Category Archives: Family

Parenting: Protesting versus Defiance

A question I am often asked in my practice is, what to allow in terms of protest from a child.  I think the general rule with this is not to allow defiance or disrespect.  However, children are people too, they have their own thoughts and feelings, so it is also important to tolerate some protest.  How do we know what crosses the line from protest to defiance?

The first question to consider is, what is respectful and what is disrespectful protest?  I think there are some variations in where this line would be drawn from one household to another.  For example, a door being slammed is not likely something I’m going to take on as a prohibited protest in my family.  It really doesn’t hurt anything (barring a child trying to break the door with the slamming); it is a statement from the child that they don’t like what’s happening.  However, I am not likely to tolerate eye rolling, as I find this to be extremely disrespectful.  I guess the difference for me is that one is away from me and one is a direct interaction with me and action towards me.  But another household may tolerate eye rolling, but not door slamming.  I think deciding where your boundaries will be and then sticking to those is what is important when it comes to this determination.  There are a few things to consider when making your own boundaries of what you will tolerate and what you will not.  The most important of those is thinking about what would be tolerated in the real world and what would not be.  If my child were to roll his eyes at a future employer, he would be likely to be fired.  However, if he went to a separate location outside of the earshot of the employer and slammed a door, there would likely be no consequences for this.  Cussing at, refusing a request, or yelling at, however, are behaviors that should not be tolerated in any household, as I think it can be agreed upon universally that these behaviors would be considered disrespectful in any setting.

The next question seems to be a little more clear-cut: What defines defiance? Defiance goes beyond simple protest, it is a refusal to comply with the requested action.  For example, if a child was told to clean their room and refuses to do so, that would be defiance.  Also, if the youth were told they could not go out, and then goes anyway, this refusal would be defiance as well.  One thing is very clear in parenting, defiance can NEVER be tolerated.  As soon as a parent begins to allow a child to defy them, even with a simple task, they are beginning to lose control over that child, and it is extremely likely that the youth will defy more often and it will lead to defiance about bigger issues.  It is very important that the order of power within a family remain intact, that children understand the parents are always in charge.  Of course, I am in no way advocating doing this in a militant manner, as this is likely to inspire the very defiance we are trying to avoid.  But it is very important that every child within a household understand, through experience, that defiance is never tolerated.  Will a child test those limits from time to time, absolutely! It is their developmental task to test limits.  When the parent reinforces that limit with an appropriate consequence, the child is again sent the message that defiance will not be allowed, and things return to a healthy state where everyone knows their role.

It is not uncommon for parents to bring their teens to me for therapy, stating that their child has been very defiant, taking off in the car when told not to, refusing to do chores or other tasks around the home, or refusing to go to school.  The teen is often cussing at or even physically confronting the parent.  Often the parents tell me initially that this behavior is new and that prior to this beginning, there were no issues in the household.  Further investigation, however, inevitably reveals that there has been previous defiance.  That the child has gotten away with things like not doing assigned chores or refusing to listen to smaller directives (turning off the TV, going to bed at a certain time, cleaning their room, etc.).  Usually these smaller actions of defiance have been ignored by the parent.  Maybe if the child doesn’t load the dishwasher, then the parent just does it instead.  Or if they were told to turn off the TV and ignore the directive, the parent just goes about what they were doing and doesn’t follow through with making sure the directive is complied with.  If this is the case, then there usually hasn’t been much conflict within the household, but this is not because the child’s behavior was appropriate, it is just because the parent has chosen to deal with the defiance by ignoring it.  All the while the child is getting the message more and more that they do not actually have to listen to their parent, that their defiance has no real consequences, and that their parent does not really have authority.  When this child hits the teen years and the stakes go up, they are simply doing what they have always done, ignoring the parent’s directives.  The problem is, now the topic is one that holds more weight and that the parent can not ignore (like not going to school or taking the car when told not to) and the teen is likely defying in a more aggressive manner (yelling or cussing at the parent, saying no in a direct way, being physically intimidating) instead of just ignoring the parent’s directives, like when they were younger.

This is why defiance can not be tolerated.  It changes the balance of power in a manner that will create bigger problems as the child ages.  It teaches the child that your words don’t really mean anything.  It sends the message that your child can really do whatever they want.  And it communicates to the child that you really don’t have any power over them or their actions.  Dealing with defiance is something that will be addressed in a future article.  But for now, I hope this has everyone thinking about what protesting you want to allow, where your lines are between respect and disrespect, and if you are allowing defiance in your home. It can be easier at times to allow behavior that shouldn’t be allowed or to shut down all protesting, but doing either of these can lead to problems in the future.  So, remember, thinking through these issues and being a mindful parent will lead to appropriate expression by the child and good limits within the household.  It will lead to a more peaceful home with reduced conflict and emotionally healthy family members!

Bullying and Social Media Part 2: A Parent’s Guide to Social Media

I wrote an article the other day entitled “Bullying and Social Media” that discussed the impact social media was having on our youth, and how many children are turning to suicide as a result of the pressure and pain they have endured due to bullying, specifically online bullying.  That article raised more questions, questions that I think all parents wrestle with.  Questions that I think don’t have an easy or clear-cut answer.  Questions that I hope stimulated some conversations and thought, so we, as parents, can make mindful and thoughtful decisions about how to handle social media with our children and teens.

The first question I posed was, how do we, as parents, navigate social media with our children? How do we decide what to allow and what not to allow?  I think this, like many of the questions in this article, and in parenting in general, does not have one clear cut answer.  It is something each parental unit must decide for their family.  I’ve seen many responsible parents handle this question in many different ways, to not allowing social media until the child is of a certain age, to not allowing it at all, to only allowing certain sites and not others, to allowing them on it with restrictions, to requiring the child to “follow” certain public figures that stimulate thought and social awareness.  When deciding what to allow, I think a parent needs to ask themselves about the emotional maturity of the teen, about how they are handling issues like peer pressure and fitting in with peers.  About how they are handling the responsibilities in their lives (their grades, their outside activities, doing chores, following rules at home and at school).  The truth is, if any of these issues are needing some improvement, social media is likely to exacerbate whatever problems are already present. The youth may have you believe that if they were allowed to access social media, these things would improve, sort of a “reward” for turning things around.  I caution you against yielding to this argument.  A child who is emotionally immature or is not handling other parts of their lives well is very likely to get themselves into some sort of trouble if social media is added to the mix.

The second question I offered up was, if we do allow social media, how much do we monitor it? What about issues like “privacy” (a favorite word for my teen clients to use with their parents in session when discussing this issue)?  I think this question is a little simpler.  I strongly believe the answer to this is that we DO monitor them.  I often use an analogy with my clients to help them understand this topic of the internet in terms we can relate to from our childhoods.  Imagine someone calling you on the home phone as a teen and your mom answering on the kitchen phone (if you’re old like me, it would be the kind with a spiral cord that is connected to the wall).  The person on the phone sounds like an older man.  Would your mom simply hand you the phone and never ask a question?  Of course not! If she handed you the phone, it would likely be after she asked who the caller was and felt satisfied that this was an appropriate relationship.  When phones belonged to an entire family, there was much more natural screening that went on.  Our families knew who was calling us because anyone could answer the phone at any time.  But these days, with everyone having their own private phone and internet access, children are often given unlimited access to the world and all it has to offer, and the world is given unlimited and unfiltered access to them.  This can cause an array of problems.  When it comes to social media and bullying, it can mean months of bad treatment without anyone in the child’s family aware that it is even occurring.  Obviously, this can be extremely damaging to a youth’s emotional and psychological health.  So, I urge you, if you have decided to allow your child to have social media, please monitor them.  Have their passwords, do not allow them to delete any content, check their accounts regularly, and know what is going on in their lives.  And if you know of concerning behavior of a youth outside of your family, please let their parent know. This is critical in keeping our children safe.  If we all band together to know what is going on in the lives of the youth in our community, maybe we can avert the next crisis.  Maybe the next child or teen thinking of harming themselves can get help instead!

Bullying and Social Media: What is it Doing to Our Children?

When I first became a therapist, children and teens taking their own life was an extremely rare occurrence.  Now, unfortunately, it seems to be a true risk to all of our children!  It’s mind boggling to me that a child can be that distraught that they would go through the process of thought and behavior that it takes to execute a successful suicide.  And yet it happens daily! What must they be feeling and thinking that makes it a viable option?

I think there are multiple issues that contribute to such an act.  Too many to discuss in one article.  But one thing that has definitely changed in recent years that contributes to this issue is social media and cyber bullying.  So many of the young people ending their own lives are leaving notes talking about how distraught they had been over the way they’d been treated on social media, that the bullying became too much.  I think this cry for help must be heard!  It is tragically too late for the youth who have followed through with their suicidal intentions, but if we do something about this, maybe it will save another suffering child.

First, I think we need to look at the age at which children are accessing social media and ask ourselves, is this a developmentally appropriate activity for them to be participating in?  And if so, what should the parameters be?  Social media allows anyone to say anything with the push of a button.  We all know that children are impulsive; they act without thinking.  They also lack the cognitive development to fully understand the consequences of their actions.  All of this makes it very likely that they will post something on social media that they have not taken the time to think through.

Now let’s add to that the insecurity of this age of adolescence and pre-adolescence.  Kids at this age are learning who they are amongst their peers.  They haven’t figured it out yet and are “trying on” different ways of being.  In some ways, middle school and high school has a “survival of the fittest” feel to it socially.  Many children are afraid to be the one that does not fit in or becomes the target of a mean comment or joke, and often times children will say mean things to another in response to that fear.  And again, because they can’t think through all of the potential consequences of th0ese actions, if they have access to social media where their words and actions reach many with the click of a button, the damage can be much more substantial than it would have been before this medium existed.

And what about the person who is having trouble fitting in?  He or she may get on social media hoping to gain some acceptance from their peers that way.  Then that person becomes the latest topic of conversation, being an easy target due to their obvious insecurities.  Something negative is said about them.  The others join in even if they may feel uneasy about it, because “at least it isn’t me!”  In a matter of hours, the number of mean comments and the people laughing at the person have compounded. The targeted person has difficulty escaping it.  The theme of the bullying grows very quickly because of the level of connectedness (most students at the school are connected on the site) and the real time format (as soon as it’s written it shows on the site).  It becomes like a wild fire in the wind, growing quickly and strengthening with each moment that passes, devouring whatever is in its path.

Anyone in this situation would be feeling pretty terrible.  But an adult would hopefully have the life skills to be able to understand that this will eventually pass, that we all have low moments, and then we move on to another stage of life.  But we are not talking about an adult, we are talking about a young person, someone who’s primary developmental task is figuring out the answer to that question, “who am I amongst my peers?”  And this has just happened, that child is the target of the ridicule from his/ her peers.  No doubt feeling terrible.  Development comes into play again.  He/ she lacks the ability to see the bigger picture, to understand that this pain is temporary, to realize that it will pass.  This person becomes distraught, depressed.  He/ she feels worthless.  They feel like nothing amongst their peers; a loser. It feels overwhelming.  In time, this grows to thoughts of suicide.

When we understand the emotional and mental development of teens and pre-teens, I think it becomes obvious that they are not yet ready to navigate the turbulent waters of all that social media has to offer. At minimum, they are not ready to navigate it unsupervised.  They can become caught up in this scenario, either as a bully or as a victim very easily.  It can happen to anyone, and kids of this age are particularly at risk.

But then, as a parent, we all know that social media is how the kids connect.  If they are the “only” kid not allowed to be on snapchat or Instagram or twitter, their social lives will be “over”, or so they would have you believe.  It’s such a complicated issue.  How do we, as parents, navigate it? How do we decide what to allow and what not to allow? If we do allow it, how much do we monitor them? What about issues like “privacy” (a favorite word for my teen clients to use with their parents in session when discussing this issue)?  This is a topic for another article.  Because, like this whole issue, and like parenting in general, it does not have an easy answer.  But I hope this article got all the parents out there thinking.  Because we all need to make mindful decisions when it comes to our youth and social media.  And we all need to teach our children about this issue and how not to get caught in the trap of bullying.  And we all need to talk with our children about options if they ever feel like they are being bullied.  No one has all the answers. None of us can stop this alone, but hopefully together, through lots of conversations and perhaps some parameters and limits, we can do something to deter that next tragedy!

This Year’s Flu: How Do We Manage the Fear?

The statistics are everywhere: 42 people in California under the age of 65 have died this year; 32 in our state in one week; a local boy has died; another is fighting for his life in the ICU.  Many doctor’s offices are out of the flu vaccine.  It’s staggering and very scary!  I’ve seen social media posts from parents considering keeping their children home from school.  Posts about how to protect ourselves.  Posts about questions about the flu shot.  This year, flu and fear seem to go hand in hand!

So how do we not let the fear overcome us? How do we maintain that delicate balance between protection and peace?  To achieve this, we must start with examining our thoughts.  The common belief is that how we feel is due to things that happen.  But the truth is, there is something that occurs between an event and our emotions, and that is how we THINK about the situation.  To demonstrate this point, imagine if it started pouring down rain right now, how would you feel? Some may say happy, another sad, maybe someone else angry.  These emotions are all different for the same rain.  Why is that? It is because of how each individual thinks about the rain.  For the person who is happy, the thoughts may be, “I love the rain and we really need it.”  The person who is sad may think, “I really wanted to be outside today and now I won’t be able to.”  The person who is angry may think, “Darn it, I just had my car washed.”  Their individual thoughts are what causes the different emotional state.  This example may seem juvenile, but when we begin to apply it to other situations, we can quickly begin to see what a difference how we think about things can make.

When it comes to something outside of our control, like rather we get the flu or not, we need to examine our thoughts.  When we focus on something that is not within our control, this is an irrational thought, even if it is a “true” thought.  The reason it is irrational is because of our inability to control it.  It causes nothing but negative feelings for us, but does not change the situation (because, by definition, the situation cannot be changed).

Let’s apply this concept to this current fear of contracting the flu.  If we are consumed by thoughts such as, “what if I get the flu?”, “what if my baby gets it”, “we could die from this flu!” it will cause only one result: fear and worry.  It will not change if we or our loved ones get the flu.  And another important thing it will stop us from doing is focusing on what we CAN control.  Fear is crippling.  It makes us feel helpless.  These thoughts make us feel helpless.  So we need to change them, possibly to: “I can’t control if I get the flu, but I can make sure to wash my hands often and get the flu shot”, “I can’t stop my baby from getting the flu but I can limit his exposure by not going to some of the high-risk areas and by making sure everyone who holds him is healthy and has washed their hands.”  We can say, “most people do not die from the flu, so even if my family gets it, the chances are extremely high we will be just fine.”  Once we give up this focus on things outside of our control, we can take appropriate measures to protect ourselves, we can make rational and informed decisions about how we want to proceed, if we want to keep our kids home from school, if we want to avoid the play area, if we want to get the flu shot, etc.

The truth is, knowledge is power, but if we are making emotionally reactive decisions, then we are not using that knowledge to empower us.  If we reduce our anxiety and emotional reactivity, we can achieve the goal of balance between protection and peace, we can control what we can and let go of the rest.   We can learn not to let this flu have power over us anymore!

“Did you feel safe?”: Protecting children from sexual abuse

I, like most parents out there, want to protect my children and keep them safe from all of the dangers of the world. Due to my profession, I know the realities of the dangers that lurk amongst our children probably more than most. I know that sexual abuse is one of the most real and threatening dangers facing our children. I know that estimates state that one in three girls and one in six boys are sexually abused as children and that some estimates put the number closer to one in four for boys. I know that most children do not disclose their sexual abuse, even to loving and concerned parents. I know that children are much more likely to be sexually abused by someone they know. Much more likely! I know that predators groom their victims and also groom the parents, sometimes for years, before acting on their intentions. This means that someone I trust, someone who is a part of my inner circle, may actually intend on harming my child at some point.

One more scary thing my experience has taught me is that I cannot identify who in my world would want to harm my children. Even with all of my years of experience in this field and dealing with this specific issue, I cannot determine who may be a perpetrator. Sure, I can have an uneasy feeling about someone, and I’m darn sure I wouldn’t ignore that after all my work in this area, but I know I may not get a “feeling” about someone who could be a danger. Because perpetrators can spend years grooming a parent before acting, making them feel comfortable, becoming like part of the family (or even being family), there is really no way for any of us to know who could be a threat.

I also know that I want my children to feel safe in their world. I want them to be trusting and to believe that the world is a good and safe place. I want to preserve the innocence of their childhood as long as possible. I want them to love and trust their community and the people in it. I don’t want them to be scared or paranoid that they could be harmed.

So, these disheartening facts have left me, as a parent, struggling to find balance between preserving my children’s innocence and trust in their community and knowing if they are truly safe. How does a parent ask their kid about their experiences away from them without sounding paranoid? Without freaking out our children or giving them the sense that something bad could happen at any point or that the people in their lives cannot be trusted? I used to ask my kids about their time away from me with questions like, “did you have fun?”, “what did you do?”, “who was there?” and then just watch their reactions to these questions, hoping I would pick up on any change in their demeanor or discomfort about something. To ask more could freak them out! So I didn’t. But it didn’t feel like enough.

Then a few years ago I heard from somewhere something brilliant (maybe TV or an article, I honestly can’t remember the source). A way to ask that will mean virtually nothing to your child if everything is fine, but could make all the difference if at some point your child is at risk or has actually been harmed. Now I ask my kids, along with all of the other questions above, “did you feel safe the whole time?” The responses I get to that question varies from child to child. From one of my children, with a sigh of annoyance that mom is so overprotective and a monotone “yes mom” with a slight eye roll. For another, it is a little laugh with a “mom you always ask that question!” To which I respond that it’s my job to make sure he’s safe, to which he tells me, “well, my answer is always going to be yes!”

These responses give me tons of useful information. Most importantly, I get to know that their sense of safety is intact. As of now, they can’t imagine that they would ever be in a situation where harm is a real possibility (and for that I thank my lucky stars daily!).

It also gives me a way to check in on their experience. It helps me know that not only did they have fun, but all was well in their little worlds while they were outside of my protective wings.

Another thing this creates, and I love this, is a way for them to check in on their own intuition. I am communicating to them that their intuition is important, that any sense of fear or discomfort they may have is something they should pay attention to. (This is something I have discussed with them all at various times).

And the number one thing this question gives me is a baseline. I know how they each respond. Yes, I see annoyance (that is my job, after all), but I also see comfort. This question does not make them withdraw. It does not make them shut down. It does not make them become defensive. If there is any change in that at any point, I will know I need to investigate further.

While I know the dangers out there and I fear them greatly, as I think every responsible parent does, I know I cannot keep my children from experiencing some of the pain life brings. I have to let them go. I have to take a deep breath and trust that they will be OK. I cannot let my professional experiences make me paranoid. I do find comfort, however, that I am doing my part to keep them safe during this short and sacred time we call childhood. I believe that these four little words, “did you feel safe?” is an important tool in my large toolbox of ideas and strategies to keep them safe and to help them grow into well-adjusted adults. If you find it helpful, feel free to add it to your toolbox as well!

My Thoughts About Family

What can I say about family? Like many of you, it probably depends on the day! Family is complicated. It is compiled of a bunch of people who do not choose each other, who have a variety of different personalities, and who may vary greatly in how they think, do things, or approach the world. In addition to this, there are also different organizational structures defined under that one simple word. There is our immediate family. These are the people in our current world, many times under our roof. Then there is extended family, all of the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. We all have at least one crazy one in that bunch, right? And then there is the crowd favorite, family related by marriage, our in-laws, which can also be made up of parental figures, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins, etc. Obviously, a structure as complex has lot of room for lots of issues. And most of my clients have some kind of family issue causing them distress. I personally have multiples family issues that cause me distress. Figuring out how to negotiate these issues is so complicated and individualized. It is one of the issues that can lead to happiness or despair in life. Continue reading My Thoughts About Family