Monday, August 25, 2014

Rituals for After Work and Reconnecting

How do you shift gears after work? Having a ritual of things you do to mark the transition from work mode to home mode is helpful. It is also important to have some ways of reconnecting with your loved ones after you have been apart during the workday.

Many of us are "in our heads" all day at work. Start by trying to put a boundary around work hours. Have an exit time. Make it sacred. In your car, enjoy quiet or listen to soothing, relaxing music in your car. Avoid talk radio which will amp you up. Consider showering when you get home, and visualize getting back into your physical and relational self. Imagine all the frustrations of your day washing down the drain. Consciously getting out of work clothes and into soft, relaxing clothing is also helpful, and is a physical signal to your body to unwind.

If you are hungry when you finish work, consider taking a small healthy snack with you to your office that you can enjoy before you leave to drive home (a piece of fruit, nuts, or cheese?) This may help you not to be ravenous or grumpy when you arrive home.

If you work from home, make a regular spot to work and establish a "closing time" where you close up your home office. Working at home is not an advantage if you let it bleed in to all your free time. Set boundaries, close the door, and discipline yourself not to check in on email or voicemail until the next workday morning.

I remember one of my favorite professors in graduate school talked about doing counseling with several couples. He helped save marriages by having both partners go to run or workout on the way home. When they met up at home later, they were in a much more relaxed frame of mind and stopped picking on each other.

That's not always possible. I'm counseling several couples with little children who need them home ASAP and interacting, so a workout on the way home can't happen. By thinking creatively, however, you can find an activity that works for your family. You can play with the kids in the park or  backyard, ride bikes or a take little ones for a 20 minute cruise of the neighborhoods in the stroller  when everyone is back home.

If you are a working parent, find ways to reconnect and reach out to your children when you get home. Little ones enjoy you joining them in parallel play, if only for a few minutes. Teens can be coerced out of their rooms for dinner. Family dinner is about emotional connection as much as it is about food, so put all the phones away and start the conversation. Have everyone share the best and worst part of their day.

When you leave home in the morning, hug and kiss your partner like you mean it. It only takes a moment. When you return home, make a ritual of greeting loved ones and hugging and kissing your partner. It feels wonderful to be acknowledged. It will make others feel that they matter, rather than just going about your business or opening the mail. I'm always amazed at the positive feedback I get from couples and families I am working with in counseling when they start paying attention to these little, daily acts of care.

In relationships, little things matter. Being intentional about shifting gears from work time to personal time is important. We need boundaries so we avoid burning out. Healthy patterns and rituals for turning work off (like parking your cell phone, computer, and email when you get home) make a huge difference. Making a ritual of how you greet your partner and your children when you get home matters, too. Be intentional about your transitions, and you are much more likely to feel less stressed and enjoy your off time with friends and family more.

Monday, August 18, 2014


Childhood is made up of little moments that get all strung together, like Christmas lights. The new (2014) film Boyhood by director Richard Linklater will make you reflect on your own childhood, and your own journey as a parent. The film is unusual in that it has the same cast, but was filmed over 12 years. We get an intimate view of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) growing up from age 5 to age 18. This film is not to be missed as it brings all of it to you from the child's view.

The story includes many ordinary days, as Mason deals with his parent's divorce, bullies at school, moving and leaving friends, a bad haircut, horrible stepparents, first love, heartbreak, a sometimes difficult sister, camping with Dad, Mom dating, first days at new schools, and a first job. You get to witness Mason growing up, with all the physical and emotional changes he goes through in those 12 years of childhood. Mason is beautifully played by Coltrane. The director's daughter, Lorelei Linklater, is wonderful and very natural as his sometimes annoying sister.

The film is touching. It reminded me of how vulnerable children are to whatever other stressors and challenges are going on in their parents' lives. Children are trying to grow up amidst the drama, changes and challenges. It reminds us as parents to keep our children's childhood as stable as we possibly can, and to be as present as we can no matter what unexpected things come up.

In Mason's case, his mom (Patricia Arquette) is a struggling single parent, trying to finish her education and provide some stability for her two children. The results are often chaotic, as she completes her education but her poor relationship choices impact both her and the children. The family moves multiple times, and the film captures the loss and longing the children feel as they watch the old home disappear from the car windows as they drive away, leaving behind friends each time.

Arquette is superb as Mason's mother. She loves the children, but is busily multi-tasking her education, financial struggle and problematic love life the whole time the children are growing up. She always thought she had more time, but suddenly Mason is heading off to college. She wonders aloud about what's left for her with the children gone. How can childhood be over so soon?

Ethan Hawke does a wonderful job portraying Mason's sometimes immature but loving father. Early in the film, Hawke is irresponsible and often missing. Later he visits the children more frequently, and tries to condense his fathering life lessons into his every other weekend with his son and daughter. The film captures some authentic moments where he tries to get the kids to share more and open up, talks with them about sexual responsibility, discusses breakups and love relationships, and teaches them (while bowling) that in life there are no bumpers.

There are some bittersweet moments that feel honest as dad thanks mom at Mason's graduation party for doing a great job raising him mostly on her own. Dad seems to evolve over the twelve years we follow him, and it seems sad that the timing was off and that he didn't evolve earlier so that they could have raised the children together. Just like in real life, it's a lot about timing sometimes. It also reminds us that while parents can divorce, parenting continues and it's better for the children if you can accept whatever positive contributions the other parent can make.

The unique way in which this film is made and edited over such a long span of time allows us to remember these years,too. We see Mason attend a Harry Potter book release signing all dressed up and excited to get his book. We see him go with his sister to plant yard signs for Obama/Biden and help steal a McCain sign at Dad's direction. The film is edited and mixed with songs from these same years, from Coldplay to Arcade Fire. It will make you remember these years, too.

Boyhood is a must see film, which will remind you of how swiftly both childhood and parenting passes, and to make the most of all the little, ordinary days with our children. As difficult and overwhelming as parenting can be, you will miss this chapter when it is gone. It's beautiful the way this film artfully captures the internal emotional experiences of childhood. It's a rare opportunity to watch a skilled ensemble of actors age gradually and be invited into their maturing. It made me reflect on my own childhood memory fragments, and made me wistful about how swiftly my girls grew up into the adult women I love.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Healing Childhood Wounds

Most people don't arrive at adulthood without a few emotional wounds they carry from childhood. It's so important to understand yours, forgive and/or accept parents if you can, and move forward in a healthy way. Individual therapy can give you understanding about your childhood and help you not reenact dysfunctional family relationships in your current life.

What kind of wounds do adults carry? Some parents are unstable and unpredictable. Other parents have substance abuse problems so are mostly unavailable, angry, self-absorbed or checked out. There are parents who abandon, neglect, or physically or emotionally abuse their children. There are parents who play favorites among their children, or criticize and belittle.

Some adults carry wounds from early parental loss, whether through an early death, divorce, or other abandonment. These individuals can be frightened of abandonment in later life relationships.

There are other individuals who coped with a narcissistic or borderline parent, and have to learn healthy boundaries and self-care as it was not possible to learn those things growing up in their family. The parent's needs likely dominated everything. Healing for these individuals often involves grieving for the childhood they didn't have.

Healing often involves coming to understand that parents are just people and bring all their insecurities, experiences and limitations with them to the parenting role.  Healing from childhood wounds involves seeing parents objectively, both the positive and the negative.

Many families transmit patterns from one generation to another, unless someone decides to stop the pattern. Doing genograms in sessions with individuals, couples and families, it's  eye-opening to see the patterns illuminated. Anxiety, depression, divorce, suicide and infidelity will often repeat in a single family if you study multiple generations.

It may be important to grieve for the childhood you did not have, or the inability your parents may have had to meet your needs. It's key to sort out your feelings of loss, sadness, longing, hurt, anger, as well as others.

It saddens me to see adults who are still seeking the approval of others. If we don't examine our family patterns and influences, we can unknowingly be seeking favorite child status at work with our boss, or be seeking parental approval which may never be given. Seeing our parents as people with their own vulnerabilities, flaws and strengths helps us put things in perspective.

You can make the decision to heal your childhood emotional wounds with the help of a caring therapist, and begin reshaping the family emotional patterns in this generation. You can break the patterns you don't like and build a new, healthier pattern for the next generation in your family. It's up to us.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Self Esteem: A Family Matter

How do you raise a child with high self-esteem and confidence when they tackle life's inevitable challenges? It begins with you, or maybe with your parents. Turns out, everybody has a cup for self esteem, and it can be empty, low, mid-range or high.

Family therapist Virginia Satir was an expert in training other therapists in the communications theory model of family therapy, and wrote the book Peoplemaking. Satir observed in her long career counseling families that people are likely to partner with someone who has a similar level of self-esteem. We are also most likely to raise our children to have the same level of self esteem that we have.

Be aware that your children are listening to your self-talk. If you make negative self-statements, your children are likely to absorb this role modeling. Someone with good self esteem makes mistakes and can take responsibility, learn from it and let it go. They don't verbally beat themselves up, saying "I'm so stupid" or "I'm fat", etc. You may want to pause and consider how you respond when you make a mistake or don't get something you wanted.

You may want to address your own self-esteem level if it is low. You can decide to have a family legacy of insecurity or low self-esteem stop with you, and not pass it on. You may want to imagine what you would be doing, how you would be behaving if your self-esteem were higher and challenge yourself to grow some.

Besides working on your own self-esteem, there are other ways you can help your children master higher self-esteem. Here are a few tips to get started:

1. Teach your child life skills that are age appropriate. Confidence is built by feeling capable of doing as much for yourself as you can. Even toddlers can be encouraged to pick up after playing with toys. Grade school children need some chores at home. I like middle school students to learn practical skills like cooking and laundry. Make sure both girls and boys get experience with inside and outside chores.

2. Encourage your child's developing of their hobbies and interests. Let them choose, rather than making it about your needs and unfulfilled leftover dreams. A well-developed set of interests outside of academics helps protect a child's self-esteem even when they have a difficult class or teacher that they are dealing with.

3. Help your child find a way that they like to get outside and get regular exercise. This will help their mood and give them a regular outlet to cope in a healthy way with the stress kids and teens feel, and build lasting strategies that will serve them well in college and as an adult.

4. Encourage your child's friendships. Make your home a place where friends can come over at all ages. Get to know their friends. Serve snacks. Developing friendships and social skills helps protect self-esteem.

5. Help your child develop boundaries and learn to voice their opinions appropriately. Family meetings once a week at dinner are a great place to practice.

6. Support your child develop their faith and spirituality. This aspect of self is grounding and will help when they are dealing with difficulty and disappointment.

7. Help your child learn to be grateful, and express appreciation to others.

8. Encourage your child to give back to others and contribute. Children and teens who learn to transcend selfishness end up having not only better college application essays, but more successful  relationships and self-esteem. You can volunteer together with your children at a food bank, or some other cause you care about.

9. Role model healthy relationships, and working through conflicts fairly.

People with higher self-esteem still encounter difficulty and disappointment, but they attribute the set-backs differently and don't see it as a never-ending pattern of defeat. You are your child's first and most important teacher when it comes to self-esteem. This is just one more way, if we choose to accept the challenge, that being a parent can be a growing experience for the parent as well as the child.