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Parenting and Summers on a Farm

farm(Today’s post is from therapist & author Victoria Hendricks.)

My house is quiet.  I have a pot of stew on the stove that will feed my husband and me suppers most of the week.  All the laundry is clean and put away and I’ve had an hour to play on the computer with no particular purpose.  When I finish writing this essay I will read myself to sleep.  I’ve talked to both grown daughters and had a happy IM conversation with a grand daughter this evening.  As much as is possible in an uncertain world, I feel happy about where they are in their lives and unworried about their well-being.  There is no crisis.  No urgency.

I remember when the pace of my life was very different, so fast I could barely stop for breath between the needs for homework help, listening, limits, dance tights without a rip in the toe, decisions  about everything every minute, and dishes that piled up dirty as soon as they were washed.  And there was my professional life, growing in fits and starts.  the idea of “life  work balance” made me laugh.  One afternoon during that crazy time, my girls and I walked up the hill to the library and I found a book which gave me a story that let me catch my breath.  It even predicted the calmer life I’m living now.  I don’t remember the title of this book, but it was the story of the seasons on a mid western farm.

In the spring everything is fresh and hopeful and  busy as the last of the snow melts and the family prepares the ground and plants the crops.  They work hard in spring, but they play too.  There is time to pick flowers for the table, sing over the dishes, admire a rainbow.  Then summer comes and the urgency of work  overwhelms the family.  Everyone works from dawn to dusk, and has to.  There is just so much to do to keep the crops growing, and there are no guarantees.  A storm can destroy a crop in an afternoon.  Or it might  not rain at all. Uncertainty and urgency fill every heart and every moment.  Finally,  the heat begins to ease off.  The first crop comes in, then the next.  The family is able to enjoy its harvest, to rest on Sunday afternoon, to take time for board game at the table or a roll in the leaves.  At last all the crops are in and the snow begins to fall.  The days are short and the evenings long and quiet, and the family sits by the fire and mends tools worn down over the summer, tells stories from that busy season, and remembers.

That day at the library it hit me between the eyes that my young mother life phase was like summer on the farm.  And like summer, it was just a season, to be negotiated as gracefully as possible, lived as wisely as possible.  It was just a season, a hard, rich, fast paced season, which would pass.  And it has.  I’m in the middle of my autumn now, crops pretty much in, winter coming but not yet.  I watch my daughters buy school supplies, fix lunches, worry about jobs, and I remember when that was me.  Or I see a young mother in the grocery store with a toddler in full tantrum and an cart full of melting food and I want to tell her, “Summer is just a season. Summer passes.  The harvest comes in.”

 

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Victoria Hendricks is an author & therapist in central Austin, with a private practice specializing in individuals & couples.  Victoria helped me get my start in private practice, and is a mentor to me still.   I asked her to write today’s post after she told me this story in person (after a conversation in which it was obvious that I was feeling very “summery” (as I now think of it.)  Victoria has been featured on this blog once before, on helping children grieve.  If you’re interested in more from Victoria, you can call her work number: 512-458-2844, or email her at: seastarvsh  AT  aol  DOT  com.

 

Behavior is communication: What your teenager is trying to tell you

yellingEven though their bodies may look mature, a teenager’s brain is not.  They don’t always have the skills or ability to use words to describe what is going on internally.  Their prefrontal cortex isn’t done growing yet.  That’s the part of the brain where we can see long-range consequences, for example—something that teenagers are famously bad at.  But despite the fact that they aren’t fully “cooked” yet, teenagers still need plenty of opportunities to practice their developing independence.  But the challenge is that your teenager probably isn’t going to tell you that they want and need that independence in ways that will inspire you to give it to them.  Instead, teenagers are more likely to argue, defy, or jump without asking (or thinking.)

Whether they ask nicely or not, a parent who learns how to “translate” teenage behavior will be able to understand and respond in ways that are more effective and more loving.  So here are three examples of typical teenage behavior, translated!

What your teenager is doing: 

Eye rolling, shoulder shrugging, or giving one word answers: fine; dunno; whatever.

What it means: 

“I need to feel less like a child.  This kind of attitude/body language makes me feel more in charge and less under YOUR control.  Plus, it puts space between us, which sometimes helps me to feel more grownup.  But please don’t move away from me all the time because I still really need you.  Sometimes this behavior is directly related to something that you are doing and sometimes it is not.

What they need

Your teenager needs age-appropriate opportunities to feel in charge of his/her self, time, activities, choices, surroundings, and more.  She or he needs to still have plenty of opportunities to be close to you, but also to have increasing control over how/when that happens.  Your teenager needs to know that you really, really see that am changing and growing—and especially that they are capable and trustworthy.

What your teenager is doing:

Staying up too late on Facebook/Skype/texting.

What it means/what they need: 

Teenagers are developing skills now that they will need their entire lives.  Balancing multiple priorities is one of those important skills.  Sleep is important, but social relationships are too.  Your children will have to balance self-care and responsibility with fun and friends their whole lives.  If you are trying to control them, or force them to adopt healthy habits, you may very well be standing in the way of the lessons they need to learn.   Focus instead on helping them to tune in to their body’s signals for sleep and the consequences that come from ignoring those signals!  Additionally, teenagers need you to give them the space now, when the stakes are somewhat limited, to experiment, fail, succeed, suffer consequences, and reap rewards.  That’s how they will learn the lessons that will shape their future behavior into healthy habits.  (and yes, they do still need some support and possibly reminders about healthy limits, and they definitely need consistent expectations whether or not they went to sleep on time.)

What your teenager is doing:

Wearing headphones All The Time. When we are out as a family together, my teenager walks at a distance from us, sits at a separate table, or just asks if for permission to do “x” all alone.

What it means/what they need:

This is actually very similar to #1. The difference is that this child is withdrawing in a less confrontative way, but the general meaning and need is the same. Teens need opportunities to be independent and to metaphorically stretch their own limits and identities. It’s very hard for them to do this, to feel bigger, when they are surrounded by their immediate family. (To illustrate—have you ever noticed yourself falling in to old roles when you go back home? It’s hard to not be who you used to be when surrounded by family.)

There are many, many different messages that our children’s behaviors can be sending, but the need for age-appropriate power and control are almost always an influence for teenagers.

 

*Photo cropped & reprinted under creative commons license from this source.

Feel, Felt, Found

A mom recently shared with me a handy mnemonic that reminds you what to do when your child is having a strong emotional reaction. The process comes from the same philosophies that I follow and teach, but improves upon them by being simple and easy to remember!

We know the most important thing to do when our child is upset is to keep or regain our own peacefulness, but once you’ve done that, how best to respond to your child? The easy-to-remember hint: Feel, felt, found.

Feel” reminds us to begin by reflecting: say out loud what you see, with empathy and warm, non-verbal body language that tells your child that you see and understand what they are feeling. It might sound like:

• “I can tell that you are feeling upset.”
• “Oh, gosh, I can really see that you are feeling angry about this.”
• “Whew, that really scared you, didn’t it!”

Felt” represents your opportunity to relate to your child in this emotional and sensitive moment, and to let them know you relate to them and what they are experiencing. The sensation of being ‘felt’ and heard and understood is one of the best feelings there is, so be sure to really be present and connected in this. It might sound like:

• “I have felt the same way.”
• “I feel upset when I can’t have my way sometimes, too!”
• “Once, I had to do that too, and I remember it felt really scary.”

Found” finally brings the moment that parents so often yearn for–the opportunity to share your experience and wisdom with your child–your chance to teach, to guide, to educate! It might sound like:

• “Can I share what I’ve found that helps me deal with this?” (I love for parents to ask for permission to give advice.)
• “I’ve found that xyz really makes me feel better.”
• “I’ve found that xyz makes the problems seem smaller/happen less frequently.”

An important part of healthy relationships is the sense that the other person respects your subjective experience–responding with ‘feel’ and ‘felt’ in those difficult moments is an effective way to assure that you are doing that for your child. Thanks, smart Mama who shared—this handy, simple, way to remember this is a help for us all!

The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways

The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways.I snapped a picture of this quote on the wall at the Magellan International School the other day, and posted it on Facebook.  A week or so later, it had been shared by 68 people, and viewed by nearly 7000.  Obviously, this quote resonates for many of us.

One of the first things I tell most parents that I work with is that behavior is a communication, and that understanding the message in a child’s behavior is incredibly helpful for changing those behaviors.  To put it another way, something is behind or underneath unwanted behavior; triggering or motivating or strengthening it.  Those hidden drivers are usually unmet needs of some variety.  When parents can identify what those unmet needs are, they typically find that those underlying needs are needs they want to support.  In other words: the behaviors are unwanted, but the needs driving those behaviors are understandable!

Children who are acting in unloving ways are likely to themselves be feeling unloved, unwanted, not valuable, incapable, powerless, or hurt. (*) The response those children need isn’t greater control, or bigger punishments, they need understanding, compassion, and support for their growth.   LOVE.

How should a parent respond to these ‘unloving’ behaviors?  That’s a more complicated topic than this blog post can tackle, but here’s a little basic information.  A sustainable and effective response will include: staying calm and compassionate ourselves, not taking obnoxious (or even mean) behaviors personally, plenty of self-care for the parent/caregiver, working to understand the drivers of unwanted behaviors, identifying patterns and triggers, modifying the environment to prevent problem situations and support positive ones, and using circle-back conversations to provide information/support for learning, growing, and healing.

Can you spot the need for love in a child’s unloving behaviors today?  Stay tuned for next month’s article, which will share more details about how to do this.  (Or contact me!)

(*) And, it’s worth mentioning, physical states are deeply influential: hunger, thirst, tiredness, and overstimulation can all stimulate crummy behavior.

(**)  I googled for the origin of this quote.  I didn’t really find anything definitive, but one source said that it was the words of a teacher quoted by Russell Barkley (ADHD expert.)  Anyway, kudos to that teacher, whoever she may be.  :^)

Grief and loss resources on this blog

There are several articles, and one video, on this blog created specifically to help parents whose children are (or may soon be) dealing with grief and loss.  They are collected below for easy reading.

Please feel free to contact me with questions or to set up an appointment for parent coaching around grief and loss, or however you think I can help.

Wallow with them!

It's a Tough Life for a Pig
I love the word wallow.  It’s fun to say, plus it reminds me of two totally separate things: self-pity, and pigs in mud.  I don’t know that I’ve ever heard the phrase used without one of those two things attached!

Except, I often use the phrase at work in a way that is counter to its usual definition and negative connotation.

Something that we parents don’t generally do often or well is to connect with our children when they are having upset or uncomfortable emotions.  Instead, we try to distract or minimize or rationalize or joke or extinguish those emotions.  We do it for many different reasons, perhaps because the expression is ill-timed or inappropriate in size, or because their upset is about us and we feel defensive, or because it’s about something we can’t control and we feel helpless.  But for whatever reason, we often entirely skip the step where we reflect and validate our children’s emotions.  Emotionally healthy parenting requires that we give our children permission to feel their feelings, even tough feelings.  Furthermore, our children need to feel connected to us even when they are feeling angry or resentful or worried or freaked out.  (*)

So I use the word wallow.  I don’t actually want parents to wallow in their children’s emotional states, but because we tend to err on the side of minimizing those emotions, I use a word that guides us towards the other side of the continuum.

When your child is upset or angry or worried, take a deep breath.  Mentally remind yourself that you want them to know that they have your permission to feel those feelings.  (This will help them internalize, for life, the important lesson that they have a right to their feelings.)  Reflect to your child that you see how they are feeling.  That can be done simply by saying something like: “wow, I can tell you are really feeling ___ .”   Take it a step further (and borrow a page from Imago couples therapists) and validate their feelings: “It makes sense to me that you would feel upset about that.  If I were in your position, I’d probably feel the same way.”

And then maybe take another deep breath.  Let a little space come in to the room and in to your interaction.  This is where the ‘wallowing’ happens.  Just stay in that space for a moment: stay in the space of having given your child permission to feel those feelings.  Let your child soak that in.  Don’t rush too quickly to distract or redirect.  Offering a hug, caring eye contact, or a loving touch might feel good to them right now.  This all serves to help them feel less agitated, less out of control, less overwhelmed by those feelings, and often has the very appealing effect of reducing the upset.  When your child has felt “heard” and even validated, it will be much easier to get them to ‘hear’ you and your perspective.

Important note: saying “I can tell that you feel mad that I am making you unload the dishwasher, and it makes perfect sense to me that you would really rather play than do chores” does NOT mean that my daughter can go back to playing and skip the chore.  The limits/requests/expectations remain the same.  All that’s different is that I am giving her permission to feel whatever she feels about those expectations.  But, it’s an amazing, healthy, effective, loving difference.  And, by the way, one of the long term payoffs is a much higher-quality relationship when your child is an adult.

Experiment with it if you are so inclined: see if you can find a place this week to give your child permission to feel their upset, angry, jealous, agitated, or anxious feelings.  See what happens and how it feels to both you and your child.  Good things can happen!

(*) I can’t find a citation for it, but I was taught once that the Talaris Institute studied this and found that responding in an emotionally responsive/healthy way just 30% of the time is enough to get the benefit.  Yay for not needing to be perfect!

Exciting new Notice of Privacy Practices form available

Just kidding, it’s not exciting.

But if you are interested, I have uploaded to this website my new, federally required, Notice of Privacy Practices policy, updated for 2013.  You can read it here.

Are you going to let her get away with that?

True personal story:

When my oldest daughter was about 8 months old, she got over-stimulated and grabbed an adult relative hard enough to cause pain.  We pulled her off, apologized, went into another room and helped her calm down.   About 20 minutes later, I apologized for my daughter’s behavior again to my relative.  Her response surprised me.  She said:

“Are you going to let her get away with that?  Shouldn’t you give her a little swat on the butt?”

At the time, I think I simply said that no, I wouldn’t be spanking my infant.  But, years later, I still often think of that brief exchange because of the stark contrast between “conventional” parenting wisdom and what–thanks to research–we now know.

To start with, did you know that when a baby or child is upset, the part of their brain that learns best is turned off?  When they are crying, dysregulated, hungry, overtired, “wired,” or “fried,” they can’t really learn.  So all the words, all the lessons, all the good advice you give them during that time?  It pretty much goes in one ear and out the other.  And it’s not their fault, either.  Their brains (and yours and mine, too!) are hard-wired to work this way.  Furthermore, in those over-stimulated situations, the part of the child’s brain that IS working is a primal, emotional, impulsive, defensive part of the brain.  You aren’t going to change the fact that the primal brain is primal, trust me… what you can hope for instead is to help your child improve their skills at managing their own dysregulation, so that they can get better and faster at bringing their more sophisticated brain functions back online.  That’s not going to happen for any 8 month old; we’re lucky if our 8 year olds can do it some of the time.

So, the next time your child is really upset, don’t try to “teach them a lesson.”  Instead:

  • Press the pause button on your own words and reactions.
  • Take a deep breath and help yourself either stay or return to calm.
  • Then, share your calm energy with your child, with the simple goal of helping them get back to their normal, higher-functioning self.
  • And for those children old enough to take your advice, save it for a later time, when your child’s brain and body are back in their normal, peaceful state.  That’s the very best time to teach!

When we rely solely on punishments to change behaviors, we either end up unsuccessful (for example: the prison system) or somewhat successful with negative side effects (for example:  poor relationships between parent & child, aggression in the child towards others, increases in lying and hiding behaviors, etc.)  To create a life-long positive relationship with our children, we have to approach shaping their behavior with gentleness, consistency, flexibility, and understanding.  Punishments don’t do any of those things—at 8 months, 8 years, or 18 years.

What we now know… is to limit our lecturing, work to understand why our kids misbehave, create an environment that supports the behaviors we want, create cooperation and mutual respect, and focus on the positives.  This creates healthy adults, better parent-child relationships, and it works.

***If you like this post, click over to this one on a similar theme that I wrote last year: If not punishment, then what?

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Beyond Birds and Bees, FREE and open to the public

Thanks to the generosity of St. David’s Episcopal Day School, I am thrilled to invite you to a FREE 2 hour Beyond Birds and Bees Workshop.

Beyond Birds and Bees (SOLD OUT)

~Everything a parent needs to teach healthy sexuality to their kids~
It’s never too early to think about talking with your kids about sex—because the earlier you start, the easier—and more effective—the conversations will be.

This workshop covers:

  • Age-appropriate ‘Sex Ed.’
  • Normal Sexual Behaviors, from birth to pre-adolescence
  • Red Flag Behaviors: when to worry and what to do
  • What’s an “askable parent”, and how to be one
  • Typical questions kids ask, and how to answer them!
This is a fun, relaxed workshop filled with great information. Not only does the workshop include presentation and discussion–but you’ll be amazed how much you’ll learn and discover from the practice conversations and activities. Additionally, there is plenty of time built in for Q & A. Katie is a licensed therapist specializing in children & families, so bring your questions!
When:
April 17, 2013 from 6:30-8:30
Pre-registration is requested.  Email “Laura Faulk” Laura.F AT stdave.org to register.
I hope to see you there!
UPDATE:  I’m both sad and pleased to tell you that this workshop is SOLD OUT.  I’m excited that there has been such tremendous (and quick-acting!) interest, but very sorry for those of you who didn’t get in.  If you don’t already get my newsletter, sign up for that on my website for notice of any future BBB workshops.
PS.  If you’re interested in this workshop, you might also be interested in my Mother-Daughter and Mother-Son puberty workshops.  I offer them to the public twice a year, and do them for private groups a couple of times a month.  The spring public workshops are full, but please email me if you’d like to discuss a private workshop for your group. More information is available here:
and

How to deal with a puberty-crazed teen

A reader asks:  “How do you deal with a tween or teen that you know is acting badly because of puberty mood-swings? For that matter, how do you even talk to a puberty-crazed teen? They usually don’t make any sense.”

So how do you deal with a puberty-crazed teen?  Very, very carefully.  ;^)  Well, I’m joking there, but it’s a good serious answer, too.  Here are some thoughts to keep in mind when thinking about or interacting with your teenager or pre-teen:

  1. Teenagers do NOT have a fully developed brain yet!  I’m specifically talking about the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that has the best abilities to control impulses, make wise decisions, predict consequences/outcomes, etc.  You are NOT dealing with a little adult.  They may be big and smart, but their brains simply don’t have the abilities that yours do, yet. Try to remember, then, to be more patient and forgiving of their mistakes and missteps.
  2. Do more listening than talking.  It’s pretty common that we as parents talk too much, anyway.  There’s a famous saying about how we have 2 ears and 1 mouth for a reason…  Teens are sensitive to criticism and control, so saying 10% less than you usually would will likely make a significant difference to them.  You’ll still make your opinions known, of course, but just try to listen more than talk.
  3. When teens get upset, they need a parent who doesn’t get upset right along with them.  The more peaceful you are, the better things are going to turn out.
  4. Is your teen being rude to you?  Consider making your response be less about punishment, and more about how it makes you feel when they are rude.  “Honey, it hurts my feelings a little when you roll your eyes when I talk to you.”  It’s an honest response, and is supportive of the parent-child relationship.
  5. Sometimes taking a time-out allows both parent and child to physiologically calm down.  Just agree to disagree for a while, if you can, and take a break.  Go for a walk, drink a glass of water, call a friend for some empathy and support.  Come back to the discussion later, when both of you are more peaceful and see if that doesn’t help things go more smoothly.
  6. Take care of your body, and try to help your teens take care of theirs.  Sleep, sleep, and more sleep, plus healthy nutrition and daily exercise will all go a very long way towards moderating those crazy teen mood swings (and in helping you to deal with them better yourself.)

Finally, remember that the developmental job of a teenager is to gain independence, and the path they take to that independence is often full of mistakes, and executed in a messy way.  Try not to get distracted by the missteps, and instead focus on the healthy process of becoming more independent.  They won’t be crazy forever.  ;^)