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, and brighten it with some color. Here it is:

In order to solve a problem collaboratively, we must first find our shared goal(s).

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.

 

 

 

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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 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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