Showing posts with label parenting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label parenting. Show all posts

Saturday, October 6, 2012

We Can't Choose our Parents

It's true; we can't choose our parents.

Whatever skills or deficits they possess as people: their readiness or disinterest at caring for us, their physical and mental health, and their ability to meet basic needs for food, shelter and safety have an immediate and lasting effect on our own development. The human brain is shaped every day by the way we are cared for by those closest to us, and grows fastest during the first two years of life.

If a child is born to a parent who neglects their needs, is addicted, or who is violent, abusive or mentally ill, the effects are devastating. A human mind can be ruined if not helped and supported to develop in a healthier, more stable and flexible way.

It's also true that in America the first time a failing family may come into contact with an institution that could help it recover is with the justice system or the public schools.

In this wonderful episode of This American Life radio show, stories are told of educational and therapeutic systems that work to re-parent our cultures disordered parent-child relationships.  If you've ever wondered how schools cope, or how family and in-home therapy works, take a listen. It's great.

The American Life : Back To School, Episode 474

Friday, June 29, 2012

You'd Be Proud

We put our one and only (in every sense of this phrase) 16 year old daughter on a plane to Germany two weeks ago. She has been traveling with a group of German language students and their teacher to the motherland, a trip that has been all year in the making.

It was a rather anxious start. Worst was the torrent of rain that she and I drove in from home to the Minneapolis airport. It was probably the worst rain I have ever driven in. If we hadn't had to meet an international flight, I would have pulled over and waited it out. It was as bad as night-time blizzards here in the Midwest, for those who have had that very unpleasant, life-threatening experience. It was all I could do to follow the tail lights of the car ahead of me. Poor daughter. She was already nervous, and she wisely put her head down, closed her eyes, and (I hope) prayed her way through about 15 miles of serious crazy. By the time we arrived at the airport, my head was buzzing with adrenaline, cortisol and every other emergency hormone the human body can pump out. But we made it, and so did everyone else.

They left relatively on time, but arrived exhausted and hungry in Amsterdam, and then had to drag their considerable luggage and weary selves over hill and dale, through airport, tram, train and street to their first stay, a rather nice hostel. Our daughter and I have Blackberry phones, and have been able to text at no cost internationally (RIM, you still rule, don't give up!) and that first night she shared freely the stresses and strains of the day.

Wonderfully, it all improved with food and sleep and she has been having a remarkable, life-shaping experience visiting Germany and her surrounds. She returns this coming Monday, and we can't wait to hear every detail she cares to share. 

What this trip also did was thrust my husband and I back to the future, being child-free for over 2 weeks, the longest we have been alone together since 1992 when our son was born. That's a long time, and I'm happy to say, it has been a pleasure to talk to each other about more than work, home and our children's lives and schedules. It's been nice to remember what it was like to live, the two of us, before children, and what, God willing, it will be like for much of the time in a couple more years when both our children will be collegians.

We're praying every day for both our children, who, though on very different paths, and very different persons, are at the center of who we are as people. We are forever different because of them. But happily, our lives didn't come to a screeching halt because they haven't been home. We are family, wherever we are. And when empty nesting comes, we're going to be alright.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Attachment Parenting : You're Mom Enough Without It

The latest cover of TIME magazine (5/21/12) with the beautiful 20something mom breastfeeding her 3 year old son had me shaking my head.

What WAS she thinking taking that picture, and having her full name on the magazine cover? Ten years from now her son is going to have to face his friends when they ask him what it was like to suck his mother's breasts. Because they have proof. A million covers of TIME magazine, internet pages and downloads later. Really. The social insensitivity of that photo takes my breath away.

As for the topic, the so-called Attachment Parenting style advocated by Dr. Bill Sears, well. That, too, has it's serious problems. Let me be brief:

Attachment Theory describes the emotional or relational attachment between a developing infant and mother. It was first studied in depth by John Bowlby (and later by Ainsworth, Main, Cassidy, Hazan, Shaver, and others) in the 1950's. It posits that the emotional attachment between mother and child is the main determinant for that child's internal sense of self-in-relationship throughout life. The mother, if she is relatively consistent in her caregiving, responsiveness, and mirroring of the child's emotions, creates a "safe haven" for a developing self against the world. That same mother, as her child begins to reach out to the world beyond her, creates a "secure base" from which a child explores the world and can return to mom safely and with support for a developing independence.

This science has been studied for the last 50 years, and has developed a deep collection of research, data, and process that I subscribe to as a relational psychotherapist. About 55% of us are fortunate enough to have mothers that welcomed us to the world, sheltered, fed, changed, disciplined, loved, laughed, cried and protected us well enough that we emerged from our infancy able to approach others for support, and not worry too much about relationships. This is called having a "secure attachment" style. The rest of us, because of our mother's own anxieties, environmental stress, illness, or other issues develop an anxious, withdrawing, or mixed attachment style that we carry from childhood through adulthood at about a 75% rate.

Now, here's my issue: There is nothing in the research of Attachment Theory to indicate that mothers must breastfeed their infants and toddlers, co-sleep with them, or never put them down in order to create secure emotional attachment. Nothing. What the research indicates is that mothers who do their level best to hold, look at, speak to, and provide consistent emotional responsiveness to their child's distress, and support to their developing independence despite issues like also being a spouse, or working, or using daycare, or tending to other children in the family, or having friends or hobbies, usually produce relationally secure children. Period.

So if you love your children, are relatively secure yourself, have the most stable marriage or partnership you can create, have good health, and manage the details of your life pretty well, you don't have to give up your body, mind and self out of the fear that your child isn't getting what they need. Pending unseen catastrophes, they will, they can, and they do.

Most of all, I'm sad that mothering can feel so overwhelming to some of us that following the direction of one single doctor seems safer than following one's own common sense and the collective wisdom of the millions of mothers and fathers who have gone before us. Attachment parenting? Dump the pseudo-science and let your child sleep in their own bed. It's safer for them, and you may actually get a (mostly) full night's rest even when you're up at 3am to nurse, change or rock them back to sleep. Honest.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

How to Become a Good Stepparent

While most of us who marry intend it to be for a lifetime, about half of all first marriages in the United States end in divorce. Divorce ends not only a couple relationship based at least initially on attraction, trust and commitment; it marks the end of a dreamed future as a family. Despite the pain that most divorces bring, the desire to be happily married doesn’t seem to end, since most of those who divorce will eventually remarry.

Marrying at any age or stage of life is a challenge and a good deal of personal work and adjustment, but choosing to marry for the second (or more) time brings with it some additional complications. The most prominent complexity involves entering into an already existing family system as stepparent to the new spouse’s children.

As a therapist, I have noticed that a strategy for entering into relationship with the new spouses’ children seems to always take a back seat to the excitement, distractions and stresses of a new love, moving into a single household, and planning a wedding. Many adults who blend families believe, with good intention, that settling in as a new family will be easy as pie. After all, most of them already are parents, and have come this far as a new couple. How hard can it really be?

Well, it can be really, really hard.

I don’t believe one can be too deliberate or mindful when joining an already existing family, especially one that has been stressed by divorce or the death of a parent. In my practice, I frequently consult with adults who are planning to remarry, but whose children, especially teenagers, have grown increasingly angry, sad, disrespectful, demanding, or even hostile to their parent’s new partner the longer they are in the family circle. What was once a ride of excitement and anticipation erupts into bitter conflicts about moving homes, changing schools, losing friends, shifting visitation schedules, add step-siblings, and confusion over family roles and responsibilities. It can become so divisive couples may consider calling the whole thing off.

What’s an excited but hopeful new stepparent to do? I’d like to offer some basic strategies that can help your new family system adjust, adapt and thrive through the necessary shifts that come with merging family systems.
  1. Slow down! Perhaps the most important thing any new couple can do as it plans to blend families is to take it as slow as possible. Every family, no matter how fractured or stressed, holds loyalties and patterns of relating and functioning that need time to adapt to new people. I frequently tell my clients that though marriages may begin and end, families are forever. Don’t assume everyone will happily embrace your presence without some time to adjust.
  2. Take an outsider’s position. While all of us know what it’s like to be part of our own families of origin, and the family of choice we created as adults, you have never been part of a family exactly like your new partner’s. Be curious, respectful, and observant. Learn about how this family works. Become a student of the new family you want to join.
  3. Don’t try to become Mom or Dad to your partner’s children. Always remember and respect the role your new partner’s former spouse has with the children. It doesn’t matter whether they are awful parents, in prison, or deceased: children are loyal to their biological parents, and will fight you tooth and nail should you ever forget it. You may one day be called Mom or Dad, but don’t ever begin this way. Strive instead to be a positive, new adult friend in the children’s lives and a respectful, tactful partner in the eye’s of the children’s mom or dad.
  4. Allow the bio-parents to discipline the children. Family rules, expectations, negotiations and limits can create serious, lasting difficulties for children and their new stepparents. Don’t try to discipline the children alone. Allow their parents to enforce the family expectations. Dialogue about the children privately with your new spouse, and in matters of discipline, defer to your partner. If you keep your distance, eventually you’ll be able to set your own limits. Just not at first.
  5. Build relationships with the children one on one. Don’t assume that joining the family at Chucky Cheese every month is going to create a close bond with your new spouse’s five-year-old son, or that attending a few of your new 16 year old stepdaughter’s basketball games is going to make her think of you as a loyal fan. Taking the time to talk regularly with each child privately, reading to them, listening to their stories, going out somewhere easy and fun together is going to help bridge that long divide between stranger and stepparent. Take it easy, let them set the pace, and you will become a new friend instead of an unwelcome outsider.
While these ideas can go a long way in helping you make positive, lasting adjustments to a blended family, don’t suffer alone if things aren’t going well. Family therapists are mental health professionals who can help when family relationships get strained or problematic. Going to therapy as a couple or family regularly for a while can give you the skills and courage to recreate a happier family experience. After all, that’s what getting married and sharing our lives as families is all about.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Adolescent Effect: Part 2

Parents of adolescents don't have much fun.

Fun, for many parents of teenagers, is something they watch their children have. Fun at school, fun at the mall, fun on the playing field, fun at parties. What used to be happy times as a family with pre- and elementary school children has transitioned into good times  for the teens, and being the ones who not only pay for those, but also drive the kids to and from these teen-centered events. Having given up weekend after weekend, night after night, to manage my children's sports, music, church, school and friend events, I feel like an event planner. Always making things happen, invisible to the guests, never getting to sit at the head table or get out on the dance floor.

This is what many middle aged parents find when they get to the second decade of their children's lives. A child centered life, but with no emotional reward. No smiling toddler looking back at you as they climb up the slide. No proud 10 year old eager to show you off to their teacher or coach. Instead, the parent must now watch their child's back as they saunter, without a second glance, into the gym, store, house or ball field. The parent ready to drive, wait, and pick that child up when the event is through.


Do I sound resentful?

I have been thinking about my emotions around the lack of fun adult time in my life. Perhaps it has something to do with where we live, a suburb full of families in some stage of doing what we're doing. Years back, when I lived in a small town, adults made time for one another and the kids were expected to come along. One of my closest friends, having moved to Alaska, regularly reports her time spent with other adults in her small town, running, eating, fund raising, skiing, church building. What happened back in our shiny suburb?

I know for my husband and me, these years of chauffeuring came on slowly, incrementally, at the same time we had to manage some serious work and health issues. It was like an emotional tossed salad, trying to keep it all together. We managed to keep the whole one piece, but the pleasure in parenting? the joy in the week? I'm looking, but it's not so obvious anymore.

For families that don't have the funds to finance big vacation cruises, or a second home on the lake, these adolescent days are hard. There is no natural escape. Add into these adolescent effects a divorce, or an elderly parent, a job loss or a health or financial crisis and you see why most of the families I see in therapy are families with teens. We are adults without the focus of small children, adults without the freedom of retirement or the adjustment of an empty nest. We are hobbled, and stressed, and under-appreciated.

We are struggling to re-define ourselves and what brings us joy. If we look chronically worn to you, don't ask us to explain. Just give us a hand, and invite us to dinner. Without our kids.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Adolescent Effect : Part 1

As our children are neck-deep into adolescence, I'm trying to pay attention to what this developmental transition does to our family relationships.

We are pretty early in the game. Son is 16, daughter is 13. We have gotten here relatively unscathed, moving through most of middle school with solid parent/child connections, positive opinions of one another and every body part accounted for (not counting wisdom teeth, sports injuries or general repairs). But lots has changed, and what has changed is worth noting.

1.  We know less and less about our children's lives at school. Moving from a single class room in elementary school into the maze of middle and high school meant an immediate and dramatic change: I don't know my children's teachers. I have gone to what passes for parent-teacher conferences in our district only to spend about 10 minutes per subject talking to each teacher about my child in their class. A few of the teachers stand out in their effort to talk to me about my children, and that has made a difference in how I talk about them at home, and how at ease I am in communicating with them. Some really do a great job keeping in touch with emails, but most have as much substance in my consciousness as ghosts. I wouldn't know them to stumble upon them. I am no longer the advocate I used to be for my kid's educations. I have little to no real information on these teachers, and they me. That seems a huge loss for my family. I don't think of the teachers in my children's lives as people I share my children's education with. They have it during the school day, and I have given that influence up.

2.  We know even less about our children's friends and their parents. One of the more interesting things for me to observe in our family life is how friendships evolve. When the children were small, and we drove them everywhere, dropping them off for play time or events, we would spend time in the front halls of these homes talking with other parents and getting to know them personally. None of us would think of simply letting our 7 or 9 or 11 year old stay overnight with a family we hadn't at least met face to face. And that circle of friendships was relatively small and interconnected. But as our children have grown older, and their friendship circle wider, we have loosened our expectations about knowing the parents, and focused a bit more on trying to know the friends. We've learned that the apples don't fall too far from the trees, so if the child is solid and steady, we tend to believe the family is that way, too. This isn't always the case, of course. I know this well, both in theory and in fact, some children are more steady than their parents. And this has occasionally caused some real drama. But in general, we have shifted from a parent-centered to a peer-centered assessment of where our children spend their time.


3.  Our children still need us to be their fierce advocates, but in more subtle ways. Just when I think that our children no longer need me to do for them as much, to speak for them, to argue, plan or problem solve for them, I'm proven wrong. There is an adult they need to speak to, and they want me to do it. There's a plan they need to make, and it didn't get made, would I make it? There's an appointment, a game, a tryout, a field trip form, a PSAT, youth group, lunch money, library book, driver's ed class, special purchase, problem, or phone call that needs my help, my advice, my money, and my signature. Usually at the last minute, and often at my least flexible moments. But I have to hop to it, because in some ways, I am now the cleanup team. They have outgrown their childhoods, but haven't quite grown into their adult selves. And it's now my job, our job, to bend and flex in our parenting as they are in their development. We still defend and protect, just not so often and not so obviously.