the stuff we've accumulated together, and all the memorabilia it took to launch three great children up to college age. Now that's a lot of stuff! Seriously, with the kids all at college or beyond, the blow-up pumpkin on the front lawn for Halloween is a bit over the top. Time to release that to some nice family with little ones.

I've heard organizers say before that we should each go through our closets once a year and donate anything you haven't worn. Chances are that Goodwill, or the charity you like best, needs it more than you or I do. It feels wonderful to easily be able to find what you are looking for in the closet. Some fashion writers recommend taking two items out of our closet to donate for every one we purchase or add. The same thing could be done with household purchases.

From a parenting perspective, what a great lesson to teach our children about the joy of releasing things you no longer need and giving them away or selling them. That's a lesson that can help them learn to be organized, keep track of things, take good care of their possessions, and release things they no longer need. That's a hard lesson to learn if Mom and/or Dad don't role model it for them.

Letting things go----emotionally and physically---is a healthy way to travel lighter through life. Being focused on people, relationships, and the present is a much healthier mindset that holding on to stuff. Travel light, let love and unneeded items flow from you to others, and focus on collecting beautiful moments.