Friday, December 18, 2015

The Gift Of Listening



I laughed so much about this little video clip when I first saw it. It's Not About the Nail beautifully illustrates the concept that most women want to be heard by their partner, but really don't need them to take over and solve the problem for them. Women often feel more heard and understood to have a partner do reflective or active listening and repeat back, in different words, what they are saying.

This is the concept behind John Gray's books about the differences between genders and communication style. He wrote the very popular book Men are From Mars and Women are From Venus in 1992. If men can be aware of this difference, they can check in and clarify with their partner whether they want to vent and get empathy, or whether they want solutions. In general, I recommend not offering solutions to people unless they ask you for them.

I've done some training for couples counselors that provides a listener's continuum, a spectrum of options that help people identify where they are in their own progress as a listener. Many people would rather have you keep it to yourself, others start to argue and defend their own point of view, or try to alleviate the tension they feel by trying to fix things. (In this video clip, it's when he wants to pull out the nail).

Better listeners give feedback about the feelings the other person is conveying, ask questions to deepen their understanding of you, remain calm, don't take things personally, and stay curious about the other person. When you respond with empathy and compassion, the other person naturally wants to open up more to you. When you start arguing and defending, or solving the other person's problem, you will notice that the other person shuts down.

Most people don't listen very well. Children notice that their parents don't listen, or multitask, or only notice if they act up. Many people stop talking but are busily preparing their rebuttal, making a grocery list or thinking of what else they have to do later that day. If every child and teen could have someone in their lives who really listened, deeply from the heart, we could create powerful positive change in our turbulent world.

To be truly listened to, and understood, feels wonderful. Truly slowing down to listen from the heart is one of the best presents you can give or receive. If we are sensitive to our role as a listener, we can give our partner, and our children, one of the best gifts we can offer in this busy, distracted world of ours. You could be that listener for one young person.

As the poet and author Mark Nepo writes in his book, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, "Listening is the closest we come to living forever. Close your eyes and inhale, slowly. Exhale slowly. Inhale slowly and realize that your life will unfold between the appointments you know of and the appointments you will discover along the way. Open your eyes and exhale slowly, saying yes as you begin."

Friday, December 4, 2015

When The Holidays Are Hard


The holidays are here, and it's a difficult time for some people. There are lots of ideas about what the holidays should be like: a loving, supportive family all gathering together to celebrate, sharing family time, all getting along well. Just add snow and something wonderful cooking in the kitchen. We want the Norman Rockwell view of the holidays.

As it turns out, even Norman Rockwell didn't have that happy family. I recently read American Mirror, a new Rockwell biography by Deborah Solomon with a psychological look at the artist's life and work. His childhood years weren't that happy. His mother was a hypochondriac, self-involved, and they lived in a boarding house for many years because she was too overwhelmed to cook or care for the family. As adults, he and his brother stopped any contact, with his brother writing to lament the fact that he didn't know anything about Norman or his family. In his own adult life, happiness and close family relationships were elusive. Norman was married 3 times, worked 7 days a week until he got dementia, and wasn't that involved as a husband or father. Appearances aren't always what they seem: even the families portrayed in his paintings were usually assembled groups of strangers.

There is pressure during the holidays to have a close family, decorate your home, buy meaningful and expensive gifts, cook excellent meals, and feel happy inside.

What if you don't feel happy?

Not all families are close. For some people, the holidays underscore the gap where meaningful extended family relationships don't exist. You may have had an emotional cut-off in your family, with some family members not speaking to you.

This might be your first holiday season after the death of a family member or person close to you.

This could be your first year coping with the changes and loss of a divorce. Maybe you share custody of your children and will be without them for some or all of the holidays.

You might be coping with depression. For people with Seasonal Affective Disorder, these short winter days can be extremely challenging, even before you add in holiday tasks.

How can you rethink the holidays if it seems overwhelming or difficult?

1. Give yourself options. You can keep the usual traditions, or give yourself permission to change things up.

2. Do extreme self care. During the holidays, keep up your exercise, your healthy eating plan, and schedule some alone time.

3. Do something different. If you have never volunteered before, starting now might really give your mood a boost and put things in perspective. No matter what your loss or difficulty, there is always someone who needs your help.

4. Give yourself permission to say no. Several of my clients that have become sober this
year are opting out of party situations that might put their sobriety at risk. Great choice! You can also take your own car to visit family, and shorten up the time frames on visits with family members who stress you out.

5. Carry your own holiday boundaries. In family gatherings and work events, seek out the people you enjoy and resonate with. Focus on the people you enjoy. Minimize the contact with the Debbie Downers, and other toxic people in your family. Be pleasant but brief.

6. Take your inner adult with you to visit the family. Even the famous family therapist Murray Bowen wrote in an article called "Going Home" that when he went home to see his parents for the holidays he struggled to keep channeling his inner adult and stay differentiated in a healthy way. There is something about that primordial soup of undifferentiated ego mass that tries to suck you into feeling powerless and 8 years old. Don't go there!

7. Consider making plans to invite people you know who might be alone at the holidays to join you.

8. Show flexibility. If the children aren't with you on Christmas, have some fun making another day Christmas. It's your mood and spirit they will remember, not the date.

9. Take the focus off of buying stuff. Focus instead on experiences and relationships. It's not about stuff, or creating debt for January.

10. Use this holiday season to listen to music that inspires you, develop your spiritual side, and begin envisioning what you would like to create in the new year as we wrap up 2015.

11. Reach out for more healthy support: people who care and are a good influence on you.

12. Avoid alcohol if you are feeling down. Alcohol is a depressant. It will make you feel worse.

Create a holiday season that suits you. Don't give in to the pressure, hype and expectations to do things that no longer work for you. It's time for your own kind of holiday, and you're just the person who can make that happen. The first holiday season following a loss can be difficult. You can choose your response to the loss, and find ways to be kind and gentle to yourself through a challenging holiday season.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Thankful Heart: Cultivating the Gratitude Attitude

Don't you love to be around people who demonstrate an attitude of gratitude in their lives? As the season moves towards Thanksgiving, what a perfect time to reflect on what is right and good in our relationships, and our lives as a whole. At times I think we can overfocus on what we don't have in our lives that we want, and be largely oblivious to all the blessings.

It is important to thank people for the good things they do for you. No one likes to be taken for granted. Most adults, teens, and children that I have talked with about their personal lives this last 25 years in counseling feel wildly under-appreciated and under-encouraged. Parents are aften blown away with the positive response from their teens, for example, when they start noticing what their teens are doing that they appreciate.

Being grateful with your partner is important, too. What does your partner do that makes your life easier, more secure, healthier, or more fun? Your expressed appreciation will engender more loving feelings in the relationship, and help them to feel seen by you, not like they are part of the wallpaper. If your partner adds to your life, wouldn't you want them to know it, and have them do more of the things that hit the target with you?

I always share with teens that parents respond to encouragement and gratefulness from them as well. As a parent, it means so much to get feedback from your child that the effort you put into something made a difference to them.

Expressing sincere gratefulness is using your personal power to create good. You never know what it might mean to someone else. Think about the last person to express gratefulness to you. When was that? Who was it? I bet you remember.

Gratefulness can reframe the way you look at your day, your week, and your life. When you stop to consider the other people whose lives touch yours, you can spread the gratefulness around.

Think of all the people you could express thanks to... teachers, wait staff, your parents, your children, co-workers, people who work for you, friends. Don't assume other people read your mind, because they don't.

There are numerous studies that demonstrate employee morale and retention is also greatly improved by workers feeling valued and that their efforts and contributions are acknowledged. Extend your grateful appreciation to your workplace.

In the busy whirlwind of life, slowing down to make sure the people who make your life better know how you feel is especially significant. In these days before Thanksgiving, it's a perfect time to get your heart in the right place, and voice your feelings about what others do that means the most to you. Having a grateful attitude makes you a keeper. Even if there are lots or challenges, focusing on the blessings creates more mental health and well-being.

Open your heart to expressing your gratitude and have a beautiful Thanksgiving week. Life is so fragile, don't let your appreciation go unspoken.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Deal Breakers in Dating Relationships

What really turns you off to someone new?  Consider what you can not see yourself getting past with a potential partner. Would it be selfishness? Being rude to wait staff at the restaurant? Monopolizing the conversation so that you can hardly speak? Maybe you avoid people who are arrogant or inconsiderate.

Apparently, according to recent studies, most people find the qualities of laziness and being disheveled to be two of the top deal breakers when it comes to potential dates. After these two qualities, there are some differences in how women and men see potential dating partners and what turns people off.

Recent research on deal breakers in dating was published in the October 2015 online version of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, which incorporated studies done by Western Sydney University, Indiana University, the University of Florida, Singapore Management University and Rutgers University. The Wall Street Journal featured their results in its' November 3, 2015 edition.

Researchers found women have more deal breakers than men do. Everyone has more deal breakers with a long-term relationship than a short-term one. People who consider themselves "a good catch" have more deal breakers as well. There are theories relating to evolutionary biology about why women tend to be more selective than men. Perhaps women are hard-wired to want a partner who is confident and intelligent enough to support her if she bears children.

The researchers administered a list of 17 negative personal traits to 5,541 single American adults. Each individual identified the traits they would consider deal breakers. "Disheveled/unclean" ranked number one for both genders, followed by "lazy" and "too needy".

Women ranked "lacks a sense of humor" as a bigger concern than men did. Men were concerned by women who "talk too much"  or with "a low sex drive". In long-term partner choices, both genders found anger issues, not being trustworthy, health issues and not being exclusive as deal breakers.

In the studies, here's how the rankings of turn offs broke down by gender:

Disheveled: A deal breaker for 63% of the men and 72% of the women

Lazy: A deal breaker for 60% of men and 72% of women

Too Needy: A deal breaker for 57% of men and 69% of women

No Sense of Humor: A deal breaker for 50% of men and 58% of women

Lives far away (more than 3 hours): A deal breaker for 52% of men and 48% of women

Lacks Confidence: A deal breaker for 33% of men and 47% of women

Too Much TV/Videogames: A deal breaker for 25% of men and 41% of women

Stubborn: A deal breaker for 32% of men and 34% of women

Talks Too Much: A deal breaker for 26% of men and 20% of women

Too Quiet: A deal breaker for 11% of men and 17% of women

It's important to identify and think through your own relationship deal breakers. You want to be reasonable, and not overly rigid. (Perhaps your wonderful partner will come with a cat or dog you hadn't planned on.) It is perfectly okay and valid to know yourself well enough to know what you just can't compromise on. Dating enough before settling down to do your due diligence and learn about yourself and what you can and can't bend on is key.

Even once you find the right partner, this might be a useful list for taking inventory of yourself in your primary relationship from time to time. Being the right partner is just as important as finding the right partner. Exercising self awareness and taking responsibility for being an interesting, confident, flexible, motivated, well groomed and relational partner is always a plus.

Monday, November 9, 2015

What Causes Shyness?


Shyness is easy to observe, but hard to define. It is sometimes described as being self-conscious or uncomfortable in social situations, especially with new people. Those who are shy are often self-critical of their behaviors in social settings; shy people tend to focus on what they feel they do wrong, and project negative past experiences onto current and future ones.

There are various theories about how shyness develops: parent modeling, the relationship with the same sex parent who may have been anxious, critical, rejecting, or restrictive, difficulty attaching to a parent securely in early childhood, and a negative attributional style where individuals expect negative outcomes and feel they have very little control over outcomes.

Most shy people engage in negative self-talk. This is the equivalent of a pessimistic radio channel that's always on in your head, telling you to be anxious about new situations, because they are likely to go poorly. Socially anxious people tend to reject positive feedback about their social behaviors, and accept only negative feedback. Shy individuals often attribute social failures as having to do with something inside the self.

Genetic and neurological factors have also been linked to shyness. Studies have shown physiological and neurological differences between shy and non-shy preschoolers in how they process emotion. There was significantly more brain activity in the right anterior part of the brain (as measured by EEG) when shy children were exposed to video clips that elicit fear and sadness, as compared to non-shy peers.

When does shyness peak? Usually right around age 18, correlating with the end of high-school and launching into college, adult life, and leaving the social comfort of home. Some young adults really benefit to having some counseling support at this pivotal time, as a young adult engages in the task of creating a new social support system beyond parents and high school. It can be a time where young adults often feel especially lonely and/or vulnerable. There are shy college students for whom acclimating into the second semester or second year will naturally help in overcoming shyness, resolving their “situational shyness.” There are others who are likely to become consistently shy and lonely in what is known as “dispositional shyness.”

There are also gender differences in shyness. Studies show that shyness in young men is more likely to delay romantic relationships and increase their physical aggressiveness. In young women, shyness can inhibit same-sex interactions, or interactions between women, more than it does for shy men in relating to other guys. Shy men tend to avoid eye contact and not initiate social interaction with others. Women are more likely to experience difficulty concentrating due to socially triggered anxiety.

Shy individuals can benefit from intervention and support from a therapist. The most common approaches that a therapist can use to decrease shyness are cognitive-behavioral therapy (addressing negative automatic thoughts that restrict social behaviors), systematic desensitization (helping a shy client take gradual steps to increase their exposure to social situations while using coping skills to reduce anxiety), and skills training (which includes assertion and the use of positive self-talk).

While shyness sounds simple, it really isn't. There can be multiple causes, including one's relationship with their parents, extroversion/introversion, role modeling, insecure attachments in early childhood, genetic/biological predisposition, situational/stage of life factors, as well as the way we talk with ourselves about our ability to change other people's perceptions of us through challenging our own shy behaviors. Shyness, if not dealt with, can persist and impact an individual's quality of life and level of happiness.

Monday, November 2, 2015

How to Tell Your Kids You're Getting a Divorce

Children need to know what is happening in their family: here's how to have that difficult conversation you don't want to have. Read a recent Orange County Register article on telling your children about divorce here.

Monday, October 19, 2015

"Wasn't Expecting That": Treasuring Your Partner

The poet Mark Nepo speaks about splashing your partner with love. It's a beautiful image. What if we lived every day with the awareness that we need to celebrate and appreciate our partner? What if we were conscious of the passing of time and intentional about savoring the joy available in the little details of life together as a couple or as a family?

Over the last 25 years, I've done grief counseling with many individuals who've lost their life partner. It's made me reflect on all that is to be learned from a strong, long-term marriage. If only we could each take a lesson on love from people who've endured such a loss.

I was touched by this short video clip of English singer/songwriter Jamie Lawson of his song, Wasn't Expecting That. This sweet song sets the right tone for focusing on appreciating your partner while you can. Whether you have 10 years together or 60, the same rules apply. Here are a few of the things I've learned from individuals and couples over the years about making your partnership extraordinary:

1. Don't sweat the small stuff. Most stuff in daily life is the small stuff. Don't be petty. Exercise more restraint instead.

2. Be fun to live with. Dr. Phil asked people on his show, "How much fun are you to live with?" Choose to be a beneficial presence in your relationship and your family, not difficult or cranky.

3. Stay curious about your partner. Don't assume things. Each of you keeps growing and changing, so you will never fully know each other. Enjoy the ever evolving mystery.

4. Express your feelings.

5. Be strong enough to be vulnerable. Own it when you are feeling needy, tired, moody, worried, sad or difficult.

6. Ask for what you really, really want. Don't settle for a mediocre relationship.

7. Follow through. Do what you say you will be doing. Show your partner they can trust you because you live life in an honorable way.

8. Express your gratitude.

9. Treat your partner even better than you do your dearest friends.

10. Make yourself available to spend time together. Enjoy high energy fun together.

11. Freely admit when you mess up.

12. Share in life's work. Don't under-function at home so that your partner feels burdened and overwhelmed. Many tasks are more fun together, like cooking, gardening, or washing dishes.

13. Protect your relationship by setting clear boundaries. Don't confide in friends or family about your relationship concerns. Be brave and go direct, or go together to couples counseling with an emotionally focused therapist if you get stuck. Don't keep secrets that could jeopardize your relationship.

14. See the good in your partner. Shine a light on it. Comment on it. There are numerous studies that show that the happiest couples see each other in a consistently favorable light, even better than they are. Try to see your partner's good intentions when possible. Don't be the critic. Build up and encourage your partner's best self when you see it.

15. Try to see it their way. I'm always encouraged with people in couples counseling when they can demonstrate genuine empathy for how their partner might be feeling.  There are often several right perspectives on things, not just yours. Demonstrating empathy and compassion for your partner is a sign of emotional maturity. It means you can transcend self.

16. Use loving touch and affection. Hug and kiss hello and goodbye each day. These are part of the thousand little threads of connection between you. Cuddle. Hold hands. Give your partner a backrub when they are stressed. Both men and women like to have their partner initiate affection, so don't get stuck in gender roles on this one. Call each other when you are apart. Write love letters.

17. Don't get so wrapped up in raising the children that you forget the sacredness of spending some time focusing on just the two of you.

18. Take responsibility for making yourself interesting and happy and splashing it out on your partner. Don't expect your partner to make you happy. It's an inside job.

19. Learn to disagree respectfully. It's been said that every marriage has a couple unsolvable problems, and what counts is how you discuss it. Fight fairly. You each have your own brain and will see some things differently. This is normal.

20. Embrace your differences. You are different people and we raised in different families with their own patterns and traditions. You will likely have unique interests. This keeps the relationship interesting, especially if you support each other's individual interests. Actor Paul Newman and actress Joanne Woodward were a great example of this. She loved the ballet while he liked to race cars as a hobby. They loved each other deeply for 50 years before Paul's death, but could individuate from each other.

Life goes very quickly. We are each more fragile than we realize. Make it your intention to really focus, breathe and take in the joy of day to day life with your partner and your family. Like in the Jamie Lawson song, it will end one day when you don't expect it. Go for an extraordinary relationship starting today.You want to ensure that you have wonderful, sweet memories left behind. Splash some love and happiness around generously now while you can.

Monday, October 5, 2015

When Your Adult Children Need Limits

Imagine if you had children and nurtured them, but they grew up to be adults and treated you badly on a consistent basis. What if your adult children used, abused, and dumped on you? Are they calling and telling you all their problems? Depending on you financially long after they should be independent? Still beating you up about their (long over) childhood? Now is the time to set some new, healthier boundaries and expectations.

You would end a friendship or love relationship with another adult who consistently treated you badly. We can have blind spots with our adult children where we allow mistreatment and emotional abuse we wouldn't accept from anyone else. Some adult children necessitate you taking back your own personal power, and stepping away from enabling their bad or weak behavior.You don't want to be codependent with your adult child's emotional immaturity.

What if your adult child blames you for all their unhappiness? Certainly I believe in apologizing for any mistakes you made, but enough is enough at some point. Some adult children get "stuck" in the blame or victim role and can't move along. Maybe they are well into adult years now, and have had more years on their own then you did raising them. You may have to set some limits about how far and long the blaming goes on. They might be enjoying the secondary gains of not moving on, rather than beginning to do the hard work of taking responsibility for building their own positive, productive life now.

Parents can be manipulated by their adult children, as they get their guilt buttons pushed. It is important to set your own limits about what you are and are not willing to do. You may be willing to help with finances for a limited amount of time. You may not want them to move in with you and become a child again in an open-ended way. It may be better to help them with a specific cost, such as educational expenses, or help with their own rent for a specific amount of time that has an ending. You may be happy to speak by phone or spend time together, but have a  prepared exit strategy if a pleasant interaction turns abusive or toxic. You may not be willing to stay with them if it is upsetting each time. Shorter visits may be preferable.

You may have to give your adult child some space if they are misusing you. Call less often. Meet up at a neutral location, such as a restaurant for a meal. Prepare a broken record response if they begin to verbally attack you, such as, "I understand that you are unhappy with how your life is going, but this isn't going to help." You may be willing to help your adult child in a time-limited fashion, if they are taking demonstrable steps to help themselves. You may want to reframe by asking them what they think they can do to create a positive change in their life. You could also redirect the conversation to something else. You could not be immediately available at all times. Give less: time, attention, financial support.

Explain that it puts you in an awkward position if they repeatedly call you to bash their partner. It may be healthier to redirect them to talk directly to their partner, and not triangulate you in the middle, or see a therapist. This is changing your own dance steps. You are not a dumping ground or a doormat. Realize that to be someone else's doormat, you do have to lie down (be passive and allow it).

You have certain rights as a person, too. When you had children, you didn't give up your need for personal dignity or respect. You have a right to move closer emotionally to people who treat you well and are supportive. Put more distance between yourself and people, including your adult children, who mistreat you. You have a right to peace, and not being anybody's emotional punching bag. Some adult children have elevated and unrealistic expectations about you always being at their service. You are a part of the problem if you enable their bad or weak behavior. Your own health will suffer if you don't set boundaries.

Having children can be an incredible blessing. As your children become adults themselves, it is essential to shift gears in the parent-child relationship. You love them, but you also have firm and clear limits about what you will and won't do, and what behaviors you cannot accept or encourage. Being respectful of others and requiring respect back from others is something that only you can do.

It's a healthy response to develop the backbone to not be an enabler. This is reworking your part of the parent-child dance, doing your best to help your adult son or daughter stop blaming, and start addressing the issues in their own life. This takes strength, but it's really the most loving and helpful thing you can do for your adult child: loving them, but stepping away from the drama, setting firm limits, and not feeding the problem. Maybe you're still parenting, but shifting to an appropriate stance for your adult child's situation, and encouraging their strength, health, and emotional growth.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Please Settle Things Down: What Your Children Want You to Know About Divorce


Did you catch this short, heartfelt video this past week of this sweet little girl, sitting on the stairs at her house explaining to her mom how she wants her divorcing parents to behave? Several friends who are also therapists brought it to my attention, and I think it's well worth watching. It comes straight from her heart.

This little girl also causes me to reflect on the many children and teens I have seen the last 25 years as a family therapist who shared many of these same feelings with me. If we listened to children's feelings, here are a few points to keep in mind as you make this transition:

1. Your child or children didn't make this decision. You and/or your partner did. You might be happier, but you have to respect your children's own grief process. It's a huge loss for them of their intact family. Their grief process can take a very long time, and get reawakened as they pass significant life events and you are not together as a family. This would include their graduations, life passages like dances and learning to drive,holidays, weddings.

2.Be nice. Be respectful to the other parent, no matter what your feelings are for them. You do this as a gift to your children. Remember, you selected that other person to have a family with. Your children probably still strongly need and value that other parent you are no longer interested in or are dividing assets with. Your child will thank you down the road for being kind.

3. Keep the children out of the middle as much as you possibly can.  

4. Find an adult listener who is not your child. You have your own feelings---anger, fear, sadness and more but it's dreadful for your child to hear it.

5. Hold on to the adult/child boundaries. In separation and divorce, children can be scared and teens can test the limits to see if you're still parenting. Maintain bedtimes, homework time, mealtimes. Make it a point to still play with and enjoy time with each child and together as a household. Keep taking an interest in their lives. Divorcing parents can get so overwhelmed with their own feelings. Also, please keep everyone sleeping in their own bed.

6. Listen, deeply from your heart. Ask your children how they are doing. Find out if they want or need more support, like individual or family counseling or a divorce group for kids to get help adjusting. Remind them that anything they are feeling is okay. Be fully present when you are with your children, not being distracted by your phone.

7. Avoid badmouthing the other parent. Watch angry texting and emails as well because they create a tense environment between households that will impact the children. Try to avoid drama, like calling the police, unless it is a true emergency. It's traumatic for the children to watch that happen.

8. Wait to date. I've worked with teens whose parents are just barely separated and mom or dad are sharing their dating experiences on Tinder which is scary for them. Your children need to be your focus for quite a while. Usually, children want to be center stage and have parents be stable, supportive and available to help, not crazy in love.

9.Don't unload your stresses on the kids. Manage your stress with exercise, support from friends and family, a good therapist who can help you process your grief and understand your part. Don't worry the kids with your worries. Keep alcohol use to a minimum. Make a stress management plan for your own self-care.

10. Let the kids know things on a need to know basis, and as it is developmentally appropriate. It doesn't help kids to know the other parent cheated on you. On the other hand, if the other parent gets incarcerated don't tell the kids something vague like they are away or working out of town. Children need to feel like they know the key aspects of what's happening in their own families. If in doubt, call a family therapist or your pediatrician for advice.

11. Provide reassurance. Let the children know they didn't cause the divorce, and that you did love the other parent when you met. Let them know that you are still their parents and are still going to work together as a team on their behalf. Make custody change days as smooth as possible, or have custody changes occur from school pick up to avoid scenes.

12. Realize you aren't really getting rid of the person you are divorcing. When you have children, you are connected through those children, and if you are so lucky, by grandchildren later as well. Act accordingly.

13. Limit the changes as much as you possibly can. If you can keep the children's schools the same, do it. It would be great if you could stay in the same residence, and the other parent move nearby. If you can't, stay as close to the children's friends, school and grandparents as you can.

Divorce is hard for children. You have it in your power to minimize the pain for your children. You'll be so happy you chose a  mutually respectful and child-centered way to navigate this family transition.


Monday, September 21, 2015

36 Questions to Fall In Love: A Follow-Up

In January 2015, the Modern Love column in the New York Times ran an article by reporter Mandy Len Catron about the experiment she ran trying to create connection between two strangers. She used herself and an acquaintance as the subjects. Catron applied the research findings of Dr. Arthur Aron who studies the science of love and intimacy at Stony Brook University School of Medicine. His results were originally published in the article The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (1997).

These questions can be used with someone you want to get to know, or someone you're already in a relationship with and just want to deepen the intimacy between you.

Catron and her acquaintance from a rock climbing class met at a bar and again later at a bridge. They asked each other the 36 questions that Dr. Aron developed to build connection and intimacy, and stared deeply into each other's eyes. The questions have been developed to sequentially deepen and increase the disclosure between two individuals.

What happened? In her article in January, Catron shared with readers that the experiment worked. Catron and the acquaintance from the experiment are dating and have fallen in love. After her article was published in the New York Times, thousands of people have searched the internet for the list of 36 questions and tried them with a partner or potential partner. In the nine months since her article came out, Catron has been flooded with inquiries about whether the two are still together. It seems everybody is rooting for them.

In an August, 2015 TedX talk at Chapman University in Orange, California, Catron presented on her experience of falling in love through the experiment and sharing the experience with a few million readers. She shared how unprepared she was for the amount of interest in her personal life, with emails and inquiries from around the globe about whether the couple are still together.

Catron reflects that she realizes now that the harder thing is to stay in love rather than simply falling in love. She spoke eloquently in her TedX talk about having discovered that when you fall in love, you become vulnerable and have something wonderful to lose. Love involves risking being hurt. The decision to be in love and keep building a loving relationship is one we keep making every day.

 The 36 questions are a good way to get started, but keeping the loving connection going for years is the real goal. Falling in love can be easy but staying in love takes awareness, continued curiosity, growth and sustained effort, even when you don't feel like it.

Are Catron and her boyfriend from the experiment still dating? The answer is yes, and she seems happy and grateful. Here are the 36 questions from Aron's research in case you'd like to try to build your emotional connection with someone:

(ask in order)

1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
3. Before making a phone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
4. What would constitute a perfect day for you?
5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain the mind or the body of a 30-year old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you choose?
7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
8. Name three things you and your partner have in common.
9. For what in your life do you feel the most grateful?
10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
11. Take 4 minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
12. If you could wake up one morning and have gained one quality or ability, what would it be?
13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
14. Is there something that you've dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven't you done it?
15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
16. What do you value most in a friendship?
17. What is your most treasured memory?
18. What is your most terrible memory?
19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
20. What does friendship mean to you?
21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people's?
24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
25. Make three true "we" statements each. For instance, "we are both in this room feeling..."
26. Complete this sentence "I wish I had someone with whom I could share..."
27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what it would be important for him or her to know.
28. Tell your partner what you like about them: be honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you just met.
29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
31.Tell your partner something you like about them already.
32.What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone?  Why haven't you told them yet?
34. Your house, containing everything you own catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner's advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Connecting with your Children: Ten Tips

Most parents feel guilty about not spending enough time with their children, but a recent Pew research study shows something different. Comparing modern dads to dads in the 1970's, present day dads now spend on average three times as much time with the kids. Mothers have increased the amount of time they spend with the children by 57%, even with more mothers working. Perhaps instead of looking at the amount of time, we should look at the quality of it.

Children and teens often complain in counseling that parents seem distracted when they are with them. They notice when we park our cell phones and give them our full, undivided attention. They crave time where we are paying attention and are truly available to them. (Actually our adult partner also craves this.)

We can be so focused on driving them to school, sports and lessons that we become more of a driver than a parent. It's also possible to overemphasize achievement, and overlook the need children and teens have to just spend time together with us as a family.

How can you create ways to get closer as a family?

1. Listen to music together. Have your teen share about their favorite music with you. A study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in 2014 showed that listening to music together as a family builds bonds, especially in the teen years.

2. Get outside together and go on adventures.

3. Use car time to chat with the kids. Listen more than you speak.

4. Join their world. Ask about their friends, homework, what they did at school. Be interested.

5. Create rituals for connection: morning rituals, Sunday dinners, movie nights, pizza night, reading aloud as a family, at bedtime or make a board game night.

6. Plan 1:1 dates with each child or teen. Keep this up into college and beyond if you can and they are close enough geographically.

7. Hold family meetings to discuss changes, chores, vacations, sharing responsibilities and chores.

8. Take family vacations. Research shows it builds bonds as you experience new places together as a team.

9. Invite your children to have their friends over to play. Make room for your teen to host get-togethers with you home to serve snacks and keep an eye on things.

10. Pray and worship together.

There is more to life than speed. Cultivating these parenting patterns will help you build stronger family relationships and help you get to know the people your children are becoming. Don't feel guilty about working, instead be intentional about creating closeness and time to relax and play together.

Monday, August 24, 2015

In Praise of Bedtime, and A Little Structure From Parents

Fall is just around the corner, and I'm helping the families I see in family counseling set up some structure and a game plan for family life for the busy school year ahead. Summer is a time to loosen up the family structure and stay up later, do more outside, take time to vacation and rest up. In September, it's time for the family architects (the parents) to get back on track and communicate with the whole family about how they can help and work together collaboratively.

Too many families have too little structure, and end up being chaotic, messy, and angrier than necessary. If you have school-age children, here is a check-list of things to consider to avoid family chaos and crankiness:

1. Bedtimes- I don't like to see teens up until 2AM then trying to get up for school. Even though most teens stay up late during the summer, I encourage you to talk with your teen ASAP about beginning the shift to an earlier wind-down. Teens actually need more sleep than adults or some younger children. Turning off electronics an hour before bed helps brains cool down and prepare for sleep.

Younger children need bedtimes, too. They need a consistent bedtime routine (think bath time, stories/reading, tucking in/quiet, gentle talking with a parent, then lights out).

Parents also need some relaxing, adult time before bed, which is impossible if you all go to bed at midnight.

2. Get Everyone Sleeping in Their Own Rooms- With the exception of tiny babies, I much prefer we get parents sleeping in their bedroom and the children sleeping in their rooms. This helps everyone get a better night's sleep, helps us maintain appropriate parent/child boundaries, and helps children develop their ability to self comfort. Get started early on this project, because it's much more difficult to clean up this problem when the children are older. If you have an anxious child, go spend time in their room for a while, but don't sleep in their room, and don't have them sleep in yours. This is even more important for single parents. Don't make your child your companion. Adults need some grown up time after children are in bed. Set clear guidelines and enforce them with consistency.

3. Chores- The start of the fall season is a great natural time to set up a simple new chore system. If your kids missed that because they had a nanny when they were younger or you got used to handling everything, start today. Make a list of age appropriate chores, and have all children age 4 and up pick a few, possibly 2 or 3 things they promise to help with that month. Rotate tasks and choose again each month so nobody gets stuck with the trash cans, or some other unappealing task, all the time. Have the children help make a reminder list to post on the fridge which specifies who will do what and when. Have the kids help you set up consequences in advance for any family member who flakes on their chore. Being a family isn't just about receiving, but also about contributing. I recommend that even adult children who live at home while going to college, or after college, get some chores, too. Each person picking up after themselves, making their bed and straightening up the basics in their bedroom and bathroom should definitely be included in this.

4. Allowance- If you don't have a system set up, the fall is a great time to start one up. I like some small amount of money even for little ones as young as 5 or 6. It's a great teaching tool, where you can have them save some, give some to charity, and have some to spend. For older kids, it's a great way not to get nickeled and dimed at stores by the children. They need to plan, bring their own money, and learn to evaluate whether a purchase is really worth it. They can also learn to exercise the self-control to save for an important goal. Some parents link chores to allowance, while others prefer to keep the two as distinct.

5. Morning and Evening Routines- These are the two most high-conflict times for families. Talk with your partner, and then with the children about creating a smooth new morning routine, and ask them each to make a list for themselves of what they need to do.  I prefer everyone gets up a few minutes earlier to make that busy time less hectic. Try to get the children to agree to shower, prep their backpack, pack a lunch, and select school clothes the night before if at all possible. Many girls can really lose time in the morning selecting an outfit. Consider eliminating the third parent, the television set, at these busy times by keeping it off. Start as early as you can to have the children wake up to their own alarm rather than depending on you. It's cute when they are little, but aggravating if you lose the window of opportunity on this task and your high school senior is mad that you didn't keep trying to wake them up after multiple attempts.

6. Family Meetings- I recommend them as a great tool for communicating and working more effectively as a family. Often Sunday night at dinner works best. Parents plan the agenda. Limit it to 10 to 20 minutes, depending on children's attention spans. I always recommend meetings occur at a mealtime. Put a sheet of paper on the fridge so the children and teens can add agenda items. Have each family member, adults and kids, bring a specific compliment to share with every person there. Keep a journal of plans and decisions made so you can follow up next time you meet. If you pay allowance, this is a good time to distribute it.

7. Family Fun Nights- Too many families don't really enjoy each other that much. It's so important to play together regularly. Ask your children if they would like to create a fun family tradition; perhaps you could initiate a weekly board game and pizza night, or a hike or outdoor activity together on Sunday afternoons. Most children I ask about this are thrilled at the prospect of more family fun. Remember: no cell phones or electronics allowed.

8. Date Night- You are also creating a blueprint for your children about how marriage works. Healthy partnerships take a few hours out of the week to spend doing something enjoyable together, preferably out of the house. If you set up Saturday date nights, you plan one, then ask your partner to plan the next, and keep alternating. Nobody likes to be taken for granted, and I find both partners like to be courted. It's also fun to get to plan some activities you think would be fun to do with your partner. Two rules: 1) Do not discuss the children (it's too easy to hide there) and 2) Try to do something where you can chat some, so a movie is not ideal unless you add getting an iced tea after to discuss the film.

These eight suggestions can give your family just the structure you need to feel successful in your life as a couple and a family. Go for it! Daily life is so much more fun if we are all paddling the canoe in the same direction.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Easing Post-College Transition for Your Child and Yourself

Finishing college is a huge accomplishment. Next comes the post-college transition, which is often more difficult than expected. It can involve your grad moving back home while he looks for work or considers what’s next. After the “high” of graduation, the next chapter can feel like a letdown. He may not be happy to be home and probably misses living independently. Dealing with entrances and exits from the family system can be difficult. Here are some tips that can help your child launch, and assist if he or she decides to re-enter the nest.

Continue reading my article for OC Family here

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Necessary Losses: Getting Good at Getting Through Grief

Necessary losses are a part of our lives. Loss softens us, and causes us to reexamine our lives. Many changes come with the loss of someone you loved. It can take many months, or longer to adjust to life without that beloved person. One has to recreate your sense of self.

There is no one correct way to grieve. Recently, I've had patients reflect that in a grief group at a local hospital they were told to sit in a chair and do an hour of grieving each day, but that's not what I would generally recommend. I have found that grief is as individual as your thumb print or a snowflake. Many people report that grief comes in waves of 20-30 minutes, and can be triggered by many different things. You need to grieve your way, and have support for doing so.

Many feelings are normal as we grieve: sadness, anger, fear, relief, abandonment, shock, confusion, and emptiness.

What factors impact grief?
  • Your relationship with the person you lost
  • The suddenness or the expected nature of the loss
  • Your temperament
  • Your coping skills
  • Your support system
  • Your faith
  • Your loss history and having resolved past grief

The more deeply you were attached to the individual, the greater the loss. When I am working with someone who has lost a baby or a child, that is a huge life-changing kind of loss. A couple can be married for 50 plus years, and depending on the quality of the relationship it could be a much more or less difficult transition. Losing your last or only parent can propel you into being the oldest generation in your family. The end of a friendship or the loss of a cherished pet can be very painful, and unearth other feelings of unresolved loss from earlier in your life. Loss is cumulative.

Grieving is hard work. It can make you feel physically and emotionally drained. When you are grieving, it's important to do extreme self-care and nourish yourself as much as you can. There are tasks of mourning to be done, including feeling the pain of the loss and adapting to your life without that person in it to call or spend time with.

Each individual has a loss history. I usually try to take information about previous loss in the first few sessions in counseling individuals. Your history of loss includes all the moves, break-ups, family divorces, job loss, loss of friends as well as loss by death that you have experienced in your lifetime. Looking at how you have coped with past losses and what was helpful can be a good place to start approaching the current loss you may be experiencing.

What helps people who are grieving?
  • Support from friends and family
  • Rest
  • Eating healthfully
  • Getting back into life as you can
  • A place or person where you can process your grief
  • A growth-oriented mindset
Loss is a part of our lives and while very painful, also allows us to grow and to reflect on our own lives and mortality. Getting good at letting yourself fully grieve allows you to go forward being more open, more loving and with a deeper sense of reverence for the delicate nature of our time here. Understanding how your own loss history informs your life can help you become more fully human and more empathic to others.

Monday, August 3, 2015

When You're Not an Introvert or Extrovert: Meet the Ambivert

In Myers Briggs personality testing, individuals are typed along a continuum from introvert to extrovert. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (July 28, 2015) by Elizabeth Bernstein introduced a term for the two-thirds of people who are actually towards the middle, calling them ambiverts. There are also recent TEDx talks about how temperament type influences relationships at home and at work. Now we know there are three options on this personality parameter.

Extroverts get energized by being with people. They process their own thoughts as they speak aloud to other people. Extroverts are easy to get to know. They enjoy praise, recognition and awards.

In contrast, true introverts recharge by being by themselves. They can be good with people, but often need time afterwards alone to balance out all the extroversion. They think before they speak and may plan out what they are going to say. Introverts love solitude, which allows them time to internally process their thoughts and feelings.

Ambiverts are well-liked because they are good at both extroversion and introversion. It's like they are bilingual in both modes of being. They can use their intuition to know when to speak and when to listen. These ambivert individuals are moderate; they aren't overly reserved or overly expressive. They are socially flexible.

To help identify if you are an ambivert, consider how you might feel in certain situations. After a busy day at work, what would you want to do after work? Would you rather meet up with friends or go home and unwind by yourself? Ambiverts often split the difference by wanting a little of both. They may want to meet with friends for a bit, then head home for some down time. Ambiverts often choose the middle path, balancing and rebalancing time with people and time alone.

A study published in the Psychological Science journal in June 2013 found ambivert employees at a call center to have better social and emotional flexibility which made them more successful in their work in sales. Adam Grant, a professor of psychology at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania asserts that ambiverts have emotional awareness and flexibility that give them better skills in parenting, marriage and other close relationships.

Ambiverts need to be aware of burnout and boredom which are indicators you may have been stuck too long in the extrovert or introvert mode. It's helpful to be able to look reflectively at situations and know when to withdraw, open up, listen or speak.

Studies suggest that extreme introverts and extreme extroverts make up about one-third of the population, while the remaining two-thirds of us are ambiverts. Knowing your own type on the extroversion scale and being aware of the needs and differences of your partner, your children, your friends and co-workers is useful information to help you flex and understand.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Voice Dialogue: Identifying the Voices in our Heads


Do you realize that we all have inner voices, sometimes known as sub-personalities? Everybody carries around a whole cast of characters. The more aware you can be of your cast, the better your life can become. You don't want one of your unhealthy voices running your life on auto pilot.

Two clinical psychologists in Northern California, Hal Stone, Ph.D., and Sidra Stone, Ph.D., developed the therapeutic technique known as "Voice Dialogue.” The idea is not to get rid of any of the internal voices, but to assist them in growing up and becoming more reasonable. This technique is very helpful for unhooking people from roles they have unconsciously played, not letting your behavior choices be dominated by a voice that's immature or destructive, and begin to familiarize you with some healthier, alternative voices.

This concept reminds me of a wonderful, classic book on clinical hypnosis called, My Voice Will Go with You. I have had a number of patients over the years who told me that they could "hear my voice" as a healthy advocate for them in difficult situations, almost as if they had internalized my voice and took a piece of our work together with them into their life.

The ego, or thinking part of the mind, first develops a Protector/Controller role. This happens when we are small children. Later, more sub personalities emerge, depending on our family relationships and environment. For example, primary selves develop like the Pusher, who makes you finish school or go to work, and the Pleaser, who wants to get along with others and be polite at all costs. The Rulemaker develops and tells us what people should be doing, us included. The Critic imposes expectations for our behavior and performance. The Rebel sub personality wants to defy, and not be restricted by the expectations of others.

The primary sub personalities also have opposite or "disowned" parts that are often not conscious. For example, the Pusher has an opposite, the Relaxer, who takes time off to relax, recharge, and play. People who become far too serious and workaholic can be said to have disowned their Relaxer voice and let the Pusher run wild with their life. Similarly, there is a Procrastinator voice whose opposite is the Proactive self. Some people have a Self-Distrusting voice, and the opposite which can be disowned is the Confident self. There are people who are dominated by their Intellectual voice and disown the Experiencing/Emotional self.

The goal in voice dialogue is to develop your ability to observe your inner selves, including the disowned selves, in a mindful way. This leads to more self-acceptance and more internal peace. You want to recognize when the selves are in conflict. If the voices disagree, it causes distress. Being more aware of the different aspects of self, and even the ability to get the healthier voices to dialogue with the less healthy ones, can really make you feel lighter and happier. You can get unstuck from automatic programming developed early in childhood. The attitudes and beliefs of our earliest caregivers can give us our set points.

Meet some of the rest of your cast:

·         The Critic: Has to be right, steals your self-confidence, likes to argue, can be critical of self or others. The disowned aspect of the Critic is the Compassionate self, who encourages, feels empathy, and is kind to self and others.

·         The Worrier: Likes to make you anxious thinks about "what if?" and fears you won't be able to cope with whatever happens. Its disowned partner is the Equanimity Self, who is confident and self-assured.

·         The Caretaker: Puts everyone else's needs first, can't set any boundaries to protect self, and is scared to disappoint anyone. It's disowned self is the Caregiver, who gives to themself and others, but doesn't take responsibility for other people, can say no without feeling guilty.

·         The Blamer: Likes to shift responsibility to everyone else, the past, and circumstances beyond their control. Fails to notice their own part in any trouble or conflict. The Blamer is not interested in changing any of their own behaviors. The Blamer is often a Rebel self as well, covering up insecurities through attacking others. The alternative is the Accountable self, who is more objective, can see their own part in situations, and sees the other person's part as well.

·         The Victim: Complains about being different, misunderstood, and not appreciated. Some victims really have been through loss, disappointment, or betrayal, but they just can't (or won't) give up that fixed role. There all sorts of fun combos here, as the Victim can join forces with the Critic, the Rebel, or the Blamer for equally unhealthy life scripts. The opposite is the Responsible self, who acknowledges that most people suffer some loss or challenges, but takes responsibility for creating the best life possible, despite difficulties that occur. Amazing things can happen when the Responsible self meets up with the Optimistic self.

·         The Enforcer/The Rulemaker: Rigid, unforgiving, inflexible, and tries to exert control as much as possible, over their own life, and those around them. Enjoys checking for mistakes. Needs rules for everything in order to cope with their fears and insecurities. The flip side self is relaxed, flexible, comfortable with guidelines, but doesn't need rules to feel safe. This is a Flexible/Easy-Going Self.

·         The Rebel: Feels entitled, wants to do things their own way, and can't exercise self-discipline or set limits with themself. The alternate is the Healthy self, which reminds us to act according to our values instead of always what we feel like.

·         The Pessimist: Sees absolutely everything from a negative light, kills the joy in things, ruminates, and predicts doom at all times. The Pessimist is exhausting to be around. Has a hard time trying anything new because they feel it will fail. The Optimist self, in contrast, sees difficulty as a learning curve, and events as short-term, focusing on what action they can take to make a positive difference.

·         The Excusemaker: Justifies, uses excuses, and rationalizes why they take unhealthy or negative actions. The disowned part here is the Responsible self.

By identifying your own internal cast of characters, you can move all the personalities along towards finding a healthy, supportive self who is not run on auto pilot from your childhood or your life experiences.