family

Sync Up and Parent as a Team

Imagine parenting to be like managing a ship. You plan a route, assign tasks to your crew and hope that everyone pitches in. The crew relies on the co-captains, or parents, for guidance and reassurance. Now imagine if the co-captains are sending conflicting information. This approach leaves the crew confused about how to proceed. Often, what ensues is chaos, stress, and a crew that either attempts to benefit from this discord or proceed with discouragement.

This is similar to families when the co-captains, or parents, are not aligned. Each partner is working hard and making decisions based on their own goals, often unaware of what their co-captain is delegating at the same time. Let’s be clear, this is typically done with the best of intentions and belief that you are steering your family in a great direction. Yet, if the ship is being steered in two different directions, not much is accomplished. If you notice your children going behind your back to ask your partner permission, the rules often shift, or perhaps there is no family mission in place, this can be a fantastic opportunity to reflect with your partner on how to sync up. This can feel like a big undertaking. Many of us did not grow up in homes that had consistent structure and a transparency in why our parents operated the way they did. However, this is an opportunity to grow and learn. Remember: perfection is not the end goal here!

A great starting point is to sit down with your partner and discuss what values you are wanting to instill in your family. Whether that be adventure, honesty, selfless service, etc., start to discuss why these values matter to you. Really hear each other out and try to connect with your partner’s point of view, even if your lists differ. Second, reflect on how your current “rules” or guidelines at home either support or deviate from these values. You want to both be clear on how each guideline directly promotes your top values. Once these guidelines are clearly established, they also need to be written out so that all ages can understand what is expected. When spelling out guidelines think “SMART” - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely. For younger kids, pictures are also effective.

It can be helpful to call a family meeting and sit down with your kids to discuss, especially when changes have been made. Now with the family present, explain what is the purpose of each guideline. For example, we will spend each Sunday morning together as a family at breakfast for one hour, without phone/tablets to include quality time, holidays and vacations included. If you have buy-in about the purpose of this, there is more likelihood your children will have buy-in as well. Allow for questions and even for a respectful discussion to ensue. With teens, it oftentimes helps to allow some flexibility for feedback or editing the guidelines together so everyone can feel invested in the process. Having everyone sign the list and posting a copy for reference can symbolize this commitment of the entire family.

Now, the most important piece: FOLLOW THROUGH. Louder for the people in the back!! CONSISTENCY is key. If you and your partner agree to establish a rule or guideline, stick to it. It can be tough, but it’s so crucial to make sure you’re honoring your co-captain and the mission you’ve laid out for your family. If you slide, that actually means you are going against your commitment. This lends to anxiety and confusion.  It is crucial for your children to learn that you are true to your word and that what you expect of them is consistent. Perhaps this feels like something too big to take on without some extra support or you and your partner feel way off track. This can be common, especially with separated or blended families that are trying co-parent and are struggling to communicate. Know that family therapy is an option. There are wonderful therapists who can patiently walk parents through this process, and help clarify how to work together to steer the ship in an intentional direction.

Treating Parents is Key to Treating Anxious Children

Earlier this week in the break room, Blake and Tracy shared about a recent study they had read.  As one of the rare individuals who thoroughly enjoy reading academic research, I was PSYCHED – not just because I got to hunker down with my highlighter in hand, but in that it pertained to treating children with anxiety.  While these two things alone would bring a smile to my face, the results were tremendously powerful: TREAT THE PARENTS. While this may seem like a simple and maybe obvious solution to a family systems therapist like myself, you’d be surprised how little family/parental work is done when the main client is a young person with anxiety.  It is not uncommon for parents to believe that their anxious child is the one who needs therapy, which is certainly still true. However, if the goal of all involved is to support the child in reducing symptoms of anxiety, treating the parents is very much the key to success.

According to Eli Lebowitz, the associate director of the Anxiety and Mood Disorders at the Yale Child Study Center, parents of anxious children almost always try to accommodate their child. She states, “For instance, if the child suffers from social anxiety, no friends are invited to the house; in the case of separation anxiety, parents sleep with their child or never leave the home. Parents constantly reassure a child with generalized anxiety. While the responses of parents are natural, studies have shown that they also leave children suffering from debilitating anxiety into adulthood”.  Currently, there are only two evidence-based treatments for anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT, which I provide and have written about in past blog posts - Embracing Self-Compassion and Let’s Talk About Teen Mental Health), and medication. Of those able to receive these options, however, only half of the children respond to treatment. Because of this, it has been vital for researchers to find additionally effective treatments.

Yale researchers randomly assigned 124 children ages 7 – 14 with diagnosed anxiety disorders to either receive cognitive behavioral therapy, or their parents were enrolled in the Yale SPACE program, or Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions. For 12 weeks, parents attended weekly counseling sessions geared toward helping themselves cope with their anxious child.  While both approaches were equally effective in reducing the child’s stress levels and anxiety symptoms, the “accommodating” behavior parents typically engage in reduced significantly after receiving SPACE counseling.

For example, a parent assigned to SPACE was able to decrease the number of daily text messages sent to their child from “dozens” to about 2 – 3.  Also, parents who repeatedly kept their child out of school because of anxiety-related stomachaches learned to say, “I know you are feeling upset right now, but I know you’ll be okay,” and sent their child to school.

It is believed that the accommodating behaviors were reduced due to encouraging parents to validate their child’s emotions, while also creating and maintaining boundaries and consistent support for the child. In a 2013 study about Space, Lebowitz shared this example script:

“We understand it makes you feel really anxious or afraid. We want you to know that this is perfectly natural and everyone feels afraid some of the time. We also want you to know that it is our job as your parents to help you get better at things that are hard for you, and we have decided to do exactly that. We are going to be working on this for a while and we know it will probably take time, but we love you too much not to help you when you need help.”.


I am very much excited to share that I will now be challenging myself to learn more about the SPACE approach, and will begin engaging parents more frequently when treating their child’s anxiety.  Also, for you parents of anxious children out there, I’ve created a short and quick cheat sheet that may also help you in this process:

  1. Listen to what your child is saying, both verbally and with their body language!

  2. Validate your child’s feelings – “I see that you feel _______”.  

  3. Normalize the feelings – “Everyone feels _______ sometimes”.

  4. Support – “We are all working on this together, and I love you”.

Thanks for letting me share this exciting work with you, and as always, be safe, be peaceful and be kind ☺


It Takes a Village: Understanding How Systems Shape Us

Photo by  Duy Pham  on  Unsplash

Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash

We are all part of a system, several systems in fact. Systems range from our partner, family unit, school/work/organization, community, culture, and everything in between. Systems often develop patterns of functioning that support the system in accomplishing tasks, moving forward, and maintaining balance. The evolution of patterns can be intentional, they might present an imbalance in who the system serves, or perhaps they came about over time through events and experiences that shape patterns without members attunement to the helpful or unhelpful results. I have felt inspired by my work and personal experience to reflect on the systems in which individuals exist, how systems function, and if that function is serving individuals and the systems as a whole.

To further understand the operation of systems, I offer the example of coming to therapy (coincidence?) … Perhaps you chose to begin therapy or maybe that was a choice made for you by someone in your life who cares about you. Whatever the circumstance, you are the client in the room. Maybe you or a loved one identified that you can benefit from having an unbiased, safe space. This sometimes implies that you bear the sole responsibility of making a change or committing to yourself. While this can absolutely play a role in what therapy looks like, it would be a disservice to ignore how the systems you exist within also impact your experience and furthermore how the other members contribute to your identity & well-being and that of the system at large.

Let’s say I come to therapy with the goal of enhancing my ability to be more assertive with my feelings in relationships. It might be helpful to look at what communication has been like in my family, for example. Perhaps I found it challenging to be assertive with family because I was expected to “keep the peace,” insert humor in place of vulnerability, or avoid rocking the boat at times it was on the edge of capsizing. This style offered my family a sense of protection, that everything will be alright, and that I am capable of “going with the flow” to avoid exacerbating conflict. While my willingness to mute or soften my emotional expression appeared to function well in our family system to keep us moving forward and establish rhythm, it also presented a later consequence of fear/hesitancy/confusion around how to be assertive in other relationships and areas of my life.

To avoid placing “blame” on any single family member, including myself, I might remember that this pattern of communicating was protective, and it supported my family moving forward and maintaining peace. Rather than viewing our family system as flawed, I might say this pattern functioned for a period of time for a particular purpose; however, that function no longer serves me or the system as a whole. It truly does take consideration of the systems we participate in to understand how patterns develop and how we might want to change a pattern that is no longer serving us. The shift in system function is not any single individual’s responsibility, but a product of all members role in that system; however, when one person chooses to create changes in how they move within the system, there's a ripple effect that can occur, offering an opportunity for growth for the whole system. In re-framing your experience, identity, and worldview to include how your systems have shaped you, you may notice you experience more self-compassion and compassion for the systems that you are a part of, which in turn connects us more deeply to our humanity and the humanity of others.

I offer some tips in considering your village, how it functions, and how it serves you:

  • Reflect on your systems - identify who and what your systems are, what your function is within the system, and the function of the system as a whole

  • Take inventory on what is serving you and what does not seem to work (anymore)

  • Communicate with members of your system on what’s working and what’s not

  • Practice approaching change to the system with curiosity, willingness, flexibility, patience, and compassion for yourself and others

  • Resist the urge to fall back into old patterns that you know are not serving you, practice a beginner’s mind with each situation you are faced with

Remember that it takes a village for your experience to shift, and you are neither the purpose for unhelpful changes in the system nor do you bear the sole responsibility of enacting change. Use your supports and practice self kindness 😊


My Loved One Experiences Anxiety, Why Can’t They Get Over It?

Anxiety can feel as though you are being chased by a lion. Although this analogy may seem extreme to those who don't deal with an anxiety disorder, it's one that makes sense to someone who encounters anxiety on nearly an everyday basis. Sufferers of anxiety know the feeling of fear, experience hypervigilance to everyday situations, have an excess energy or even a depletion of energy due to the exhaustion of panic and feel that there is imminent danger nearby even though there may not be an actual threat around them.

Having the understanding of friends and family to support you through your anxiety can make all the difference in the world, but it isn't always easy to have empathy when you haven't experienced anxiety firsthand or been taught a bit about it. It is very natural and common for those closely connected to individuals with an anxiety disorder to believe a number of things such as, “I support them, I love them, and it doesn’t seem to be enough,” “It cannot possibly be that bad,” “They have a good life, this doesn’t make sense,” or “Why can’t they just get over it?” These are some typical thoughts to have, but are not helpful for someone who is struggling with anxiety to hear.

When someone is going through anxiety, their body is reacting as though there is danger close by and their stress response is activated. This means they experience acceleration of their lungs and heart, so the blood will rush to their extremities to be prepared to run from danger or “brace” themselves from it. It can also mean they cannot utilize critical thinking or logical thinking because their energy is currently in use to save them from a perceived danger. They can also experience tunnel vision, loss of hearing, and shaking, among other physiological responses. So, truly, they are reacting as though they are being chased by a lion. And yes, they know they aren’t being chased by a lion, which can make these feelings worse because they do not make sense to them.


So, what can you do? Ask them what they need. They may tell you they need to be alone because they are overstimulated and that is okay. Tell them where you will be if they need you. They may say that they need you, but do not know how they need you. You can sit with them and wait until they are ready to talk to you. But probably the most common response is, “I don’t know.” During these times, you can use your judgement, but giving advice may be the least helpful since they cannot truly hear you and any advice given may be minimizing their experience. Once they have calmed down, rested, and time has passed, ask if you can talk about what they need or want you to do in these situations. Ask them what is helpful and not helpful. It could be a trial and error situation, but the fact that you acknowledge what they are going through is real will make all the difference. And as always, if it is debilitating for them or they/you believe they need more help than what you can give, have a gentle discussion with them about finding a professional who can help the both of you.

LifeTip: The Power of Traditions

The holiday season has arrived, and with it all the joy and increased stress (and expenses!) that we have come to expect.  Amidst all the hustle and bustle, many families find some familiar moments of calm and connection in the ways they celebrate.  Our unique traditions and rituals, whether daily or seasonal, hold immense psychological power.  

Image Source: https://www.tinyprints.com/things-to-know/new-holiday-traditions.htm

Image Source: https://www.tinyprints.com/things-to-know/new-holiday-traditions.htm

The performing of rituals can strengthen family bonds and create a feeling of well-being and stability.  They provide a sense of continuity in our life and become an important way to track time and mark milestones (like a first year of marriage, the birth of a child, or a move to a new city).

Traditions provide an excuse to escape from the rush and distraction of routine life, and focus inward on our deeper priorities.  They invite storytelling and value-sharing conversations into everyday life, and can be a powerful way to connect with our cultural or familial identities, and to create shared family memories.

Rituals can even create a special kind of energy for participants.  I know it sounds hokey, but imagine feeling a buzzing excitement while waiting for a concert to start, or feelings of joy and closeness when attending a wedding.  Sociologist Emile Durkheim referred to the feeling as “collective effervescence” (is that not an amazingly fun phrase?!).  Collective effervescence refers to a unique electric, almost transcendent energy that people can experience when joined in collaborative groups.

How does your family get their collective effervescence during the holiday season?  What are your family’s holiday traditions?  Is it a movie or game night?  A specific meal?  The dusting off of old records?  An annual trip?  Is it time to create a new one?

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-flux/201405/5-ways-create-family-traditions

https://www.argosy.edu/our-community/blog/The-Psychology-and-Science-of-Traditions-Rituals

 

Holiday self-care

The semester is winding down, the holiday energy is gearing up and December may start to feel like the craziest month of the year! As we approach a much-needed break from school or work, let's all take some time to focus on treating ourselves kindly and taking time out for relaxation and self-care. Here are some fun ways to de-stress before finals and kick off your holiday break in high spirits!

  • Take advantage of the cold weather and make delicious hot chocolate at home, complete with whipped cream, sprinkles, peppermint sticks and more! Take a break from homework tonight to enjoy this treat in your warmest slippers, turn on your favorite holiday movie and put your feet up for at least 20 minutes.
  • Get moving! Only in Austin can you ice skate on the Whole Foods rooftop, run around Lady Bird Lake taking pictures of all the unique landmarks or grab a skateboard and hit the park! Even though the temps have dropped, the sun is shining and a quick boost of Vitamin D is sure to keep you in good spirits and maximize your energy.
  • If you're planning to go out of town with your family for the holidays(or even if you stay home), remember to help them schedule in some down time. It's easy to go overboard with the itinerary, and visiting extended family in unfamiliar cities can bring some challenges to even the best planner's time management skills. Talk with your parents before the stress overwhelms you about how to fit in time for relaxation, solitary activities and self-care.