Too Much Family Closeness?

Parents are bombarded with advice these days about building strong bonds of attachment with their children. It’s natural for loving parents to want to feel close to their kids, but is there such a thing as too much family closeness? Too much involvement or connection?

Studies on families

It turns out that an important key to health and happiness is how family members deal with the two competing needs—for closeness and for distance. Neither is better or more important. In fact, it’s all about striking a balance. Families do best when there’s lots of emotional connection and adequate amounts of emotional autonomy mixed together. Conversely, problems tend to arise when there are either very low or very high levels of connection between family members.

Enough connection

In an ideal family, individuals feel emotional closeness, loyalty, and connection with other family members. Examples include attentive listening, empathy, knowledge of one another’s lives, regular time together, shared activities and information, expressions of warmth and love, play and touch. Rituals of connection like family meals or story time are built into the fabric of daily life. (The bad news? Most of this implies cell phones being put aside!)

Enough autonomy

At the same time, family members in healthy families are encouraged to be unique, independent individuals—to act on their own as is developmentally appropriate, think for themselves, form their own opinions, and have their own feelings and preferences. Each person is seen having a particular set of strengths and weaknesses, gifts and liabilities, temperaments and issues. Independence is essential to emotional health.

Examples of too much closeness

When family loyalty requires the sacrifice of individual needs to the group, the sense of “we-ness” overpowers the sense of “I-ness.” Members of enmeshed families finish each other’s sentences, use the word “we” more than “I” when describing themselves, and feel that taking alone time is a betrayal to the others. There is very little separateness. Time together is more important than time alone. There may be fewer outside friendships or activities and personal decisions are forced to take a back seat.

Challenges with emotions

When there is too much closeness, individuals are often overly dependent on each other. There is a lack of personal boundaries and little private space is permitted. Emotions are highly contagious in these types of families. In some cases children can easily be frightened by their own need for independence if they sense that their mom or dad is in a panic when they are out of sight. If one person is sad or angry, everyone else’s mood is affected. In contrast, in a family with better boundaries one member can have a bad day and others can still be happy.

Physical and psychological challenges

Families where there is over-involvement also often have difficulties with physical or psychosomatic illness, and children are typically inhibited (even if in very subtle ways) from progressing along the developmental continuum in a “normal” fashion. They can begin to hold themselves back, sacrificing their autonomy to respond to needs that they perceive in the family. From a clinical standpoint, over-involvement can also lead to “spoiling” a child who can then feel too self-important and ignore the needs and feelings of others.

Case example

A single parent mom was so over-involved with her ten-year-old son that he sat on her lap most of their first therapy session. His symptoms included an inability to do his homework without her sitting next to him, and numerous other examples of his wielding too much power. Most recently he had chased her around the house with scissors when she “had the nerve” to be on the phone for ten minutes. The mom finally realized how her fear of conflict with her son had been fueled by guilt about her divorce and the disappearance of her ex.

Old “tapes”

Fear is a common companion to people struggling with letting go. Some parents are over-involved with their kids as a result of something they were taught growing up. Certain messages, often learned early, can be floating around unconsciously, yet influencing us nonetheless. Examples include “It’s not safe to let go or else you can lose someone,” or “You will be hurt or punished if you push for freedom.”

Other past fears

Another common pattern of over-involvement develops for parents of children born prematurely or with early health problems or disabilities. It makes sense for a parent with a sickly infant to provide extra attention and support. The challenge occurs when that parent, still living with frightening memories from the past, remains over-involved with that child years later. Breaking this pattern may require some help with processing those feelings.

Assessing childhood family patterns

An effective way to bring awareness to the issues of closeness and distance is by taking a family assessment test. Free copies of assessments and analysis can be found at the link below. These fifty-point questionnaires can help you pinpoint strengths and areas for improvement in your family, as well as to provide clues about where you might be stuck

Simple steps toward healthier boundaries

  • Find a balance between closeness and distance with each member of the family.
  • Respect each other’s needs for independence, but also be available for help and support.
  • In addition to time together, allow kids to spend time by themselves.
  • Keep certain topics and decisions separate from the children or grandparents.
  • Stay connected to outside family members and friends.
  • Take time for “date nights” or other childfree moments.

Final quote

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:

Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.

Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.

Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,

Even as the strings of a lute are alone

Though they quiver with the same music.

 

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.

And stand together yet not too near together;

For the pillars of the temple stand apart,

And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

-Kahlil Gibran

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Tips for Teaching Kids Communication Skills

A common challenge for kids today is communicating feelings in ways that help instead of hurt. Effective techniques can be learned, and then it’s just a matter of putting these tools into practice. Whether it’s anger, hurt, fear, sadness, or guilt, research tells us that feelings want to come out. Feelings held inside often result in withdrawal, anxiety, low self-esteem and a whole rash of psychosomatic problems such as headaches, tummy aches, and difficulty sleeping. On the other hand, feelings expressed in hurtful ways— put-downs, meltdowns, or acting out—create a whole host of other kinds of problems for kids.

Children learn about communication from:

  • the model of adults in the family interacting with one another
  • the way that the adults communicate directly with their children
  • relationships with brothers or sisters
  • examples seen and heard on TV, movies and music
  • friendships and relationships with peers

Why siblings matter

Since sibling relationships are one of the most important templates for how kids get along with peers, we urge parents to teach social skills to kids and encourage healthy sibling relationships. Think of life inside the family as a laboratory for learning how to get along with others.

Recycling relationships

Bickering between siblings is one of the most common symptoms that surface when kids lack tools for working out feelings. One of our favorite questions for kids is “Do you guys ever recycle or do you throw everything in the trash?” We’ll get affirmative answers around recycling things like bottles, cans and newspapers, and then follow up with, “That’s great, but do you know how to recycle your relationship with your sister when things get strained?” (Instead of throwing a relationship in the trash bin, recycling means letting go of upsets and starting over with a clean slate.)

Feeling understood

Studies show that kids and adults alike report greater life satisfaction and fewer physical symptoms on the exact days when they feel more understood by others in verbal interactions. Neuroscientists explain that when people feel heard and understood, their emotional brains settle down in a way that’s almost miraculous… similar to a car on the freeway that ‘s stuck in second gear and then suddenly shifts into fifth… Ahhhhh….

The Repair Kit

One of the most effective and easy communication tools that we teach parents and kids is called “The Repair Kit.” It provides a path toward understanding, forgiveness, conflict resolution, and bringing out the best in one another. Once acquired, this method can be used as frequently as needed to help things run more smoothly.

Person #1 starts as the speaker, and person #2 as the listener, and they are positioned to sit face-to-face so knees are almost touching. Deep breaths are suggested to help the listener from becoming anxious or defensive.

Steps in the process

Person #1 shares with person #2 each of the following:

  1. A genuine appreciation toward the other.
  2. Something he or she is upset about.

Example: “It made me mad when you teased me about my shirt today.”

“I didn’t like it when….” Or “I don’t like it when…”

  1. A wish or a want that would help fix the thing they are upset about.

Example: “I want you to be nice to me and not tease.”

Reverse roles

After sharing one way, the flow reverses so that person #1 becomes the listener and person #2 becomes the speaker. Participants should also pause to take deep breaths while reversing roles. Breathing consciously is one of the fastest and most effective de-stressors available.

Practice in a family meeting

It works best if parents first introduce the repair kit to kids as part of a family meeting, when things are going well. Explain that, “When things are broken, like a flat tire, they need repair. It’s also true that when people aren’t acting in caring ways toward each other, something needs fixing.” The adults can first model how to do it, and then have each family member practice by initially “pretending” to be upset with one another about something.

For all ages

The repair kit can be used with kids as young as five or six years old, and kids of all ages learn the benefit of this process by listening to the Happy Kids Song, “Talk It Out.” A free download can be found at the link below.

If you’re thinking that you and your partner may need some couple’s tune-ups with this process first, don’t be embarrassed! That’s often the case, and you can use the exact same model. Thousands of couples have benefited from this practice.

Final thoughts

Healthy communication is essential. In happy, loving families, family members take time to check in and talk and listen to one another. They know how to repair hurt feelings instead of withdrawing or becoming hurtful to each other. As hard as connecting can be in the hurried pace of our day-to-day lives, quality communication is more important than ever. It’s best to teach these skills when children are young, leaving plenty of opportunity for practice and use over the course of a lifetime. What a different world we’d live in if everyone learned how to communicate better.

 

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The Gift of Giving

This is the time of year when, ideally, people think about how to help others less fortunate. It’s impossible to turn on the news without seeing the needs of others in your community or elsewhere in the world. Given the difficult parts of the holiday season—extra things to do, children out of school wanting to be entertained, increased financial burdens, crowds, traffic, and what often feels like exponentially increased pressure from all directions—the attention turned to serving others can be one of the best parts of the season. It can also help you to pause and reflect on things you can be grateful for.

Acts of service can be great or small
Everyone has something to give. A smile or kind words to a stranger, shoveling snow for your neighbor, soup for a shut-in. No money is required—only willingness to think of someone else. The most precious things we can give are our time, our attention, our touch, or simply our presence.

Gaining perspective
Even if you are depressed or lonely—or perhaps especially when life is difficult—doing something kind for someone else can take your attention away from yourself and your pain, if only for a moment. Seeing the suffering of others can also make you realize that you are not alone. Every family faces losses—the death of loved ones, the dissolving of relationships, the trials of aging.

The essence of religions
All of the world’s major religions teach that charity and service are essential values to practice and to teach to our children, with the explicit message that helping others is a kind and loving thing to do, which it is. But another, equally important reason to find ways to be of service, not only now but all through the year, is because of what it teaches the giver.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American poet and philosopher, believed that “it is one of the great compensations in life that no one can help another without helping themselves.”

Lessons for kids
Besides the joy and satisfaction that we can get from knowing that we have helped someone, acts of service can teach our children many important lessons. What better way to stretch beyond self-centeredness, learn empathy for others, gratitude for what we receive, and familiarity with people who may be different. An excellent way to teach young children about the benefits of giving is to download and play “The Gift of Giving,” found on Album #2.

Ways to serve
The afternoon of Christmas day is the perfect time to give kids a chance of leaving self-interests behind—helping them to feel grateful instead of melting down over failed expectations. After the flurry of pre-Christmas events, it’s the day when many people have been left alone without loved ones to visit. You may consider serving meals at a homeless shelter, taking packages to needy children or visiting shut-ins. Some families sing at convalescent homes for the elderly. Share the miracle of watching perfect strangers, fellow human beings, come alive and smile or weep at the touch of a hand, the sight of a child, or the ring of a familiar song.

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Tips to Help Kids Tell the Truth

When parents are asked to name values that they want to instill in their kids, honesty is usually high on the list. If your goal is to build honesty and discourage lying in your children, what’s the best way to do it? If you do catch your child in a lie, what should you do then? The answer depends a great deal on the age of your child, the type of lie being told and the motives behind it.

Some reasons why kids lie

The first step in dealing with lying—or any other troublesome behavior—is to know what is normal for the age of your child. Rather than indicating serious flaws of character, lying can come from underlying fear. Bright, lovable, normal kids lie—first as a way of avoiding punishment, but eventually just to be liked and accepted by others and/or to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.

Young children don’t understand

When asked if lying is wrong, over 90% of 5 year-olds say “Yes, because lies get you in trouble.” It is understood only as a smart strategy to avoid being punished. It’s not until the age of 11 or 12 that the majority of kids understand how lying hurts people, damages trust in relationships, and makes you feel guilty and bad about yourself.

Don’t press for confessions

It’s best not to act like a private investigator to catch kids in a lie. Take a deep breath and wait until you can respond calmly. Blowing up at your child can backfire. Usually parents know that their child has done something wrong and then have lied about it. Tell them what you know. For example, your child takes a toy away from the baby and then denies it; or your daughter eats cookies before dinner when you told her not to; or your son breaks the rules by playing video games before finishing homework.

Ask what rule has been broken

Decide on a reasonable consequence—meaning one that “fits the crime.” For the examples above, you could take the “stolen” toy away from your child for the day; tell your daughter that she will not be able to have dessert after dinner since she ate the cookies; tell your son he cannot play video games for the rest of the day, even after finishing homework.

Ask why they’ve lied

Really listen and have some empathy. It’s difficult to obey all the rules when you are little! The most common responses will either be because they didn’t want to get in trouble or didn’t want to make you, a teacher or friend mad. Perhaps they are perfectionistic and it’s difficult to make mistakes. Be curious about the motive for the lie, and help kids see how lying doesn’t really make things better.

Discuss the different kinds of lies

Since small children are very literal, also make sure to explain that sometimes we keep feelings to ourselves (white lies) in order to protect others. As an example, it’s best not to run up to people and tell them that they have a really big nose. Think about how confusing this concept must be to young children trying to learn about telling the truth. It takes many years to figure out the complexities.

Talk about the importance of honesty

Rather than emphasizing how bad lies are or using a fear-based approach, it helps to teach kids how and why honesty is so important. Starting when your child is very young, use songs and educational activities to help build emotional intelligence and develop character. A free song at the link below, “H-O-N-E-S-T-Y,” encourages telling the truth because of it’s many benefits.

Praise truth telling

Research has also shown that the story about George Washington and the cherry tree is helpful. In this legendary tale, young George uses his new hatchet to cut down everything in sight—including his father’s cherry tree. When his angry father confronts him, George confesses and his father tells him how proud he is. His dad explains how hearing George tell the truth is worth more than a thousand cherry trees. In fact, just telling your child that you will be really proud or happy if they tell you the truth helps kids do so.

Using consequences

Some parents punish a child’s behavior (the one he just lied about) but don’t punish the lying. Why shouldn’t the child try to lie again the next time? A more effective approach is to give a consequence not only for their bad behavior but also for lying about it. Reverse the incentives to make honesty bring some rewards. When you hear the truth, say how proud you are. Then explain what the consequence will be if the troublesome behavior is repeated in the future.

Be a good role-model

As your child gets older, share lessons from your own life. Think about times when you told the truth even when it was difficult, and you had to accept the consequences of your mistake. Be the kind of adult that you want your child to grow up to be. Tell them the truth. A little honesty and humility can go a long long way.

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Helping Kids with Fears of War and Terrorism

 

These are uncertain, turbulent times, colored as they are by fears about terrorism. As a result, children as well as adults are experiencing higher levels of stress. When a flu bug is going around, conscientious parents make sure that their child is getting plenty of sleep, vitamins, and a healthy diet to build their immune system. How can we, in a similar fashion, build up our children’s capacity to deal with current stresses?

Teach life lessons

Although there is no magic pill, there is a healthy diet of social and emotional skills that you can provide children. Increasing these skills is the most effective way to help them deal with current stresses, as well as learn valuable lessons to last a lifetime. It is normal for them to feel afraid, yet there are things we can do to help our kids function optimally in these trying times. Here are some suggestions:

Discuss your child’s concerns

First ask your child what they have seen on TV or are hearing from peers, school and the news. Don’t push the issue. It’s best not to fill them with fears they don’t have, but also realize that concerns don’t go away if we try to ignore them. If they are worried, reassure with words like “I can see you are feeling really scared. This is a hard time for us.” “I know we’ll feel better when it’s over.” Avoid telling them “Everything will be okay,” because if something does happen, you’ll lose their trust.

Separate imagined from realistic fears

Entertainment and real events can blend together and their imaginations can run wild— like thinking that a war with ISIS will be like Star Wars. Children need to know that very few people are terrorists and that the war will be fought far away. Exposure to video games and violent movies makes it more difficult for many kids to differentiate between fantasy and the actual reality of war and destruction.

Kids respond differently

Some kids under stress become overwhelmed and act out, some internalize and develop physical symptoms, while others become more quiet and numb. Although some kids are aware of the stress and their feelings connected to it, others may show signs or symptoms without necessarily knowing what they are upset about. Watch for signs of sadness, aggression towards others, new fears that may seem unrelated to the war, or problems with making “bad” thoughts go away. Many children will start acting younger than their age and not want to leave your lap.

Limit exposure to the media

A young child’s experience of the world is very different from that of adults. In many ways, they live in a container or bubble that is their immediate social environment—their family, friends and school. They need protection to preserve that bubble of safety. The news and violent programming can be too upsetting. If you want to watch the news, do so after they go to bed. It isn’t helpful for them to see people dying in the streets or scary people wearing black hoods and masks. If they insist on watching, be with them so that you can gauge their reactions and talk about it.

Handle your own stress and emotions

Kids can literally feel your feelings and stress. The greatest gift you can give them is your own sense of well-being. Provide patience, safety, support and consistency to help them feel secure. If they sense your distress or fears, they can feel overwhelmed and unsettled. Share your own fears but do so with restraint.

Encourage healthy play

Allow some fantasy war play to vent frustrations, but don’t let it become aggressive. You can also encourage adding the roles of helpers and protectors such as police into your child’s play. Provide additional constructive outlets for children’s feelings such as drawing and writing stories and poems. Kids songs can also be effective teaching tools. Happy Kids Songs “Let ’Em Out,” encourages kids to express feelings in a healthy way and is custom-designed for this type of challenge.

Help them take actions to feel involved

Kids benefit from participating in solutions to problems. Include them in the activities that express your own sentiments. “Here’s one thing we can do about it…” Some may want to send letters or drawings to military families or people in public safety jobs. Tell them “We are doing everything we can to keep safe.”

Stick to routines

Help kids feel loved and safe by maintaining rituals of connection and keeping normal routines, rules and expectations. The only places to soften a bit might be if siblings want to share rooms, or if the bedtime “going to sleep” ritual needs to be a little bit longer for a time.

Find support as needed

If a family member is leaving for the war, let the school know so that your child can be nurtured accordingly. It’s helpful to create the sense of a close, connected community. Find support for yourself from local groups, church, synagogue or friends, and if needed, don’t be afraid to seek professional help from counselors and psychologists.

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Tips to Help Kids Overcome Fears: Kids Songs to the Rescue!

An increasing number of children these days need professional help for any of a number of anxiety disorders. It’s important for parents to remember, though, that almost all kids ages three to ten have fears and phobias related to the dark, monsters, and nightmares, etc. Although these fears are considered “normal” and are typically outgrown, kids benefit greatly by becoming empowered with tools to help overcome them. In the case of nighttime fears, parents also find relief in re-claiming their beds and getting better, uninterrupted sleep themselves. Regardless of the severity of a child’s fears, the following concepts and procedures are particularly helpful.

Real Fears Serve Us

Fear, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Realistic fears keep us from getting hurt by telling us to avoid harmful objects or situations. For example, the fear of touching a hot stove saves us from painful burns, and the fear of crossing the street awakens us to look both ways, protecting us from being hit.

Irrational Fears are Harmful

A second kind of fear is when we are afraid of things that are silly or irrational. These fears don’t protect us in any way. They just worry us and wear us down because they activate fight-or-flight chemicals in the body. They can be just as overwhelming to a child as real fears, and it’s hard for kids to get them out of their heads. Children really need our help in curbing them.

Thoughts Can Create Fear

Since with silly fears, by definition, there is nothing to fear, what kids are really afraid of is the story they are telling themselves inside their heads. They are afraid of their own thoughts.

Given that music can be so effective as a teaching tool, many therapists prescribe a song or two along with the following procedure to help kids learn that they can master their thoughts and fears. Free at the link below, the song Go Away Bad Thoughts is custom-designed for this challenge. It is one of our most popular of all the kids songs we’ve produced.

Experience the Power of Thinking

After your kids have heard the song a number of times to plant conceptual seeds, the next step is to guide them in an exercise to learn how powerful their thoughts can be. Have them imagine tasting each of many different favorite foods—and then something sour or bitter. “I noticed how your mouth turned up when I told you to taste that pickle after the ice cream!” Help them to see how their thoughts so dramatically influence how they feel. You might say, “You really have a powerful brain, don’t you?”

Give the Fear a Name

Now have your children name one of their specific fears. See if they can come up with a silly name for the fear. If not, you can merely call it a “bad thought.” Ask if it is a thought that will help them to feel happy and have a good day— or bring about a bad day. If you push too hard to convince children to look on the brighter side of things, they’ll often take issue and stake out a negative position. It works better to give them the choice as to whether they want to be happy or not in any given moment.

Ask Who’s In Charge

The next step is to empower kids with the idea that they can be the “boss” of their thoughts and fears—that they have thoughts but can also choose not to have them because they are becoming a big boy/girl. Ask them “Who is in charge, you or those silly thoughts?” Kids usually rise to the challenge and say, “I am.” Read them the story of the “Three Little Pigs” and ask if the little pigs want to let the wolf in when he knocks at the door. “Unwanted thoughts are like that wolf. You don’t have to let them in.”

Time to Tussle

Fears create a surge of fight-or-flight chemicals into our bloodstream. Any form of active expression will lower them. You can get mad at fears and they wither away as you become desensitized. Laughter serves as yet another great form of release.

Once you have helped your child identify the specific thought as a separate “thing,” your child can do something to get rid of it. Most kids like to take their bad thoughts and fight with them. Have them imagine that the thought is in a pillow and playfully attack them with that pillow. Ask them again who the real boss is.

Pitch In and Join the Fun

Some kids are shy or initially embarrassed by this pillow procedure and may need demonstrations from you. Get them to giggle as you prod them into fighting back. As you attack them with the pillow, have them say, “I don’t like you, bad thought. I’m the boss of you. Get out of my head right now.”

Follow-up

Homework involves a number of five-minute evening episodes of your kids fending off playful pillow attacks. It’s best to initiate the procedure well before bedtime to allow a cool down period. Eventually the process gets internalized and they learn to tell their thoughts to go away inside of their heads.

Celebrate and be sure to praise your children for becoming strong and taking charge of their thoughts. If they don’t respond well to this procedure, consider additional help through other resources or professional assistance. Children are much happier when they feel empowered and are able to conquer their silly fears. Sometimes they need one or two kids songs to do the trick. It’s well worth the effort.

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Top 10 Tips for Going Back to School

Now that summer’s almost over, it’s time to close down the lemonade stands, start weaning away from the electronics and dust off the old backpacks. Did you know that twenty percent of American families move to a new home each year? Half of these moves happen during the summer. When you add to this the number of kids starting school for the first time or who are graduating to their next school, fully a third of all children will soon be transitioning.

This challenge is one of many reminders that the only thing constant in life is change. New school or not, it’s a great opportunity to give kids social and emotional skills to help them thrive in the face of life’s inevitable transitions:

1. First, ask how your child is feeling about going back. Some parents make the mistake of either filling their child with their own fears or telling them not to be scared about the first day. First, simply listen to your child’s thoughts and feelings. If they appear upset, suggest, “Lots of children feel sad or scared. Is that something that you’re feeling?”

2. Now reassure. Once the feelings are on the table and have been normalized, your child can more easily hear your words of encouragement and reassurance that things will be okay. Help them to contact and re-connect with old friends before the first day back.

3. Re-label those butterflies. View change as an opportunity. Even though it’s normal to have uncomfortable feelings of anticipation, the butterflies in their tummies can also playfully be viewed as “excitement” instead of nervousness.

4. Program positive thinking. As much as possible, scout out the school and teacher ahead of time so your child can mentally rehearse what things will be like. Have them close their eyes at bedtime and imagine how their experience will be fun and positive.

5. Re-establish routines. Providing a sense of security gives children a firm foundation for tackling the unknown. Keep things loving and positive, but with a return to the predictable routine. Sleep is essential to reducing fears and irritability. Spend a few days before the first day of school getting your child back on a consistent and appropriate sleep schedule.

6. Create a ritual of planning. Create a checklist of things to do ahead of time, including purchases, and make it a fun adventure around decision-making. You can also avoid last minute panic by packing the backpack and laying out the first day’s special clothes the night before.

7. Talk about your own experiences around transitions. It’s helpful for parents to teach by example. Be a “teaching” rather than just a “teacher” for your child. Share not only your childhood triumphs, but also times that, even as an adult, you overcame your own fears and were able to face and handle big changes.

8. Coach them to reach out. Children often wait for other kids to initiate contact rather than making the first move. Encourage them to smile, say “Hi” to those they know, and introduce themselves to new kids. Use songs and activities to help them overcome doubt and shyness.

9. Deal with your own feelings. Don’t forget how emotionally connected we are in families. Facing and constructively expressing your own feelings about your child’s transition provides them with a great model for letting go, and also helps to clear some of your own tension that could otherwise affect them adversely.

10. Celebrate the day! How about a special healthy breakfast and end of the day celebration for their accomplishment? Give yourself a pat on the back as well!

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How to Forgive and Forget

A stepfamily came in for help after the parents had a screaming fight that ended badly. The mother’s teenage son stepped in to protect his mom, leading to a shouting and shoving match with his step-dad. The fight didn’t result in any scratches or bruises, but everyone’s feelings were pretty raw. Fortunately, this family had the resources to heal the rift. The step-dad shared sincere and heartfelt apologies with his stepson, who apologized in return.

Forgiveness is a fundamental element of happy, loving families— learning to forgive and forget rather than holding on to grudges. Given that all of us are human and make mistakes, there are inevitable upsets in families. Healthy families don’t have fewer interpersonal challenges. They have better tools for repair. Here are some helpful ideas and steps to keep in mind:

Letting go of judgment
Remind yourself that others deserve to be forgiven, just as we do, because we are invariably doing the best that we can at any given moment. It helps to remember that actions people take are an inevitable result of the genes they inherited in combination with the life experiences that they have had. In the simplest terms this means if we had been in the other person’s shoes, had walked a mile in their moccasins, than even we might have done the same thing under the same conditions. So the question becomes, “Who are we to judge others?” Or, “Since I am not perfect, how can I expect perfection from others?”

Taming the ego
It is all too easy to see the faults in others while we neglect to take responsibility for our own actions. We all have an “ego,” a sense of ourselves that wants to be preserved and protected. Discover this blaming part of yourself and tame it. Don’t let it wreck your relationships.

Setting your intention
When you forgive someone, you really help yourself. Forgiveness, like the clearing after a storm, is usually accompanied by a lifting of depression and anxiety and an increase in physical health and well-being. It also brings a lessening of suffering and offers a newfound peace in your relationships that helps you let go and move on. Consider the reasons why you might choose to forgive someone who did you wrong. Imagine how you might feel without the bitter feelings you have been holding onto. Remember that you can forgive the person while still condemning the act that upset you.

Make it authentic
Another key to forgiveness is not to “try” to be forgiving because it’s the right or religious thing to do, but rather to get there honestly. This usually means clearing feelings of hurt and anger first. Saying you’re sorry only works when it’s authentic. Don’t even go there until the emotional brain settles down. Mouthing words or offering empty apologies simply sends red flags to the receiver, whose brain will pick up on the contradictory non-verbal message rather than what is spoken.

Expressing feelings on our own through exercise or crying can get us past some of the bigger feelings first. Then we are more capable, without “losing it,” of processing the remainder of our upsets by sitting down with the person who has wronged us and using “I” statements and patient listening.

Practicing apologies
An additional element of healing occurs when the person who has done something hurtful offers a sincere apology. Try to empathize deeply with the other’s perspective. At the deepest level, having another person authentically “resonate” to your pain is an important but often missing piece on the path to forgiveness.

Successful apologies include taking responsibility for hurtful actions, a statement of regret, asking for forgiveness and some kind of pledge about future actions. Depending on the situation, restitution can also help. Examples include: If you broke the window, you fix it. If you hit your sister, write her a note of apology and offer to do her chores.

A special note to men
It seems harder for men to offer apologies and forgiveness than women. Societal influences may have us convinced that these kinds of actions are signs of weakness. Au contraire, men of the world! From my personal as well as clinical experience, there is no greater strength than the ability to take responsibility and apologize when we hurt others.

These practices give us the power to heal others and ourselves. Whereas grudges and feelings of hurt and resentment are toxic to our bodies and our relationships, dramatic transformations almost inevitably take place when we all practice how to forgive and forget.

Posted in Emotional Intelligence, family, Feelings, Happy Kids, Parenting| Leave a comment

Top 10 Tools for Surviving Family Vacations

Now that school’s out, everyone wants to play and go on vacation. Having a flashlight and flares for a car trip is a great idea. So is a travel bag of games and fun songs to sing.

But what about a repair kit for family feelings? Or a road map to harmony? Even a dream vacation in an idyllic setting can become a nightmare if the kids are at each other’s throats. Here are some practical parenting tools to help bring out the best in everybody:

  1. Remember the big picture. A family vacation can be a perfect opportunity to create fun and lasting memories. Consider making learning, loving and living in the moment your highest priority, rather than getting to a particular destination.
  2. Share appreciations and praise. Families do best when everybody (including adults) feels appreciated. Notice the good things and praise your kids, aiming for at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative statements.
  3. Don’t relax the rules and routines too much. Younger children can’t “sleep in,” so later or irregular bedtimes can create sleep deprivation and irritability. Kids thrive when parents provide lots of love and warmth, but also firmness and structure.
  4. Give lots of time to blow off steam. Being away can be exciting but also stressful. Join in and help your children express themselves physically and emotionally through exercise and activities.
  5. Provide practice at making decisions. If done in moderation, handing over some decisions to the kids is a terrific way for them to learn planning and thinking skills. Going somewhere new puts everybody on an exciting, equal footing.
  6. Have family meetings. This is an ideal way to air feelings, make group decisions and help everyone feel respected for their preferences. Don’t forget that you’re all in the same boat. When tensions flare, it’s time to attend. If siblings aren’t getting along, a good “repair kit” is to have them work things out by sitting face to face, listening to and acknowledging each other’s feelings.
  7. Honor individual differences. Travel often highlights some differences between family members: preferences around food, activities, how much time to be active vs. relaxing, etc. It’s a fabulous time to learn to compromise and take turns leading and following. Some kids get homesick and may act younger and need more loving attention.
  8. Be prepared for idle times. In addition to the travel bag of positive family games and kids songs, have some games to use when you’re waiting or standing on lines (e.g., guessing which hand a coin is in). It’s also fun to let the kids safely scout out new places and come back to give you a report.
  9. Allow some down time.  Families are often not accustomed to being together all the time. Allow some ebbs and flows of being together and apart, and of quiet and more active times.
  10. Listen to your own needs. Create time to be apart from the children and nurture yourself and your adult relationships. It’s a win-win situation. One of the greatest gifts you can offer your children is your own sense of happiness and well being.

Posted in Emotional Intelligence, family, Feelings, Happy Kids, kids songs, Music, Parenting, sleep, vacations| Leave a comment

In the Same Boat

An overwhelmed mom and dad arrived in my therapy office last week seeking help for their seven-year-old daughter. Madison’s teacher had referred the family because of her mean behavior with other girls on the playground. After meeting briefly with all three together, I excused Madison to the waiting room to speak alone with her parents.

Madison’s mom and dad had tried to present a unified front, but it became obvious that their marital conflict extended far beyond parenting differences. Nevertheless, they swore up and down, with one hundred per cent sureness, that Madison was unaware of their tension. As it turned out, that was not the case. A few days later, on the way home from karate, mom stopped at a red light and glanced at Madison who was in tears in the back seat. Her daughter could barely raise her head as she said, “Are you and dad all right?”

Her mother’s response
Madison’s mom was caught off guard by her daughter’s upset, but soon pulled it together and answered appropriately. She shared that they were having some struggles and differences, but not to worry—they were getting help to work things out. A week later when I spoke with Madison, she described how confused she had been about the conflicting messages between what her parents said, and what she felt in her gut to be true. She was relieved to have validation from her mom that she wasn’t crazy—her parents were having problems after all.

The discovery of mirror neurons
For decades, family therapists have observed how when family members interact, they influence and affect one another in complex and powerful ways, particularly with regard to mood states. Now, with the help of new brain imaging technology, neuroscientists have found the answer. Our brains are loaded with “mirror neurons.” First found in Macaque monkeys and ten years later in humans, mirror neurons explain our intricate and intimate connections with one another.

These nerve cells are found in the premotor cortex and supplementary motor regions of the brain. Whenever we observe someone doing something, these cells respond, mimicking in our brains what is happening in the brain of the other person. Mirror neurons help us to understand why children learn through imitation. Now we know that our brains are truly social organs that constantly interact with others in an unconscious dance.

Mirror neurons and feelings
A more recent discovery is that mirror neurons connect with emotional centers in the brain. When we see emotions in another’s face, we immediately sense that same feeling in ourselves. Emotions are contagious. No wonder about Madison’s confusion.

Families and feelings
When we live together, the moods or feelings of certain family members can significantly impact others. The depressed mood of one member will permeate the entire group. Think of the impact that a crying infant, a sullen, withdrawn teenager, or a troubled adult can have on the household’s happiness.

Or perhaps you’ve had the experience of feeling perfectly happy, minding your own business. Then you meet up with your husband or wife who looks angry or upset, and they have the audacity to ask you why you are upset with them! Although misery may not love company, misery finds company quickly when mirror neurons fire. But the same is true if you yawn or get the giggles—you are sure to be joined by your loved ones.

So what to do?
Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.
-Goethe

Frustrating as it may be, the truth is that we can only change ourselves. When we take responsibility for our own personal role in the family dance, important shifts can take place. Remembering the way we affect each other can help reduce blame when the “air is thick.”

Tending to our own emotions, learning to center ourselves, and taking slow deep breaths are actually among the most powerful interventions that we can make with others in our presence. This is especially true for helping to calm your child or partner, particularly when they are going through a difficult moment. They will gradually climb into your calmer mood state. If not, the likely alternative is that you will both be bathing in a sea of painful feelings.

Helping kids make the shift
Our research has shown that kids can learn to understand that hurtful actions toward others have boomerang effects, particularly with siblings. The song, “In the Same Boat,” is a fun way to reinforce this concept. Offered as a free download at http://HappyKidsSongs.com/, the concept of vengeance and getting someone back becomes absurd. Given that we are all in the same boat in families, “whatever I do to you, I do to me.” Follow up discussions and family meetings can help you focus on what to do together to make things better—with conflict, stress, anxiety, and upsets of all colors and sizes.

In summary
A family is really more than a collection of independent individuals and perhaps can best be seen as a multi-bodied entity. Just as in chemistry, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Families either sink or swim together since we are all in the same boat, connected in our very minds. Learning how to recognize and express feelings in constructive ways is crucial both to an individual’s health and happiness and to that of our loved ones—for all the many Madisons in the world.

Posted in Emotional Intelligence, Feelings, Happy Kids, Music, Parenting| Leave a comment
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