If presenting once is good (and it was -- the Alabama Council on Gambling Addiction put on a great conference) two must be better! Today, I'm so lucky to be presenting to the Alabama School Counselor Association at their 3rd Annual Critical Issues for Alabama conference. We'll be talking about understanding and helping traumatized children -- my passion! The PowerPoint and handout are below.
I'm so excited to present to the Alabama Council on Compulsive Gambling later today! We'll be talking about how to respond to problem gamblers when they are threatening to harm themselves or others. Below is the PowerPoint presentation (saved as a pdf) and the handout.
I love New Year’s Resolutions! As a therapist, I have devoted my life to the belief that it is never too late to change and improve. And yet resolutions are famous for being short-lived, miserable failures. To make yours stick you need to approach them differently. Instead of looking only at what you want, look at what you’re settling for in its place.
Here’s what I mean. For the most part, the areas of life people want to improve fall into general categories: financial, health, spiritual, relationship, and sense of worth. Our goals within those might vary. Your measure of financial success might be a second home while someone else aspires to pay off debt. Maybe you measure your worth in the world by the number of kind, respectful people who surround you, while your neighbor craves power and fame.
The problem is not with the goal. The problem is that smaller, contrary pleasures get in the way. You want a healthy committed relationship, but you lose days, weeks, or even months hanging out with Mr. or Mrs. Not-Quite-Right. You want a great job, but after a hard day of slogging away at your J-O-B, you avoid hunting for a better one. Or applying for school. Or fixing what’s wrong where you are.
You want a vacation similar to the one you coveted when your friend posted fabulous pictures on Facebook. But when you spot a great little black dress that would impress everyone at the New Year’s Eve party, the immediate gratification you gain from laying down your credit card outweighs the distant reward of saving those dollars and sipping Chardonnay in wine country. In fact, if in that moment you even remember your desire for the trip – and chances are you don’t – you reason that the cost of one little dress is nowhere near the cost of a get-away. And you are right. It’s the cumulative cost of black dresses, and new jeans, and lattés, and concerts over the course of the year that add up to at least as much as the fabulous trip.
You see what I mean: One little cookie won’t keep you from losing 20 pounds. You can be a better friend/neighbor/partner/co-worker even if you sometimes indulge in a little gossip or embarrassing joke in front of others. You can do what feels a little good RIGHT NOW without losing what will feel wonderful in the future. Or can you? Ultimately success is about habits – the little things we do each day, the overarching mindset we choose to live by – determine whether we meet our goals.
So as you consider your New Year’s resolutions ask yourself the following questions:
Let me show you what I mean. I’ll use the example of a person I’ll call Michelle (my real name). Michelle would love to be fit and healthy. She would like to be able not only to run far and fast but also to look like she runs far and fast. Specifically, she wants to look like the women on the covers of Runner’s World and Shape magazines and she wants to be competitive in road races. So the answer to question 1 is: She wishes she had a rockin’ body – or at least relatively rockin’ given her over-40 status -- and a sub-30 5k.
Michelle loves to exercise – weights, running, elliptical. It doesn’t matter. She loves to sweat and move and burn calories. So she’s good there. However, Michelle’s favorite foods are carbs and fats – fatty carbs especially. In that moment when she brings the second helping of pasta or 30th French fry to her mouth, she isn’t thinking about her fitness and appearance goals. If they happen to, annoyingly, flit through her head, she thinks about how there’s no way these few extra calories will impede her PR in the half marathon or keep her from having a flat belly. And she’s right. But a few calories here and a few indulgences there have added up to extreme difficulty meeting her goals.
So you might think the answer to question 2 is “stop eating junk or stop eating second helpings.” Not really. Our brains are not wired to obey orders of what NOT to do. Someone says “don’t touch the stove,” and our brain registers, “touch the stove? I want to!” So instead, Michelle needs to determine that she is going to DO something – maybe limit desserts to weekends; have no more than one bite per day of junky foods or limit carbs to one serving per meal. Once she decides these limits, she can move to question 3.
Remember that Michelle is doing all this in order to reach her goals of health and vanity (perhaps her 2017 resolutions can focus on not being so shallow). So her new habit might be to give herself a high five as soon as she has polished off that first portion that she has determined will also be her last portion of fatty carbs and then do a symbolic pushup or sit up to remind herself how great it feels to be strong. Or maybe she’ll walk to her closet to look at the fantastic dress she’ll wear once that belly melts away. Whatever she decides, she must pair her success in being disciplined with food DIRECTLY and IMMEDIATELY to how wonderful she will feel when she reaches her goal. That’s her new habit – constantly linking in her mind the ways that practicing discipline now are related to looking and feeling great in the long term.
Finally, the start of a new year is a great time to start fresh and focus on our goals, but it’s not the only time. Three months before a goal date is good too. Or your birthday. Or Lincoln’s birthday. Monday is good. So is Tuesday. Whenever you decide it’s time to change, take a day to say goodbye to your old vices and bad habits, then start fresh, focused on what you will do to bring about your new you. Happy New Year!
Thank you so much for attending my workshop on improving work, parenting, and relationships through healing attachment wounds. A PDF of my presentation is below. If you have questions or comments, I would love to hear from you. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or click on the "Contact" tab at the top of this page to email me from the website.
I recently spent three months filling in for the Family Therapist at Birmingham's International Adoption Clinic (http://www.childrensal.org/internationaladoption). I have worked with families who have adopted internationally for years in my private practice, but this experience deepened my understanding of the joys and challenges of international adoption. I learned a tremendous amount from the IAC staff – highly qualified, dedicated, and caring women. And I certainly learned from the families. This is my love letter to them …
Dear Internationally Adoptive Parent,
For the past three months I have met you -- families who are anywhere from three weeks to several years post-adoption. I have looked into your bleary, sleep-deprived eyes. You told me you had no idea it would be this hard. Or you told me you did know it would be this hard but still it is So. Very. Hard. and you need relief yesterday.
You’ve told me the stories of how your sweet babies (and toddlers and big kids) came to be eligible for adoption. Of damaged families from whom they had to be removed. Of loving, desperate families who left them to be found by people who could care for them in ways their birth families could never afford, losing their child forever so that their child might thrive or just live. Of anonymous families whose backgrounds and motives you’ll never know.
You told me about arriving in-country with your arms full of gifts and your bank accounts practically empty, counting the minutes until you could hold the child you fell in love with through pictures and on Skype, the child you knew in your heart was always meant to be yours – who will make your family complete. And you told me about finally meeting that child, only to have them kick and scream or completely shut down when they were put in your arms. You began to realize the inaccuracy of the records you received, the abuse or neglect they suffered, the massive medical and emotional needs they brought with them. Or you realized that you were taking them from orphanage workers who adored them, who sobbed at having to let them go forever, from foster families too heartbroken to say goodbye.
I’ve heard the countless ways you’ve sacrificed your time, money, sleep, patience, and social life. You’ve told me you don’t mind except that your other children have to do the same. You’ve asked me how to explain to them that fair is no longer the gold standard in your family – that the distribution of your attention will no longer cut in their favor; that their new sibling won’t be disciplined as swiftly or as frequently as they are; that they will have to share their toys, their bedrooms, and their parents.
You’ve told me you feel like prisoners in your own home. You know from your pre-adoption training that your new child needs cocooning – to be with only nuclear family, to avoid crowds and new faces while their attachment to you grows bit by tiny, stingy bit for days and weeks and months. And you’ve had to figure out how to make it to the grocery store and the dentist and church when the only acceptable babysitter is your spouse. Goodbye date night. You’ve missed dance recitals, ball games, family picnics, and family vacations. And your extended family hasn’t always understood. You’ve asked me how to explain to exuberant grandparents who can’t wait to hold this precious new addition to their family that they will have to wait – probably for months – to love and cuddle and care for them.
I’ve seen you do things you never thought you could – or would have to. You’ve consulted medical specialists, cleaned wounds, learned sign language, cooked Asian or African or Eastern European or South American cuisine, rocked children who are too big for your lap, bottle-fed children old enough to have permanent teeth, and slept with squirmy, nightmare-wracked toddlers in your beds. You’ve watched your new child grieve – wail and rock and hit or go eerily silent – because they can’t be in the orphanage or foster home or hospital you took them from – a place you know is better left behind but is still the familiarity they crave. You’ve watched them charm strangers, reaching their arms to them for the comfort and love and safety they’re supposed to want from only you.
I’ve seen the pain on the faces of those of you who are the rejected parent, whose hugs and gifts and smiles are violently rejected or coldly ignored for no reason other than you had to go to work or for no apparent reason at all. And I’ve heard from you favored parents, who have done all of the cuddling and rocking and feeding and comforting and have been touched 24 hours a day for so long you can’t remember what it’s like to feel like your body is your own.
I’ve walked you through how to attune and attach; how to discipline; what to look for; when to worry. I’ve reassured you that it will be OK – not today or tomorrow but slowly, a little more each day. It will be OK and then good and then normal. There will be moments of joy, moments where you know you did the right thing. I’ve reassured you that it’s OK not to feel that now – to question whether you’ve made a terrible mistake, whether you’ll ever feel like a normal family.
I’ve been so lucky to share some of your happier moments too. I’ve always known that every child is lovely, but I’ve had the privilege of seeing the endless forms beauty takes in children who are unbelievably tiny, with intense medical problems, with scars visible and invisible, whose smiles are electrifying, who are rambunctious and delicate and so strong. Because only strong children survive such difficult circumstances, be it abuse, neglect, poverty, frightening hospital stays, long hours in a crib, or just the uncertainty of not yet being with their forever family. I’ve watched your face light up when they return your smiles, snuggle into you to fall asleep, and say those first sweet English words: please, more, thank you, Momma, Daddy.
I have thought of you every single day, my heart heavy with the depth of suffering in the world and full with the love and sacrifice I watch you give your children. The secret of helping professions, certainly of counseling, is that we helpers receive so much more than we give. We are not selfless – we are enriched and blessed by being part of your lives, humbled that you seek our help, honored to hear your truth, thrilled to watch you succeed. That is certainly true of my IAC experience. I will never forget you or your stories. And I will always keep you in my prayers – that you will be blessed with patience, with supportive family and friends, with kind doctors and understanding teachers and increasingly frequent restful nights.
Not long ago, I took my teenaged daughter and her friends out for a fun afternoon. To my delight, I overheard one of the friends tell my daughter, "Your Mom is so cool." The other girls agreed. I glowed. "I am cool," I thought ... for a nanosecond. And then I remembered my grumpiness at bedtime; how my kids have to ask me four or five times before I finally remember to take them shoe shopping; and my bad habit of playing on my phone when we're supposed to be having family movie night.
I tend to be my best self around other people's kids. I'm patient, generous, and flexible. They like me. I like me. Everyone is happy. So logically, I should call a couple of neighborhood moms and negotiate a swap, right? After all, if their kids bring out my best self and my own children bring out my moody, snappish, Candy Crush-addicted self, the relationship just isn't working. We should all just move on.
Obviously, no one would agree to that. Our kids are our kids for life. We're committed to them. They need us and we need them. We love them -- flaws and all. No matter how messy it gets, I will never, ever trade my children.
And yet how many people unwittingly apply the same logic to marriage? They like themselves better around their friends or they are confident their next love will be the person who makes everything better. Or they've already taken up with someone. "He really understands me," you might say. "He loves me for ME." Actually, he doesn't. Because he doesn't know you. He knows the best you that we all put forth in a new relationship. If my daughter's friends thought I was cooler than their own moms, it's because they know their moms play their share of Candy Crush and nag about messy rooms -- and they don't know that I do too and most certainly would if they stayed at my house for more than a week.
This is why long-term relationships are so hard. Because we're all our best self in the beginning. It's not a trick or a ruse -- it's what we do. When we first fall in love, we're in love with the best self the other person is able to present and, truthfully, we're pretty in love with ourselves. We feel like we've finally conquered our weaknesses from the past -- our jealous, needy, nagging, emotionally distant, or inconsiderate selves. And that's great -- because we should never stop trying to be better.
But inevitably, that same woman whose name you spelled out in rose petals is going to see you sulk, and snore, and forget your anniversary. The guy you told, "Sweetie, go spend my birthday weekend hunting. You deserve to have fun," is going to catch you peeking at his texts, listen to you rant about his mother, and find out how whiny you are when you're sick.
And when all of that realness rises to the surface, real love can finally begin. When you understand who you really married -- and who you really are -- you can start accepting each other for what's messy and imperfect and true. You can strive to be that best person you thought you were in the beginning but for real this time. Because now, the other person knows your faults and loves you anyway. Maybe they'll even help you be that better person.
I understand that some relationships are beyond repair -- some are even dangerous. I know that not all marriages can last and for those experiencing that, I am so truly sorry. Divorce is painful for everyone involved and I hope you have lots of great supportive people to see you through it. But for those eying the door because you think your partner makes you less than perfect and the grass will be greener, let me assure you that marriage is hard no matter what. If you can make it work; if you can start becoming your best self right where you are and helping your partner to do the same, it's worth a try. Because that person is already so far down the path to really and truly knowing you and the person you want so much to become. And there is nothing more romantic than being loved for the real, messy, uncool, complicated, trying-your-guts-out you.
Here's a quick test to figure out whether you're an introvert or extravert: imagine it's your birthday. You're in your favorite restaurant and you see the wait staff headed your way with a cake, clapping and singing. Do you
a) feel thrilled. Yay! It's my day and now everyone in the restaurant knows it.
b) look for the nearest exit. Oh no! It's my day and now everyone in the restaurant knows it.
If you answered b), you're probably an introvert. In her book, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking," Susan Cain demonstrates why it is perfectly fine to be introvert. In fact, it's better than fine.
"Quiet" is a long overdue validation of Introversion as a legitimate and valuable way to move through the world. Susan Cain clearly and compassionately defines and describes introversion. She puts into context the struggles of introverts living in a culture that is strongly geared toward extroversion (group projects in school; open-floor office plans, anyone?). She also describes the ways in which introverts can maximize their gifts and extroverts can support them.
The most valuable take-away is that we all -- introverts and extroverts -- need to be aware of how we operate. If you are rejuvenated by being around others or taking risks, be sure your life's work and most of your days include these. On the other hand, if you recharge your batteries by being alone or working through a problem independently, honor that and make sure others support you. Trying to make yourself into the opposite will wear you out and you won't be your most effective self. What a waste!
If you are an introvert or love an introvert -- especially if you're raising an introvert -- you need to give this a read. At the very least, find her TED talk on the internet and watch that. It will change how you think about those who are Quiet.
Gary Chapman's "The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate" has been around for more than 12 years but it's still relevant. So relevant, in fact, that I recommend it to almost every couple I see and to a lot of families and individuals as well.
Chapman operates off two simple premises: 1. We all need to feel loved and 2. There are different ways to demonstrate love and we all have a preference for one.
Essentially, Chapman is saying that we all have a language for love. Just like my "bonjour" could be your "hello," I might hear love when you compliment my intelligence and you hear love when I give you a gift. It's a simple concept but one that most of us don't stop to consider.
The ramifications are huge. How many times has your partner, boss, child, parent, or friend been stunned to hear that you don't feel valued by them? They insist they've been working their guts out to show you how much they care. "How could you not see it?!" they say, indignant? You're shocked. How could they possible think that doing the dishes showed that they adored you? That's love languages at work. Because if they don't "speak your language" (demonstrate love in the way that makes your heart sing), their efforts, no matter how well intentioned, will fall short.
The book is an easy and quick read. Chapman also has a website (http://www.5lovelanguages.com/)where you can take the Love Languages quiz to discover which Language is yours. There's even a quiz tailored to kids. I completed it with my children and they loved it.
A final note: I have heard this book referenced in the context of faith several times, but it is by no means limited to people of any particular faith or faith at all.
I'm going to get pushy about this one. The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to your Adoptive Family by Karyn Purvis et al. is a must read for all caregivers and teachers. If you only ever read one parenting book, this needs to be it.
Karyn Purvis and her team at Texas Christian University bring a one-of-a-kind marriage of research and heart to treating "kids from hard places."
I first became aware of Dr. Purvis' work -- and this book -- because of my work with families who have adopted internationally. Internationally adopted children are from hard places for sure. So are other adopted children, foster children and children who have endured abuse, neglect, medical procedures, and being cared for by parents who were going through crisis at any point starting with pregnancy. Also kids who have been in car accidents, actual or near-miss weather disasters, or chronically dangerous neighborhoods.
Honestly, all parents need to know this stuff. I have yet to the meet the child who wouldn't benefit from Dr. Purvis' combination of incredible warmth with firm boundaries. And parents (and teachers, and grandparents, you get the idea) benefit too! Because raising children is hard. Kids are forever doing things we don't know how to react to. This book gives you a framework for knowing how to respond. Your life will be better! Your kids will be happier! You'll look younger! (hmmm. well, maybe not that last one, but you might feel younger).
In "The Connected Child," Dr. Purvis spells out the emotional, behavioral, nutritional, neurological, and sensory needs of sensitive kids and how to meet those needs. The book is easy to read and explains not just the how but also the why. It's not unusual for one parent to believe in taking this kind of approach while the other doesn't. They figure the kid just needs a good spanking, or talking to, or a complete lack of rules and structure, etc. They innocently believe that there's one "right" way to bring up kids. Dr. Purvis does a lovely job of explaining why that isn't so -- and backs it up with science.
I was incredibly fortunate to travel to TCU and train with Dr. Purvis and her team for a week last year. Her workshop is highly consistent with her methods: highly nurturing (seriously, the best workshop food I have ever hard) and highly structured (we started and ended on time, the rules and expectations were clear up front). She is consistent through and through and her research is impressive. She runs camps for kids and their families where they implement this style of interacting with children. Blood tests actually prove that this works in just a few weeks. You'll have to read the book to learn how that's even possible.
By the way, I also recommend this book for adults who are grown-up kids from hard places because it helps them understand the reactions they had (and might still be having) and provides a roadmap to the kind of care that brings about healing.
I believe you have to order the book online. It's cheap -- they don't make any money from it's sale. They just charge enough to cover publishing costs. So what are you waiting for? Really, I insist.
Here's an interesting perspective on why it can be so hard to solve our own problems -- and why people who make their living giving advice can't always solve their own problems! :)