blended families, Family, Parenting

Hope for Blended Families: When Your Brady Bunch is a Weighty Bunch

3774955 - beautiful family on the dock

One of my favorite tv shows while I was growing up was The Brady Bunch.  Mike and Carol Brady managed each contrived family challenge with ease and contentment.  That’s why the popular sitcom is definitely a better example of fiction than of blended families.  Some of the most challenging cases I have seen in therapy are those with combined households.  Blended families are by nature exposed to a great deal of stress.  Some reasons they are particularly challenging are:

  1. Family structures are constantly shifting, with children coming and going. In families where both parents have children and the children spend time with both parents, they are in constant transition from one household to another.  Transitions generate stress.
  2. Children have loyalties to both parents. Children feel stuck in the middle trying to please their biological parents.  They can easily feel disloyal to a bioparent by accepting a stepparent.
  3. People often feel differently about their biological children than stepchildren. This isn’t how people want it to be, but the reality is that most people have an easier time empathizing with their own children.
  4. Children from different households have often been raised with different rules and types of discipline. This can generate arguments between the parents about how to develop and enforce rules.
  5. Blended families can have children in different life-cycle stages. For example, a parent with teenagers might marry someone with preschoolers, increasing the complexity of understanding and meeting the needs of all household members.

It’s important to note that blended families and step-parents have great potentiality for developing well-adjusted, secure individuals if the parents can work together and maintain amiable relationships with their former spouses.  I know of many instances in which a stepparent provided the type of love and security children need to have confidence in stable relationships.

Some intentional things blended families can do are:

  1. Promote a discussion acknowledging losses and gains of each family member.  Have an actual meeting in which you allow children to draw pictures or voice the things they miss from their biological families.  Then, ask what they have gained.  If children are asked about losses, they can immediately feel more validated and safer sharing their fearful and uncomfortable emotions.
  2. Establish a new family tradition with the blended family. Allow each family member to have input on what this might be.  Don’t overthink it.  Small rituals are powerful.
  3. Make sure stepparents spend one-on-one time with stepchildren. I’m disappointed by how many blended families miss this opportunity.  Parents have former history with their biological children.  They need to create new history with stepchildren.
  4. Think of parenting stepchildren as mentoring rather than traditional parenting. How would you mentor a niece or nephew?  The stepparent relationship is different than the biological relationship.  This must be acknowledged and respected.  Do NOT require stepchildren to call you “Mom,” or “Dad,” but if they want to, let them.
  5. Reinforce the marriage. This is even more important in blended families than in biological families.  The issues with children can quickly fray the marriage.  Take time to date, have discussions, attend workshops, and actively implement strategies to express love and care in the couple relationship.

As a general rule, if people focused more on improving relationships than on discipline, I believe there would be far less headaches with blended families.  This requires a certain level of emotional regulation on the part of the parents, who may be rejected by stepchildren.  Remember, your children are not there to meet YOUR emotional needs…you are there to meet your children’s emotional needs and help them develop into functioning, healthy human beings…those of the non-fictional variety.

Photo: Copyright: creativestoc / 123RF Stock Photo

Adolescence, Attachment, Couples, Couples Therapy, Family, Holidays, Marriage and Family Therapy, Parenting, Parenting Teenagers

Presents or Presence this Holiday Season?

couple presence presents

I sent my husband a text the other day by speaking into the phone as usual, and right before I sent it, I glanced at it to make sure it was comprehensible.  What I saw actually took me by surprise.  I was sending him a message saying, “I got you the best presents for Christmas,” and I noticed that the voice recognition message had printed, “I got you the best presence for Christmas.”

Most of us are so busy during the holidays (or ever) that presence is the last thing on our minds.  The concept of presence in interpersonal relationships implies intentionally focusing on the other person and really being with them.

When Mitch Albom wrote Tuesdays with Morrie, about his experiences with a former university professor who was afflicted with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, he explained how Morrie Schwartz taught him by example how to be present.  He wrote, “When Morrie was with you, he was really with you.  He looked you straight in the eye, and he listened as if you were the only person in the world.”  Morrie himself said, “I believe in being fully present…That means you should be WITH the person you’re with.”

One of the things I love about being a therapist is that I share a very well-defined space and time with another set of individuals.  This allows me to focus all of my attention on those people during that time with no other distractions.  It’s easy to be present in those situations.

Exercising that kind of presence at home with the multiple demands on my time is a different story.  I understand how difficult it can be to be present.  I am by nature a fairly hurried person.  I became very aware of this on our last family vacation when we were visiting various places.  I routinely end up walking alone tens of yards in front of everyone.  My family is endlessly amused by this.  I think it’s a habit I picked up from trying to keep up with my mother when I was young.  She was also a very fast walker, and I seem to have a lot of the same nervous energy she possessed.  I am also a relentless multi-tasker, which makes it very difficult to slow down and focus on one thing.

The other night, I was on my computer, and my husband walked in and said something to me, put something next to me with a flourish, and while I was staring at my screen and typing, I was mumbling, “OK, thanks, Hon,” not paying any attention at all.  I was vaguely aware that he blew me a kiss before walking out the door.  It wasn’t until after he left that I looked down and saw that he had brought me something with almond butter that he had spread in the shape of a heart.  As I looked at it, the words he had used echoed in my mind and this time I paid attention.  He had walked in and said, “Notice that I spread this in a heart shape to show my love for my beautiful bride,” and then he blew me a kiss even after I was completely dismissive and inattentive to him.

This time, I was able to correct the interaction because I noticed.  I called him back in and apologized that I had been so inattentive when he had put forth effort for me.  Unfortunately, that was the exception.  Most of us can benefit by trying to increase our presence in our familial relationships.

Here are some ideas to increase your presence with family members:

  1. Slow down and breathe.  You can’t be present if you are hurried.  This is hard for me.  When I’m trying to slow down, I often purposely breathe to stay focused and keep my mind from racing.  If I get distracted, I can breathe and return to the immediate conversation.
  2. Put down your electronic devices. Sit on your hands if you have to.  The other day, I heard my daughter say, “Hello!  I am trying to have a conversation with an actual human…and also, did you know that you are messing up your melatonin levels by staring at that little screen and it’s going to be harder for you to sleep tonight?” (Thank you, medical anatomy).  When I explained that I did know that, which was why I had a store of melatonin in the medicine cabinet, I earned another lecture on the pitfalls of artificially altering my hormone levels, blah blah blah, which made me want to look at my phone more.  I realized that as long as I had my phone in my hand, I kept getting distracted by other things I “had to do,” and I kept returning to the alluring siren’s song of the cell phone during the gaps in our conversation.  Shame on me!  My teenage daughter actually wanted to talk to me, and I was dismissing her.
  3. Make eye contact. Eye contact is so simple, yet it is powerful.  Many couples in therapy have a very difficult time making eye contact because it is so connecting, and they often feel vulnerable in the process.  Eye contact improves empathy.
  4. Be curious. Be a detective of what it’s like to be the other person in front of you.  What are they really experiencing?  Have there been times when you have felt that same way?  What are they trying to tell you?  If you communicate that you really want to understand, and it feels authentic, people will usually disclose more.
  5. Check in with the Other Person.  By this I mean authentically reflecting back key points of the conversation to make sure you are really understanding correctly.  This isn’t so much a “communication skill,” as a way of being with someone.  If you are faking it, your spouse can usually tell, and it will be ineffective.
  6. Figure out how to make Your Presence Helpful. Does this person need some kind of validation or support?  If you don’t know what that is, communicate that you would like to know how to be helpful.
  7. Create time and space to be present. This seems obvious, but if it’s not scheduled in, I guarantee many other things will take your time, and it just won’t happen.

While I have been typing this, I have successfully dismissed a spouse and three of my seven children.  Ironic, I know.  The good news is that being present can start NOW if you want.  Before you go to bed tonight, see if you can practice being really present for five minutes with a family member, and then notice whether it had any kind of immediate impact.  Even though I’m still learning how to be present, I do believe it is one of the best presents you can give to a family member this season.

Now excuse me while I go check my email…..


Tuesdays with Morrie: An old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson by Mitch Albom, 2007, Random House, LLC, Broadway Books.

Family, Fatherhood

Lessons my Father Taught Me (That I Wish I had Learned Better)


As a mother of five sons, I am troubled by the trend to disparage fathers’ roles in the family and to treat men as dispensable.  Some of the most important lessons that were modeled for me came from my father.  I can say the same about my mother, but despite the fact that my father was extremely busy running a business and serving for most of my life in an unpaid ecclesiastical position at church as well as participating in community organizations, he had a profound influence on me.  My feelings about my dad may be viewed by many as exaggerations, but my husband can vouch for the veracity of my sentiments.  Ever since we were engaged, he frequently remarked, “There are very few men like your dad.  He is awesome.”  I agree.  Now that he is gone, there is so much that I miss, but his memory definitely lives on.  He taught me:

  1. Practice Discipline.  My father was a paragon of discipline.  I could set my watch by my dad arising at 5:30 a.m. every day to get ready for work and coming home at 6:30 p.m. every night before leaving to volunteer in church service.  On Saturday, he still arose at 5:30 and worked until 12:30 that afternoon.  He was entirely reliable and predictable.
  2. Things don’t buy happiness. Even though he could have afforded to purchase more material possessions, trips and leisure for himself, he did not.  He once said that one of his goals in life was to, “make as much money as I can and not spend it on myself.”  That’s exactly what he did.  He helped family members in need frequently, but he was never the first person to buy the latest technology and he was entirely modest in his appearance, and thought buying things to impress others or “keep up with the Joneses,” was “foolishness.”
  3. You can be happy even if bad things happen to you. I never knew my paternal grandparents because my grandmother died when my father was 14 and his father was murdered by a Los Angeles street gang when he was around 30.  It was a case that made the front page of the L.A. Times when it occurred, as well as coverage of the trial in which the murderers were freed instead of being held accountable for their actions.  My father never mentioned this to me, but after my mother told me when I was a teenager, and I asked my father how he kept from being bitter, he said, “It was very difficult, but you can make a choice about your future despite what happens to you in the past.”  He had no patience for a victim mentality.  He came home every night from work smiling and as he entered the house, shouted, “Is everybody happy?”  (see previous blog post  His happiness was contagious.
  4. The best things in life are the simple things. Even though we lived 20 minutes from the nearest beach, I spent far more time with my father in the mountains.  Every year we took a 2-3 week vacation visiting national parks, and my father made it magical.  He would invite me on hikes to go “exploring,” and our family was often the only one in the freezing swimming holes in the Sierra Nevada mountains.  My father would jump in first and start barking like a seal, in reference to the cold water, and we would follow his lead until our bodies were red and numb.  He made pineapple upside cake in the Dutch oven and played his harmonica while he was driving.  As we drove long distances, he made up stories for us.  One of his ongoing themes was that he was half Navajo, and he spun sagas about his days growing up on the reservation (he had grown up near Native American reservations in the shadow of Mt. Graham in Arizona).  While we hiked, he remarked that if I wanted to be a good Navajo, I would make far less noise so as not to upset the animals.  When teaching me to build a fire, he remarked that a Navajo would wisely build a fire which smoldered without large flames so you could get close to it to be warm, but that the “foolish white man,” builds a large fire which you can’t get close to without risk of injury.  Because my father had dark hair, I completely believed that he was half Navajo, which absolutely thrilled me.  I was so disappointed when I found out at age 10 that I really wasn’t part Navajo.
  5. Reach out to people. This one is hard for me.  I’m an introvert by nature.  My father, however, made people feel important wherever we went.  If we were being waited on in a store or restaurant, he would enthusiastically ask the service personnel how their days were going, and he was genuinely concerned about their welfare.  In California, we had neighbors representing various ethnicities and religions, and he frequently took our Jewish, Egyptian, and Asian neighbors, etc., bags of citrus fruit from our trees or vegetables from our garden.  He introduced himself to new neighbors and came home telling us about them—not just to be nice, but because he was truly interested in others.
  6. You can’t control other people. My father wasn’t afraid to dispense advice, but he also recognized that people need to carve out their own lives.  When I said I wanted to get married, he was less than thrilled, but he said it was my choice.  The night before my wedding, he counseled, “I just want you to be happy.  I want you to know that even though the invitations are out, you can still change your mind.”  Even though he ended up loving my husband and often remarked that, “Your husband loves you as much as anyone I’ve ever seen love his wife,” he had genuine concerns about my age at marriage, but was supportive.  When I said I wanted to be a therapist, he was confused about why I would choose that instead of computer science, but again, supported me.
  7. Anger should be used sparingly. For the most part, my father was a thermostat.  He raised his voice rarely, and was direct but calm in his communication.  I remember one time in particular in which he was expressing a concern he had about me, and I reacted with typical adolescent defensiveness, and I wasn’t nice about it.  He stayed very calm, and looked me in the eye and said, “Lori, you are not being honest with yourself.”  I knew he was right, and I had no response.  His incisive observations, followed up occasionally with, “I’m very disappointed,” earned more of my respect than if he had been harsh.
  8. Work and productivity are valuable. My father was a very hard worker.  After working all week and part of Saturday, instead of using his time in leisure, except for the occasional golf match, he routinely came home and we worked alongside him.  He scrubbed our kitchen floor because he knew it hurt my mother’s back.  He grafted fruit trees and tended them to grow various citrus fruits and avocados.  He planted a large vegetable garden which yielded frequent dinners entirely composed of the seasonal harvest, and he took great pleasure in eating one of his homegrown tangerines or tomatoes…and the thing is, for lack of leisure time, I remember my dad as being very energetic and fun.
  9. Women are just as valuable as men. For my whole life, my father encouraged scholastic achievement, because he saw education as “your best insurance policy.”  He talked to me frequently about the importance of being educated.  Being pragmatic, he was not as encouraging of the arts as he was of math and science, but he took a lot of interest in me and I never felt like a second-class citizen because of my gender.  He loved and respected my mother a great deal, and intervened if we were sassy toward her.  He did chores around the house to make her life easier and was sensitive to her ongoing back pain.  In turn, I knew my mother thought my father was amazing and she admired and respected him.
  10. Do what makes sense. In the world today, this seems somewhat controversial, but my father was a practical man.  When I was taking both piano and gymnastics/dance lessons he pointed our regularly that, “By the time you’re 30, you’re not likely to be putting on a dance recital or doing back flips, but you will be able to play the piano into your old age.”  He said this whenever I wanted to quit piano lessons because it wasn’t nearly as fun as dance and gymnastics (mastering the piano is much harder than most people who haven’t done it think it is).  However, I was never ever required to learn the piano–it was my choice.  I puzzle over parents who try to force their children to learn musical instruments, which often robs the process of independence and fun.  I owe my proficiency on the piano and organ almost entirely to my father’s encouragement without coercion.
  11. Don’t take yourself too seriously. My dad was funny without being mean-spirited and without drawing a lot of attention to himself.  He had a quick wit and was just basically pleasant to be around most of the time.  I still marvel that after running a sizeable business in L.A. and San Francisco, volunteering his time in the leadership of his professional organization, and volunteering LOTS of time in our church, he was as engaged and fun as he was.  I honestly don’t know how he did it.

This is a small snapshot.  My father made me feel like the luckiest girl in daddy-dom.  I truly wish I were more like him.  I asked my husband to read it and see if I left anything out, and in his words, “You could add that his life reflected that true joy comes from loving God and family first—and then, maybe work, country and USC football (his alma mater).”  He was the king of balance, and somehow managed to leave a legacy of work success and fun.  I know nobody’s perfect, but I am 100% convinced my dad was as close as one can get.  I’m still hoping someday more of his training will stick.

Family, Grandparents, Marriage and Family Therapy

Grandparenting Power

Courtesy of Holly Robinson at
Courtesy of Holly Robinson at

When my dad passed away a few years ago, one of the saddest things about it for me as the youngest of six children was that my younger children wouldn’t experience his amazing personality.  I was already sad that my mom was gone and my kids wouldn’t be on the receiving end of her endless generosity.

Grandparents can have important protective impacts on children

Research demonstrates consistently that grandparents are potentially significantly influential in the cognitive, social and emotional development of children.  Positive grandparenting interactions are protective for children and can even moderate some negative childhood experiences.

Considering grandparenting can be a way to refocus on others in later life

I have had many opportunities to meet with people in therapy who are faced with various life transitions.  Sometimes, there has been a rupture in the family structure with loss of family members  due to death or divorce or children leaving home.  Sometimes, there are job changes based on unemployment or retirement.  Sometimes, normal aging processes and health challenges require transitions into new routines with limitations.  In these situations, it is common to experience stress, often accompanied by fear of the unknown and discomfort with the unfamiliar.  People often experience a type of existential angst about their identities, purpose and meaning.

Grandparenting can shape legacies

I like to introduce the idea of creating legacies through grandparenting, which is a frequently overlooked role in modern American life.  I often ask, “Have you thought about what kind of grandparent you want to be?  Do you realize how many potentially positive memories you can create for your grandchildren that can have a generational impact?”  It’s one of the few ways to really create an enduring legacy.

Grandparents can form safe attachment and happy memories

I only knew one of my four grandparents, but my little Swedish maternal grandmother was at the forefront of my life in shaping my identity and self-concept.  I spent a lot of time with her when I was young while my mother was recovering from back surgery.  Grandma had been widowed, and I kept her company while she kept me out of my mom’s hair.  Her nurturing was key in my experiencing the world as a safe and happy place.

Her memory jumps out at me in unexpected ways.  The other day, I walked into a market and was ecstatic to see a display of seasonal persimmons for sale.  I literally felt a wave of positive emotion connected to my maternal grandmother, who had introduced me to the unique fruit almost five decades earlier.  I bought a bag of them and took them home. As I bit into one, I was transported to her green-carpeted family room floor, where I would lie, listening to Swedish learning records she would play for me every time I visited.  I found that if I listened to the records and could then recite back to her many of the words I remembered, she would comment on how brilliant I was and brag to her friends about my intellectual skills.  I didn’t care that her exaggerations were inaccurate;  it gave me the feeling that someone believed in me and fueled my motivation to learn.

She and I had established a ritual upon entering her home in which she would ask me if I wanted something to eat.  She wasn’t the type of grandma to bake cakes and cookies, but she always had produce that my mother didn’t keep at our house.  This included more practical simple dishes, like sautéed spinach with lemon on the side, which was my standard snack food at her home.  She had a predilection toward unusual fruits and vegetables, and it seemed like every time I visited, she would introduce something new to my developing palate.

On one visit, she showed me how to eat an artichoke.  On another, she made me sautéed parsnips, and to this day the nutty flavor and texture of parsnips is associated with a warm hug and smile from my grandmother.  She introduced me to the small tangy kumquats that grew on a tree in her backyard, and eating them became a sort of Fear Factor challenge.  I have developed a near-obsession with acquiring boiled peanuts, since she kept cans of them procured from relatives in my grandfather’s native Florida.  I am often bringing home unique fruits and vegetables to my children, and when I was explaining persimmons to my daughter and how my grandmother taught me how to eat them, she said, “Oh, that’s why you like all those weird fruits and vegetables.”  Well.

Grandma was persistently cheery and smiled a lot, and if I needed correction, she always used a gentle approach to redirect my actions.   I don’t ever remember her raising her voice at me.  In her spare time, she had a practice of driving all of her widowed friends who no longer drove vehicles to their doctor appointments. She told me fascinating stories about when she was a child, like dancing around the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve in the Swedish tradition, or about sledding in Salt Lake City, Utah (her Swedish parents emigrated from Sweden to Utah in the late 1800’s).  For a southern California girl, the thought of having snow in my yard was surreal and I never tired of her descriptions.

She explained the story of how she got two middle names, since when she was born, she was going to be named “Pearl Adaline,” (pronounced “Adalina,” but retaining the Swedish spelling).  She explained that she only weighed 2 ½ pounds at birth, and her father gave her a baby blessing and added the name, “Eva,” up front, since it meant “life.”  She would say her entire name with Swedish emphasis on the first syllables, so it came out in a melodious, “Eeva Puurrl Aaada-leena,” and to this day when I’m telling my kids that story, I find myself adopting a temporary sing-songy Swedish lilt.

She regularly made me her travel companion as she visited and introduced me to an endless stream of distant relatives.  In short, she was literally one of the friendliest and most service-oriented people I knew, and she made me feel like I was valuable in the world.

When she died at age 90, and I helped dress her for her funeral, I was heavily impacted by the realization that none of her earthly possessions had followed her beyond mortality, but that the relationship she cultivated with me would potentially influence generations of people.

Simply stated, intentional grandparenting is one of life’s grandest gifts.  I look forward to being a grandma.  It matters.

Couples, Couples Therapy, Family, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy, Parenting

How to be a Marital Superhero for your Children to Infinity and Beyond in One Easy Step

How Mom Found Her Love
My son’s picture

My husband taught me a simple, yet powerful tool to build safety and security in marriage as well as in the entire family.  It’s kind of humbling, considering the fact that I’m the one with two advanced university degrees in marriage and family therapy.  Here’s the story behind it:

Several years ago, I was tidying up a room in my house and picked up some random papers upon which my children had been sketching various pictures.  One paper immediately caught my attention because my son had printed in crayon the words, “How mom found her love,” at the top of the page.  Under the words was an amusing hand-sketched version of me with bad hair, wide-eyed and open-mouthed (and a little crazy looking), with the words, “gasp,” spelled out in a speech bubble flowing from my mouth.

This one-dimensional version of me was apparently meant to be a portrayal of the first time I met my husband, who was pictured inches away on the same page, with Hulk-like tattered shorts and an impressive four-pack on his abdomen.  I laughed out loud and decided this picture was a keeper.

When I asked him about it later, he told me that he drew it because, “Dad is always saying you’re his dream girl, and you’re in LOOOVE.”  He was right, and I suddenly felt a little bit sad, because I realized that he drew the picture based on how his father treated me instead of the reverse.  My husband had a ritualistic habit of asking my children various rhetorical questions to which they had learned to shout specific replies.

Question: Do you know who my best friend is?

Answer: Mommy!!!

Question:  Guess who I love the most?

Answer: Mommy!!!

Question:  Guess what? (This question usually elicited several guesses based on his past responses)

Answer:  You love mommy!  Mom’s your dream girl!  You think mom’s gorgeous!  Mom’s your best friend!

He would smile and answer, “That’s right,” while winking at me from across the room.  He was always coming up with new questions to let them (and me) know that I mattered to him.

The embarrassing thing to me was that he was so good at it, and I was the marriage therapist.  He was always beating me at my own game.

When I found my son’s picture, I actually got a little teary, because I didn’t play the part of the adoring wife nearly as well as he had played the adoring husband.  I made a resolve to do a better job of following his example, and I started asking my younger children the same types of questions he asked all the time, like, “Do you know what I love about daddy?”  I was surprised at the immediate effects.

Asking your children if they know what you love about your spouse is a simple strategy which provides a variety of benefits, such as:

  1. It can increase authentic positive feelings about your spouse.    When I verbalized to my children what I loved and appreciated about their dad, I actually generated those positive feelings within.  The process of thinking of things to say, and remembering scenes from our past to share with my children was associated with real feelings of love.  Recent brain research verifies this process.
  2. It helps children feel more secure. When children are reminded consistently that their parents love each other in an authentic way, they enjoy protective mental health benefits, also supported by research.  Children gain what theorists and researchers call a “felt sense of security,” from displays of a high quality marriage.
  3. It puts money in the relationship bank.  This is an easy way of building the positive to negative interactions ratio John Gottman promotes, which can buffer a relationship from the inevitable conflicts and struggles of life.
  4. It provides modeling for children later in their own marriages. Children learn how to be spouses in large part by watching marital process in the home–also research-documented.

I have sometimes presented this strategy as an idea at marriage workshops, and have on several occasions had couples report back to me how powerful it was for them in maintaining positive feelings in the marriage.  For many individuals, it helps them remember why they married their spouses in the first place.

So, if you are feeling a little less than sparkly in your own marriage, think of some questions to ask your children to affirm your feelings of love for your partner.  You might just think back to those days when he or she was rocking that amazing four-pack!  Remember – you are your children’s marital superheroes!

Adolescence, Family, Humor, Parenting, Parenting Teenagers

This is Your Brain on Parenting

lazy parenting
Copyright: haywiremedia / 123RF Stock Photo

Here is an actual text exchange that occurred between my teenage daughter and me the other night.  I’d spent the entire evening seeing clients and was coming home exhausted.  As soon as I walked in the door, my phone buzzed.  Here’s how the text conversation proceeded:

Her: Can I get a gym pass please?

Me: How much?  Ask dad.

Her: xx per month, but I think it’s more up front to register.

Me: K

Her: So I can?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

Me: Ask dad

Her: Will you?  He says he doesn’t have time to talk about it, but if it’s you he will because he likes you more.

Me:    😦

Her: *read in British accent*  Mother, please, you are my only hope

Me: Well—since you wrote it with a British accent and everything sounds better with a British accent….

Her:      🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Her (30 minutes later, after she knew my husband had come in to talk to me, but not about her gym membership): What did the beast say….BFG….Big Friendly Giant?

[I’m typing my response while saying out loud to husband…”Watch this…she’s going to freak out.”]

Me: He said, “No,” but with a British accent

 Her (within seconds): Not friendly anymore, he’s the BRMLTMTAOKG BIG RUDE MEAN LOVES (son’s name) MORE THAN ANY OTHER KID GIANT

Me:  Am I supposed to read that in a British accent?

Her: You don’t read it in any accent because I’m going depressed and not talking to anyone since dad hates me

Me: So should I find you a British therapist?

Before I proceed, lest you judge me for being flippant, I should point out that my daughter does not have a history of depression or suicidality, so I was pretty sure she was joking.  My kids all enjoy dangling psychobabble in front of me to see if I’ll take the bait.

My laziness in this short transcript exists in my immediate and not unusual response to “Ask dad,” especially in this instance in which I believed my daughter should already know that I am the “gymnastics, dance, music, theater” parent and my husband is the “sports, scouts, gym membership” parent.  Besides that, my kids all know I’m the “bad cop,” and my husband is “good cop.”   Sheesh!  Hadn’t she lived in this household for 16 years already?  She was in clear violation of an implicit standard.

However, this was really about the fact that I didn’t want to put forth the energy to deal with it and was clearly trying to make it my husband’s problem instead.  The fact is, I just didn’t want to think about one more thing.

This exchange probably sounds familiar.  In fact, I can’t count how many times when I have said, “Ask dad,” my kids will say, “I did.  He said to ask you,” and I have the audacity to be annoyed that he was beating me to the punch.  Plus, he’s way better at avoidance than I am, largely due to my impatience for unresolved concerns, so he can usually win at that game.

I have to admit that I know better.  This is not the stuff you learn in parenting classes, folks.  I have researched many, many parenting programs.  I had to write my own parenting program to graduate with my bachelor’s degree and I don’t remember including, “When your child asks your permission for something, immediately tell them to ask the other parent.”

If I were following my own parenting advice, I would say something mature and intelligent like, “This sounds really important to you.  Let me discuss this with your father, and when we have made a unified decision, I will let you know, and we can figure out the details about cost, payment, etc.  We might be able to help you out, but you will be expected to contribute…” blah blah blah.

So why didn’t I?  The words take up less than a paragraph.  It would have been less than a minute of my time.

The answer lies in three words: Parental Brain Fry.

We get tired.  I wasn’t in the mood to deal with any emotion if she didn’t like my answer.  Plus, I didn’t want to have to decide on the fly and then regret my decision later.

Bottom line:  I just didn’t WANT to deal with it.

Welcome to the messy world of parenting.  We’re tired.  Our kids are younger and more energetic than we are.  In the world of parenting, the most predictable feature is unpredictability, which is why most parenting programs are so theoretically elegant and so executably clumsy.  Many parenting programs read like recipes where one of the ingredients is “children,” but there is little acknowledgment that each child brings individual temperament, preferences, and responses to the equation.  It’s like adding a different spice to the recipe every time, so you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get.

So, when it comes to riding the parenting roller coaster, we are inevitably going to have those crazy moments when we really just want to hand off the parenting torch for a while.  That’s normal.  We will all engage in lazy parenting.  Cultivating a sense of humor can help you with the ride and sometimes preserve a precarious relationship with teens.  It also helps to spend as much time as you can engaging in positive ways to buffer yourself against the storms of adolescence, so that when you are exhausted, your missteps won’t completely derail the bond you have created.  After all, parental brain fry is quite common – even in Britain.

Book Review, Family, Marriage and Family Therapy

Book Review on The Turning: Why the State of the Family Matters and What the World Can do About it by Richard and Linda Eyre

The Turing_Cover (2)

I recently had the opportunity to read Richard and Linda Eyre’s new book promoting the family as the most basic and powerful building block of society.  They define family as the unit proximal to each individual which performs the following roles: procreation, modeling commitment and cooperation, nurturing, forming identify, instilling values, offering love and fulfillment, and caring for the elderly.

The authors posit that those roles combined with elements of love, commitment, time and communication are ideally provided by the family, but that our society is experiencing a crisis in that the importance of these roles are being undermined  by larger, less efficient institutions, which can actually be antagonistic toward and fragment the family.  They offer evidence that this process is leading to broad range social problems which ultimately influence both micro and macro levels of society.

Before I was a marriage and family therapist, I was a “family scientist,” by training.  I spent several years examining closely the unique elements of families, their system dynamics, and their relationships to larger societal systems.  I wish I could disagree with the Eyres, but sadly, I think they are right on the mark.

My favorite part of the book was addressed in what the Eyres call “The Cure,” in which they offer suggestions for strengthening family relationships.  As a marriage and family therapist, I work with families at the micro level every day, and can only speak anecdotally; yet, my years of experience with families personally and professionally lead me to believe that the family is indeed a powerful and under-acknowledged unit of influence for the mental, emotional and physical well-being of individuals.

In general, children, including adult children, are sad when parents divorce and disrupt the family system.  This undermines their confidence levels in generating and sustaining their own families in the future.  I have had adolescents in front of me crying that their parents were divorcing because they had the foresight to realize they would not be able to take their children to visit their grandparents in an intact home.

In short, families matter.  A lot.  The real devastation I see over family disruption in the therapy room is rarely if ever portrayed in the broader media.  I don’t watch a lot of family dramas, but when I do, what is presented is not what I see on a daily basis in my office.  Children don’t negotiate those shifts without paying a price and suffering, at least temporarily, and sometimes unalterably.

I especially appreciated a subheading in chapter 9 entitled, “No parent ever fails until they give up.”  This reminded me of the many instances of healing I have seen in family therapy in which parents repair relationships with adolescent or adult children where there has been regret.  Anyone who has witnessed any of these scenes could not deny the power of family relationships, and the endless capacity to heal those relationships.

Lastly, after raising awareness about the problem of family demise, the Eyres offer specific suggestions for how to combat the problem with grass roots efforts.  They offer hope with their call to action.

As usual, the Eyres have been thorough in their assessment.  For anyone who understands and appreciates the importance of families, this book will be affirming and inspiring.  For those who failed to experience the safety provided in families, this might help them understand in logistical terms why the family does indeed matter and why a “turning,” is essential to maintaining the beneficial elements in our society.