Monday, September 29, 2014

Teaming with your College Student for Successful Launching

During the past few years, I've been doing more counseling than ever with college-age students and/or their parents.  I've observed, both from my working with patients, and from my husband and I launching our three into college, grad school and adult life, that this launching phase has gotten harder than it was when parents did it years ago. The job market is increasingly competitive, and the cost of living is so high. For many college grads, there is some disappointment, sadness and loss after graduating and seeing how excruciatingly slow the job search process is.

What can parents do to help their college-age sons and daughters launch successfully? How do we help them grow stronger and prepare real life skills which will help them in the post-college transition?

 Here are some tips for mom and dad:

1. Help, but not too much. Have them do as much for themselves as you think they can do, more each year during college. Have them get their car serviced and maintained, make all their own appointments with professionals. Down shift your parenting.

2. Help them create a budget and clearly define what you are and are not paying for. It's a good idea to begin having them pay one small bill monthly as a way to get started on financial responsibility. Take them with you to a simple financial/budgeting workshop, which discusses not getting into debt. Dave Ramsey has some one-day workshops across the country that are inexpensive and will do the job.

3. Strongly encourage internships, beginning by junior year in college. Ideally, it will make your grad stand out to potential employers to have had several internships for their resume after graduation. At many colleges, no one will bring up this option to your student, so encourage your student to be their own advocate and go visit their academic department office and professors to ask about internship possibilities by spring of sophomore year. Internships help familiarize your son/daughter with the world of work.

4. After the initial first freshman semester adjustment, have your student work part-time a few hours a week. On-campus jobs often pay well and will work with their class schedule.

5. Whenever possible, let them fight their own battles without parents getting involved.

6. When they move back home during or after college, set clear expectations about what you need them to handle at home and how they can fit in the quieter household with mom and dad.

7. Consider having college grads who are living at home and working pay rent monthly so that can get accustomed to it. You can always surprise them with a gift of some or all of the money back when they move out.

8. Remind your student that if they are struggling with a lack of direction they can get career testing done on campus or privately. Most students benefit from getting a battery of career and skills testing done so that they can choose a major that makes sense and will lead to a job they will like.

9. Make your student aware that if they are struggling with adjusting to college, managing their time or studying, balancing building a new college social identity and finding friends, dealing with a romantic break up, anxiety, depression, or loneliness that even a few sessions of supportive counseling can really help. They can visit the college counseling center for a few sessions, or get some private counseling.

10. Let your adult son or daughter take the lead in contacting you. Don't helicopter parent.

11. When they are home, don't do their laundry, clean their room/bathroom, or prepare all their meals. Have groceries, offer some dinners when you are cooking, but don't enable regression into childhood.

12. Praise and encourage self-sufficiency and resourcefulness. If they come to you with problems, do reflective listening, and follow up by asking them what they think they should do to improve a situation they are concerned about.

Parents of college-age students must step in if you believe your student is failing classes, depressed, or anxious to make sure those important issues are addressed. Otherwise, prepare to shift your thinking about the parenting of your adult child when they are in college and preparing for launch. Be a part of the launch, not over-functioning in a way that interferes with their success. You may really enjoy the new adult to adult relationship that emerges. We're really liking it in my family.

A few thoughts on the college transition from my daughter Ally, age 20 and a college junior...

Being an adult to me is handling situations with more maturity and being able to balance your own activities independently. There is a common saying, "Grades, sleep and social life. Pick two." And that doesn't include outside obligations like work or internships! It's important to find the harmony in your schedule and to not get overwhelmed. Students need to work out the right amount of time for friends, family and themselves. As a parent, you can start helping your student schedule their time in high school so they are adjusted by the time they get to college.

As a college student, it is tough to balance being an adult and not yet being financially independent. You are old enough to take care of yourself but not yet equipped with the tools you need to do it. Being financially responsible is a big part of separating from your parents. Working a part-time job is great experience in working hard and staying humble. Minimum wage paying jobs in restaurants and retail helped me respect money and think carefully about where I spend it. Parents can be clear with students about what they are paying for so students know how to spend their money and decide if they need to work. Students often feel guilty taking money from their parents for tuition, rent and outside activities as they don't feel they are contributing enough. Making sure you save and spend responsibility can alleviate some stress and know that you have a lifetime left to repay your parents in other ways. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Rethinking Your Anger

Anger isn't all bad. Growing up, many of us got raised to believe anger is wrong, unladylike or uncivilized. Anger often travels with emotional partners, like hurt. Direct and appropriate expression of anger is a skill that emotionally healthy people need to develop. Cultivating a healthy respect for managing stress, frustration and anger is a key skill.

Nobody gets what they want all the time. You will run into traffic. Your boss will demand unreasonable things. Your partner and your children won't always read your script. Things will break. How you handle that frustration makes an incredible difference to your health and your close relationships.

If you don't manage anger well, it can negatively impact your health. One study in Psychosomatic Medicine (January, 1998) identified a correlation between anger and high blood pressure and heart rate, as well as neuroendocrine and cardiovascular responses. More recent studies suggest a link between anger or repressed anger and elevated cholesterol, hypertension, heart attacks and cardiovascular disease, immune system disorders, asthma, diabetes, anorexia nervosa, backaches, headaches, stomachaches, diabetes and increased susceptibility to pain.

There are patterns of aggression in close relationships which can drive others away. Threat-based aggression includes threatening things when you don't get your way. I've treated couples where one partner threatened to end the relationship or divorce almost every time they didn't get what they wanted. This is both immature and exhausting.

Irritable aggression includes lashing out at others when you are in pain, uncomfortable, or annoyed. It's like having the people close to you take a verbal lashing because of your discomfort. This is not a good way to manage your stress.

Frustration-based aggression involves a person being stopped from what they desire, when they really expected to get it.

Instrumental aggression happens when we take aggressive action to get something we want, like a child who hits their sibling to take a toy.

Indirect aggression is sort of a sneak attack that instigates a problem situation.

In relationships, individuals need to listen deeply, and also speak up assertively and respectfully about how each wants to be treated.  It's much healthier to go direct to the person you are hurt, angry or disappointed with than to hold it in or be indirect with passive digs at the person. Direct and appropriately expressed anger or hurt can be a relief, healing and constructive. Pouting, sulking and suffering in silence get the relationship nowhere.

Being appropriate with anger means talking with that person one on one. (No audience, please.) Don't yell or scream. Talk about how their behavior made you feel, and what you want from them in the future. Focus on one issue only. Don't label the other person or hurl insults. In close relationships we have to train the other person how we want to be treated. Not everything is okay in terms of behavior, and expressing justified anger directly and appropriately is an important counterbalance in the relationship. Withdrawal is not always healthy.

The National Institute of Mental Health suggests using the acronym RETHINK to better manage anger:

R- Recognize what you are feeling.

E- Empathize with the other person. Use "I" messages, not "You" messages.

T- Think about your thinking. Am I being reasonable? Will it matter next month or next year?

H- Hear what the other person is communicating to you.

I- Integrate respect for every human being. (I'm mad, but I still love you.)

N- Notice your own body responses. Take time to calm yourself down. Most of us need 20 minutes to cool the fight or flight responses to strong anger.

K- Keep on topic.

All feelings are okay, including anger. It's what you do with it that matters. Being effective at expressing anger directly and appropriately will help you have more satisfying relationships and optimum physical health. Anger sometimes has important information for us, like boundaries we need to set. Identify when you are angry and what you need to do about it to be a good role model and someone who is safe to be close to.

Monday, September 15, 2014

What's Your Attachment Style?

Attachment is the way you connect with other people. We learn it from our parents and attachment figures while we are growing up. We carry our attachment style into our adult relationships, and it helps to shape who we become as a parent and partner.There are four types: preoccupied, fearful, dismissing and secure. None of the styles is bad, just part of who you are and the life experiences you've had. We may each be able to shift our style of attaching over time and through healing experiences.

If you are securely attached, you can trust others and let them close to support you. In this style, you allow yourself a full range of emotions, knowing that all feelings are okay. Securely attached people feel basically happy and capable, and they tend to view their partner as well-intentioned and trustworthy. If you have an anxious attachment style and choose a securely attached partner you are likely to find that the reliable bond with them helps you to grow more secure over time. You don't overreact to a partner's small mistakes or slights.

What if you have the preoccupied style of attachment? You may feel fearful of rejection. You might overreact to problems, and easy jump to the feeling that you can't cope. This type can drain a partner with a sense of being perpetually overwhelmed, vulnerable and needy. Your sensitivity may cause you to overreact to perceived slights by a romantic partner. It may mean that you pick fights or instigate conflict which may exhaust your partner. The attachment need feels so strong and the fear of not getting needs met is so intense that little things can have huge meaning for you. A slow response to a call or text message may create high levels of anxiety and upset, and cause you to jump to (negative) conclusions. No partner is ever going to intuit your every need perfectly. Preoccupied style of attachers "activate" their strategy to sort of scan for any possible problems in relationships in a hyper-vigilant way, which can cause stress and anxiety.

If you have the dismissing style of attachment, you move away from attachment and fight strongly for your autonomy and independence. You also predict that important people in your life will not be there for you when you need them, so you avoid your own feelings and the feelings of others. You may withhold from expressing affection to a partner and make an insecure partner feel more insecure. You probably feel conflicted about both wanting love, comfort and connection and also wanting to protect yourself from the risk of it. You want to believe you don't need love, but you do.

People with the fearful attachment style feel that they aren't loveable. Attachment figures growing up may have been unavailable, perhaps having their own problems. They deeply desire connection and closeness, but can avoid or send mixed messages to their partner. These individuals can be vulnerable to depression, anxiety and passivity, and need to express their needs directly. Individuals who have the fearful style of attachment often view their partner negatively and can't empathize much with them.

Understanding how your style of attaching creates challenges for you in building a satisfying, secure and joyful relationship gives you a good start. Close relationships give us emotional availability, safe haven and a secure base. Insight for how your early attachments with parents influenced your ability to attach will help you develop self-compassion for why you struggle with certain things. It may also help you build more compassion for your intimate partner as you discuss how your childhoods and past relationships colored your ability to get close.

Leslie Becker-Phelps has an insightful new book on this topic called, "Insecure In Love: How Anxious Attachment Can Make You Feel Jealous, Needy, and Worried and What You Can Do About It" (New Harbinger Publications, 2014). Becker-Phelps offers strategies for becoming a more securely attached person and partner.

We want to both become and look for a partner who can be securely attached, mature, non-defensive, effective at communication, appreciative, and affectionate. All intimate relationships will have some miscommunication at times. The best we can do is to choose wisely, have compassion for ourselves and the beloved, risk our own vulnerability, and try our best not to avoid, distance or act out of insecurity.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Making Friends With Yourself

Nobody is born disliking themselves. Along the journey growing up, far too many people develop the habit of making themselves miserable by becoming their own best and constant critic. I recently read a new book by Anneli Rufus called "Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself" (Penguin Books, 2014) which has valuable ideas for each of us, no matter the level of your self-esteem.

If your self-esteem is diminished, who stole it or what lowered it? Your parents may have projected their own self-esteem issues on you, but you have a choice about rejecting those old messages and not carrying them forward in your life with you. Picture yourself now looking in the window of your childhood home when you are about age 4. What do you see? What are you doing? Are you by yourself? Are you with family? What is the four year old you doing, seeing, hearing and feeling?

These early memories may connect you with your authentic self before your self-esteem took any hits. If there was abuse or anger in the home, it may remind you of how you began to be at war within yourself. Either way, you can choose to return to your birthright--- being at ease with yourself and others and authentically your unique self.  I remember that line on a decorative sign I saw recently: Be yourself, as everyone else is already taken.

Rufus explains the unhealthy habits that people with a sense of unworthiness and low self-esteem develop. Here are the things we should stop doing in order to heal past wounds in this area and start
nurturing our own esteem:

1. Telling lies.

2. Apologizing too much, including for things that we had nothing to do with and weren't responsible for.

3. Indecisiveness, or difficulty making choices.

4. Ruining our own fun, by worrying even when something wonderful is happening.

5. Acting. Many people feel they have to "fake it" in social situations or in relationships rather than being authentically yourself.

6. Being stuck in the past.

7. Deflecting praise.

8. Being perfectionistic with ourselves.

9. Difficulty saying "no".

10. Hating our bodies.

We can stop these habits or reflexes that entrench us in lower self-esteem by reversing each behavior. Be honest. Stop apologizing for errors that you didn't make. Savor joyful moments. Be you. Be gentle with yourself. Stay in the present, knowing we have all made mistakes in our past. Accept compliments graciously with a warm smile and a hearty "thank you". Say 'no' and set boundaries. Let joy sink in. Appreciate your body and be gentle with it by treating it well. Speak up and express what you want and what you prefer.

Realize that everyone has weaknesses and strengths. So do you. You can decide not to spend any more time on self-loathing talk. Making peace with yourself and becoming your own best friend is all about realizing that you've usually done the best that you can at a certain time in your life. All any of us can really change is what is happening now. Cultivate your strengths and your quirkiness. Set your intension to be as kind to yourself as you would to a dear friend or family member you love.

Self-loathing, Rufus writes, is at the core a kind of prejudice against yourself. Most of us wouldn't judge anyone else as harshly. Think of all the wonderful things you could do on the planet without wasting energy on harsh self-talk and low self-esteem. It may be time to update your internal hard drive if it's critical and harsh. Choosing to shift from being your toughest critic to becoming your own best friend is an important first step. I  recommend burning your membership card to the low self-esteem club, and Anneli Rufus's book is a great way to start.

Monday, September 1, 2014

What If Other People Aren't Supposed to Make You Happy?

So often in counseling I see people disappointed that marriage or parenting doesn't make them happy. What if we rework that expectation, and consider the possibility that relationships are really about choosing someone who helps you to grow? Or, what if being in a committed relationship or being a parent is really more of an opportunity to give rather than get?

Nobody stays in a perpetual "in love" state. It's a temporary condition. Falling in love activates the pleasure center in our brain. It lasts for months, not years. When we fall in love, we focus on the similarities between the other person and oneself. We love how it makes us feel to be with the beloved. A year or two later, it becomes easy to see the differences between you and perseverate on them if you don't shift your consciousness.

When we have expectations that we will fall in love and that person will "make" us happy forever after, that's an unrealistic idea. Actually, a better expectation is to take responsibility for making yourself happy and fulfilled, and sharing that happiness with the partner of your choice.

 It's important to know that marriages have seasons. There are some predictable hard spots, like when couples have children, when children become teens, and when couples launch their children and need to reconnect in some new ways.

In a marriage or committed, monogamous relationship, I like to see each partner make the choice to bring their best self to the relationship. Focus on giving, not getting. The happiest couples encourage each other's growth and support their unique interests. Each person takes personal responsibility for shining a light and being a beneficial presence in their little corner of the world. Marriages work best when each person sees the best in the other.

You also don't want to look to becoming a parent as a way to make yourself happy. Raising a family can be a very fulfilling experience, but it also tests you. Sweet little babies grow into teens who need to push away from you to individuate and launch. They aren't there to meet your needs or read your script. Being a good parent is a lot about letting go of some of your selfishness, transcending self,  seeing who you've been sent and how you can contribute to helping them along their path.

In short, let's rethink our expectations for our closest relationships. Marriage and parenting aren't supposed to make you happy. They are supposed to make you grow. Love is about a choice, and about doing the right, loving behaviors. You are supposed to make you happy, and then share. Relationships are about giving, rather than getting. Life, lived well includes a process of growing, opening up, and sharing more of your true self with others.