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.




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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.

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Clinton vs. Trump: Keeping the Conversation Complex

A journalist friend of mine asked for my thoughts about an article published on 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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What (Adult) Kids Want Us to Know: Growing up with OCD

After publishing 101 posts, I was starting to feel like I had said just about everything I have to say. I was considering laying this blog to rest and moving on to other pursuits. Then, I was in a session with a client I have known for more than twenty years. When I first met Marilyn, she had two teenagers, both of whom had some challenges. I was not a mother yet, but I often thought about what a great role model this woman was. She loved her children steadfastly, even when they were driving her crazy with their knuckle-headed decisions. At their high school, she advocated for them fiercely. She knew when to push them and when to comfort them. She allowed them to falter but never turned her back on them. Marilyn personified the mother bunny. (If this reference does not make sense to you, check out an earlier post, The Most Profound Book about Parenting Ever Written). Now, her children are adults out in the world making their own ways. They still falter at times and Marilyn still has moments of worry about how things will turn out for them, but what mother doesn’t? Both of her children, who suffered from some combination of attention deficit, learning problems, depression and anxiety, were at an elevated risk of developing various problems such as quitting school, substance abuse, low self-confidence, etc. You will hear from one of Marilyn’s adult children in an upcoming post.

Sitting with Marilyn recently and talking with her about her adult children, I began to wonder what they would say about the way she parented them. What did this mom do that helped keep her kids on a good path despite their challenges? Were there things she did that were not helpful? Those questions morphed into the idea for this new feature: What (Adult) Kids Want Us to Know. From time to time, I will interview adults who experienced mental health and/or learning challenges as youngsters about the things their parent(s) did that were and were not helpful.

Today’s contributor is Lauren. I will let her speak for herself:

Me:  Tell the readers a little about yourself now.

Lauren: I am a 32-year-old woman married to the nicest, most unique man I have ever met (not exaggerating!). We have a four-month-old son, and we spend most of our free time hanging out with him and/or looking at pictures of him. I also enjoy politics, talking to friends, reading, and watching many episodes of many shows. During the day, I am a clinical social worker who has focused primarily on serving children in schools since completing my Master’s program in 2008.

Me: What kind of struggles did you experience as a child and/or a teenager?

Lauren: Around age 8, I became very preoccupied with a fear that members of my family, usually my mom, would die. I tried many different rituals (doing things in even numbers, putting things in certain orders, repeating the same phrases, washing my hands) to make sure everyone would be safe, or at least to feel like I wasn’t causing some disastrous event. It was very draining to go through all of this alone, but I decided pretty early on that I had no other choice but to be silent or I would be labeled “crazy” and possibly institutionalized. So, I kept these superstitions to myself until age 11, at which time I was also experiencing intrusive thoughts that I was going to cause harm to people intentionally.

Eventually, I became so overwhelmed with panic over these thoughts that I confessed all of it to my mom. My mom contacted a friend of hers who recommended that we go see a psychiatrist immediately. I think this was scary for both of us because neither knew what was happening to me, which made it difficult to picture what my treatment would look like. Once I received a diagnosis of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and began therapy, we became more comfortable with what had to be done to manage my symptoms.

Me: In what ways did your mom support you at home?

Lauren: My mom made my treatment a priority. She was very involved in the “homework” that we were given in therapy. She read about OCD, encouraged me to have an understanding of the diagnosis, and helped me confront my fears at home. I distinctly remember her giving me the task of washing and drying utensils after dinner, which was not enjoyable for either of us! But it helped. My mom was also patient in dealing with my sharing of intrusive thoughts with her. I’m sure they were not easy to hear – particularly when they involved criticisms of her – but I think she tried hard not to take them too personally.

Me: In what ways did you mom support you at school?

Lauren: My OCD symptoms affected my school work in the sense that it took me longer to get my assignments done and affected my motivation to complete them. But I don’t recall there being a specific need for intervention around my school performance or behavior, other than trying to get me out the door in a timely manner in the morning. There was one occasion when a teacher called me “weird,” and I know she advocated for me and expressed her concerns to the school principal.

Me: Were there things your mom did that were not helpful?

Lauren: Part of the treatment for OCD involves identifying intrusive thoughts/fears and recognizing either the thought as irrational or the frequency and intensity of the thought as out of proportion to the situation. When you’re a child and you go to your parent with a fear that feels very real to you, and your parent believes your OCD has attached to it and then avoids discussing it with you, that can feel lonely. Sometimes, having my thoughts/feelings quickly labeled as OCD symptoms was difficult for me and still is. At the same time, it has to be challenging to find a balance between acknowledging a child’s anxious feelings and avoiding joining her in her anxiety, and I get that. So I won’t go so far as to say identifying my thoughts as being part of my OCD wasn’t helpful to me, but I will say that communicating that in a way that acknowledged how I was feeling may have felt more helpful to me.

Me: Did you work with a therapist and if so, what did you find helpful? Not helpful?

Lauren: I did!  In terms of treatment modalities, all of the Exposure and Response Prevention techniques were beneficial. As a kid with OCD, I struggled with feeling fearful much of the time and thought that having that feeling would cause something terrible to happen, so it was very comforting to find out that my anxiety does not have magical powers. I remember being amazed that a person could do something to cause herself to feel anxious, and that the feeling will gradually go away.

Still, the most helpful aspect to me was the general sense of hopefulness about my future that my therapist conveyed. I think that I had gotten so consumed by this fear of what people would think of me if they knew the thoughts running through my head that it was very comforting when I finally talked about it in a productive way with someone who did not react with complete shock.

Me: Do you deal with any of the same difficulties now that you did as a child/teen?

Lauren: I still experience OCD symptoms, mainly in the form of intrusive thoughts and frequent worrying. Things typically worsen when I’m experiencing a major life change and then subside somewhat as I fall into a routine. Since becoming a parent, I am feeling much more motivated to treat my symptoms with therapy and medication, and I’m about to start treatment again next week. It’s important to me that I show my son that seeking help for mental health issues is a strength rather than a weakness. I also want to limit how much my anxiety affects him and how he views the world.

Me: If so, how have you managed to be so successful in school and your career?

Lauren: A benefit of investing in treatment for anxiety as a child is that you learn very quickly that you are not going to get better if you avoid everything that makes you anxious. That was instilled in me by Dr. Sayers and my mom, and I think it set the tone for how I try to approach challenges. I also get a lot of motivation from my support system, especially my twin sister, who has been encouraging me since we were kids. She seems to have a special talent for understanding me (not surprising; we’re twins!) and giving me strength when I need it. I highly recommend that all kids and adults suffering from mental health issues build on their support systems as much as possible. Not everyone will understand what you’re going through but those special people will, and their support will keep you moving forward.

Me: Is there any advice you would give to a parent whose child is dealing with the difficulties you experienced as a child/teen.

Lauren: Listen to your child. If your child seems preoccupied by worry or engages in compulsive behavior, talk to him and get him help. Acknowledge how she’s feeling without letting her off the hook from taking small steps toward getting better. At the same time, be patient because there are going to be times, like when he’s panicking or having a tantrum, when you have no choice but to sit there with him while he gets through it and try again later. As much as possible, have fun together because your relationship, and your view of her as a lovable person, means more than you know.

Well, there’s little that I can add to the wise words of this very special former client. If you’d like, you can read more about Exposure and Response Prevention therapy here. Much of what Lauren shared applies to anxiety disorders more broadly, not just to OCD.

I’d like to thank Lauren publicly for sharing her story with me and my readers and to wish her all the best as she experiences the joys and challenges of being a mom herself.

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

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De-Escalating Conflict with Kids

Imagine the following interaction that took place in my office earlier this week between 17-year-old Shondi, her mother. and me.

Mom (angrily): Tell Dr. Sayers what you and your friends did.

Shondi: [says nothing, sinks lower into the sofa, shrugs her shoulders]

Mom (raising her voice): You’re going to have to tell her. If you don’t, I will!

Shondi: [tearfully gives mother an angry look, says nothing]

Mom (angrily, to me): I told her we were going to have to talk about this, so I don’t know why she’s acting this way.

Shondi: Why can’t you ever listen to me? I said I didn’t want to talk about this! Why do you have to be such a bitch?!

Mom: Don’t you dare speak to me that way! You can forget going sledding with your friends this weekend!

This is a good example of poorly attuned responding on the mother’s part. Attunement refers to a parent-child interaction in which the parent helps the child regulate his/her emotions. It is a somewhat subtle process that involves reflecting the child’s emotions rather than responding to his/her behavior or words. Poorly attuned responses often result in an escalation and poorer control of negative emotions whereas well attuned responses do just the opposite; they help de-escalate strong emotions and improve self-control.

Once it was clear that the interaction was moving in the wrong direction, I stepped in.

Me: Mom, let me talk to Shondi for a minute. Shondi, it seems pretty clear that you are upset about whatever your mother is referring to. Am I right about that?

Shondi (turning her body towards me): I guess.

Me: You don’t want to talk about it and maybe you’re even mad at your mom for bringing it up.

Shondi: Yes. And I told her I didn’t want to talk about it on the way here.

Me: You’re angry that your mom didn’t respect your wishes.

Shondi: Yes, but that’s nothing new.

Me: You’re not only upset about what happened just now; you’re also unhappy because it feels like Mom has a habit of not listening to you.

Shondi: Yep.

Me: Whatever happened with you and your friends, it seems important to your mother that we talk about it. Do you have any idea why?

Shondi: Because she thinks I’m going to get in trouble and embarrass her in front of all of her friends. We took four beers from the refrigerator in the garage. What’s the big deal?

There was a lot more to this session, but these excerpts are enough to illustrate the power of attunement. Mom came into the session angry. She was still upset about the incident with Shondi and her friends, who had been caught by a friend’s mother drinking beer. She was disappointed by Shondi’s lack of remorse and seeming lack of appreciation for the seriousness of the behavior. And, she was angry about the argument in the car on the way to the session. To her credit, Mom is generally a very reasonable and good-natured parent. In this instance, she was too worried about the implications of the misbehavior to keep her cool.

Similarly, Shondi was embarrassed about being caught drinking beer. She deservedly prides herself on being a good, level-headed kid. Such a major rule violation is very unusual for her. Shondi values our relationship, so she was likely also worried about my reaction. Her worry and embarrassment made it difficult for her to control her emotions and therefore her behavior and her mouth.

After only a few interchanges between Shondi and me, in which I focused exclusively on her thoughts and feelings rather than on her behavior and words, I was able to facilitate a good conversation between Shondi and Mom. Shondi listened to her mother’s concerns: Shondi is too young to drink, there are legal risks, there is a family history of addiction, a different parent may not have been so calm as the one that caught the girls with the beer. Mom listened to Shondi’s point of view: everybody drinks, she hardly ever does it because beer tastes awful and is loaded with carbs, getting caught taught her a lesson. By thinking together about the problem of underage drinking, Shondi and Mom were able to agree that they have a shared goal – that Shondi stays safe and out of trouble. Because Shondi and Mom had both calmed down and were in good control of their emotions and therefore, their behavior and their words, we were able to have a productive and very important conversation.

There is no magic formula to help parents respond to children’s strong emotions, negative behavior, and inappropriate words in an attuned way. What I often encourage parents to try during these tense moments in which the relationship stakes are often very high is to do the opposite of what their impulses are telling them to do. So, if you want to lecture, listen instead. If you feel like yelling, speak more softly and slowly. If you want to say something critical (How could you do something so stupid?), say something complimentary (You usually have such good judgment.). If you feel like imposing a purely punitive consequence (e.g. no sledding), find a logical or natural consequence instead (e.g. calling the mother to apologize and to offer to help shovel snow). You can find more on using negative consequences effectively here.

Near the end of the session, when Mom and Shondi were back on good terms, I had to make a tactical decision. I hated to risk the tenuous harmony by bringing up a sore subject, but I also wanted to model for the dyad how to address a negative behavior that has been deferred for the sake of attunement. Here’s how the session ended:

Me: I am so pleased with how well you were able to turn a very negative interaction into a productive and respectful discussion, and I think it’s important we talk about what happened earlier in the session. Shondi, remember that you called your mother a pretty harsh name? Mom, remember that you told Shondi no sledding this weekend?

Shondi: I did, didn’t I? I didn’t mean it; I was just in a bad mood about this whole situation. I shouldn’t take it out on Mom.

Mom: Me too. If you are willing to call Mrs. Smith and apologize and offer to help her shovel snow, then I’m fine with you and your friends going sledding.

Me: Any final thoughts, Shondi?

Shondi (to Mom): I’m sorry I called you  the b-word and I’m sorry I stole the beers.

Me: Great, what a perfect note to end on.

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







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Talking Turkey and Gratitude

Reposting last year’s Thanksgiving post and wishing all my readers a safe holiday filled with blessings and gratitude.

What Kids Want Us to Know

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 

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