Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Empty Nest

Parenting is like a long distance run. You are so focused on the race, for such a long time, that when the youngest child heads off to college, it's a big transition not only for the child, but also for the parent or parents who remain behind. What's next?

The transition to the empty nest is one I've helped many clients with over the years. It's also one I've experienced this last year as my youngest daughter headed off to the dorms. For me personally, after 23 years of parenting as a central focus, things changed. They still need you at times. Send money. Sometimes they call or text, and it's important to be there. You also want to give them the emotional freedom to separate from parents, make friends, organize their own life, and have parents step into the background. It's kind of like the National Guard—we’re here if you need us.

As a parent, we have to grieve the loss of an era ended. Just like when our children felt it was uncool to hold our hand, or detected the truth about the tooth fairy. We weren't perfect. We missed some things. We can miss the sweet little child who wrote us love notes, drew us pictures, wanted to go to the park, loved us to read stories, and couldn't wait to play board games. It's okay to miss that.

The empty nest transition is about beginning a different season of your life as well. It's time to reevaluate your own life. It's an opportunity to take a look at your life, and what you may still want to accomplish after launching the children. Do you want to take a different direction with how you spend your time? Would you like to reinvest or reinvigorate your career? Make a difference by volunteering? Improve or change your own relationships? It can be a time to enrich your marriage, or if you are single, maybe you'd like to date again. Perhaps you'd like to deepen your friendships, or add new ones in a way that was harder to do with children still at home?

Perhaps it's time to make a vision board for the goals you may want to create now. It may have been quite a long time since you've thought about how you'd like to further develop yourself. You may want to go back to school to study something you've never had a chance to, or make plans to travel more, want to downsize the house, learn to paint, take cooking classes, or start your own business. If not now, when?

You'll be a good role model if you reinvent yourself some in the empty nest years. You don't want the kids to worry about you not being okay while they are living their life as young adults. Rather than being sad, better to take responsibility for making it a positive transition for yourself. Plus, there are upsides to being an empty nester. I'm reminded of a cute New York Times interview a month or two ago with writer Anne Leary, who is releasing her new novel. She and her husband, actor Denis Leary, are new empty nesters as their two young adult sons recently moved out. She thought it was going to be hard, but they're doing okay and even having some fun with less structure and responsibility. Leary notes that she and her husband never realized how stressful it was to be good role models.

The nest can't stay full forever. Everything changes. Remind yourself that this is the result of successful parenting that your young adults have launched into college. For those of you with a college student or two headed home for spring break, like at our house, It's time to stock up the fridge and welcome the flock home for a while.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Making Repairs

I really liked Ben Affleck's acceptance speech at the Academy Awards ceremony this February. In accepting the Oscar for best picture, he acknowledged and thanked his wife, actress Jennifer Garner. He told her that while their relationship has taken a lot of hard work, there is no one he'd rather work with. Truly great, committed relationships do take continued awareness about yourself, the other person, how you treat each other, and how you can repair things if they go off track.

Great relationships are a little like great houses. You can't buy a beautiful house with a terrific yard, move in, and not repair or fix anything for 5, 10, 20 or more years and expect to have anything of value. Both houses and relationships take regular attention, care, and repairs when things aren't working.

All couples are going to disagree at times. What matters most is being able to repair the problem. It helps to stay solution-focused. Avoid blame. Describe what you observed, as neutrally as possible, and explain what would work better for you next time. Apologize for any ways in which your behavior, thoughtlessness, or reaction made the situation worse. Ask what you could do differently when a similar situation arises again. (It probably will; most couples have patterns). This should help your partner be less defensive with you, too.

Both people in a relationship need to share responsibility for making repairs. I don't like to see the responsibility always resting with one partner, while the other one stubbornly refuses to ever take initiative for a repair. That's not fair, and it will eventually burn out your partner and breed resentment.

I also consider it a danger sign when couples don't speak to each other for days when they have had a fight. This 'deep freeze' is often very painful for one or both partners, and is actually a very wounding and passive-aggressive behavior. It's perfectly okay to cool down when angry, decide you will meet up and talk it through a bit later, but a day or more of not speaking is a really bad idea.

Try to avoid black and white or extreme thinking when there is conflict between you and the other person. While it is sometimes necessary to cut-off or end a relationship that is toxic or dangerous to you, most healthy relationships do have conflicts from time to time. It's not generally helpful to threaten to leave or end the relationship every time you hit a speed bump. The conflicts, if worked through in a respectful way, can actually deepen your connection and understanding of each other.

Choosing a wonderful house to live in, or a terrific partner to share your life with, is a great start. The happily ever after part often depends on different skills, which definitely include attention, care, maintenance, and regular repairs as needed. Think of it as protecting your investment.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Teach Your Children Well

We need to raise children that are strong, resilient, and have good coping skills—just in case Plan A doesn't work out. For these reasons, I enjoyed Madeline Levine’s new book, Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success, or Why Values and Coping Strategies Matter More Than Grades, Trophies, or Fat Envelopes (Harper Collins, 2012). In this succinct book, Levine digs deeper than the tiger parent vs. overprotective parent debate, and helps us take a long-term perspective on parenting, and what type of adults we are hoping to launch.

Helping our children find authentic success means assisting them in learning to love learning, develop their own strengths and interests, find productive and meaningful work to support themselves, become capable, resourceful, and resilient, create loving relationships with family and friends, and contribute to our world in some way. That’s more valuable than awards, trophies, honor rolls, or admission to a prestigious college.

Levine reminds us that there is more than one definition to building a successful life. Sometimes it takes us way into adulthood to figure that out. This book gives us encouragement to define our own version of success, and parent with that end in mind. I have wanted for my own children to grow into responsible, kind, capable adults who contribute to the world in their own unique way. I wanted them to be able to cope with not only successes, but also with loss, disappointment, waiting, and developing enough inner resources to create a Plan B,C or D as needed.

Levine has some interesting views on how an over-focus on self-esteem in parenting has left some young adults unprepared for the rejection and frustrations of real life. Authentic self-esteem really comes from feeling capable, not from awards, recognition, or compliments (while those are nice to receive). By being too child-centered, we can add to a narcissistic trait that can develop in our children. It's important for our children to know what they think/feel/want is important, but so are those of others. Ultimately, we are reminded that as parents, teaching our children and teens life skills to increase their independence and ability to function in the world, and how to relate compassionately to others, are among the best gifts we can give them.

In Teach Your Children Well, Levine does an excellent job of defining some of the developmental tasks children need our help with in the elementary school years, the middle school years, and the high school years.

Parenting isn't, as Levine writes, one job. It's really more like different jobs at different developmental points, and we need to make intentional shifts as parents in order to help our children and teens move along on their own path to an authentically successful life of their own. We don't want to become so child-centered, overprotective, over-scheduled, or allowing of dependency on us that we fail to help our children prepare to launch. Taking a long-term perspective helps. Our long-term goal in parenting should be to work ourselves out of a job, and launch a well-balanced, strong young adult who can live, love, work, play, and cope well. Teach Your Children Well has some great ideas for the journey.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Children of Divorce

Children whose parents divorced are affected by that loss, and for a longer time than people often think. This was among the findings of a pioneer research psychologist, Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D., who passed away in June 2012 after making significant contributions to the research of mental health concerns for families and children after divorce.

Wallerstein wrote 60-70 journal articles and 5 popular books on the topic of helping families and children after divorce, several with her co-author Susan Blakelee, including The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (2000), What About The Kids? (2003), and Second Chances:  Men, Women, and Children a Decade after Divorce (1989).

Wallerstein was the lead researcher on a 25-year longitudinal study on the impact of divorce on children. She followed 131 children from 60 families in Marin County, California beginning in 1971. She met and assessed the children again every 5 years for 25 years. Wallerstein has been criticized for not having a control group of children whose parents didn't divorce, as well as for not having a larger sample size.

Despite these critiques, she really did contribute to the knowledge base of mental health professionals and influenced changes in family law and custody in order to try to better meet the needs of children. She taught for over 30 years at UC Berkeley in the Social Welfare program. She lost her own father at age 8 from his early death, perhaps stirring her interest in the profound impact of parent-child bonds and attachment.

Wallerstein was a pioneer in the early 1970s, as the divorce rate in the US was climbing, to begin to shift the focus to how this change was impacting the children involved, and what parents can do to minimize that impact, rather than increase the damage. Here are some important points from her life's work that Wallerstein leaves as a legacy:

1.      Parents divorcing is a significant and generally long-lasting loss for children.

2.      Grief impacts children differently, depending on their age and emotional maturity at the time of the divorce. The loss issues experienced by children can reappear at later watershed points in a child's development, triggering more feelings long after the divorce.

3.      One of the great risks to children is the alienation or abandonment by the father, emotionally, time-wise, or financially becoming disengaged.

4.      Both parents need to work through their own issues of loss, anger, resentment, etc. about the break-up of the marriage to avoid poisoning the children with the adults' feelings. I always recommend that divorcing parents work out their own feelings in personal therapy, or a divorce recovery program for this reason. Your children, no matter what age they are, cannot be your listeners to bad stuff about their other parent. It's not fair to put them in that position.

5.      Parents dating again, remarrying, and blending together families is challenging, and needs to be handled with a great deal of sensitivity and thought. Step-parents shouldn't be asked to replace parents where the parents both exist, they are simply another adult who should love the child, and leave the discipline to the biological parents. It takes a really mature grown-up person to love someone else's child. (Screen carefully!)

6.      Children of divorce can be vulnerable to depression or worry. They can feel especially concerned that they not experience a divorce in their own life as an adult. Parents should be watchful and get professional counseling support for the child if it is needed, to work through the child's grief.

7.      Each child has their own grief process about their parents’ divorce, independent from what the other children are feeling.

8.      The transitions back and forth between the parents' households often stir up feelings for children and teens. Many teens resent the impact on their own life with packing up and changing houses.

9.      Custody arrangements need to be revisited from time to time to make sure they are still working for the child or children involved.

10.  Children often later resent a parent who ruined their relationship with the other parent. While a child may initially join with a parent by fusing with what the parent is feeling about their former partner, this usually backfires down the road.

I had the pleasure of hearing Wallerstein present her findings at a conference for mental health professionals 20 years ago at UCLA. She was bright, caring, and deeply devoted to helping families through the divorce process and on to healing.

Judith Wallerstein was an important pioneer researcher about the impact of divorce on children and families, and got mental health professionals and parents thinking about the longer-term picture. While Wallerstein sometimes got criticized for her research methods or for her comments about questioning the necessity for the increasing divorce rate, ultimately she had the best interest of children at heart. Children are often the most impacted in a divorcing family, and their developmental and emotional needs should be at the center of every decision that is made. After all, the divorce wasn't their choice.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Why Anger Isn't All Bad

Anger can get a bad rap. It's not always bad to be angry. Getting angry in certain situations is understandable, and learning to figure out what is going on with yourself when you feel angry is useful. While you don't want to act out with anger, or take it out on other people, you do want to recognize it, and channel the anger towards constructive action if at all possible.

It's not good to let anger marinate inside you. Internalizing anger can make you feel sad, powerless, and depressed. There are gender-based differences in the expression of anger. Women are more likely to not recognize anger, and turn it inwards to self-blame and sadness. Men are more likely to express anger, and less likely to express vulnerability.

Sometimes recognizing what you are REALLY angry and frustrated about takes some thought, meditation, quiet time to reflect, or a good workout. Underneath strong anger there is usually some hurt. The next time you get really angry, you might stop and ask yourself what you might really be hurt about.

Anger, once identified and reflected upon, can be channeled.

I have known people who got so frustrated with supervisors, meetings, and unnecessary bureaucracy at work that they made a plan and became an entrepreneur. That’s good use of anger.

There are people who figure out that when they are uptight and feel like picking a fight with their partner or children that they need to go for a run to release that keyed up feeling and be ready to be relational again. Again, that’s excellent self-awareness of tension and anger building.

It's so important not to project your unexamined anger out on others. It's been said that “I'm never really upset for the reason I say I am.” There is some truth to that saying. Each person is responsible for sorting out their own anger and frustration, and figuring out what it means. Perhaps you hate your job and are taking it out on your loved ones, when you really need to address the career issues. Maybe you are holding on to unspoken resentment with your partner, and need to assertively claim more equity in the relationship.

In her classic book, The Dance of Anger (Harper and Row, 1985), Harriet Learner beautifully addresses the unique issues faced in expressing anger. The feminine archetype often doesn't include anger. Many women are conflict avoidant, and are so focused on keeping harmony in their relationships that they don't even recognize when they are being stepped on, taken advantage of, and need to speak up on their own behalf. In relationships we need an 'I' and a 'We.' Women are socialized to be nice, sweet, and relational. Women are afraid at times to assert their own needs and desires for fear of being thought of as bitchy or demanding.

Anger can be a guide to understanding more about our authentic self, and what we need in life and in relationships. While we don't want to act out and hurt others with our anger, or blame others, we do need to understand it and have our anger help us understand that we need more of a partnership, more consideration and caring from a partner. Anger can be a signal we have some negotiating to do. Anger can tell us we need to do something different, at home or at work.

It takes courage to break out of the relationship dances we get into, but if you are noticing that you're angry, it's time to reflect about changing your dance steps. Learning a few new dances could be fun, and surprise a few people. It's never too late to learn a few new dance steps with regard to how we grow from our anger.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Do One Thing Different

If you keep doing what you've always done, you will keep getting what you've always gotten. In relationships, and in life, sometimes it's important to mix things up a little. Surprising things can happen when you do just one thing different. For example:

If you normally overreact and get defensive with your partner, next time focus on staying calm and listening.

If you always become a couch potato after work in the evening, put on your walking shoes and go for a stroll in your neighborhood.

If your normally withdraw from others when you feel down, try the opposite and reach out to make plans with a friend instead.

These are solution-focused approaches to solving life problems. This approach focuses less on why people do what they do, and more on changing patterns of behavior that don't work anymore. Solution-focused therapy tends to be faster and shorter than traditional psychotherapy.

Bill O'Hanlon is a talented therapist from Santa Fe, New Mexico, and one of the founders of the brief therapy movement. In his classic book, Do One Thing Different (Harper Collins, 2000), O'Hanlon provides a useful, concise, and practical look at ways to get unstuck in your life, and move forward to solving problems.

O'Hanlon has some great tips for using the solution-focused approach to improving your communication and relationships:

1.      Change your standard conflict pattern or style: change the timing, the location, interrupting, speak up more, listen more, etc. Some couples need to work out before arguing. It could also be fun to agree to only argue at Starbucks, or on a walk.

2.      Do a 180: Most couples have a pursuer and a distancer. Change up that pattern. If you're usually the distancer, take a turn at pursuing. If you are usually in pursuit, step back and create a little space.

3.      Notice the other person (your partner, your child) doing something right.

4.      Give up vague, blaming, and loaded words. Instead, be specific and ask for the actions or behaviors you would like to see.

5.      Make action requests, not complaints.

6.      Take responsibility for making changes and supporting your partner, close friends, and family members in making changes.

7.      Have some fun blowing up your partner's stereotype of you.

8.      Listen with a compassionate heart.

Solution-focused approaches, like Bill O'Hanlon teaches in Do One Thing Different, give us some clever ways to break old patterns, remember past solutions that worked, shift our attention, and change problems into solutions. Living in a solution-oriented way gets us to collapse the old stories we told ourselves about us and who we are, and rewrite them.

Why not do something different this week?