Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Absent Father

“I am a single parent and we have absolutely no involvement with my child's father. I moved away before my child was born. During the crisis, I found out that the father was severely abused as a child and I have his own written word documenting what he experienced as a child. The father did many calls always with hang up until my child was several months old. We do not have any contact, including any child support, etc.

With Father's Day here, my five-year-old is asking why father doesn't ever call, where does father live, do we have the phone number, can we go visit, etc. If I know the answer, I give it. I don't say anything negative (or positive) about this man. I do have a picture if my child asks but he never has.

Years ago, his older cousin told him that the father was a 'bad man.' We discussed this briefly when it occurred but it has not been brought up since.

I'm more concerned about what to say to my child's questions and requests. I do let him know how special it is that we live together with his grandparents. I honestly do not consider it wise to try to make any contact with the father.”
-- Wondering

I’ve read this over and over again. I think it’s an awfully sad story. But I’ve been pretty stumped by it as a question. I keep re-reading, searching for what I can add that might be helpful, questions I can ask that might be useful.

I don’t really know what to say.

I do know that I think choosing not to share the picture you have unless it is asked for strikes me as a lie of omission. I think the questions your son has asked clearly indicate that he wants to know more. He doesn’t know there is a picture he can ask to see. If he did, I’m willing to bet that he’d be asking to see it.

I’m also not sure I understand the point of not saying anything positive or negative about his father. The truth is, there are positive and negative things to say about any individual alive. It sounds to me like it’s easier for you to treat his dad like a sperm donor. The problem with that is that he wasn’t just a sperm donor. You did know the man. Your family knew (or at least knows about) the man. Your reference to a pivotal crisis implies that there was emotional and physical involvement between you and the father leading up to that crisis. The bottom line is simply that you do have information that your son wants – more information than you are choosing to share with him.

What, exactly, are you trying to protect him from?

Is it right for his cousin to know more about your son’s father than he does?

What is the danger in sharing what you once liked or even loved about his father?

What is the danger in sharing what you know about how his father was hurt as a child, and how that kind of pain can permanently damage a person?

What is the danger in sharing that you and his father both thought your son would be safer and happier without his involvement in your son’s life? (While his father might not have ever stated this explicitly, his choices – to call and hang up, and then to just fade out, suggest that he chose to let go. He agreed with your assessment.)

I think it is important for you to think about these things. It seems to me that helping your child learn more about his father could be a positive thing for both of you. I don’t think keeping secrets from people who are craving that information usually works out very well.

What if your child stops asking you, and starts turning to his cousin for information?

Or maybe I’m really misunderstanding?

Maybe the questions your son is asking are questions that speak to logistics, not personality? Maybe he doesn’t want this level of information at this time?

Maybe hearing that his dad was abused and violent and unsafe would just be scary and depressing and not helpful?

Maybe knowing that his mother trusted someone violent and unsafe would be unnecessarily painful?

I don’t know. Maybe.

Or maybe knowing that people make mistakes is simply part of being human. Maybe there is value in knowing that sometimes it is braver and more loving to let go than it is to stay connected and hurt someone. Maybe, considering that you think it would be a mistake to try to make contact, you need to talk to your son about why that would be a mistake so that he doesn’t attempt to do it on his own. It seems to me that it will be far better for him to hear the details from you than from a misinformed relative.

I really do not know. I don’t even know if I’ve addressed the parts of your story that you wanted me to address. You're the one that will have to work to unravel all of this. Maybe it will help to think about what you were wanting from me... What are you uncertain about? What are your real questions? Because the truth is, you know better than I do. You know your questions, and you will know your answers.

I hope something here is useful. And I hope you will let me know if I’ve just totally and completely missed the mark.

Monday, June 23, 2008


“Parent is currently seeking treatment for substance abuse. Through therapy, this parent has discovered that the substance abuse was a form of self-medication. While using, the parent feels as if they were relaxed and free of anxiety, withdrawal from this substance currently leaves the parent restless, irritable, and discontent. The children are in the unfortunate predicament of witnessing the parent's mood swings and depression. Every display of anger leaves the parent in a further state of depression and self-loathing. Parent is assured that these intense feelings are natural and will pass, but are still painful regardless. How can the parent nurture and protect the children while making hir recovery a top priority?”
-- Anonymous

Anger, depression, and self-loathing might be natural responses to physical withdrawal, but that doesn’t mean we should just bite the bullet and wait for them to pass. I think you are absolutely right to want to prevent the pain. I agree that it is worthwhile to look for solutions now – I think it is far too common for depression to become habitual, so figuring out how to break the thoughts that lead there and the expression of those thoughts that is counter to greater intentions seems to me to be very important.

Also, you mention that substance abuse was a form of self-medication. I think it’s important to look closely at why self-medication was needed. What is replacing the formerly abused substance? I think when we’re in pain, we need to address the root causes of that pain while applying quick fixes. Self-medicating via substance abuse doesn’t address the root causes. Neither does stopping the substance abuse. The bigger issue here needs to be addressed, whether that is done via therapy or prescribed medications or light treatments or acupuncture or massage or yoga or meditation or nutrition or exercise or vitamin supplements or something else or a combination of some or all of the above will depend entirely on the specifics of the individual. In other words, figure out what leads you to self-medicate, and do what you can to address that issue (or those issues). It is imperative, I think, that you be willing to approach these problems from more than one perspective. Nobody really understands how the human mind works. Humans have lots of different theories about it. Ultimately, however, it is YOUR mind, and it is up to you to find the theories that fit best for you – the answers that best solve your unique problems.

But the core of your question was how to nurture and protect the children during a difficult time for the parent – and I think that requires help, in the form of other adults. If there is a parent-partner, then the two of you need to figure out together how the other parent can take over as much as possible so that you can work through your physical and emotional difficulties without hurting people that you love. It’s also critical that you reach out to family and friends, and enlist more help. That might mean talking about the actual problems you’re having. It might mean setting up more playdates and overnights. And if you’re a solo parent, then it is time to lean very hard on friends and family. I think you need to do two crucial things now. One is to work hard on breaking the patterns you’ve established that are hurting your kids. The other is to physically protect your kids and make sure that they have other people they love nurturing them while you’re moving forward, while you’re in a place of making a lot of mistakes. If you can’t change yourself fast enough, you can at least change your frequency of interactions for a time.

Guilt is a word you didn’t use at all, but I think it is very, very, very likely that guilt is the source of this: “Every display of anger leaves the parent in a further state of depression and self-loathing.” If I’m right, then there is a really nasty cycle starting here, one that needs to be seen and dismantled ASAP. Guilt serves one useful purpose – it shows us what we don’t want to do, who we don’t want to be. Once we’ve recognized that, it is crucial that we let it go. Let go of the mistake, and let go of the guilt. The real danger of feeling guilty is that if we get stuck in that feeling, we are setting ourselves up to fail. Feeling guilty makes it harder to see what we are doing right, what is going well, what we feel good about. Instead, guilt focuses very harshly on how we have failed, with an assumption that those failings are permanently damaging and irreparable. This leads, not to more success, but to more failing – often the same mistakes are repeated, creating more guilt, which leads to, yes, more misery. In order to learn from mistakes, we have to let them go. We have to see ourselves as separate from our mistakes. Guilt attaches our identity to our mistakes, and gets stuck there. So, if I’m at all right with this guess, you need to recognize what you are doing that is positive – tackling a very big problem (substance abuse). Unraveling these internal problems (substance abuse and the underlying causes) is a hugely positive thing.

And don’t stop there! Look at the small stuff. What can you do differently when feelings of frustration start creeping in? What helps you stay calm and centered? There is a way that we can assume we need to ride a feeling through to the end, and I think it can be very freeing to recognize the falseness of that. We can change gears anytime. We can start down a bad path, recognize that, and stop. Turn around. Find another way forward. Just because anger is rising, just because depression is descending, doesn’t mean we have to follow that pattern through to the end. We can, if we figure out how, turn it around. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we start doing that, the better. Maybe you’ll catch yourself in the guilt cycle and figure out how to let that go by calling a friend, or by snuggling with your child, or by feeding yourself a good meal. Maybe you’ll catch yourself in the anger cycle and break it by focusing on your breath, or by going outside, or by opening the curtains to let in some sunlight. Maybe you’ll catch yourself in self-pity and break it by taking a long bath or making a cup of tea or putting on a favorite CD. The specifics that I’m listing are not important. What is important is that you realize that YOU have the power to shift your own mental landscape, the power to choose where to focus your thoughts. How you do that, well, that’s up to you. I’m just reminding you that it is possible. And that you won’t always figure it out. So focus on noticing when you do figure it out. Focus on whatever helps you stay clear, calm, separate from what is hard.

I don’t know how helpful this will be. I don’t know whether it’s even really possible for me to help you at all. I strongly, strongly encourage you to talk to people face to face about everything you wrote to me. Find support where you are. Ask for help. Ask for help. Ask for help. Know that sometimes people won’t be able to help you, and ask anyway. Keep asking until you realize you’re doing okay. Then, remember to return the favor.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Struggling with Food

“I struggle with my weight. When my child was about 2, and I was still choosing to have complete control over what food was in the house and how often or rarely we ate sweets, I was able to lose a bunch of weight and it felt great. It's not just vanity, I have more energy, etc. when I'm at a healthier weight.

Now that I am keeping more sweet stuff in the house, and trying to create a sense of abundance around food, I have gained back all that I lost plus some, and I can't seem to lose it. It is too hard to have all this yummy stuff around and not eat it when I'm tired or frustrated.

I do not want to make my child a part of my issues about food and eating, so do not want to enlist hir "help" in keeping the sweets out of sight or anything like that.

Got any good thinking points for me?”

It seems to me like you’ve got two solid areas to consider – change your internal thinking about food, or change your external environment. Within those areas, you’ve got a lot of options, and I think it’s important to remember that you can work on both areas at the same time. (Set your environment up so that success is easy while also working on dismantling thought patterns that trip you up.)

One important thing I think you need to be aware of is simply that your child, by virtue of living with you, is going to see your issues with food. Maybe that means seeing you indulge in sweet stuff when you’re tired and frustrated, or seeing you put sweet stuff in a special locked cabinet, or seeing you take ten deep breaths and count to 100 every single time you look at a sugary treat, or or or or or… Whatever you do, however you choose to deal with or hide from this issue, that will be part of your child’s environment and frame of reference. I don’t think that talking explicitly with your child about your issues with food will “make” your child part of your issues. I do think that, whether you like it or not, your issues are likely to have some impact on how your child views food. I think there is a difference between saying “I’m buying this for you, so I’m putting it in this drawer/bin/Tupperware/cupboard,” and saying “I’m buying this for you, don’t ever share any with me not matter how much I beg and plead, and always leave it locked so I can’t sneak no matter how much I want to.” Does it change how you view the food if it’s in a drawer with your child’s name on it vs. being in a communal cupboard? Do you want it more or less? (I don’t think there’s a right answer to that one. I think what matters is that you know YOUR answer. If you’ll crave it more if it is supposed to be someone else’s, than give yourself permission to eat it. If you feel freed from wanting it by seeing it as someone else’s, than slap a nametag on it and let it go.)

Some things to think about…

Solve for the exhaustion and frustration that trigger binging you feel bad about. Find ways that consistently work for you to get rest and feel mellow.

Exercise more. Go for walks, ride a bike to the store, get Wii Fit, do yoga in your living room, treat cleaning up as a hardcore workout, do ten jumping jacks and ten pushups every single time you feel remotely crappy, frustrated, tired, hungry, sad, angry, etc.

Read about Margaret Cho’s “fuck it” diet, and consider dismissing all the rest of this “advice” of mine completely.

Stop yourself for a second before eating anything to think about what you’re feeding – your belly, your tongue, your emotions – and whether the food in your hand is the best solution you can think of. Plan ahead. Have a friend to call for when you need emotional support. Give yourself permission to taste things and then spit them in the garbage, or to take a nibble of something and toss the rest in the trash. Make a list of food that gives you energy and satisfies your belly, and post it on your fridge. Make sure your kitchen is stocked with vegetables that are ready to eat, fruit in pretty bowls in obvious places, quick protein snacks on hand (nuts, hard boiled eggs, good meat ready to eat), and so on.

Come up with other ideas for how to soothe yourself if you do end up frustrated or tired – music, light, scents, touch, exercise, sleep, conversations… Then do those things. Put your lists on the cupboards or on the fridge. Stop yourself when you see them, and read them.

You are right that this is your problem. Now you just need to figure out how you want to solve it. I hope something here proves useful.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Liar, Liar

“Help! Someone is manipulating my child, telling them what a bad parent and person I am, fueling any discomfort we have, and basically putting himself between me and my child! Child loves this person and won't stop seeing them. What can I do? I don't want to create a war inside my child's head, that is the definition of coercion, but I want my child to trust me! I don't trust this person so a talk with them is out of the question. (To be honest, I believe this person would do almost exactly the opposite of anything I said, just to piss me off.)”

Tricky, tricky, tricky.

I find myself thinking a lot about the exact nature of the relationships here, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. How is it different if the manipulative person is the child’s best friend? Other parent? Beloved uncle? Stepsister? Grandparent? Next-door neighbor? Is it different?

When I think about it, people cut other people out of their lives in all kinds of situations, so if the child didn’t want to see this person, the problem would be solved. But the child DOES want to see this person. The child loves this person.

So then I wonder how we can break down the problem… What does it mean to manipulate someone? To feed them misinformation? To try to lead them to set conclusions?

There are no perfect parents. All relationships have occasional discomfort. For someone to choose to dig into someone else’s relationship and try to expose it as “bad” seems unnecessary and potentially cruel to me. I think this is clearly how you’re perceiving the situation. There is a real danger here that anything you do to show how wrong the other person is for trying to manipulate your child will be perceived as you choosing to dig into someone else’s relationship and try to expose it as “bad.” Do you see what I mean? Going on the offense seems to me to set you up to become exactly what you dislike about this other person.

Your child loves you. And your child loves this manipulative person. Let’s assume the manipulator loves the child. The right thing for you, the parent, and this manipulative but important person to do seems to me to each have your own separate relationship with the child. Meaning it doesn’t make sense to me for the three of you to hang out together. Or to discuss each other with your child. You can’t control what the manipulator says or does. You can control how you react, and how you act in the first place.

I think that the ideal way forward is to assume the absolute best of your own child. And to protect your own mind. I’m thinking this might mean coming up with an easy answer for reports about the manipulator “hmmm, that’s interesting. I don’t see it that way.” And then let it go. If your child wants to talk more about it, listen. What’s that old saying? If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all? Politely disagree, but don’t get into judging his character. If you are the parent you want to be, then whether the other person claims you are “bad” or not will be irrelevant – you and your child know the truth.

I don’t think people are actually very easy to manipulate – I think we tend to believe what supports what we already know, if that makes sense. So if there are weak areas in your relationship with your child, work on those areas because it is important to you to do so. Strengthen yourself, and your relationship with your child, and what the manipulator says and does will not matter. If you are strong, and your relationship with your child is strong, then the manipulator will become irrelevant, a ghost.

I think if you see this, if this rings true to you, then it might even be possible to turn those attempts at manipulation to your advantage. If something you hear stings, be kind to yourself, and see that as valuable information that there is an area you are not happy with, a place where you can focus on being more present and growing in a positive direction. The manipulator might give specific language to your child, but he cannot control how your child feels or what your child believes. So listen, and be the parent you want to be, and know that the words you hear might be triggering unnecessary reactions for you, so try to get past those reactions and hear the substance, where your child is unhappy, and address that. This is where a simple, standard answer might come in handy – it will give you time to let your emotions settle, so that you aren’t interacting with your child in an angry reactive mode sparked by this other person you don’t trust.

If you are trustworthy, your child will trust you. Who you are, how you treat your child – that’s what trust is built on. At least, that’s what I want to believe. I hope I’m right.

It sounds like a very, very difficult situation. I really hope something here helps.

Friday, June 13, 2008

What'd She Do?

“How would you handle it when you are talking to one child about something they’ve done and a sibling starts asking “what’d she do mom? What’d she do?”

Say the child sprayed another sibling with the hose and parent was explaining that “victim’s” cries implied it was not appreciated and in fact the hose holder herself does not like being sprayed. All the while another sibling is wanting to know “what’d she do?”

I’m supposing one shouldn’t be concerned about answering the question as it was a rather public offense but I worry about telling someone’s stories if they’d rather they not be told.”
-- Sass

My thoughts go in a couple of different directions with this…

It seems to me that just answering the question without judgement is the simplest solution. If something is private enough that it shouldn’t be shared, than it seems to me that it shouldn’t be discussed in a public setting. Of course, it’s also possible to redirect the question – “why don’t you ask her what she did?” Or to find out if it’s okay – “do you mind if I tell your brother what we’re talking about?” Or to answer with a long list… “Well, she woke up, she ate breakfast, she played with you, she went to the bathroom, she came outside, she watered the plants, she watered your brother, she put down the hose, she laughed at my joke… Which part did you miss?”

I wonder, though, if something else is going on. It sounds like maybe there is a punishment mentality here. Like maybe the parent has a certain tone of voice or body language that the kids recognize as meaning that one of them is “in trouble.” If siblings missed the event, much curiosity about what triggered the “in trouble” reaction certainly seems valid from the perspective of avoiding such events in the future. (And I imagine there will be some smug satisfaction coming from those not "in trouble.") Of course, if the parent wants to avoid punishment, then this kind of attention probably trips the guilt switch for her, which makes the whole situation even muddier. The parent doesn’t want to say what happened, because she doesn’t want to own the lecture she realizes she’s handing out… It's important for us to realize that if we are doing something we feel bad about doing, we can always stop. "She sprayed someone with the hose -- let's get some water balloons and bomb the sand box instead!"

I think clarity about what exactly is going on in such a situation will probably lead to an obvious way forward. Maybe the parent needs to pull out the water guns and draw chalk outlines on the fence for everyone to spray. Maybe the whole family needs a safe place for private conversations. Maybe it's time to set up the slip 'n slide. Maybe siblings need to be reminded that they can talk to each other directly and don’t need parents as a translator.

As always, I hope something here helps!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Dietary Restrictions

"What about dietary restrictions due to health or allergy reasons? This is an issue in our home and it is so hard to find common preferences (although we haven't stopped trying!) and going to parties and stuff is really hard (we usually bring our own foods to such events, but I feel like it still singles out the child who can't eat what everyone else is eating and it's not always possible to make something that looks the same, plus I don't have the energy to make an exact big replica birthday cake for every bday party, nor the money.)"

What exactly is the problem?

Is it that replacement food doesn’t taste as good?

Is it that child chooses to eat food that causes health problems?

Is it that having food allergies, by definition, makes a person different from people who don’t have allergies?

Is it something else altogether?

If the replacement food isn’t as good, then it makes sense to me to keep working on finding better replacements. That might mean more time baking, and then freezing options that are really appreciated to have on hand when occasions arise. It might mean thinking outside the cake box, and bringing favorite candies or fresh seasonal fruit or a yummy custard, or homemade ice cream, or whatever will be more delicious for the child than the expected cake.

If the child’s allergies are mild enough, or if the dietary restrictions are such that some flexibility exists, then it makes sense to work together to figure out what the actual parameters are… I’m thinking of adults I know that do things like take enzymes so they can eat dairy in spite of being lactose-intolerant, or make sure they eat enough protein to balance a small piece of birthday cake without impacting their diabetic blood sugar. If that is not an option for obvious health reasons (anaphylactic shock comes to mind), then it’s not an option.

If it’s about being different, well… We all are. It might help to actively notice the positive differences – the things people enjoy, that make their differences seem wonderful instead of unfair. It might also help to bring enough of the safe dessert to share with others – then the boundaries blur, and it’s more like potluck eating, where individuals pick and choose what works for them.

For what it’s worth, sometimes kids without any dietary restrictions aren’t interested in desserts at birthday parties. Some people don’t like cake. Some people don’t like frosting. Some don’t like ice cream. Usually, everyone doesn’t want exactly the same thing. Some want a corner piece of cake with no ice cream. Some want just ice cream. Some want it all. Sometimes people get very excited about the dessert they see at a party, and are horrified by the flavors once they bite into it, and don’t end up eating more than a nibble. The people that are all the same are actually NOT all the same – they all have different tastes and different eating styles.

Also, eating and enjoying the dessert are not essential for having fun at parties, yes? It’s possible to become almost obsessive about something that, when seen through a different lens, can seem trivial. I think that’s a very common problem with food restrictions – we are, by definition, focused on what we can’t eat. Just figuring out how to reframe our experience can help a lot in such a situation. I think developing a good working list of all the amazing, delicious food that people can eat, whenever they want, can help take the pressure off. Maybe having fancy desserts at home on a regular basis will help normalize the experience of dessert to the point that missing one at a party is irrelevant.

Another possibility – become the resident birthday cake expert. Offer to make desserts for friends' parties. Bring amazing desserts to all potlucks. Many people are thrilled at the thought of having a friend help them out by making the cake for them – don’t be afraid to offer. Or maybe there's a brand of ice cream that is safe, offer to bring that. Whatever works.

I know first-hand how challenging this situation can be, and how hard it is to avoid feeling self-pity when faced with food that looks yummy and is off-limits. I hope that something here helps, even just a little.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Changing the Rules

“What would you do if child likes playing certain games outside the house, but whenever you do, a neighbor child comes over to play along and takes over the game and only wants to play *hir* way, not the way of the child whose game s/he invited hirself to play? This could be flipped around, too. What if one's child is the kid who changes the rules of other kids' games, sometimes against the other kids' wishes? Intervene or no? If so, how?”
-- P.F.

I think it never hurts to just ask, you know?

“Is everybody having fun?”

“How’s the game going?”

"Anybody need any help?"

And I don’t recommend all of these questions, or any of them, necessarily. It’s the idea of checking in with the people who are actually involved in the situation that I think is important.

And then, when you’ve gotten your answer (or been politely ignored cuz they’re both mesmerized by the game) the way forward in that moment will be clear.

In either situation, I think it also makes sense to talk to your own child out of the moment. Figuring out how to ask open-ended questions is important. For instance, “don’t you hate it when Billy Bob takes over your game and only wants to play HIS way?” Is a very different question than “how did you like the game you and Billy Bob played today?”

I think, though, that at the crux of this question is a parental fear of bullying. And I think it is important to address bullying as a potential issue. The key, I think, is separating out what the parent is overlaying on the situation due to the parent’s history from what is actually happening in the situation.

Some thoughts about that… If your child is genuinely happy having a “leader” to play with, that isn’t a problem as long as (and I think this is important) the child knows lots of other children and isn’t stuck with one friend, and the child knows how to say “no, I don’t want to play that way” if, in fact, the leader is pushing the game to unwanted places. On the flip side, it isn’t a bad thing for a person to have strong ideas about how they spend their time, as long as those ideas are not being forced on other people against their will. In that case, I think it makes sense to talk about or roleplay scenarios where the other child doesn’t want to keep playing – what happens then? How does one gracefully change the rules to accommodate everyone's interests? Or, if that isn’t wanted, how does one gracefully part ways for a time?

The bottom line, for me, is simply that changing the rules can be a very good thing, as long as the changes lead to more enjoyment. If the changes are creating discord or unhappiness, then other solutions need to be found.

Ah, I just re-read and was struck by one more important thought – if your child doesn’t want the other child to take over, and isn’t comfortable voicing that to the other child, then I believe it is the parent’s responsibility to simply, kindly tell the other child “we want to do this our way today. These are our rules, and we aren’t changing them today.” And, flipping the scenario, if it is obvious that the other child does not want to have the rules changed, I think it is the parent’s responsibility to simply, kindly tell her own child “he doesn’t want us to change the rules for his game. Should we play our own game with those rules, or do you want to try Billy Bob’s game with his rules, or should we go out for ice cream?” As always, I do not recommend using my words as a script – I’m just putting them out here as a quick and easy way to illustrate the kind of connection I find most useful. You know your child and the neighbor far better than I do!

I hope something here helps!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Visiting Teen

“Hubby has agreed to have troubled 18yo nephew stay with us for 6 months at the request of his brother (boy's father). He will be coming from overseas. He has been involved in 3 car accidents which stemmed from alcohol and drugs (he was driving once) and has a history of party drug use. Argh! I don't think we need this as a family. This is the 3rd time that hubby's siblings have sent wayward offspring. I'm not convinced that this is going to be successful and I would hate to end up on bad terms with the boy or his mother and father.

After the other 2 times, hubby said, that's it, no more. Then he caves in again and agrees to this. I can't imagine this boy settling in here. He likes to party and have fun. And we'll have to be the ones that say 'no'. I'm also concerned about any
possible influence he may have on my teens.

The deal is done though. Now I need some guidance on what type of rules and boundaries to set down and how to spell it out to the boy.”


What a messy situation.

I’m not sure I believe in done deals, by the way. Until he gets on the plane, the whole thing can be canceled. Once he’s on your continent, he can always turn around and go back to his parents.

I’m also not too hot on rules and artificial boundaries. However, I do think it is critical that you know your own boundaries, and that you are able to clearly articulate them to him. For instance, will he have access to your vehicles? Do people have sleep schedules that need to be respected? Will he have his own space, privacy, and time on his own? If he’s working for you, what are the safety requirements?

The most important thing of all, I think, is this: does he want to come to stay with you?

What are his intentions? If he’s wanting to make changes in his life and he’s excited about staying with you, then it seems to me that it’s up to you to be clear about what, exactly, your expectations are. Is he a guest? A tenant? An employee? Is he paying his way by working for you? Are you hosting him? Will he get a job and contribute financially to your household? Are his parents subsidizing his visit?

Are his parents forcing him, via emotional or financial obligations, to visit you? If so, I’m sorry. I think if he is there without believing that he’s chosen to be there, it will be more challenging for all of you. It will, I think, become even more important for you and your family to focus in on what you’re wanting from this situation, and to really hear his concerns and his desires.

So, what is the nature of the agreement? I think clarity about what you all want from the situation is crucial. And frankly, I would be much more interested and concerned about what his plans and goals are than what his parents want. His parents won’t be there. He will. You will. It’s up to you, your family, and him to figure out how this is going to work, what exactly you’re all hoping to accomplish.

And then, of course, what kind of back-up plans do you have in place? It seems obvious to me that if it isn’t working for you or for him, he will need to be able to hop back on a plane and head home. How about in-between situations? What happens if things are difficult – how do you plan to resolve your differences? It strikes me as a potentially painful and damaging situation for everyone if you buy into the idea that you’re “stuck” with each other.

What made the other two times unpleasant for you? What was good about those two time? If you can address, in your own mind, what didn’t work for you before, you can put plans in place to prevent a repeat. If you can find the bits that worked, you can figure out how to have more of the good.

And since you are agreeing to this, I think it’s important for you to be able to really welcome him. Assume the best, and give him a real chance to meet or surpass your expectations. Expecting him to corrupt your kids and disappoint you isn’t going to be good for anyone. So look inside and figure out how you can be present in a positive way for yourself, your family, and this man.

I realize I haven’t really answered your question. I don’t know the answer – it’s so entirely dependent on the fine details and the individuals. The broad brushstrokes? Look for ways to support his independent endeavors. Protect what you love about your home and your family. Assume that you will be able to solve the problems you encounter.

I hope this is at least a little helpful!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Scary Sounds

"How might you support a child who hates loud unexpected noises, especially high-pitched ones, but otherwise enjoys places where such noises tend to occur (e.g. swimming pool, playground)?"

Is it the sound or the surprise?


Headphones and an iPod or an old fashioned walkman? (That would be for the playground, not the swimming pool.)

Watching TV shows or movies that feature shrieking kids, and playing with the reality of such shocking and high pitched sound in a totally controlled environment?

Playing games with making loud unexpected noises – surprising each other, or tagging with sound, or pretend with stuffed animals or dolls?

Have some sort of “come back,” internal or external to the sound and the surprise of it? Maybe a song, a saying, a shudder, a shout… I’m imagining something grounding and assertive, like Gandalf stating “you shall not pass” to the Balrog… Or maybe comparing live shrieks to TV/movie shrieks? Or to sounds made by vehicles, animals, or musical instruments?

It also might help to have the parent playing official tour guide “that sound was made by the girl at the far end of the pool that got splashed right in the face. She’s laughing now, and splashing back, but she sure was surprised by her friend.” “That sound was made by the child that went down the slide. He’s having a lot of fun.” Providing the context, showing that the sounds are not intended to be painful or frightening.

Does this child ever make loud unexpected noises? Maybe even high-pitched ones? If so, it might be worthwhile to point ‘em out. And to notice if those sounds were alarming for anyone in the area. Not in any kind of shaming way, but just matter of fact. Surprising loud noises happen. I think it’s the interpretation of them as scary or bad that is causing the problems here, so figuring out how to reframe them might be really useful.

I hope something here helps.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Oh, sugar sugar...

“My children want to eat lots of foods that I dislike for their high sugar content and general yuckiness; mainly sweets and candies. I resent buying foods that I would not eat myself and that I can't seriously class as 'food' since they provide little to no nourishment. But I don't want to play the ogre and 'ban' them nor do I want to place them in the realm of desire and fantasy, out of reach and much longed for. I can't get my head around the idea that they will self-regulate when I have seen little evidence for it! Especially when I find sugar so addictive myself and find it hard to regulate when it is in the house. What to do when they seem to want this stuff daily?”
-- Claire

Sweets and candies might be devoid of vitamins and minerals and protein and fiber but all that sugar does provide energy. And they certainly taste good. When it comes to food, I think it’s important to remember that there are many criteria involved in deciding what to eat. Visual appeal, taste, smell, texture, how one feels after eating, ideas about nutrition, and so on. I think it’s all too common for adults to get so hung up on their ideas about nutrition that they forget about the importance of all of those other bits. Add in the heavy weight of parental responsibility for our kids, and you’ve got a recipe for guilt, doubt, despair, and, of course, coercion.

I like to believe that, given lots of options, people will naturally be interested in food that is attractive, tasty, and nourishing. Don’t know if I’m right about that or not, but it’s definitely my bias.

With that assumption in place, I think it makes sense for parents to be very active about offering attractive, delicious, and nourishing food to their kids. Premade candies are usually visually appealing, tasty, and very easy. No preparation required, no adult assistance necessary, just instant gratification. I think it’s common for people who ignore early hunger signs to go for the quick sugar fix once they feel their bodies getting sluggish. So one question that might be worth asking is simply this: how easy is it for kids to have access to other yummy food? How to make sure that good food is easily available? Berry bushes and fruit trees in the yard? Maybe some help yourself frittata on a low shelf in the fridge? Is there a bowl of seasonal fruit on the table? How about cheese cubes or sliced meat on hand in the fridge? Fun individual water bottles? (Sigg has some really nice ones, though they are certainly pricey.) Snack plates with fruit and veggies and meat and cheese and nuts? Fancy bento boxes to take outside?

I think if you shift the focus away from “Ack! They’re eating so much crap!” And on to “Hmmm… What delicious and nutritious food should I offer today?” You distance yourself from fear and policing, and move towards helping them learn about how to best feed their own bodies.

I think it’s also useful to talk about how foods make us feel, what is in different foods and how our bodies use all those different things. In an honest conversation about what’s in food, sugar as a quick source of energy is something that should, I think, be shared, along with some info about how protein helps our bodies build muscles, and how complex carbs help us have sustained energy (instead of the faster highs and lows of simple carbs), the importance of good fats, and on and on. Though, of course, droning on and on at your children, as I’m doing here, is definitely not recommended.

Just go foraging for some wild berries and enjoy a picnic lunch instead.

Ah, I just re-read your original question and I noticed that I glossed over something, namely this: “I resent buying foods that I would not eat myself and that I can't seriously class as 'food' since they provide little to no nourishment.” I think this definitely merits a closer look. Resent it why? Do you resent buying consumable art supplies? Or food that gets turned into magic potions instead of being eaten? Is there a really tight budget at play? I certainly don’t expect or even want you to answer all these questions here, with me – I’m just trying to help you see your own thoughts. Depending on what the underlying issues really are, it might be helpful to think of sweets and candies as belonging in the same realm as art supplies or toys – of course they must be budgeted for, but the money allotted for them should not be the same money that is allotted for food that the whole family eats. Meaning, it seems a mistake to me to deprive yourself of fresh strawberries so that you can buy candies you won’t even enjoy. Reclassifying candy as a fun learning tool instead of as food might help lighten your thinking about it. It might be fun, as a family, to talk about the foods that others would re-classify… Most kids I know are not impressed by having alcohol included in the food budget, for example. And there are always foods one person adores that another can’t imagine eating.

Of course, the other thing I glossed over is the idea that “I find sugar so addictive myself and find it hard to regulate when it is in the house.” Does this mean that they want candy, you buy it, and then you have to fight with yourself to keep from eating it? Or that you end up eating it and feeling crappy? If you can figure out what the real issues here are – financial, your own ideas about sugar addiction, or something else entirely, I think you’ll find ways of solving those problems. Maybe the candy needs to be in a treasure box only the kids have keys for. Maybe you need to start a local chapter of sugar-bingers anonymous. Maybe it’s time to start baking, or buy an ice cream maker.

Maybe I’m missing the most obvious answers of all – if so, maybe my musings will help you find ‘em.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Gone Girlfriend

“My girlfriend is gone for a couple of weeks. I miss her. What should I do?”
--All Alone and Lonely

Ah, the lewd jokes I could write…

Missing someone means so many different things. I think it can be useful to unravel those strands a bit. Do you miss talking to her? Snuggling with her? Seeing her smile? Playing a game together? Hearing her laugh at a joke?

Figuring out what is missed can make finding a solution easier. (And yes, I do know that sometimes we just miss everything single thing there is about a person. If so, I promise it won't hurt to try some of my ideas anyway. I freely admit that there are no miracle cures.) Talking on the phone can be glorious. Sometimes the extra distance and the focus that the phone imposes create a very valuable space for discussing all kinds of things. Physical touch is important for people – a hug from a friend, visiting a much-loved niece or nephew, getting a massage, taking a very hands-on martial arts class – there are many ways to increase physical contact, which can do a lot to alleviate some feelings of physical isolation. Taking note of mundane things she’ll enjoy hearing about can be great fun. Good pictures of each other can be invaluable. And a well-worn unwashed t-shirt is a great snuggle aid. Of course, hanging out with friends and enjoying games, movies, life – that’s all good. Always good, actually.

I think a lot of my ideas boil down to two basic concepts… Find ways to connect with her and honor her unique importance to you, AND find ways to meet some of the needs she usually fills on your own and with friends.

And then enjoy her homecoming.