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Balance is a verb

balance is a verb

Balance isn’t a goal; it’s a practice. We tend to think of balance as something we achieve but balance, by its very nature, is temporary. We are constantly shifting the weight of our attention to accommodate change.

Imagine you’re the woman on the tightrope in the illustration above (and we all are the woman on the tightrope), you’re stepping out carefully, your arms flung out as you teeter this way and that. You shift your weight to maintain equilibrium. Even if you choose to stand still you have to contend with air currents that may catch you off guard, sudden gusts of wind that upset your temporary stillness. You are not in a state of balance, a place to stay at rest; you are balancing.

When we can accept balance as a practice then it’s much easier to accept that there will be times when we have to shift our attention. Sometimes you’ll have a great exercise routine going and then you’ll have an injury or a schedule change or the gym will close. Or you’ll finally figure out how to get your family fed more or less happily and someone will develop an allergy or start soccer or you’ll just burn out on cooking the same things all the time.

There will be times when one part of your life will demand more attention and these attention-grabbing events (new babies, new jobs, new relationships) will create disequilibrium; that’s the nature of those big events. You may temporarily lose sight of the other things that are important to you. When this happens, you may suddenly realize you’re on a tightrope that’s 50 feet above the ground and you may feel afraid.

It’s ok. Take a deep breath. You know how to do this.

Remember, the trick to balancing on a tightrope is to hunker down and lower your center of gravity. You will need to fold in for a bit and concentrate on your core. You will need to let some things go for a little while.

But you will get your footing again. You will be able to stand tall and begin shuffling forward, tilting this way and that, figuring out how to walk this tightrope of life with the new weight of those changes.

This is life. This is the nature of balancing. Because balance is a verb.

Rigidity, Judgment and Parenting

rigidity judgment and parentingI’m going to do something I haven’t done in a long time and that’s pull out some comments for the next post because it got me thinking and I appreciate that Cynthia is giving me the opportunity to do this. On my last post Cynthia, who is also a therapist here in town, wrote:

I have to admit I find this discussion difficult, and that I have a bias after reading Alice Miller’s books (For Your Own Good, etc.). I think there’s a level beyond political correctness where we have to start to acknowledge what we know about the nervous system responses to certain kinds of treatment, and do our best to help ourselves and each other notice our patterns of response and disowned feelings so we can stop perpetuating violence.

Alice Miller, if you haven’t read her, is a German psychoanalyst who looks at the ways trauma and abuse are perpetuated across generations. Her books are dense but very good and I sometimes recommend them to clients who are working to figure out the impact their own childhood is having on their lives. I’ll also add that Cynthia is a therapist who specializes in trauma work and it makes sense that she would look at my last post through this lens. But for my purposes, doing this is problematic and I wanted to explain why.

Generally speaking, people come to therapy because there’s something that isn’t working in their lives. The very act of making an appointment with a therapist is a request for change and a statement of some level of willingness to explore the possibility of doing the hard work of changing. This is where we begin together, a vulnerable parent who is sad or anxious or angry and me, the person who ostensibly has the answers for them. But I believe that one of the problems for parents is all of the experts (official ones like whoever is writing the latest book and unofficial ones like whoever is standing behind you in the checkout lane criticizing your parenting) and so I want to help the parent locate their own inner expert, which means we are actually going to start with the assumption that the parent has the answers but hasn’t figured out how to tap into them. The stuff I know is about kids and parenting in general but what you know is the specificity of you and your child, which takes precedence as we chart our way.

Nearly twenty years ago, as a new parent myself I found my philosophical home in a very particular local mom’s meeting, which was a radical attachment parenting type meeting. I had one baby and I loved him to distraction and everyone kept telling me to put him down only I didn’t want to put him down. I was trying to figure out who I was as a mother and I was trying to do it — like we all try to do it — against a background of other people telling me what kind of mother I ought to be. Going to that meeting gave me permission to do the things I wanted to do anyway and when I got criticism I had answers to it because of what I was learning there. That meeting shaped my identity as a parent in many, many good ways (and, I’ll add, my identity as a therapist).

But I remember other mothers who came to that same meeting and didn’t find answers and freedom; they found rigidity and judgment. The motherhood identity they wanted to craft didn’t align with the culture of that community. That group took a hard-line “baby comes first,” which is not flexible enough for the reality of mothering for most of us. (You’ll note, too, that my language here has shifted to mothers because it is inevitably mothers who are taking the hit on child-first parenting.) For me, my values aligned enough with the group’s values that I could make the necessary shifts to write my narrative without losing access to my village but for other women, the village began to feel more like a prison.

Back to my clients, many of whom come from the same rigid parenting community that I came from. I know this community well because I’ve been living there for going on two decades and I know how hard we are on ourselves and on each other. I know that Cynthia’s well-intentioned plea that we “do our best to help ourselves and each other notice our patterns of response and disowned feelings so we can stop perpetuating violence” is exactly the kind of language we use in our community when we’re talking about parenting but I also know that it’s this kind of language that is hurting us.

I’m going to take crying it out to talk about it because that’s what my original post was about. The word “violence” is the kind of word the gentle parenting community might use when we’re talking about sleep training. But using words like “violence” stops the conversation cold. After all, there is no excuse for violence against a child so the exhausted mother is left without recourse. There is no flexibility, no nuance in the conversation when we equate actual child abuse with sleep training.

Sleep and the lack thereof is strongly correlated with mental health and so helping families how to manage night-time parenting is a huge — HUGE — part of the work I do with postpartum mothers. For most of us, sleep is terribly fraught, tied up with her own feelings of abandonment and fear and revisited again and again throughout the first few years. Sleep training is not the right answer for every family but sometimes it is and we cannot know that if we can’t even have the conversation.

(I’ll add that I don’t think Cynthia is equating sleep training to violence because I think she’s talking about a broader need to be willing to speak out against certain kinds of truly violent parenting and to be willing to think critically about our choices. I agree with this. However the parents I see in my office, they’re all too critical of themselves already and the violence they are perpetuating tends to be against themselves. Which is to say, while Cynthia is pointing to a necessary conversation we need to have culturally, my post is directed to the parent who is likely already having it.)

As I said in my comment to Cynthia, my blog post (all of them actually) is targeted to the ordinary good enough parent, which is the vast majority of us. I am starting with the assumption that if you’re reading my blog or contacting me for services then you are an ordinary good enough parent. I’m going to assume that you are doing a lot of things right. I’m going to believe that you know what’s best for your family only you might not know it yet or you may not be clear how to get there. Of course if I see you doing harm — real harm — to yourself or your child then of course I’m going to tell you (and as a mandated reporter, if I see instances of abuse I will tell you but I will also tell the authorities) but I’m not going to start from the assumption that that’s where you are because most of us are NOT. Most of us, as I said, are ordinary good enough parents and all of us need and deserve respectful support as we make our way.

The right way to raise babies

the right way to raise babiesLast week there was a lot of noise about that crying it out study, which indicated that “graduated extinction” (which is different from simply leaving the baby to cry) isn’t harmful to infants. On my Facebook feed I heard (like many of you heard) a lot from both sides of the debate, decrying the study as too small to be useful or hailing it as the definitive answer from science. People ask me to weigh in on research like this because I’m a counselor who specializes in working with new parents but I’m not that interested in getting parents to do things some mythical right way to raise babies because there isn’t one.

When my son was a teensy-tiny infant I thought someone should invent a sim baby program so that I could make the most appropriate parenting decisions every single time. I could try virtually feeding him rice cereal as a first food and then hit restart to go back and try feeding him sweet potato to see which made him turn out best. Because even then — when the internet was fairly primitive and we all used Netscape — there was so much information out there and such strong opinions about every little thing. It’s not like my mom’s day where the parenting experts were limited to the people you actually knew and saw on a day-to-day basis (and maybe your dog-eared copy of Dr. Spock‘s book). Now there are a whole slew of people who have opinions on every little thing from first foods to sleep habits to how to tell your child that you like the painting they made in preschool (that is if you fall in the pro-preschool camp because oh boy are their opinions about that, too).

Here’s the thing, I don’t want you to raise your baby in any particular way. I want you to raise your baby your way. I don’t want my clients making decisions solely based on the headlines generated by researchers in South Australia; I want them to figure out how to tune into what they need and what their babies need and make decisions based on that. If the researchers in South Australia help inform those decisions — whether that’s helping parents feel good about sleep training or highlighting their own reservations about it — then great.

You and your baby are a unique dyad. You and your baby and your partner and the rest of your family, you are a complicated and distinct system. However you choose to handle sleep with your baby, it’s only one of many decisions you’ll be making over the course of your parenting career. Those decisions are opportunities for you to build your family culture based on your values, wants and wishes for your child. They are opportunities for you to explore and respond to your child’s individual temperament and learn more about the person they will eventually become. And they are opportunities for you to begin to understand who you are as a parent.

There are definitely absolutes about parenting like your babies should always be in car seats and they need to be fed (how you feed them is up to you). But studies like this, while useful and important, cannot take into account the whole colorful array of personalities and practicalities that make up each family.

If you were to come to my office and say, “Should I let my baby cry it out?” I would want to know so much more like who are you? And who is your baby? And what is the context of your lives together? As frustrating as it might be, I would not give you an answer because I want to help my clients find their own answers, the answers they can stand behind and feel good about. I want them to gain the confidence they’ll need for the rest of the hard work of parenting — choosing a kindergarten and giving the sex talk and figuring out curfews. As the kids say, you do you (because trying to do somebody else will just make you unhappy).

Do I have strong opinions? I sure do. I have strong personal opinions about my own parenting choices. But as I say (often), there are lots of ways to be a great parent and to raise great kids. I don’t have a lock on the best way; I’ve just figured out what works for me and mine. For example, I believe my kids are best served by being force-fed a lot of show tunes and being lectured on the superiority of Sondheim over Webber. You will not convince me otherwise but I also promise not to visit that strong bias on you. You go ahead and listen to Phantom and I’ll just sit over here with my well-worn copy of Company.

So if you come to me for answers, I won’t give them to you but I promise you that I will help you find them for yourself.

Getting into the praise mindset

getting into a praise mindsetWhen our kids are driving us crazy it’s easy to get locked into negativity. They’re being terrible, we’re trying to get them to quit being terrible, which often causes us to also act terribly and then we’re all being terrible with and at each other and that’s where many people are by the time they land in my office.

When this happens, one of the best things parents can do is to look for times their kids are being good and then praise the heck out of them. (Even if they’re not being all that good.)

To explain how this works, let’s use Goofus (as in Goofus and Gallant) as our example. Do you remember them? They’re from Highlights Magazine and Gallant does all the good stuff and Goofus is just plain rotten. (As a kid I didn’t really like either of them because Gallant was so good he made the rest of us look bad and Goofus seemed like the kind of boy I wanted to avoid during recess.)

For absolutely understandable reasons, Goofus’s parents are likely pretty sick of parenting him. Per Highlights:

  • Goofus barrels through people in the way and bosses them around.
  • Goofus is rude when responding to others’ ideas.
  • Goofus uses his book with dirty hands.
  • Goofus berates the bus when he misses it.
  • Goofus yells when he can’t get what he wants.
  • Goofus takes the last apple.

Man, Goofus, seriously. GET. IT. TOGETHER.

What all this means is that Goofus’s parents probably sound like this all of the time:

  • Watch where you’re going!
  • We do not talk that way in this family!
  • Stop touching that!
  • What is wrong with you?!?
  • Go to your room!
  • Put that back!

Given his track record, it’s no wonder Goofus’s parents are always steeling themselves for yet another Goofus screw up. They’re behind him before he’s done anything wrong saying, “Careful! Watch it! You better clean that up when you’re finished!” and he’s got it in his head that he’s a lousy person, someone who does mess up all of the time so why even bother?

Seeing as we’re the ones with fully developed frontal lobes, it’s up to us parents to disrupt the pattern. Goofus’s parents are the ones who have to help themselves (and help Goofus) see him as someone who can and will do better. And often this starts with finding ways to say, “Good job!”

When Goofus grabs his book with dirty hands his parents could ignore the urge to tell him to go wash up and instead say, “Goofus, you are such a great reader!” (Unless the book is a priceless edition or belongs to someone else, it can always be replaced so ignore the grubbiness for the sake of paradigm changing.)

Of course some things demand intervention — safety issues, for example. Parents can’t ignore it when Goofus (per one Highlights example) brings glass into the pool area but because they’ve learned to let go of things like dirty hands on books, Goofus is more likely to listen. First they can say, “I love the way you pay attention to your thirst signals, Goofus! That’s a smart thing to do in hot weather” before adding, “But let’s get a plastic cup to be sure you stay safe.”

Some days it’s a lot harder because some days Goofus is probably even more awful than usual. On those days, parents can and should find any little way to praise him. Even if it’s just, “I really appreciate the way you walked across the room there, buddy, without bopping your brother on the head.”

Goofus’s parents need to start looking for the good in him and pointing it out so that Goofus can start finding the good in himself. This can be really hard to do if you’re locked on molding your kid to be more like Gallant — it can feel like you’re allowing mayhem into your home if you’re not offering lots of correction. But you know that “be the change you want to see” quote? You need to SEE the change you want your kid to be before it ever happens.

Trust me, most kids know when they’re being rotten and they would like to find another way to be but they either don’t know how, or feel stuck in the immediate gratification or they think that’s the best way to get their parents to put all eyes on them.

Goofus’s parents need to see it for him. They need to ignore the filthy socks on the floor and instead say, “Thanks for changing your socks everyday.” They need to download one of those “100 Ways to Say Good Job” posters and memorize it so they have a whole bunch of phrases at the ready.

Now this is not empty praise; it’s finding new things to praise. It’s changing the atmosphere between parent and child and finding new ways to interact. It takes time to create a new way to be and it can be scary. It can feel downright neglectful not to call your kid out whenever he does something wrong so it’s important that both parents get in on the plan and have a clear idea about what’s non-negotiable (safety) and what they’re willing to ignore for the sake of building back a positive relationship.

For kids who are really entrenched, I think it makes sense to find a therapist. Many of the children I see who are acting out are struggling with other issues — anxiety, low self esteem, etc. It’s not fun to be Goofus, at least not all of the time.

What’s Under the Anger?

What's under the anger?This is a nifty exercise to do with kids and I’ve had occasion to think about it lately so I thought I’d also write it up here.

Many of the kids I see are struggling with angry behaviors and getting to what lies under the anger is part of our process together. Depending on the child’s age and understanding, we do a modified version of this exercise.

First we talk about how angry is made up of lots of different emotions but figuring out which ones is tricky. So I tell them that we’re going to play detective and look at some different scenarios to figure out what’s going on under the anger.

I use index cards or slips of paper with the following emotions listed on them (these are taken from this Managing Your Anger poster).

  • Anxiety
  • Disappointment
  • Embarrassment
  • Fear
  • Frustration
  • Guilt
  • Hurt
  • Jealousy
  • Sadness
  • Shame
  • Worry

We go through the list and I make sure they have a basic understanding of what each one means. I also have blank cards available for children to add an emotion if they feel like there’s something missing. Sometimes they’ll want to add something that seems redundant to me, like Unhappiness. I’ll check in, does Sadness cover that or do they want to add it? Sometimes they won’t realize sadness is there or sometimes they’ll explain to me why Unhappiness is different and I get to learn something new about their experiences. Likewise if they say that Anxiety and Worry seem the same to them I tell them to just use whichever one they feel is the best fit.

To keep kids interested, we usually use figures or puppets to set the scenarios up. This might be acting out the scenario or it might just be placing the figures as a kind of panorama of what’s happening. This can be a lot of fun for them. I’ll say, “Ok, for this one we’ll need a sister or brother and a mom” and they giggle to pick out the people or animals who fit.

I try to choose stories that the children can relate to and I try to choose ones that come from real life. Something like:

–Amy wakes up super excited about going to the park but when she comes down for breakfast her mom tells her that it’s going to rain so they have to cancel the park date. What do you think is under Amy’s anger?

or

–Sebastian is supposed to play four square with his friend at recess but when he comes out after lunch is friend is already playing with someone else. What do you think is under Sebastian’s anger?

For older kids I might use more complicated scenarios:

–Cleo has been thinking about the slumber party for weeks and can’t wait to go. When she gets there she finds out that the other girls have been texting each other plans for the night but Cleo doesn’t have a phone yet so she wasn’t included. Now all the girls are giggling about something and they won’t tell Cleo what. What do you think is under Cleo’s anger?

–Dane studied super hard for the math test and thinks he did well. The next day the teacher calls him over and tells him that his answers were exactly the same as the student sitting next to him. Dane realizes that his friend must have copied the answers. What do you think is under Dane’s anger?

We do several of these with the child picking out the emotion cards that fit the situation. After they’ve done this we take a minute to contemplate what they’ve chosen. I always praise the child’s insight and we discuss those underlying emotions.

I don’t ask why they made their choices as in “Tell me why you chose Worried” because that can put some kids on the defensive. First I agree with them and then I might ask for more: “Yeah, frustration, I bet Sebastian was really frustrated! I’m curious about Fear, can you tell me more about that?”

I do not ask them what they’re missing or if they can think of one more because this exercise is to help them start feeling more confident about their ability to identify emotions (and sometimes it’s also a good assessment tool for me if I’m not sure where they are). If I do think there’s a glaring omission I might say, “This is really excellent. You’ve caught the Sadness and Frustration that might be under Amy’s anger. I wonder if she might feel Disappointed, too. What do you think?”

And we talk about it.

I usually do five or six of these generic scenes (with one specifically picked because the child will probably relate to it — for example, using a sibling scenario if the child struggles with anger towards a sibling). Using a generic but familiar scenario opens up the idea that we can come up with a scene from their own lives. Most of the time they’re willing to do this but if not, that’s fine.

Sometimes we invite a parent to come in and play the game to see if they can guess what feelings are under their child’s anger during a particular incident that’s come up in therapy and then the child gets to tell their parent what they got right and what they got wrong.

We can also talk about how Worried Anger might need a different response than Embarrassed Anger and we can come up with a game plan that the child can share with loved ones to help them deal with the next meltdown. If they’re not willing or able to talk about an incident from their own life or relate the exercise to their own experience we stay focused on other stories and I heap on the praise. If a child is having a hard time with emotional literacy than my goal is to build their confidence as we build their skills. Heck, if a child can identify one emotion — or can understand why I chose an emotion and help me talk about it — that’s a big accomplishment and sets the stage for more storytelling and emotional identification later on down the line.

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