Resilience During the Pandemic

I was feeling mightily sorry for myself the other day. My job is incredibly hard right now, harder than it has been at any other time since I became a licensed psychologist 28 years ago. A couple of other notably difficult times come to mind: the weeks after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on American soil and the weeks following the 2016 presidential election. Neither of those times comes anywhere close to the challenge I face in my work with clients these days.

I was feeling mightily sorry for myself the other day, AND I realize that so many people have it much, much harder than I do: frontline healthcare workers, teachers, grocery store employees, bus drivers, train conductors, people who have become under- or unemployed as a result of the pandemic, people who have been sick with the COVID-19 virus, people who have lost loved ones. I know that my family and I have been very, very fortunate. Find more on the power of that little word, and, here.

I gave myself a day to sulk, and then I tried to look at my work with clients from a different perspective. It is true that many of my clients, especially the children and adolescents, are downward-spiraling, AND it is true than many of them are demonstrating amazing resilience. This post is about the latter group.

Back in the good ole days of March 2020, when we thought the stay-at-home order was going to be a month, tops, I encouraged all of my clients to dedicate themselves to a mission. When again, I asked them, will you have so few demands on your time? What is something you would love to do that is possible during the pandemic restrictions? This question was really hard for some of them; others answered immediately. Here are some of the responses I heard, some as soon as I posed the question, others a week later:

  • My uncle has a ukulele that I’ve always wanted to learn to play. Maybe I could teach myself from YouTube.
  • I know it sounds boring, but I really would enjoy clearing out the stuff we don’t use from all of the closets in my house.
  • Maybe I could get through some or all of the Jane Austen novels.
  • We’re going to get a puppy and really focus on training him before we go back to work and school.
  • I’ve had an idea for a short story for ten years. I can work on it while my kids are doing their Zoom classes.

In our family, we all identified goals and dedicated a lot of our newfound free time to pursuing them. My husband has been making great progress on a bunch of house and yard projects that he enjoys. My son became a certified personal trainer and started a small business. My daughter is becoming a certified pet sitter and continuing to build her business. My goals were to do a lot of creative writing and to stay in shape even though my gym was closed. A third goal – to learn vegan cooking – presented itself when my son began following a vegan diet.

It is clear to me that clients who took this advice to heart are faring better during the pandemic than those who chose just to wait it out. It’s been six months, there’s no real end in sight, and it is not too late to create a mission.

In addition to creating a mission, I challenged my clients to find ways to socialize safely on a regular basis. Many started having get-togethers via Zoom, playing smartphone-based games or videogames with friends they couldn’t see in person, or planning small, masked, and socially distanced outdoor gatherings. Tennis players kept playing tennis. Some clients found walking or hiking partners. Others created book groups on Google Hangouts or hosted Netflix parties. I’ve seen a big difference in emotional well-being between those who have found ways to stay connected and those who have become more isolated. It is not too late to get reconnected with friends and family members you can’t see in person, and there are lots of creative ways to do it.

Finally, and this last one is a toughie, I have noticed that clients who are more politically minded are having a harder time coping with the pandemic than those who are not. I don’t need to tell you that the coronavirus came to the United States at a time of intense political divisiveness. I myself have been struggling with the anger I feel about the lack of strong national leadership in responding to the pandemic, about people who refuse to wear masks or host big parties or spread misinformation, and about the lack of creative problem-solving of many school districts at a time when young people desperately need some semblance of normalcy. And you know what Mitch Albom says about anger? Holding anger is a poison. It eats you from the inside.

Each and every time I encounter people who tell me they don’t get involved in politics or they think national leadership is doing everything possible to control the spread of the coronavirus, I am taken aback. While I don’t understand those perspectives, I would love to be living through this pandemic without the extra burden of all the anger I feel. I wish I had a great suggestion about what you could do to make the anger go away. I don’t. I can suggest a few strategies that can minimize the toll the anger is taking on your emotional well-being. First, do whatever is necessary to encapsulate the anger. Limit how much time you spend watching the 24-hour news stations and scrolling through social media. Have anger-free zones such as the dinner table and the bedroom where politics and current events are verboten. Feel free to tell friends and family that you want to enjoy your time with them, and discussing politics and world events will make that hard, even if you all have similar viewpoints. I am not suggesting that you should be uninformed or disengaged, just that you do not let all the negativity pervade your daily experience. Also, when you are engaged with politics and world events, don’t just stew in them, take action. Volunteer at the polls, make get-out-the-vote calls, raise money for candidates who represent your views, collect food for local food banks, attend demonstrations. Finally, spend part of every day with an intentional focus on the blessings in your life, even in the suckiest year of most of our lifetimes.

One of my clients whom I will call Isla, a college freshman who is stuck at home taking classes virtually, screen-shared a page from her gratitude journal at a recent telehealth session. With her permission, I am sharing it here:

Things I feel grateful for on September 20, 2020:

  • The life and legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Not being in high school anymore
  • My health and the health of most of my family members
  • A new friendship with my college “roommate”
  • Softball
  • The chocolate chip banana pancakes Dad made this morning
  • Netflix
  • Settlers of Catan Sunday nights with my family
  • Today’s weather
  • A professor who allows us to submit ungraded first drafts
  • Apple-cinnamon tea

What impressed me so much about Isla’s list is that she was able to create it during a time of intense stress and anxiety. She is very politically engaged, has been phone-banking for the Harris/Biden ticket, and shared in her session that she cried as if she’d lost a grandparent when she heard the news of Ginsburg’s death. The end of her senior year was ruined, her plans to go away to college were thwarted when the school chose a fully virtual semester, and she is not sure she will get to play collegiate softball in the spring. This client has a family member who has severe asthma so she has had to follow COVID restrictions much more strictly than most of her friends. Virtual learning is quite challenging for her because she has an inattentive form of Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and finds it hard to focus on both Zoom classes and material presented asynchronously. Despite all of this, she surpassed the gratitude journal assignment – meditate for five minutes every day on one blessing – by a mile! Isla still struggles at times with the anxiety she has experienced since she was a little girl and she still has to cope with the challenges of inattention and distractibility, but she has become neither bitter nor depressed.

Back in March, Isla came up with a mission for the quarantine: to be in better physical shape when she goes to college than when the stay-at-home order began. She extended this goal to the start of spring semester when she learned she couldn’t move onto campus for the fall semester. When a neighbor offered her some sourdough starter, she added a new goal: to teach herself how to bake bread. She has been very invested and successful in both of these pursuits.

In addition, Isla has been very creative about staying connected despite the restrictions. She set up a badminton net and a bocce court in her backyard. These are both games that can easily be played while maintaining social distance. She arranged a biweekly Zoom gathering with her college softball teammates to check in about training and to encourage each other. She and her family have weekly game nights. She hosted a Hamilton watch party with her high school friends. Most impressively, she made peace with her sixteen-year-old sister so that they could go on outings such as hiking and biking together.

Finally, Isla has converted her anger into action, sometimes making hundreds of calls over a weekend to get the vote out for her candidates. She has signed up to drive voters who need rides to the polls on election day even though she will then have to quarantine in her basement afterwards until she can take a COVID test and get the results. She has been recruiting peers to work at the polls or give rides to voters on election day. She is tireless in her efforts to see change in this country. And, she has begun a daily practice of gratitude as a balm against the anger.

Hopefully, these tips – creating a mission, staying connected, turning anger into action, and practicing gratitude daily – will be helpful to you and your loved ones as the pandemic drags on and on. Full disclosure: you can do all of these things really well and still feel down and weary and worried at times. Those are normal emotions during times of crisis. No one, not even the most resilient among us, will get through this public health crisis without tough times. A focus on self-care and building resilience can minimize the suffering.

[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]

Posted in Elementary/Lower School, High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Parenting Against Ism’s

Since the senseless, brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers six weeks ago, I have attempted to write a post that would be helpful to parents in some way. I have a bunch of crappy drafts ready for the trash bin. First of all, I can’t make sense of Floyd’s murder or any other death caused by brutality of a police officer, of a vigilante, of a racist, or anyone else. As a white woman, I do not think I can offer much to help readers understand the experience of people of color in this country. There are countless people of color who have written books and articles, made youtube videos and TED talks, and shared their stories on social media. These are the voices we need to hear. Really, really hear. I beg of you, if you haven’t already, please dig into these resources. I will include some suggestions at the end of this post, but it will be just a small sampling of all the great resources out there.

Finally, I have some inspiration for this blog post that comes, not from a client, but from a recent social media post and a long stream of comments. The original post was in a community Facebook forum. It was about an upsetting experience a Black woman had at a local business. The incident appeared racially motivated, in part because the manager used a racial epithet. The woman described the incident in pretty matter-of-fact terms and ended with the following comment: Just putting this out there to warn people of color in this group that [name of business] may not be a place you want to shop. If you’ve ever been in a public social media forum, I’m sure you can imagine the range of comments that followed. Fortunately, most of the comments were supportive. A few were affirming, written by people of color who had had similar negative experiences at the same or other local businesses. A few white allies thanked the woman for the post and promised not to patronize the business in the future.

Reading through the comments below that Facebook post, I was struck by a common thread that ran through the nastiest ones. The really nasty comments were all written by people who seemed to lack the ability to think outside their own experiences. For example, one post read: This is complete bulls*#t. I’ve shopped there for years, and the entire crew has been nothing but respectful and helpful. Why the f*#k would you want to ruin a local business like this? Another one read: I am sick and God-damned tired of this call-out culture. So you had a bad experience, lady, get over it. I love shopping at [name of business] and I’ve always been treated well. Did you consider that maybe you did something to upset the clerk? You better hope your post does not hurt [name of business] or you’ll be sorry! I could go on, but I won’t. You get the picture. Another thing that all the negative comments had in common is that they were written by, you guessed it, white people. Middle-aged white people in fact.

I often hear folks talking about how today’s youth give them hope for the future. I’ve said this many times myself. Reading through the comments on that Facebook post made me think about the importance of teaching young people the very essential skill of listening. Listening with openness. Listening to learn. Listening across difference. If my generation can do that – teach our children the very complex skill of listening – then we will have raised a generation that can truly bring about meaningful change and begin to fix so much that is broken about this country. And that is the point of this post. Below is a non-exhaustive set of pointers for making sure that you raise children who would never, ever respond to someone’s story, That isn’t true because it never happened to me.

  • Model reflective listening. When your child tells you about something that happened at school, listen carefully and then reflect back the main points of the story. Here’s an example of reflective listening: You were waiting for your turn on the swing, and Celeste butted in line. You were really sad because the bell rang before you had your turn. You’re not sure you want to invite Celeste to your birthday party now. Did I get that right? Avoid asking questions and making suggestions until after you have demonstrated that you both heard and understood what your child was telling you. You can read more about reflective listening here and here.

  • Encourage perspective-taking. When talking to your child about a conflict with a peer, listen first to make sure you have heard and validated your child’s perspective, and then ask questions or speculate aloud about what might have been going on for the peer. Here’s an example of encouraging perspective-taking: You’re really annoyed with Travis because he picked Texas for his state project even though he knew you were planning to pick it. You wanted Texas because that’s where you were born. Is that right? (reflective listening) I’m wondering if there is any special reason that Travis wanted Texas too? Do you know why? (encouraging perspective-taking)

  • Provide corrective feedback (I). When your child makes a logical error that gets in the way of understanding and empathy, provide a gentle correction. It can be helpful to do this in a questioning or speculative way. Below is an example of corrective feedback. Notice how the mother is modeling good listening and is not doing anything to make her daughter feel bad about her error.

Mom: You’re upset with Lucy because she said some mean things about Virginia and Virginia is your best friend. Did I understand correctly? (reflective listening)

Betsy: Yes! And Virginia is the nicest girl ever. Lucy is wrong!

Mom: You think Virginia is a really nice girl, so it seems to you that Lucy is wrong about her. (more reflective listening) I wonder what happened between them that led Lucy to say mean things about Virginia. (encouraging perspective-taking)

Betsy: You know Virginia. She’s really nice. She would never do something mean to Lucy.

Mom: You would be really surprised if Virginia were unkind to Lucy. I understand that. (more reflective listening) Still, just because Virginia has always been nice to you doesn’t mean she’s always been nice to everybody else, including Lucy. Perhaps you don’t know the entire story. (corrective feedback)

  • Provide corrective feedback (II). Sometimes your child will do or say something that brings up one of the many ism’s: racism, sexism, classism, ableism, heterosexism, etc. Don’t panic when this happens. Children are influenced by just about everything they see and hear at home and elsewhere, AND they are prone to drawing faulty conclusions all on their own. No matter where the idea originated, it is important to listen and try to understand why your child holds an erroneous belief and then to correct the error in a firm but gentle way. For example, I remember one of my own children saying, when he was in preschool, that Black people are poor. Internally, I was aghast. I asked him what made him think that, and he pointed out the window of the car and explained that the houses were not very nice. In my effort to make sure my biracial son was surrounded by people of all races, I had enrolled him in a nursery school in a largely African-American part of Philadelphia even though we live in a racially diverse nearby suburb. My son had simply observed that the people along our drive to school were mostly Black and that many of the houses were old and run down. He had made an error in logic which could have laid the foundation for a racist belief. I provided corrective feedback that sounded something like this: I can see why you might think that, but that is not right. Just like people of all races, Black people can be very poor and very rich and everything in between. Think about the Black families that live on our street. They have nice houses. Think of our friends Janet and John and Irene and Matthew and Susan and Kenneth. They have nice houses too. A friend of mine tells a story about her young children being shocked to learn that a man could be a rabbi because the only rabbis the children had ever known were women. Another friend talks about how his son was surprised that he knew how to mow the lawn, something that his wife usually did but couldn’t because she had a broken ankle. All of these children, my son included, were making faulty conclusions based on limited experience.

  • Diversify your social network. I feel fairly certain that the nasty commenters on the Facebook post described above have never had a Black or Latinx or Asian friend. If they had, they would have witnessed or at least heard about negative experiences their friends of color experience with alarming frequency in this country. Diversifying your social circle may require you to move beyond your neighborhood, your school district, your church community, your comfort zone. It’s not good enough to live in a diverse neighborhood; you have to be inviting people who are different from you into your home. Bryan Stevenson, who I consider to be one of the greatest voices of our time, talks about the power of proximity in the context of social justice. (If you haven’t heard him speak, DO! Here‘s one of many available videos.) I think what he says about proximity applies here. Truly, one of the greatest gifts you can give your children and the most powerful way to foster empathy is to expose them to people unlike themselves.

  • Challenge stereotypes and prejudice. This one is tough. When I became the mother of multiracial children, I vowed that I would never allow a racist comment in my presence to go unchallenged. This has made for some awkward moments with family members, friends, and even strangers. Believe me, I haven’t always found the courage to speak up. As my children grew up, I realized that I needed to challenge bigoted comments of all types, not just racist ones. When you do this in front of your children, you are showing them how to use their voices to stand up to injustice. Follow up any instances with a conversation about why the person made the bigoted comment, how it made you and your children feel, how the targeted person might have felt about the comment and about your advocacy. Show compassion for all involved, even the person who made the comment. As painful as these moments are, they are very powerful teachable moments. Books, television shows, movies, and social media provide many opportunities to challenge stereotypes and prejudices. I remember renting The Bad News Bears to watch with my kids many years ago. It came out when I was 12 years old, and I had fond memories of it. Wow! Within the first couple of minutes, I heard several inappropriate terms for people of color, Jewish people, etc. What I wanted to do was turn the movie off then and there, but what I did instead was plod my way through it, stopping over and over to talk about what we were seeing and hearing, what was wrong with it, etc.
  • Talk about injustice and inequity frequently. I grew up in a conservative Southern family. We are white and straight and my family is educated and upper class.We never, ever discussed race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. And if I brought up concerns about injustice or inequity, I was discouraged from talking about them because they didn’t involve me. That perspective is one that comes from a place of extreme privilege. We didn’t have to think about injustice or inequity because we did not suffer them. If we want our children to grow up to be compassionate individuals who show up for social justice, then we have to educate them about the realities of the world for all people, not just those who are demographically similar to us. Use developmentally appropriate terms and material. Don’t overwhelm them, but do talk about concrete examples. Because we are a multiracial family, talking about race was natural, but my husband and I had to be intentional about other forms of oppression and discrimination. I remember thinking that ableism was one of the easiest to talk about because it was so concrete and visible. So, for example, when my kids and I saw a young man in a wheelchair who was trapped on a sidewalk that had a steep curb, we helped him down and then we talked about how sidewalks were built for people who could step up and down, but not everyone can do that. I was glad I could show them examples of sidewalks that had been altered to be wheelchair accessible. That was an easy example of discrimination that young children can understand.

  • Engage with diverse art, music, theater, film, literature, etc. More now than when I was a child, there is a great deal of diversity in the arts, and thanks to the internet, much of it is readily available. I’m sure the preponderance of it still comes from Waspy old men, but you don’t have to look too hard to find Black, Latinx, and Asian poets, musicians, actors, authors, painters, sculptors, etc. Fill your home with their work. Talk about the work and the stories of the creators.

Some of the tips above may not seem so clearly related to teaching your children to listen, but I believe they are all part of the process. Each of the tips is about being open to others’ perspectives, avoiding assumptions and prejudgments, allowing others to tell their own stories, and accepting stories that are different from one’s own. Children with parents who model these skills and who develop these skills themselves will be well-equipped to fulfill the hope my generation has in them.

As promised, below are a few excellent resources. These are all focused on race and race relations because the murder of George Floyd is the recent event which prompted me to write this post. There are many outstanding resources relating to all the other ism’s as well.

Anti-Racist Books for Elementary Students: A Diverse Book List

I’m Not Racist… Am I? (Documentary film)

The Hate You Give (Book by Angie Thomas and a movie)

Kids, We Gotta Talk — Episode 1: George Floyd, Police Brutality, and Institutional Racism (youtube video)

Kids, We Gotta Talk — Episode 2: The Dangers of Color-blindness (youtube video)

Dear anti-racist allies: Here’s how to respond to microaggressions (CNN article and video)

Race, Anti-Racism and BLM Resources for Parents and Educators (a list of resources)

Books by African American Authors and Illustrators (A list of books)

Posted in Children of all ages, Elementary/Lower School, High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School, Preschool/Nursery School | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

No Summer Camp? Now What?

Never have I been happier that my kids are young adults. As summer approaches, and it looks more and more likely that summer camps will be closed or operating with a significant reduction in both campers and hours, I am thinking about all the working parents out there who depend on camp for childcare but also for an enriching experience for their children. Summer camp provides far more than just supervision for children so that parents can go to work. They provide exercise and fresh air, socialization, skill development, and exposure to visual and performing arts. Overnight camps provide all of this and the opportunity to gain independence and to build relationships with peers outside our own communities. The pandemic is taking away a lot of this, but parents do not have to forgo it all.

Child clients and their parents alike are expressing worry about the summer. One particularly outdoorsy kid said to me earlier this week:

I’m afraid I’m going to be stuck playing video games all summer. – Austin, age 9

To which his father replied:

Your mother and I will do everything in our power to prevent that. – Dad

And then he looked to me (from my computer screen) and said, “I have no idea how we’re going to prevent that.”

This summer more than ever, families are going to be dealing with a wide range of challenges. Austin’s parents are very fortunate that they have jobs that can be done in large part remotely and that they have flexible bosses that understand the childcare dilemma. They also have a 13-year-old daughter who is willing, if not thrilled, to help out with her younger brother.

So here’s what I did over a couple of sessions with Austin and his parents. First, we brainstormed about all the things Austin typically does at summer camp that he loves: sports, outdoor games, swimming, horseback riding, woodworking, and hiking. We also identified other camp activities that he might not enjoy as much but still have value: community service, arts and crafts, farming/gardening, and cooking. (Sounds like a pretty awesome camp, doesn’t it!?) We separated the activities into two lists: those that can be done at home and those that can’t. The lists looked like this:

Doable at Home

  • Some sports
  • Outdoor games
  • Woodworking
  • Community service
  • Arts and crafts
  • Vegetable gardening
  • Cooking

Not Doable at Home

  • Some sports
  • Swimming
  • Horseback riding
  • Hiking

Next, we talked about the summer camp schedule. Austin was quick to point out that he saw no reason to get up at 7am if he didn’t have to catch the camp bus. He asked if perhaps he could sleep until 8 and “lounge around” until 9. From that starting point, we built two schedules, one for good-weather days and one for rainy or scorching hot days. Here’s the one for nice weather on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays:

9-10am Sports, outdoor games, bike-riding

10-11am Plan and work on a community service project, arts and crafts

12n-1pm Prepare and eat lunch (may include cooking and/or baking)

1-2pm Tending vegetable garden, cooking/baking

2-3pm More sports, outdoor games, bike-riding

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, one of Austin’s parents will be free (both are working four 10-hour days, thanks to flexible bosses). On those days, Austin, his sister, and one parent can go on field trips such as hikes, mural tours, and horseback riding or do activities at or near home that require a parent such as playing tennis, woodworking, swimming at a neighbor’s pool, and more complex cooking. Much of this depends on the good will of big sister, good will which has been strengthened by a financial incentive.

Now, not every family is this organized or scheduled and not all children are as cooperative and good-natured as Austin and his sister. Another approach that might work better for many families, including those with tweens, teens, and young adults is to identify shared goals for the summer such as staying active and fit, being productive and/or creative, helping at home and in the community, etc. and then allowing all the children to determine for themselves how they will meet those goals. A 14-year-old client of mine, whose plan before the pandemic was to be a counselor-in-training at a local performing arts camp, really liked this suggestion, and given a week to come up with a mission for the summer, Carly produced this plan for herself:

  • Get into shape by exercising at least 3 times a week
  • Practice cello at least 6 days a week and prepare piece for audition for chamber orchestra
  • Draw and paint a mural on my bedroom wall
  • Read at least 6 books, including the 2 books required for school
  • Get Etsy shop up and running, including tripling my inventory of beads
  • Donate percentage of money from Etsy to local food bank
  • Learn to cook some simple recipes

An important part of this plan is keeping her full-time working single mom apprised of her progress so that Carly feels a sense of accountability and so that her mother doesn’t worry constantly that Carly is wasting the summer.

Lest you think all of my child clients are precious angels all the time (I love them all but some of them are seriously CHALLENGING!), I should note that Austin and Carly both have some significant struggles. Austin has Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder and some learning differences. He can have a hard time controlling his impulses and has a great deal of difficulty tolerating boredom. He will be well-served by a regular schedule with clear expectations that also includes flexibility and choice.

Carly is a very bright, introverted, creative girl who experiences episodes of depression that can leave her feeling hopeless and even suicidal at times. She will benefit from setting goals for herself, being held accountable, and having the freedom to immerse herself in the things she values most, music and art.

Every family and every young person is going to face unique challenges in the upcoming months. This will certainly not be the summer we had all be looking forward to during the cold days of winter. As parents, we need to honor two realities. Young people of all ages are disappointed that this summer will not be what they expected and are accustomed to AND there is much that we and they can do to make this summer a good experience for all.

Stay well, friends.

[Names and potentially ientifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]

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LET ME OUT OF HERE!

I have a problem. For the first time since launching this blog, I am starting a post with no clear ending in sight. No clever title (yet), no poignant vignette. I’m only about 85% certain about the point I’m trying to make. I’m writing this post to help me gain clarity about a problem that is brewing in my household.

Governor Wolf is set to begin to loosen the pandemic restrictions he first put into place in mid-March. As of now, the date has been set for June 4th, one week away. My young adult children deserve the highest of accolades for the ways in which they have endured the stay-at-home order thus far. They’ve helped around the house with tasks from cleaning toilets to pulling weeds, they’ve not objected to sit-down family meals every single night with all the prep and clean-up such meals entail, and they’ve maintained a mostly cheerful attitude while doing it all. In fact, all the extra family time is a part of COVID-19 that I will miss. I am truly and deeply grateful for all of this.

And, here is what is about to happen: a drum beat of “Let me out of here!” My son, who is very serious about health and fitness, has been missing the gym terribly. My daughter, who is very serious about a boy who lives an hour away in another state, has been missing said boy fiercely. Neither has pushed against the stay-at-home order because my husband and I raised them to be good citizens, to follow (most) rules, and to care about the well-being of others. AND, once the restrictions are loosened and gyms open up and non-essential travel is permitted, we all face some tough choices. Scientists are still saying that it is safest to stay at home and that opening up too fast will lead to a second surge of coronavirus cases. Elected officials are understandably responding to pressure to open up the economy. My husband and I are very fortunate; we could continue to stay home without any significant impact on our livelihoods. My daughter’s small business, on the other hand, was completely obliterated by the pandemic. My son’s summer job is likely not going to happen. They’ll be fine; we can support them, but that is privilege not every family enjoys.

So, how as a family do we navigate what’s ahead? I don’t have the answer, but I do have a guiding principle. A guiding principle that is so important that I am going to enlarge, bold, italicize, capitalize and brighten it with some color. Here it is:

In order to solve a PROBLEM COLLABORATIVELY, WE MUST FIRST FIND OUR SHARED GOALS.

I have written about this principle before. You can read more here. The idea is that problems are best solved by teams working towards a desired outcome. My family will not be successful navigating this next phase of the pandemic if we fall into the trap of parents vs. son or parents vs. daughter. If we can all zoom out from the specifics (the gym, the boyfriend) and find our shared goal(s), then we can all be on the same team working towards mutually desired outcomes. (Already, I feel much better about the “problem” the family is facing.)

So, what is/are the shared goal(s) in this situation? Imagining the conversation with the family, here’s what I think will emerge:

  1. We all want everyone to be safe and healthy.
  2. We all want our son to be able to resume working out in a gym.
  3. We all want our daughter to see her boyfriend.

Identifying the shared goals will allow us to focus on achieving them collaboratively rather that pitting us against one another in a gym-no gym or boyfriend-no boyfriend battle. Again, imagining the conversation, here are some components of the solutions that may emerge:

  • Ackowledging that the actions of every member of the family can either put us all at risk or minimize our risk.
  • Agreeing that we will continue to follow the guidelines of the CDC regarding social distancing, hand-washing, and wearing masks.
  • Researching the local gym to see what safety measures it will be putting into place and deciding together whether they are stringent enough.
  • Choosing a day with good weather so that the boyfriend visit can take place outside.

I’m sure there will be many more good ideas, because that’s what happens when everyone is working together rather than at cross-purposes.

To be honest, I wish my son didn’t want to return to the gym and that my daughter didn’t want to visit her boyfriend. Life inside our little cocoon has felt pretty safe at a time when the world outside has felt really scary. I trust, though, that if we work together to plan our next steps, we will come up with a good plan that honors our primary shared goal of keeping everyone safe and healthy.

Hope this approach can help your family too. Stay well, friends, stay well.

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The Going’s about to Get Tougher

We are starting week 8 of the COVID-19 stay-at-home order in Pennsylvania where I live. For many reasons, the past 7 weeks have been challenging for parents. Kids who are bored, trapped inside, missing their friends and their activities, and expected to attend virtual school are not going to be pleasant much of the time. Brace yourself, Moms and Dads, because I think your job is getting ready to become even harder than it has been. Here’s why: since the stay-at-home orders were put into place, parents could defer to a “higher authority” when placing coronavirus-related limits on their children. For example, when a teenaged girl asked if she and a few friends can pleaaaaaaase go to the park to shoot some hoops, dads could “blame” the governor when they said no. When a little boy said to his mom, “I know for a fact that Joey and Juan are having playdates,” she could tell him that the parents of those children are violating the governor’s orders.

Now, states are slowly starting to lift the COVID-19 restrictions. Many politicians are buckling to pressure to reopen despite clear warnings from the scientific community that it is too early to do so. Parents who believe the safest thing to do is to continue to avoid non-essential trips out of the house will no longer be able to rely on that higher authority; they will have to be the “bad guys” and ” the overprotective parents.”

For example, the governor of Georgia has allowed bowling alleys, gyms, and salons to open at reduced capacity. What is a parent, who believes going to any of these places poses an unnecessary health risk, to do if a child says, for example, “A few of my friends are going bowling. Please let me go.”?

Lucky for me on this client-filled day, I have written on this topic before. I strongly recommend that you read this post before you proceed. Here’s the message in a nutshell:

In parenting, safety takes precedence over everything. After safety comes your relationship with your child. After safety and your relationship comes everything else.

Based on the guidelines from the Safety, Relationship, Everything Else post, here is how the conversation about going to the bowling alley might go:

Teen: A few of my friends are going bowling. Can I please go?

Parent: I understand that you really want to go bowling with your friends. At this point, I believe that would still be too risky. 

Teen: Jack’s and Melanie’s parents don’t think so. Why do you always have to be so overprotective?

Parent: You think I’m being overly cautious, and I totally get that. Still, I cannot allow you to do something that I believe poses a risk to your health and to the health of everyone in this house. 

Teen: Why can’t you be like all the other parents? Even the governor says it’s okay to go bowling!

Parent: I know you are unhappy with my decision, and it’s not going to change. I will always put your safety above everything else, no matter how mad you get at me.

Teen (staring daggers):

Parent: What I will let you do is invite Jack and Melanie to hang out in the backyard as long as you agree to socially distance. I’ll buy you guys pizza.

Teen (still staring daggers):

Parent: Okay, your call. Let me know what you decide so I know whether to make dinner or order pizza.

Teen (still staring daggers): Whatever.

Remember, when you make a decision that puts safety above the relationship, it’s going to be tough. You are going to have an unhappy child, perhaps an outraged one. Compare that consequence to having a sick child or a sick family member exposed to COVID-19 by the child. Your ability to withstand your child’s anger will be strengthened if you have thought carefully about how to manage the loosening pandemic restrictions and if you are clear about what you believe to be the safest course of action. If you have a parenting partner, make sure you are on the same page so that a child’s attempts to play you against each other will fail.

Parents, the going is definitely going to get tougher. Be clear in your decisions, firm in your responses, and steadfast in your follow-through. You will get through this, and I sincerely hope your family gets through it without anyone getting sick. And while we’re on this topic, this is a really, really good time to let most of the “everything else” (for example, messy rooms, slipping grades, binge-watching, too much Animal Crossing) slide.

Stay well.

 

 

 

 

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Talking to Kids about COVID-19 (and other tough topics)

An educator I highly respect reached out to me yesterday with this question: what is the best way to talk to kids about the fact that they will not be returning to school this year? Not surprisingly, I get similar questions about talking to children about difficult topics from parents and teachers frequently. How to talk to kids about divorce, death, a serious medical condition, where babies come from, and parental job loss are a few topics that come to mind. In each of these, and in the case of COVID-19, there are four really important guidelines that I recommend that you follow:

  • Be truthful.
  • Be measured.
  • Be empathic.
  • Be empowering.

Let’s take a look at each of those guidelines in a bit more detail.

Be truthful. Don’t lie to kids. They are way more perceptive than we often give them credit for, and those little people have very big ears. I once received a voice message from a mom telling me that she had cancer but hadn’t told her children yet. She told me she scheduled an appointment to see me alone later in the week so that she could get some advice about how to tell them. That very same day, her 8-year-old son sat down on my sofa, and within the first five minutes of the session, he said “I’m pretty sure Mom has cancer.” When I asked what made him think that, he explained that both his parents had been very cranky, his mother often looked like she’d been crying, and he had overheard her on the phone talking to someone about cancer. When I asked him if he had shared his suspicion with either of his parents, he said, “No, because I don’t want to upset them.” 

Besides the fact that kids have an amazing gift for finding information we’d prefer they not have, the truth almost always has to come out eventually. And when it does, children are none to happy to realize that you’ve previously lied to them or withheld important information. Plus, if you value honesty in your children, it’s important to model honesty.

Be measured. Children are very good at regulating the flow of information and will let you know, usually indirectly, when they’ve heard enough. For example, when a 5 year old asks where babies come from, she is probably not ready for a detailed explanation about sex. So it’s a good idea to give a vague answer and wait to see how the child responds. For example, you might say, Babies are made when a little bit of a women and a little bit of a man come together. For many young children, that amount of information will be enough for a while. They’ll let you know that you’ve given enough information by changing the subject or moving onto another activity. When they are ready for more, they’ll return with another question such as “So how does the little bit of the mommy and daddy get inside the mommy?” Again, be measured. Say something vague and wait to see if your child asks for more details.

Be empathic.  Kids are naturally pretty egocentric. This simply means that they mostly see the world through their own eyes and their own experience. Even teenagers, who have the cognitive capacity to consider the world from the perspective of others, are pretty self-focused. So when you have to talk to children about a difficult topic, it is wise to focus on how the topic at hand will affect them. For example, a lot of parents are having to talk to their children about unemployment during the pandemic. Don’t be surprised if the comments they make seem selfish. For example, a young child who hears that his father has lost his job may say things like “Does this mean I won’t get that videogame you promised me?” or a teen may ask “What about baseball camp? The money is due soon!”

Remember, being empathic means seeing things from another’s perspective and trying really hard to understand how that person is feeling. So, yes, when a parent loses a job, there are much bigger concerns than a promised videogame and camp fees. Try to put yourself in your child’s place, though. It is natural and normal for them to worry about how they will be affected. They’re not being selfish; they’re being kids! Also, it’s possible for kids to focus on their own immediate concerns AND be aware that a job loss has bigger implications for their parent and the family. For more on this, click here.

Be empowering. Just as kids are likely to focus on how the news you’re sharing will affect them, they also need to feel a sense that they can help or do something constructive. All of us adults can understand that feeling of needing to take action in the face of a challenging situation. So, for example, when you have to break it to a child that a beloved grandparent is dying, be ready with some ideas of things he can do to help. Things like pray that the death is peaceful (if you are a religious family), be patient during the visits to the hospital even though they are sad and boring, make colorful pictures to hang up in the hospital room, help out with tasks around the house to ease the burden on the grieving parent, etc. And then have low expectations that the child will do most of them. Remember, that these tough times are tough on them as well.

So, what does all this have to do with the current public health crisis? Putting it all together, here is an example of a truthful, measured, empathic, and empowering way to talk to kids about COVID-19:

I know you know that there’s this very bad germ that is making lots of people all over the world sick. It’s called COVID-19 or the coronavirus. It’s a virus just like a cold or the flu. It makes some people very, very sick. Some even die. Most people who get it, though, have pretty mild cases kind of like a cold or the flu. Some people have it and don’t even feel sick at all. Unfortunately, those people don’t even know that they have it but can still spread it. You know how I keep you home from school when you’re sick so that other kids don’t get the germs? Well, that’s kind of what everybody is doing right now. We’re staying away from other people so that just in case we have the coronavirus, we don’t spread it around. Any questions about all that? (Here, you answer the questions in an honest, measured way.)

Well, the good news is that everyone staying home is working. Fewer and fewer people are getting sick. The sad news, though, is that we have to keep doing what we’re doing for longer than we first thought. That means no school for the rest of this school year. It also means no playdates for a while longer. We aren’t sure about camp and summer vacations yet but we’re hopeful. I know this is really, really hard for you and that you miss your friends and your teachers. What else are you feeling? (Here, you practice empathic listening and really try to understand this experience through your child’s perspective. You can find a discussion about the do’s and don’ts of good listening here for parents of teens and here for parents of younger children.)

There a lots of things we can all do to make this tough time a little easier. Do you have any ideas? (Here, you praise their ideas generously, even if they aren’t so great. It’s an opportunity to inject some positivity into the moment.) Here are some things I can think of: Facetiming with your grandparents and friends and making cards to send to all of the people we miss. Hey, maybe we could learn something fun from watching Youtube videos, like how to play the piano or knit or make bagels from scratch.  What ideas do you like? What other ideas do you have? (Here, you listen some more and praise some more.) And, we’re already doing the very most important thing we can do which is to stay at home until the scientists who really understand this virus tell us it’s safe to gather with the people that we miss. I don’t know when that will be, but I know that it will happen.

This example is targeted for young kids up to about 8 or 9. You will need to adjust your language if your children are older.

This is tough, moms and dads, and we really are all in it together. If you’re struggling with  how to talk to your kids, I encourage you to read the posts that are linked above as well. Even if you do a bang-up job of talking to your kids about the pandemic, they will still think it sucks. Because, you know, it does. Be gentle with yourselves as well as with your kids. Create lots of time and space for connection, for talking about COVID-19, and for talking about anything but the virus. This will not be a one-and-done conversation. Follow your children’s leads and meet them where they are at any given moment.  I’m confident the four guidelines above will help with those tough conversations ahead.

 

[Names and  potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]

 

 

 

 

 

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Practicing What I Encourage

Last week, I wrote about the power of the little word, “and.” You can read my comments here. In that post, I talked about holding two seemingly contradictory beliefs simultaneously. For example, I can simultaneously believe that the COVID-19 pandemic is the worst thing that I have ever experienced AND that the pandemic has made me aware of many blessings in my life. I’ve been encouraging my clients to pay attention to both their very understandable negative feelings such as fear, boredom, loneliness, and anger AND any positive feelings they experience: joy, wonder, peace, and gratitude. Today I am practicing what I encourage and focusing on a much bigger word, “gratitude.” Below is an inexhaustive list of some blessings I have experienced since the stay-at-home order began:

First and most importantly, no one in my family has contracted the novel coronavirus. Everyone is safe and either staying at home or able to practice recommended safety precautions as they go to their essential jobs.

My husband, who is having a big birthday today, was delighted when the kids and I surprised him with a picnic and a 9-hole round of disc golf instead of the big party we had planned. He was really happy that I caddied for him.

While I wish that my son could be on campus having a “normal” college experience, I love having him home.

My daughter, who is out of work because of COVID-19, has been stepping up to help around the house, graciously doing any task my husband and I request.

My dog is happier than ever with all four of her humans home almost all the time. And the walks. So. Many. Walks.

It is spring. Flowers are blooming, birds are skittering around, the sky is bluer than blue, and I can finally put the hats and mittens away.

There are doctors and nurses and a bunch of other healthcare providers working tirelessly to save the lives of those who have been made very sick by the virus. They are doing this under terrible conditions and often without needed personal protective equipment because that’s what healthcare professionals do.

My friend and business partner, psychiatrist Mona Masood, launched a support line to help physicians dealing with the stress of fighting COVID-19 on the frontlines. You can access it at 1-888-409-0141 or here. Very early in the public health crisis, she anticipated the need and got this service up and running incredibly quickly, gathering hundreds of psychiatrists to volunteer their time. A former colleague, psychologist-turned-lawyer Greg Fliszar, provided legal counsel pro bono, also in record time.

Poetry.

In my volunteer role as board chair of a pre-K through 12th grade school, I have seen teachers and administrators demonstrate heroic commitment to students and superhuman adaptability as they moved instruction to an online format. And, they are holding the well-being of their students at the center of everything they do. I ran into one of these superstars a few days ago as we were both picking up take-out food. He said, “This (online teaching) isn’t why I went into teaching, but I am really proud of what we’re doing. Our school is doing an outstanding job.”

Tiffin is still serving delicious take-out Indian food and has adopted a no-contact way to do it.

After I asked in a Facebook post if anyone had experience ordering wine online, two friends delivered bottles of wine to my front door.

A dear friend who is a gatherer of friends planned a Zoom game night during which a bunch of adults checked in on each other and then laughed over a silly game. It was medicine for the soul. We plan to do it again soon.

I have lots of time to do the things I love. I don’t always feel like doing them, but I do have the time.

Countless friends and strangers are making masks so that people who need them can get them without taking away from medical personnel and those at higher risk of getting sick. Every time a call goes out for supplies (buttons, elastic, fabric, etc.) on the community Facebook pages I follow, the call is answered mightily.

During my weekly trip to Trader Joe’s, the folks standing in line to get into the store have been friendly at a social distance, a staff member has wiped my cart down before handing it off to me, and another staff member has sprayed my hands with sanitizer as I exit. The staff in the store has been beyond pleasant, and I have not heard one complaint from a single person working there. Even when I acknowledge how hard it must be to work in a grocery store during the pandemic.

When Trader Joe’s was out of fresh ginger, a worker showed me cubes of crushed ginger in the freezer section, and now I never have to mince fresh ginger again!

The staff and therapists in my practice have shown amazing resilience and flexibility as we transitioned almost overnight to providing our psychiatric services virtually.

In my neighborhood, people have been sharing and bartering and just generally helping out. I’ve acquired canned pumpkin, frozen fresh pumpkin, eggs, and toilet paper and given pumpkin bread, puzzles, yeast, and buttons.

Even though we cannot come together physically, my faith community, Abington Quaker Meeting, continues to gather virtually for weekly meetings for worship and held a beautiful and meaningful Easter program filled with singing and poetry and readings and love.

My clients have handled the transition to virtual therapy remarkably well and are digging deep inside themselves to find the strength and will to cope with the strain of the pandemic. One of my young clients, who is really, really unhappy to be out of school and believes summer camp will be cancelled as well, said this:

Well, at least I get to sleep later, play videogames more than usual, Facetime with my friends, and play with my new puppy. Things could definitely be worse.       Trisha, age 9

Out of the mouth of an unhappy babe.

Let’s remember to practice gratitude, kindness, and self-compassion and recognize that we are all in this together. We will be more unhappy if we focus exclusively on the negative. Let’s do our best to fight that temptation. This is a good time to start a daily practice: make note every day of at least one thing that brings you joy or peace or fills you with gratitude. Share your appreciation with others. Post it on Facebook and Instagram. Tweet it. The virus doesn’t have to be the only thing spreading around right now!

[Names and other potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]

 

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The Power of “And”

I haven’t written a blog post in a very long time. I thought I had said everything I had to say. Then, enter the novel coronavirus. Suddenly, I am sitting in my beautiful office in my typically bustling suite of offices with a single member of the staff isolated behind glass in the reception area, and I’m seeing my clients virtually. Initially, I thought I would be doing this for a couple of weeks. Now I’m in week four, and there’s no end in sight. I wake up every morning and click over to the John Hopkins website where I can monitor the number of cases of COVID-19, the number of deaths, and the shape of the curve. Daily, I read the news about celebrities dying: John Prine, Ellis Marsalis, and Adam Schlesinger, and I talk to friends whose loved ones are very sick. I worry about my friends who are frontline healthcare workers. I am not a person prone to anxiety, but I have to admit, the world feels very, very dark right now.

I’m noticing a trend that is well-illustrated by this quote from one of my clients:

I’ve got nothing but time. I should be getting my college essay done.                     Alana, age 16

Because so many of us are following stay-at-home orders, we have much more free time than usual (unless you’re a frontline healthcare worker or a teacher!). Even though I am continuing to work at full capacity, I’m not spending time at the gym or the local bookstore. I’m not running errands beyond once-weekly trips to Trader Joe’s. I’m not meeting friends for coffee or going out to dinner with my family. In some moments, I am using that free time to write a blog post or read a novel or bake bread or Facetime with relatives. To be honest, though, a lot of it is frittered away in unproductive pursuits like playing Words with Friends or scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed or taking my pooch on her tenth walk of the day. From where I sit right now, I can see two boxes of old papers I need to go through, a very cluttered desk that I need to organize, and a pile of winter clothes I need to put in storage. I could be saying to myself, “I’ve got nothing but time. I should get my office organized.”

I’m resisting that urge, and I strongly recommend that you do too. Here’s why:

WE ARE IN THE MIDDLE OF A GLOBAL PANDEMIC!

And guess what? That takes an emotional toll. A big, unpredictable toll. We simply are not going to feel like being productive all the time. We are not always going to feel inspired to write poetry or try new recipes or clean out the garage. And that’s completely okay.

As I ponder COVID-19 and its impact, it has been helpful for me to think about dialectics. The concept is that ideas that appear on the surface to be contradictory can simultaneously be true. My very first virtual family therapy session with a high school senior, Bethany, and her two moms provides a great example of what I mean. Here’s a snippet of the dialogue:

Bethany (tearfully): I just know that there isn’t going to be a senior trip, a prom, or even a graduation.  It just totally sucks.

Mom: But, honey, really you just need to be grateful that all of our loved ones are healthy.

Mama: Your mom’s right. You need to stop thinking about all the disappointment and focus more on your blessings.

Now, I really like this family. The parents have done an exemplary job of supporting Bethany who struggles with depression. I don’t even disagree with the points that they were making. So, what I said was this:

Me: I wonder if it’s possible for it to “just totally suck” AND for Bethany to be grateful that all of your loved ones are healthy? Does it have to be one or the other? Can’t she feel both things at the same time?

Here are some other examples of dialectics that I’ve been reminding myself of and talking with clients about:

  • I have lots of free time AND I don’t feel like doing anything productive.
  • It’s unfair that friends are still hanging out AND I know that social distancing is the right thing to do.
  • Thank goodness Zoom meetings are possible AND I am really sick of Zoom meetings.
  • I am so fortunate that I am still employed AND my work is really hard right now.
  • My work is really hard right now AND frontline healthcare workers have it much worse than I do.
  • This migraine is horrible AND I am glad I don’t have COVID19.
  • This is a great time to get stuff done AND this is a great time to practice self-compassion.

That little word “and” makes all the difference. Compare the first example above to this:

I have lots of free time, BUT I don’t feel like doing anything productive.

“But” creates a different emotional impact. It can invalidate the very real feelings being expressed. This is especially true if the “but” comes from someone else as in the example of Bethany and her mothers.

I’m rambling, I know, but here are a few closing thoughts. No one alive today can remember living through something like the COVID19 pandemic. We are all navigating new terrain. It is steep and rocky, and there are venomous snakes. Let’s be gentle with one another. Let’s help each other over the boulders and crevices. Let’s not be critical when someone needs to take a rest. Let’s validate each other’s complaints, even though we’re also hot and tired and hungry and afraid. Even when we are tired of hearing them. Let’s keep in mind the fact that we are much more likely to get to the other side of this if we work together and hold each other up from time to time. And let’s remember that this is really, really hard AND we can do it.

[Names and other potentially identifying information has been changed to protect privacy.]

 

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Bah, Humbug!

‘Tis the season to be jolly. Yes, well, and stressed, tired, overfed, overindulged, greedy, spoiled, and cranky. No, I’m not a Scrooge, but I spend a lot of my time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s working with families who really struggle during the holidays. I get it. This is not my favorite time of year by a long shot. Far too many seasonal demands are piled atop my already very busy life. This is true for just about every adult this time of year, even those who do not observe the December holidays. Fortunately, there are many ways to combat the craziness of the holidays and minimize the impact on your family. Here are some suggestions.

Maintain rules and routines. Children (and adults, for that matter) thrive when life is predictable.

  • Just because your kids are out of school for a week or more, there is no requirement that you suspend bedtime. Instead, consider making it a half-hour later or alternate the regular bedtime with later nights. This is especially good for young children who may not have mastered the adolescent art of sleeping in.
  • During what my husband has dubbed The Season of Eating, there will inevitably be more sweets around the house. Stick with the usual household rules regarding treats and desserts. The excitement should be about the added variety (pies, candies, cookies, etc.) and tradition (candy canes, gingerbread, eggnog, etc.) of the yummies rather than about gluttony.

Focus more on giving than getting. Just about every parent I know bemoans the commercialism of the season as well as the “I want, I want, I want” attitude of many children. Yet when I ask these same parents to describe their children’s Christmas or Hanukkah gifts, I often hear long lists of high-end items.

  • Make sure that your words and actions align around the values that you are trying to teach your children. If you really want them to believe that it is better to give than to receive, find meaningful ways for them to give. For children, this can mean donating gently-used toys. One clever couple I know requires their children to give away as many items as they put on their wish lists. Giving can mean a service project like a canned food drive for a local food bank, helping to shop for and wrap gifts for a family in need, or donating some of the money they receive from grandparents to a charity. Hands-on activities, such as serving a meal at a soup kitchen or preparing and handing out toiletry bags at a homeless shelter, help kids make the connection between their efforts and people in need.
  • Avoid overdoing the gifts. I have always liked the approach of one big gift (could be an electronic device, an expensive pair of athletic shoes, or tickets to a concert) and a few smaller ones (such as books, toys, clothing, fashion or sports accessories). Kids don’t need, for example, the newest iPhone, a Northface jacket, Kevin Durant basketball shoes, a videogame, and new skis. It’s too much! This type of excess teaches children everything about greed and indulgence and nothing about generosity and moderation.
  • Have even young children participate in giving. Children as young as two delight in giving handmade gifts. Help your kids think through gift ideas for loved ones. The very first year my husband and I sent our kids out alone for Christmas shopping, my son gave me a beautiful hand-thrown ceramic mug because he knows that I love coffee and tea, and my daughter gave me a book about memoir writing because she knows I am passionate about sharing stories. The best part of these gifts for me was how clearly they demonstrated that my children had thought about what would bring me joy. Avoid letting your kids put their names on gifts you have already purchased. Expect kids to spend their own money, even if they can only give very modest gifts.
  • Give experiences rather than objects. Concert tickets, day trips into the city or into nature, massages, Escape the Room, theater tickets, zip-lining, yoga or jewelry-making classes, lessons in cooking or mandolin – these are all gifts of joyful and enriching experiences that take the focus off of getting “stuff.” These gifts may be even more meaningful if they are shared family experiences.
  • Think carefully about giving money as a gift. Nothing says “I don’t really know you at all but I am obligated to give you something” like cash or a check. At least store gift cards suggest you know something about the person’s preferences. This can be tricky if the individual asks for money, something many teens do. If money it must be, perhaps pair it with a small, more personal gift.

Spread the joy and the work. Remember that holidays are not just for kids. You deserve to enjoy them and to get a break from the monotony of your “regular” life.

  • Make the work of the holidays everybody’s job. Whether it’s unpacking the ornaments, making the rugelach, wrapping the gifts, or dusting the baseboards before the grandparents arrive, there is something virtually every member of the family can do. My family began a new tradition a few years ago of divvying up all of the cooking tasks on Thanksgiving and Christmas so that when we finally sit down to eat, everyone has contributed and no one is completely exhausted. Then we all share in the clean up. We keep the kitchen rocking with Christmas music and keep all the chefs focused with a “no smartphones in the kitchen” rule. This new tradition is a good way of making the work joyful for our family. Create your own new traditions that work for yours.
  • Allow all family members to have a say in holiday plans. Maybe each child gets to choose and help prepare a dessert for the big family gathering. Maybe a brainstorming session in which all voices are heard can yield a destination for a winter break day trip. Maybe every member of the family can make a monetary donation, no matter how big or small, and then use a collaborative process to decide which charity receives the gift.

Let your holidays be spirit-led. No matter your faith (or lack thereof), it is very important to hold up the meaning of the holidays you celebrate. This may be religious or it may spiritual. Immerse your family in the history and symbols of whatever special days you are celebrating. Without the spiritual aspects of holidays, they really are just about giving and getting stuff and eating too much.

The comment that inspired this post came from a teenaged client of mine just before Thanksgiving. I asked what her family’s plans for the holiday were, and she replied with a wince:

My mother will be in the kitchen all day slamming pots and pans and everyone else will be hiding in their rooms avoiding an argument with her. And that’s the fun part. – Maddy, age 17

Let’s try hard to do better than that!

I wish you all a safe, healthy, and relatively-stress-free holiday season filled with family, laughter, love, and the spirit of hope for a better world.

 

 

 

Posted in Children of all ages, Elementary/Lower School, High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School, Preschool/Nursery School, Young Adult | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

More Turkey, More Gratitude

A couple of Thanksgivings ago, I blogged about meaningful expressions of gratitude. I shared that post again in 2015 and again yesterday. You can read it here.

In anticipation of the moment later today when my husband, my kids, and I share a few things for which we feel grateful, I have been thinking about what I will say when it is my turn. Here is what I’m thinking. Notice that most of my comments are unexpected, honest, and behaviorally specific.

To my son. Thank you for making me proud every day of the man you are becoming. Thank you for lingering at the dinner table to discuss politics, funny moments at school, and the Tar Heels. I truly appreciate how you say please and thanks, even when we’re texting. I love how sometimes you know just what I need, like the plentiful hugs you gave me the day after the election. I am so grateful that every Sunday morning you attend meeting for worship with me without complaint. Finally, thanks so much for helping today with the roasted green beans and peanut butter pie!

To my daughter. It is such a pleasure to watch you grow into an adult. I am beyond proud of the courageous way you are exploring new grownup territory. Thank you so much for taking such wonderful care of our new puppy even though she is far more work than any of us anticipated. You have really stepped up and become a wonderful big sister to Josie. Thank you for texting pictures of her to me on the days that I am at work and for our goofy emoji interchanges. I am beyond grateful that you happily attend meeting for worship with me every Sunday. Last but not least, thanks a lot for helping with the mashed potatoes and peanut butter pie today and for listening to the Pentatonix Christmas CD with me while we cook!

To my husband. I realize how fortunate I am that you always make our relationship a priority even when I become too distracted to do so myself. Thank you for saying, all those years ago, that one can never spend too much on books. I am so grateful that you went with me to see Billy Collins in A Prairie Home Companion even though poetry is not your thing. Even though I don’t always show it, I am truly grateful that you lead the charge to the gym to work out on weekends. Thank you for countless games of Backgammon, even the ones you win and for good-naturedly tolerating my trash talk while we play. I love the way you can and will fix anything that isn’t working properly. I am so thankful that our children have you to show them just how good a man can be.

So, readers, these are a few of the things I am grateful for today, during this crazy time in this topsy-turvy world we are living in. And, once again, I am grateful for you all. Happy Thanksgiving!

 

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Talking Turkey and Gratitude

Reposting this from 2014. This Thanksgiving, it feels more important than ever to focus on gratitude.

For those of us fortunate enough to sit down tomorrow at a turkey-and-fixings laden table with friends and family, I have one sincere wish. I hope that amidst the talk of football and politics and “when can we have pumpkin pie,” everyone takes a pause to think about gratitude. After all, if you are with loved ones, have a full plate and a television tuned to a sporting event, are wearing warm clothes, and do not have to work on Black Friday eve, then you have many blessings.

There will be a moment during many Thanksgiving gatherings when everyone takes a turn naming something for which they give thanks. Here is my challenge to you. When it is your turn, think more deeply than the usual platitudes such as “I am grateful for my family” or “I am so thankful that the Eagles are beating the Cowboys” (or vice versa), or “I am blessed to have all this good food.” Those are all,  of course, very nice sentiments, but we can do better. When it is your turn to speak, offer gratitude that has real teeth. Say something unexpected, honest, and behaviorally specific. Such expressions of gratitude have oomph. They don’t sound like blah blah blah; they capture folks’ attention and they carry the full power of true gratitude.

This week, as I asked my clients about their Thanksgiving plans, I also asked them to name one thing for which they are grateful. (There is growing evidence that an intentional focus on gratitude is good for emotional well-being and may even be helpful in treating mental illnesses such as depression.) I gave them the same challenge that I gave you. There were many moving expressions of gratitude; here are some examples from clients across the developmental span from young child to older adult.

  • I am happy you have Hot Wheels and that you let me play with them. But only if I do good work first and ask permission. – Enrique, age 6, coping with his parents’ divorce and near-abandonment by his mother who struggles with drug addiction
  • I am grateful that scientists figured out how to make a drug that helps me succeed in school. I am grateful that my parents finally have health insurance so that I can take the medicine. I am thankful that my teachers did not give up on me when I slacked off on my homework. And I am thankful for chocolate. – Heather, age 15, diagnosed with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder as a high school freshman
  • My gratitude at the moment is about completing my degree and having a job lined up for the new year. I know I didn’t do this alone. I could not have done this without amazing parents and supportive professors. – Tania, age 21, graduating a semester early from a very challenging university while she is in treatment for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • I am certainly not thankful that I have cancer, but I am so thankful for the friends and family members who are walking this journey with me. And I am thankful that a friend suggested that I see you. – Ryann, age 43, single mother of two, fighting metastatic breast cancer
  • Even though I have been having a hard time figuring out what to do with myself since I was forced into retirement, I am so thankful that I don’t have to worry about resources. I think it is time for me to give back; maybe that’s what my retirement will be about. – Eleanor, age 65, recently laid off attorney who copes with recurrent episodes of depression

I don’t often write about my family in this blog, but today, out of an overwhelming sense of gratitude, I am going to deviate from my usual practice. Here are some examples, from my own loved ones, of unexpected, honest, and behaviorally specific expressions of thanks:

To my daughter. I so appreciate your hugs. You don’t give them out often, but when you do, I know that you really mean it. I appreciate how much you are your own person and don’t worry about what others think of you. I love how you discover aspiring artists on YouTube long before they become the Next Big Thing. I love how when your dad and I drag you out on a hike or a bike ride, you complain on the way and then are so much fun to be with. I love how you stop along creeks, take a deep breath, and delight in that fresh, cool smell of moving water.

To my son. I love how you are willing to hug me right in front of your high school friends and once this year unabashedly called me “Mommy” in public. I appreciate how motivated and independent and hard working you are in all that you do. I feel so lucky that you and I have a shared interest in basketball and that I get to have so much fun watching you play. I am grateful that you bring boundless laughter to family meals with your silly imitations. I even appreciate the way you make me laugh at my own quirks, like my tendency to over-explain my jokes.

To my husband. I am filled with gratitude for your countless acts of kindness from offering to go to the grocery store with me on the night before a predicted snow storm on the day before Thanksgiving to asking me on weekends how much caffeine I want in the afternoon cup of coffee you always brew for me. I am so grateful for your dedication to the important work you do with veterans and their families. Even though I tease you about these things, I love how you cater to our daughter at bedtime and play Clash of Clans with our son; you are an amazing dad. I am so appreciative that, despite how much you hate the cold, you will grill out all winter and go geocaching with me on my birthdays.

So, dear readers, I wish you all a wonderful Thanksgiving – one filled with good food, fine wine, the company of beloved relatives and friends, victories for your home town teams, and a sense of gratitude that fills you up even more than the gobbler and pies.

Oh, and I am so very  grateful for my readers.

Posted in Children of all ages, Elementary/Lower School, High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School, Preschool/Nursery School, Young Adult | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Clinton vs. Trump: Keeping the Conversation Complex

A journalist friend of mine asked for my thoughts about an article published on Philly.com. The article was about whether parents should allow their children to watch the third and final presidential debate. I agree with most of the comments from the various experts contained in the article, but the article really got me thinking.

I feel fortunate that my own kids are 16 and 18 at this particular moment in history. They are deep-thinking young people who are engaged in current events and care about the political process. I am certain it would be much more difficult to parent during this election season if my children were younger.

It would be disingenuous for me to write this post as if I were neutral about this election, and my readers wouldn’t buy that anyway. I’m with her. Not just because I think her opponent is a dangerous man sorely lacking in even the most basic leadership skills, but because I support most (not all) of her policies. Still, I think that it is way too simple to view the presidential candidates as good and evil. Further, I believe it does an injustice to young people to couch this election in those terms.

For children in elementary or middle school, Clinton vs. Trump may well be the first presidential contest that they will really remember. These kids are in training for the time when they will get to cast the ballots. In the not-too-distant future, they will be the ones determining the direction this country moves. Even if you are among the many Americans who fall firmly into one camp or the other and you see the opponent as a terrible person/an idiot/a liar/a sexist/a racist/a xenophobe/a Washington insider/a bitch, or any of a very long list of derogatory labels, it is still essential to keep the conversation with your children complex. Hopefully, in future elections, the country will revert back to a time when candidates were not so polarized or disliked and the distinctions between them were much more nuanced and policy-driven. We need to be modeling for future generations how to dig deeply into the issues and the policies, and yes, even the characters of the presidential hopefuls. We need to show children how to transcend Democrat vs. Republican, liberal vs. conservative, left-wing vs. right-wing. I think we can all agree that the stakes are very high. We want the voters of the future to know how to engage in constructive political discourse, even or especially with people whose opinions differ, and to think about the complicated issues of the day in complex, nuanced ways.

For high-schoolers, some of whom will vote on November 8th, the 2016 presidential election may be a formative experience. They are being influenced by the behavior of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It is naive to assume that, just because your family strongly supports one candidate, your adolescents are not watching and listening closely to both. It is not good enough to say to a teenager “Donald Trump is a dangerous hater” or “Hillary Clinton is a lying insider.” The conversation needs to go much deeper. What makes you call Trump a “hater”? Is it his policies on immigration? The claims against him of misogyny? What do you know about those policies? Those accusations? How do you know it? Are you sure your sources are trustworthy? What makes you think Clinton is dishonest? What do we really know about the email scandal or the Clinton Foundation? Can you trust NPR/CNN/MSNBC/Fox News? How do you make sense of all the conflicting news reports?

These are very difficult questions, even during an election in which the candidates seem like polar opposites. Let’s use this election as an opportunity to model for our children how to be engaged, informed, discerning citizens. Talk to them about the candidates, and don’t let them get away with superficial support or disdain. Ask them the tough questions. Show them how to have respectful discussions with those who think differently. This election may seem like a no-brainer in terms of choosing a candidate, but I think we are all hoping that 2016 is an anomaly. Let’s prepare the next generation of voters to think deeply, question carefully, and vote wisely!

 

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