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The lies of suffering

parent sufferingIf you are unhappy then it’s time for something to change. Physical pain exists to keep us safe. It says, “Stop running on your broken leg! Take care of that scrape right this minute!”

It’s how emotional pain works, too. Emotional pain reminds us to take care.

I guess it’s our cultural Protestant work ethic that makes us forget this. So many of us take pride in our suffering:

  • I work 70 hours a week, never take a day off. It’s just what the job demands.
  • I haven’t slept through the night since my oldest was born. It’s been twelve years now.
  • No, no, I don’t mind. You go ahead and go to the movies while I stay home and clean up after the party.

It’s one thing if you’re truly happy — if you love your job, if you’re one of those rare people who only need a few hours of sleep, if you’d rather vacuum than go see the latest blockbuster. I mean, I’m not all that invested in telling people that there’s only one way to live a happy life. But so many of us are not happy with the way things are and we ignore it because we believe the lies of suffering.

You know, the lies that say:

  • Your value is in your paycheck.
  • Your kids are more important than you are.
  • You don’t get to enjoy things until you’ve earned them with your blood, sweat and tears.

Suffering, sad to say, is inevitable so why are we so bent on creating even more of it for ourselves?

Because I work so often with parents that’s where I see those lies crop up the most. I see moms and dads who put their own needs aside for so long that they don’t know how to pick them back up again. I know how it is; our children’s abilities creep up on us so sometimes we’re making them breakfast long after they could learn to pour their own cereal.

And you know what? That’s fine if we don’t mind pouring cereal and if we find other ways for them to stretch themselves a little bit. Again, I’m not saying that there’s a cut off point that you have to meet or everyone’s done for. But if you’re resentful, if you’re unhappy, if you want to be able to drink a cup of coffee before you fry up an egg, then it might be time to figure out how you can do that.

Unhappiness is the key that something should change. That’s how you know.

Parenthood should not relegate your needs to the trash heap. Yes, you’ll need to make allowances but that doesn’t mean 18+ years of purgatory.

So how do you do it?

  1. Surround yourself with people who get you and your values and who aren’t going to try to talk you into doing things any particular way. Whether you’re going to breastfeed into the preschool years or wean them at a few months, you get to decide because you’re the boss. It’s ok either way.
  2. By the same token, protect yourself from people who don’t get you and your values and who are going to try to talk you into doing things a particular way. In other words, you do not need to confess your struggles to your judgmental neighbor just because she asked.
  3. Get some good, basic books on child development and understand what your child is capable of doing so you can make informed decisions. Understand, too, that your child is a unique being and you are a unique parent; those books are guides, not infallible tomes. Remember, you’re the boss.
  4. Remind yourself that growing kids is a process. You can try something and then change your mind if it’s not working so don’t be afraid to just try it. It really is all right to make mistakes. So you push them a little too early, well, then you can pull back. But you might find out that they’re ready for a push. So if you’re ready you can give it a try just in case.
  5. Remember that you are your child’s model for self-care and self-love. Do you want your son or daughter to neglect themselves for the sake of their families?
  6. If you decide you want therapeutic help, call the counselor and interview her. Does she have strong feelings about co-sleeping? Veganism? Boarding school? Whatever it is, make sure she’s going to be able to hear you and support you and not get mired in her own biases.

Parenting is already plenty hard; there’s no need to make it harder.

Helping Kids with Anxiety

Helping Kids with Anxiety

This is Goldilocks. She’s having a tough time.

This is the final post in the 3-part series about helping kids with anxiety. I reserve the right to blog more about it in the future because it’s a big topic and this is so general. Onward! To the helping!

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT is the counseling modality of choice for kids (and adults) with anxiety. Research on effective anxiety therapies tend to focus on these three areas:

  • Understanding and addressing the physical response to anxiety
  • Recognizing and challenging the thinking errors that perpetuate anxiety
  • Using controlled exposure to the anxiety-provoking situation and practicing the tools

Again this is super simplified and super general. Kids (and adults) have diverse learning styles, challenges, expectations and histories so how this works will look very very different depending on the child. But to help you get the gist, I’ll use Goldilocks as an example. We all know her story, right? On the very off-chance you don’t, you can check out this short version so we’re all on the same page.

So let’s say Goldilocks’s mom brings her to me because she’s gotten very anxious since her disastrous meet up with the three bears. She’s having trouble sleeping, she’s having some bad dreams, she is having tantrums at the drop of a hat and she hates leaving her mom to get on the school bus because she’s afraid the bears will come break into her house. She also can’t bear the thought of eating porridge ever again and will fall apart if her mom serves it at breakfast.

The first thing we would do is talk about Goldilocks’s physical experience of being anxious. We would talk about how being chased by bears would rev anyone up but now we need to help her calm her body back down. We would talk about how since this happened every time her heart starts beating or she starts breathing fast that her body immediately thinks BEARS! even if she’s faced with something much less concerning like shoes that are hard to tie or being a little bit late for school in the morning. We would work hard on helping her identify where in her body she feels the anxiety — is it in her stomach? Does her chest feel tight? Does she make fists with her hands or does her mouth go dry? We would talk about relaxation techniques and figure out which ones work for her. She might start keeping a worry diary or we might make a list of everything that makes her anxious.

What I tell kids is that we’re going to be detectives and we’re going to work together to solve the problem of their worries. I am very strengths based (that means I encourage focus on what’s going right even as we are talking about what’s going wrong) so we would also discuss times they have managed their anxiety in the past so we can figure out what shores them up.

The next thing we would do is look at thinking errors (also sometimes called “negative cognitions”). Here are some super common thinking errors:

  • All or Nothing Thinking: If I make one mistake then I’m an idiot.
  • Catastrophising: If I don’t turn in this one homework, I will flunk out of school.
  • Overgeneralization: I fell down at the roller rink one; I will fall down forever.
  • Personalizing: It rained on my birthday because nothing ever goes right for me.
  • Discounting the Positive: Sure my best friend likes me but that doesn’t count because she’s my best friend.
  • Mind Reading: I know everyone on my soccer team hates me.
  • Labeling: I’m taking so long to learn to ride my bike because I’m uncoordinated.
  • Should Statements: I shouldn’t have such a hard time learning math. I should know how to wrap this present without help.
  • Emotional Reasoning: I am in pain therefore I am right and you are wrong. I feel guilty and that proves I’m a bad person.

There are more but you get the gist and probably these are familiar to you either because your child does them or because you do them yourself. (Some of these are so ingrained in our cultural way of thinking that to confront them can be like wandering around in the dark your whole life and then stumbling over a flashlight and realizing you can use it to find the light switch and actually turn on all the dang lights.)

This is where I think counseling can help. I know in my own family that I can tell my kids something over and over but when they hear it from somebody else they believe it. Part of this is that they get tired of the sound of our voices (I haven’t seen studies on this but anecdotally I can tell you that my children get tired of the sound of my voice) and part of it is because it’s easy to get defensive with our parents. At least it was for me when I was a kid and then a teenager. If my mom disagreed with me it was automatically an opportunity for me to argue with her but if another adult said the same thing, it was an opportunity for growth and better understanding.

Yeah, we parents get it coming and going.

BUT! Let’s not resort to Overgeneralization! Sometimes parents have a lot of success doing this work at home without a therapist and there are workbooks (note I haven’t reviewed these so I can’t recommend one in particular) to help parents help their kids. AND even when kids are in therapy, we really need the grown ups in their lives to help them do the work. (I see a child an hour a week. Their parents are the ones bearing witness to the other 167 hours.)

Anyway. That’s the cognitive part of CBT therapy and it can take awhile. We’re talking about challenging ingrained ideas that make perfect sense to the person thinking them. That’s HARD and it takes practice.

For lots of kids, this is when we’re really leaning on the play part of play therapy because every little step we take needs to be ensconced in trust, respect and acceptance, which means a lot of time just hanging out and enjoying each other. The play therapy space (and the talk therapy space) is a place to safety say anything and be anyone and sometimes anxious kids just need one place where they can come and PLAY away from their worries.

tumblr_lsne2yzAIw1qh59n0o1_250Particularly with anxious kids whose anxiety ends up all centralized in their need to Do Good and Be Good, too much CBT pushing just triggers their anxious need to perform well. So sometimes my office is all about creating an island where they can goof off a little and experience themselves in a new way.

I’m emphasizing the slow part of this time in therapy because sometimes parents get (understandably) frustrated. They want to see change. At the beginning they get some concrete tools (breathing, relaxation, etc.), which feels great and proactive but it’s not a cure all. And then at this point things slow down and they may not see the any progress. But progress really is happening. Not to mention that this is where grown ups start slowing down, too, because it’s one thing to hear about Personalizing but it’s another thing to really get it and see how that kind of thinking is actually impacting your life.

The other thing is that anxious kids (and adults) have had people trying to talk them out of being anxious for a long, long time and that can make people hold on to anxious feelings even more tightly. They don’t mean to do this but being anxious, which many of them see as being concerned or cautious or careful or responsible (“I study all of the time because I’m a good student and if I’m not anxious about it then I’m being irresponsible.”) and often they get a lot of praise for being “good” in other anxious ways. (Oh the perfectionist students I see in my office! The ones who are running themselves into the ground for the praise and academic rewards!) To ask them to give up this way of thinking, well, that’s scary. It takes time.

Goldilocks may say to me, “You know this is all well and good but the minute I let my guard down I’m pretty sure Papa Bear is going to come charging in here, paws waving, and I can’t risk it.”

And so we’d keep working on it.

The next step of CBT is taking it out into the world and confronting those anxieties. Remember we’re simplifying these steps and we’re making them look more clear cut than they are (although they’re presented pretty clear cut in the Coping Kids group because we have a curriculum but we will adjust it as needed).

Goldilocks and I would keep on playing detective, we’d see what’s working for her and where she gets stuck. Maybe her big issue is not being able to eat porridge. Maybe I would get an empty box of oatmeal to have in the play kitchen or maybe we’d pretend to feed breakfast to the dolls.  When she’s ready maybe we’d have ourselves some porridge together. We’d go slow and we would be mindful of how it feels. We would see any small move forward as a victory even if she never actually gets the spoon in her mouth for a long, long time.

Maybe I’d ask her mom and dad to take her for a walk in the forest and practice her relaxation techniques and see how that goes. She and I might might write a game plan beforehand that confronts the “what ifs” and has strategies in place for whatever scenarios she can imagine. Again, we’d go slow. She might only get herself out the door the first time and we’d applaud that step even as we think about how to get her off the stoop next time.

Or maybe she’d need to play out what happened, putting the bears in the sand tray and working to make sense of the event by playing out the scene over and over again, trying out new ways of experiencing it and new outcomes.

There are other more specific ways to deal with particular kinds of anxiety. Treatment for OCD, for example, is more complex. Which brings me to medication.

Medication for kids is a tricky thing. Although many family practice and pediatricians will prescribe medication, it’s best to seek out help from a child psychiatrist. But this is hard. Columbus — like lots of other areas — has a dearth of child psychiatrists and parents don’t always have time to go search one out. I encourage parents to have an ongoing conversation with their family physician and to be aware that having a psychiatrist becomes even more important as the child gets older because hormones can make getting the right meds in the right dose super challenging (and things can turn on a dime if someone hits a growth spurt).

Not all anxiety disorders NEED medication but medication can certainly make sense if a child is completely hamstrung by his anxiety to the point that he isn’t going to be able to participate in his therapy. (Some kids are so anxious that relaxation techniques aren’t going to be enough to get them to a place where they can do the cognitive work.) Or if her behavior is so problematic (tantrums, rages, violence) that the rest of her life is at a standstill then medication can make sense.

Ultimately this is a parenting choice and I support parents in making their own informed choices for their kids. I do think, though, that medication alone isn’t enough. We all need to learn how to function as our best selves within the gifts and limits of our particular personality make-up. Medication can help us get functioning but we still need to understand ourselves and how we work. We need to know how to get help.

Eventually, too, our children will be adults and will make their own decisions about how to manage their anxiety (since for most anxious people it’s part of their lifetime experience since our personality can be molded but we are essentially who we are) and getting therapeutic support gives them options.

I like the idea of saying to kids, “Hey, counselors are there to help us when we need it. You need to know how to find the right one for you and how to do the work of therapy and I will help you do that when you’re young so you can help yourself when you’re older.” So we can teach them how to be good consumers of therapeutic support by helping them find someone they like and feel comfortable with (because it all comes down to the rapport in the relationship).

This is a positive way to talk about anxiety and anxious temperaments. After all, some of us more athletically gifted and some of us need more help. Some of us are terrific musicians out of the gate and some of us need more practice. Likewise some of us have more struggles with anxiety or depression and that’s why we have therapists and that’s why we learn about medication options and that’s why we learn to take good care of ourselves.

Have questions? Let me know. Want to sign your child up for Coping KidsLet me know. (I’m trying to plan summer offerings so if Coping Kids is something you’d like your child to attend then, please let me know so I can email you when I get scheduled and also find out if there are particular days or times that might work for your family.)

First in the series: Anxiety in Kids

Second in the series: Child Anxiety Symptoms

Angry Adoptees

angry adopteesI know many adoptees, and although this is not true across the board adoptees will never be pigeonholed, i’ve found that more often than not, when you look beyond the surface, the adoptees whom a casual observer may most likely label as an “angry adoptee” or see as being the most critical of different aspects of adoption, are often the very ones who have the closest and healthiest relationships with their adoptive parents. It seems counter-intuitive, but I see it over and over again.

When an adoptee makes a critical statement about adoption or adoption practices it doesn’t automatically mean that they are “angry” or have a bad relationship with their parents. Often, the opposite is true, and all it really means is that they’ve been paying attention.

via blog.adoptionmosaic.org » Angry in a Whole New Light.

There’s a myth that goes around adoptive parent circles, which says that if you are a good adoptive parent your child will never grieve, never be angry about his/her adoption and never “need” to meet their birth family. Many of us know that it’s a myth and yet it persists. And it presupposes that adopted people should not be angry or that we should not want to raise children who have their own opinions, thoughts and feelings about their experiences.

You can’t look at any child who isn’t expressing negative emotion and assume that means the child isn’t feeling negative emotion, not when it comes to big ticket items like adoption or divorce or moving or deployed parents, etc. It may be that child is very private. It may be that child doesn’t want to disrupt things for other family members (issues of loyalty, guilt or responsibility can make talking about our feelings that much more difficult). It may be that the complexity of those big ticket items make it too hard to talk about.

In other words, giving your child safe space to say, “I miss my birth mom” does not MAKE her miss her birth mom; it lets her know that you are strong enough to be there for her while she struggles with any and all of her feelings.

This isn’t to say that “angry adoptees” are modeling the only way or the most healthy way for an adopted person to feel. Adopted people are not a monolithic population and so there are adopted people who are happy about adoption and adopted people w ho are angry about adoption and adopted people who are grieving their adoption and very often those people are many of those things all at the same time or they will change their feelings as their experiences change. Just like those of us who are not adopted, we all have a right to make meaning of our experiences with room for ambivalence and room for growth and room for change.

We adoptive parents, we do not get to define the adoption experience for our children and we do not get to take their emotions and decide it says something about us (making their feelings all about us).

Being critical of adoption — being critical of our participation as adoptive parents — is the right of any adopted person. We get to have our experience of adoption; they get to have theirs.

When they are very young children and then bigger children and then teens, our job is to help them make sense of their stories and give them room to eventually tell their own narrative. Our job is not to control that narrative and it is not to limit their authorship of their own story because, as I said, giving your child space to be critical does not create the criticism.

Empathetic parenthood

"We have all been children and have hadWhen I was teaching parenting classes in Portland nearly two decades ago I had one parent in the class who was there because she’d been mandated by child protective services. I don’t know the whole story but I knew that she didn’t want to be there. She made it clear that she resented having to sit there listening to a youngster many years her junior (me) who didn’t even have any kids yet.

I can’t say that I blamed her.

Fortunately the other parents in the class were there to help her process the information in a loving, respectful way that she could hear.

At one point we were talking about how children have their own experiences in the day beyond what we might witness. I don’t know how she got the message — I think another parent was telling a story about her child in school — but she burst into tears and said, “I had no idea, I had no idea. I never thought that maybe she could have her own bad day or be in her own bad mood.”

It was such a powerful moment.

From that point of the class on she was able to talk about her children’s experiences with compassion and empathy. The class was not easy for her — she was away from her kids and she was confronting a lot of things she wished she’d done differently — but I hope that what she learned there she was able to bring back to her relationships with her children.

It can be difficult to remember what it’s like to be small or even smallish. It’s especially hard to do if we weren’t allowed the full scope of our feelings. If we were treated harshly, we may have stuffed some feelings down so deep that we don’t know how to remember what it’s like to be scared or sad or to feel hopelessly overwhelmed by the big wide world and our small place in it. If we have that extra challenge then we can practice imagining. We can picture what it must be like to worry that we will suffocate if we fall asleep with a stuffy nose. Or to not have the experience to know that one lost book report won’t derail our scholastic dreams.

When we remember or can imagine what it feels like to be a child, it’s easier to know how to react with the firm and loving support that our children need.

Feelings are not behaviors

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Sometimes people get afraid of feelings so we deny them or try to ignore them or explicitly tell our kids to shut those feelings away. But how children feel and how they behave are too different things.

There’s being angry and then there’s yelling or hitting. It’s ok to be angry with your little sister but it’s not ok to hit her. It’s ok to feel frustrated with the Legos that won’t work right but it’s not ok to kick them across the floor.

When we correct or redirect our children to express their negative emotions (anger, frustration, sadness, guilt) appropriately, we need to make clear that we accept their feelings even when their behavior is unacceptable.

For kids, feelings may be so overwhelming and painful that they have to act them out in their bodies. We can give them appropriate ways to show their anger in their bodies. They can punch pillows instead of punching brothers. They can go outside and yell instead of screaming inside. They can stomp their feet instead of knocking down blocks.

Help give kids words to describe their feelings.

“You are so angry!”

“This puzzle is so frustrating!”

Sometimes sad or worried or scared look like angry so if you see that, say it.

“I think you are sad that we have to leave the bouncy castle and that’s why you don’t have the patience to tie those shoes. Leaving can be so hard!”

“I wonder if you’re feeling worried about the big swimming pool and that’s why you’re snapping at me.”

However we feel, it’s fine because feelings are morally neutral. How we manage our feelings — how we treat others, how we treat ourselves — is what matters. The more we find acceptance for all or our feelings, even the yucky uncomfortable ones, the easier it is to manage them.

 

 

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