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Monday, September 18, 2017

Paths

Tonight, I stumbled across something I wrote two years ago, when my oldest son was just 5:

"Occasionally, my 5 year old son and I will take a walk through the woods together to get to the playground behind our house.  I know these woods well, and now that he's too big to carry there, I've started teaching him how to find his way over and around nature's obstacles:  pricker bushes and thorns everywhere, skunk cabbage (no!  don't kick that!  sigh... nevermind), fallen trees and stone walls.  At his height, the thorns can mean the difference between "we had an adventure!" and "I don't like the woods!" so I'm careful to lead him through the path of least resistance.

Ever walk anywhere with a 5 year old?  The path of least resistance is completely invisible to them.  Prepare yourself for the path of greatest distraction and discovery!

On one of our little wooded adventures recently, I was dutifully walking beside him, holding his hand occasionally but mostly holding thorn branches aside for him with a big stick.  He's following me just as dutifully... then suddenly, I zig right but this time he zags left.

I try to appeal to reason, calling over to him as he's rapidly blazing a trail in the "wrong" direction; I explain that this path is easier, and has less thorns.  He's not impressed.  What he is impressed by is another dead tree and a stone wall he hasn't explored yet, and they're both about twenty five feet away from where I'd prefer him to be.  I have no interest in going that way... I know better.

"I want to go this way," he calls back to me, and I'm thinking "yeah, well, you already have" - straight through the thorns I've been trying so hard to sweep aside for him all this time.

It was hard not to get choked up when I heard myself speaking this in response:

"That's okay, son.  You can make your own path."  

I hope to be consistent in saying that throughout every stage of his life."
 


Monday, August 25, 2014

Why Fathers Should Choose Their Words Reverently

rev·er·enceˈrev(ə)rəns/  (noun) deep respect for someone or something; (verb) regard or treat with deep respect

A confession:  I was an English major in college before I became a therapist.  I like words.  Words are meaningful, and those meanings can make them powerful tools for growth and change.  Every day I spend in my office, I'm using words to create change with people.  I'm fascinated with that process - choosing the right words that will flip the lightswitch on.  It's magic when that happens.  Words create an internal domino effect and have the power to affect who we are.





I often use the word "son" as a proper pronoun when speaking to my son. I wonder if he hears the reverence & respect in the word when I say it?  It's practically an adverb the way I use it.  
I'm not just referencing our biological tie here, I'm saying how important he is to me.  I'm consciously reinforcing the bond between us verbally, hoping that he'll internalize the strong connection between us.
Why?  Because my dad did.  
Our word choice is perpetually shaping our children's view of their world.  Are they going to value others?  Our word choice, tone, and approach with them (and with others!) affects that.  Remember, they're watching you - and modeling their behavior accordingly.
How we treat our children, how we speak to them, and how we act around them directly impacts not only their developing values but their sense of self worth.  There's an awful lot we can do toward shaping their beliefs about themselves.  We need to be conscious of the fingerprints we leave on their identity with the things we do and say.      
I think that was the point. 

"Son, come to the kitchen for breakfast."



Fun fact:  when I told my father about this article, he shared with me that he is unintentionally repeating what my grandfather did with him.   I believe this underscores my point.  

Let me take this a step further, speaking directly to parents:

  
My father addresses me as "Son" at least as often as he calls me by name, and I love that.  I know who I am, and who I am is valued.  It's the cumulation of lots of subtle things that come together and create our sense of self, our identity as individuals.  It's no secret that many of these little cues and moments are provided by the conscious and unconscious things our parents do in our presence.  What comes out of your mouth influences your children, whether it's constructive or destructive.  We ought to create more conscious cues:  deliberate word choice tone, and demeanor. Because if we're not striving to be the kind of person we expect our children to be, they won't either.  They see straight through "Do as I say, not as I do," and absorb the message that your example is where the bar has been set.  Don't expect them to aim any higher than you do, yourself.  


William Makepeace Thackeray wrote, "Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children."  Just think of how powerful it is to hear your child address you as "Daddy" or "Mommy."  Remember that this effect is reciprocal, and a gift you can give them.  Consciously show them that they are as deeply important to you as you are to them (no matter what your adolescent children may say to the contrary, no one else in their lives is more important to them, or more influential). 


I've always felt there was a standard to be upheld when I was addressed as "Son" by my father.  

I think that was the point.


Monday, May 26, 2014

Something Wrong - What Elliot Rodger Tells Us About Our Culture


"It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." - Frederick Douglass

"Taking out the world in a blaze of glory should be seen as the least manly thing you can do."  - Lisa Hickey


All weekend, I've struggled with how to address the tragic events in Santa Barbara, CA here on the blog.

Except it's not just about Santa Barbara, really.  It wasn't about just Milford, CT either.  It's not about any one of the many - far too many - terrible violent events we have suffered as a national community.  It's about all of them.    

I believe that we're experiencing something systemic.  Something that's terribly fractured, culturally speaking.  When you consider that out of a total of 70 mass murders over 32 years, all but one of them were committed by men and boys, it becomes obvious that we're failing them somehow.  Cultural environment counts for something... and all together, we create that cultural environment.  Culture - which we create collectively - determines what we think of as "masculine" and what each individual man uses to define his sense of self-worth.  What is being referred to as "rape culture" is the result of a very narrow, horrifically broken cultural definition of masculinity, and it has to change.

Maybe not individually, but collectively, we're doing something wrong.  We as a collective society must face this trend with both compassion and urgency.

Guante, Laci Green, and Lisa Hickey all say it much better than I can:

Please watch this video from Laci Green,
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPFcspwbrq8&sns=tw&bpctr=1401153216

and read Lisa Hickey's article for the GoodMen Project, http://goodmenproject.com/ethics-values/patterns-mass-shootings-conversation-men/  

as well as Kyle "Guante" Tran Myhre's article on dismantling rape culture,
http://opineseason.com/2013/03/18/how-men-can-take-an-active-role-in-disrupting-and-dismantling-rape-culture/ 


Nothing's going to change unless we - all of us, together - create the change.  





Friday, May 9, 2014

5 Ways to Help a Child Deal With a Parent’s Mental Illness

I need to thank Gilly Cannon (@BringingComfort), who writes the Brainstorm blog, for the inspiration to write this article.  

Gilly’s son Jacob wrote “7 Ways To Help A Child Deal With A Parent Being Seriously Sick,” which Gilly posted on her blog.  It can be found here:  BRAINSTORM

I thought that there are many who could benefit from a similar article, focusing this time on the needs of children coping with a parent or family member with a mental illness.

Thank you Jacob, for being the spark that lit the flame today.



5 Ways to Help a Child Deal With a Parent’s Mental Illness:

1. Counseling:  Therapy is not just for you.  Your children are along for the ride whether you (and they) like it or not.  I know you’d like to protect them from it, and to some degree you’ll be able to cushion them from the gritty details, but let’s face it:  when someone in the home is coping with a mental illness, the rest of the household - and especially the children - are coping with your mental illness, too.  Nothing occurs in a vacuum, and mental illness impacts a family dynamic in many ways.  Seeking counseling for your child, so that they have the benefit of sorting it all out with a professional, is the responsible thing to do.  You can be as open and understanding as you want - and please do! - but there will always be things they don’t necessarily want to share with you.  The ironic thing about children affected by the mental illness of a parent or other family member is, they are going to try to protect you from their feelings and fears!  For instance, if they feel angry about their experience, they may also feel guilty for feeling that way - and won’t share that with you because they don’t want you to be hurt by it!  So you need to provide them with an outlet to express all that without having to worry about the emotional impact it could have on someone they love.  The beauty of a therapeutic relationship is that there is no baggage attached; we’re not family and we’re not friends and we’re not there to impose our opinion.  We’re there to listen, support, validate, and relieve the burden - without any emotional fallout attached.

2. Information: Children deserve to know what’s really going on.  They’re perceptive, too, and often understand more than you might think they do.  So before they get incorrect information somewhere else, explain things to them in an age-appropriate manner, ideally with the guidance of the counselor you’ve found for them! 

3. Comfort: Friends, parents, and other community supports fill an important role, and need to show the child that people also care about how they are feeling - even though they’re not the identified patient.  You can be sure that your child is feeling a lot, and that much of it is complicated and conflicted!

4. Keep them in the loop: Don’t do mental gymnastics to protect them.  My good friend and colleague, Steve Kinsella, LCSW (www.GotTherapist.com) is fond of repeating, “A family is only as sick as the secrets they keep.”  It’s important that if, for instance, a family member is suddenly hospitalized, there is an appropriate explanation given to the child.  They know quite well that people don’t normally disappear from their lives for 7 to 10 days without a reason attached, and if you plan on fabricating a story in an attempt to protect their innocence, be careful.  As I’ve mentioned, children are perceptive and, more than likely, your child already knows there’s something that’s not been quite right lately.  If you tell little white lies now, they’re going to resent it later, creating a much bigger issue - trust - than knowing would have done. Better to give an age-appropriate explanation that saves them the gritty details but is 100% truthful.  Of course, this also requires swallowing your pride.


5: Time to think:  Give them their space and don’t hover.  They’re going to need some time alone to think by themselves, sort it all out and to let it all settle in.  They’re grappling with some pretty big-picture questions here.  Give them room to do it.  

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Stewardship of Your Relationship

This one's for the guys. Do I have your attention, gentlemen?





A big part of being a good man, is being good to the people in your life.  


Ask yourselves, "who do I put first?"

At the very top of this list should be the women in your life.  Remember the old saying that goes, "watch how a man treats his mother; he'll treat his woman the same way"?  There's truth in that, and those two ladies should occupy the absolute top of your particular food chain.


Is the honest answer to who you put first yourself?  Okay, there's a time and a place for that.  Good self-care - mentally and emotionally as much as physically - is the foundation of your well-being.  But a large part of the kind of values I'd label as particularly "manly" is a sense of being in service to others, protecting them and feeling responsible for their wellbeing.  A relationship means stewardship.    

stew·ard·ship

noun : The activity or job of protecting and being responsible for something
1: the office, duties, and obligations of a steward
2: the conducting, supervising, or managing of something; especially: the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care (stewardship of natural resources
Relationship, stewardship... well, whatever ship we're in, we're all in the same boat, and if you don't see it that way you're likely to find yourself shipwrecked eventually.

When it comes to relationships, "manliness" can't be about being in charge.  Relationships only work when there is mutual respect and devotion, so hold up your end of the deal!  

I can't possibly count the number of times I've used the following personal anecdote in therapy with clients:


I was 15 years old and a Sophomore in high school.  I'd done something typically dumb, and whatever it was, it upset my mother.  I can't remember what the punishment was, but I do remember not liking it.  I was venting that ad nauseum to my father, and had crossed a few boundaries over the course of my entitled little monologue.  He patiently let me finish, not saying anything while I went on... and on...and on.  Then, sternly, he leveled this at me:  


"She's your mother, son...
                                 
                                "...but she's my wife."

Well, that was the end of the discussion!    

Those eight words from my father created an enormous shift in my perspective.  The light bulb had turned on over my head.  I suddenly understood exactly where I belonged in our family's particular dynamic.  I realized just how far I had stepped out of bounds, and how much I had offended my father's value system - by speaking with such entitlement, and speaking so badly about my mother.

A large part of what makes a man masculine isn't his dominance, but his stewardship of his loved ones... and to mistake a man's quiet strength for weakness not only misses the point, but allows so many men to reach adulthood but not maturity.  

A good man supports a good woman; he cherishes her.  Because, let's face it, guys.... if you don't cherish her, why are you with her?  And why would you expect her to stay committed to someone who isn't thinking of her first?

The complicated part is this:  that word "good" I threw in there.  This is where that earlier bit about "self care" comes in... a man does need to recognize when it's not a two-way street.  But be careful you're not being the "one-way" partner yourself.




Friday, May 2, 2014

Raising Resilient Children


Our kitchen door is heavy.  It's an old house, and the door is basically a solid piece of wood.  One morning recently, my four year old son discovered that he could hang from both handles on either side of the door and swing from it, riding it back and forth.

I stifled a laugh, and found myself explaining why this was a bad idea. I fondly remember doing that too, when I was little.  I was proud of his discovery, but careful not to show it too much.  "Furniture's not for climbing," right?  I heard that a million times as a kid.  Now it's my turn to repeat it.  


But, beyond simply hearing "don't..." whenever I did, I would also be encouraged to find an appropriate alternative outdoors... so out we went.


My son and I went to the hardware store to buy rope, and when we got home, he watched me build him a tire swing on a tree in our yard, helping where he could.  When it was done, I pushed him on it a little while until he wanted to get down.


I hadn't bothered to shorten the rope yet, so there was a length of it hanging from the tire; my son was pushing the tire around so that he could chase the rope.  He'd catch it, and pull it so the tire would swing around again.  Content that he was occupied for the moment, and that his game of "catch the rope" didn't need my immediate attention, I went to put the ladder back in the garage.  I came back to find my son kneeling on the ground and crying hard.  The tire had caught him in the mouth - it probably knocked him right over - and, of course it hurt.  


I felt horrible.  I shouldn't have left him!  Right?


Trying to soothe him, I held him tight, wiped his tears and asked him what happened.   I'm so proud of how he responded to getting knocked flat:  


"The tire hit my lip....


                       ...but it's okay, Daddy.  I caught the rope!"


Sometimes, as parents, we just want to bubble-wrap our children.  We want to protect them from everything... but then, at the same time, we want them to excel.  We want them to be well-adjusted and resilient.  

Guess what?  You can't have both.  You can't have learning without risk.  You can't have a well-adjusted child if you're going to behave like some kind of parental-surveillance helicopter, and they'll certainly never learn resilience that way.  So, if you're going to bubble-wrap your kids and keep them safe on the sideline... yes, they'll be "short-term safe."  But you're sacrificing their long-term development for the sake of your own (sometimes exaggerated, let's be honest...) short-term fears.  As they get older, you're going to wonder why they aren't motivated, or why their self-esteem is so poor.  You're going to wonder why they just don't bounce back from disappointments the way you wish they would.  You're going to wish they'd just roll with the punches a bit more.  


Being overprotective does nothing but increase anxiety - yours and theirs!  They're not going to learn a thing from being held back, and you're just keeping yourself in a perpetual state of worry.


I believe that giving my son room to fall down also gave him the chance to get back up and to learn resilience.  We can't have success in our lives until we've also had mistakes - and I want to equip my son to handle those well.





   

Taking It In Stride

I had the pleasure of meeting motorcycling legend Kevin Schwantz a few years back.  I happen to be a big fan of motorcycle racing, so when reading Matthew Miles' recent piece for CycleWorld (http://www.cycleworld.com/2014/04/18/motogp-update-kevin-schwantz-talks-about-world-champion-marc-marquez/?onswipe_redirect=no) where Schwantz offered his comments on young Spanish MotoGP champion Marc Marquez, I couldn't help translating the words of the veteran racer into a lesson on life.

I was inspired to blog about it not by the substantial talent of Marquez, but by the strength of character his riding style - as interpreted by Schwantz - embodies.


"A great rider makes that mistake and realizes it before it causes him any kind of drama." 
                                                          -Kevin Schwantz


Taking mistakes in stride, then calmly correcting them before they cause you any drama?  There's a life lesson in there.