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.