Sometimes love is not a choice. We meet someone and fall in love or we gaze into a child’s eyes and fall in love. Sometimes love happens to us. But the real work and maintenance of love takes decisive action.
It’s not just how we love our kids or our significant others; it’s how we must love ourselves.
The holidays can be a joyous but difficult time for many of us. We’re striving to live up to expectations and if we feel we’re falling short, it’s painful. Maybe the budget won’t stretch to allow us to gift people the way we want to give them. Maybe our children are reacting to the stress of the season and we’re not handling their revved up behavior all that well. And if we’re heading home to our families of origin we may find ourselves getting stuck in old and ugly patterns we thought we’d left behind.
During this challenging time of year, let’s try to be gentle with ourselves and others. Let’s try to accept ourselves and those we love exactly the way we are.
I wasn’t surprised when I read this write up about how parents tend to underestimate how much their kids worry. I see this play out a lot in therapy. Parents will talk about stressors for the family and when I ask how the kids are handling it the parents will often say something like, “Oh she’s OK, she doesn’t really know about it.”
I get this because I’m a parent, too.
I think it’s a little bit of survival mechanism, an instinctive move to put on our own oxygen masks first. If we’re dealing with a big move or a divorce or a job lay-off, we can get pretty overwhelmed. Having to think too long and hard about how it’s affecting our children may be more than we can handle, at least until things have settled a bit.
But then things settle and maybe parents still aren’t ready to face the fallout.
The other scenario is that parents just don’t believe that children are developmentally able to worry. Those parents either don’t remember their own worries or they internalize the idea that their worries weren’t important (because that’s what their own caregivers said).
Preschoolers, especially, worry a lot about things that don’t seem that scary to parents. This is the age of monsters in the closets and under the bed. Parents may get frustrated when kids are scared of imaginary things but it’s developmentally appropriate, which means that for most children it’s a stage they’ll eventually grow out of.
Meanwhile parents can help by offering reassurance over and over again (checking the closet with a flashlight) and believing kids when they say they’re scared. Sure, we might not get what the big deal is about the bridge you drive over everyday to get to preschool but ot your child it is a big deal. Accepting this and helping them cope (perhaps by going to the library and getting a book that talks about bridge construction and how much thought goes into creating safe roads) will help more than dismissing their concerns.
As children get older, their fears about imaginary things decrease but their concerns about real life things (fires, robbers, car accidents) increase. You can help them out by listening, showing them the precautions your family takes to keep everyone safe, and giving them coping mechanisms like relaxation breathing or visualization. These are lifelong tools that will benefit children into the teen years and beyond and they will help your child feel more confident about his or her ability to conquer worry and manage it appropriately. (Preschoolers can benefit from relaxation and visualization, too.)
You can also help by modeling productive ways to handle our fears. It’s ok to let your children in on some of your concerns provided you are working towards a solution. For example, you can say, “I feel worried about grandma’s surgery but I know she has really good doctors and I remember to tell myself that when I’m feeling scared.” Or “I’m getting a new boss on Tuesday and I’m a little nervous about it so I’m going for a walk to help me relax. Want to come with me?”
How do you know if your child is worrying too much and could use some help from a professional?
- Are you overwhelmed by their worrying? Do you find yourself getting frustrated or angry?
- Is your child having problems getting enough sleep for his or her daily activities? Or having frequent nightmares?
- Is the worrying getting in the way of your child or your day-to-day activities?
- Does your child worry weeks or months ahead of an event?
- Do your child’s worries spiral from small and manageable to huge and unmanageable?
- Do your child’s worries lead to compulsive or perfectionist behavior? Does your child need to check that the stove is off over and over before he can get to sleep? Or is she afraid to leave your side for fear that something terrible will happen to one of you?
- Does your child have physical symptoms like headaches or stomaches related to worrying?
- Is she unable to attend everyday events like school or scouts due to worry? Or to take care of everyday activities like getting homework done or cleaning a room because of his perfectionism?
If you’re not sure, you can schedule a time (with me or with a therapist in your area) to talk about what’s going on and see what counseling might have to offer you or your child.
I know that for a lot of people Mother’s Day is a super hard and generally awful day. I’d love to give you a list of ways to make it less awful but honestly, sometimes things are just bad. And I think it’s OK to just give in. It’s all right to give yourself permission to check out. That means not steeling yourself, not putting your chin up and suffering anyway, and maybe telling people some white lies so you don’t have to show up for things you want to avoid.
You’re not being selfish; you’re taking care of yourself.
I know sometimes we really want to be the bigger person and swallow our sadness and sometimes that’s the right thing to do but maybe this weekend it’s not. That’s all right.
If this year is not the year you’re going to be able to stuff your feelings then I hereby give you permission to do whatever it takes to get through Sunday in whatever self-nurturing, loving way you can. Please don’t punish yourself for needing a break.
So here is a list of ways not meant to make it less awful but to give you ideas you could be good to yourself — you deserve that:
- You can skip church if you want, to avoid those flowers they give out to mothers.
- And brunch? You don’t have to go to brunch.
- If there are mothers in your life who are expecting you to be part of their celebrations, you can call in sick and promise to take them out on another less fraught day.
- Or you can go but make plans to get out early. If you have a partner, have them help get you out. If you have a friend who can text you with an “emergency,” do that. Even better if you can meet them somewhere after for hugs and sympathy.
- Or you can go and bring along someone who will squeeze your hand when someone says something hurtful so you know you’re not alone. And who will listen to you vent after.
- You can spend the day crying if crying helps you feel better. <– (that links to the Free to Be You and Me song) Crying releases endorphins and relieves stress and it might help you sleep better. So don’t fight it if you don’t want to. Let that day be a sad day.
- Avoidance is OK, too. Denial as a regular coping mechanism might not be a long-term workable solution but if you need to spend Mother’s Day watching your favorite comedies or going for a long run or otherwise ignoring the celebration, by all means do it.
It’s 4am and you’re wide awake worrying. The house is still, you’re alone with your thoughts and they are brutal. Your worries loom dark and daunting and you listen to the hum of the refrigerator knowing that with every passing minute, tomorrow will be harder and more exhausting.
What do you do?
- Get out of bed: Tossing and turning, worrying about falling asleep will make things worse. Get up and take care of your physical self. Go to the bathroom, have a drink of water and stretch. Even though it might be tempting to turn on the TV or check your email, resist the lure of the lit up screen — it’ll wake you up further. Read a comforting book, perhaps a childhood favorite where everyone stays safe and sound. Listen to music that calms you and quiets your brain.
- Make a list: If it’s your to-do list that’s haunting you, write down every little thing you need to do and then trust the list to remember it for you. You can let it leave your mind when you’ve put it someplace else. Nothing is too small to list there; if thinking about getting it done is keeping you up, just write it down.
- Imagine a place of safety: Picture a place that makes you feel good. Is it the beach? A grove of trees? The swing set you spent your summers on as a kid? Take deep breaths and try to bring back sense memories. What sounds do you hear? How does the sand feel between your toes or the rusty chain feel in your hands? Imagine the rhythm of the waves, the sound of the wind in the leaves or the squeak of the swing as you pump your legs. Let yourself rest there.
- Remind yourself that you’re not alone: If you have a spiritual practice that includes belief in a higher power, prayer can be solace when you are at your lowest. (There’s a reason why that poem Footprints shows up in gift stores everywhere.) But if you are an atheist or unable to find comfort in your faith, you might imagine all the people who love you holding you up in their affection. Or you could try picturing all the people in the world who are awake and worrying and send them comfort and imagine that loving comfort coming back to you from them. If you need to hear another voice but are unable or uncomfortable contacting a friend or waking a loved one, remember that there are crisis lines that welcome your calls.
Even though the next night might seem a long way off, plan accordingly and create some coping tools. At least you won’t be facing the next sleepless night unprepared.