family

10 Brave Questions to Ask Your Kids

10 Brave Questions to Ask Your Kids

By Courtney Hollingsworth, LPCbrave parenting

There are a lot of lists of fun questions to ask your kids floating around the web. Lighthearted and funny, they’re great! But here is a list of REALLY brave questions to ask your kids. They may sound straightforward and simple, but asking them, and being truly open to the answers (i.e. being vulnerable) takes real courage. The answers may really surprise you. Listen to them. Should you choose to ask your kids these questions, and I think you ought to, prepare yourself to accept their answers. Period.

-DON’T try to persuade them out of their answer.

-DON’T argue with their point of view.

-DON’T try to justify choices you or your partner have made.

-DON’T downplay the significance of what they’re sharing.

-DON’T laugh when they are serious.

These questions are learning opportunities FOR YOU.

They are not meant to be correcting opportunities. If you feel the urge to push back on their answers, notice where that desire is coming from and your own discomfort. Even if you don’t agree with your child’s perception of something, rather than attempting to change it, wonder why their perception or experience is different than yours. Perhaps even ask them.

Unfortunately, if you’ve already regularly interacted with your child in ways that have communicated (perhaps subtly) any of the following, then you can’t expect an authentic answer from them:

-Rejected their interpretation/perception/experience

-Refused to hear their thoughts or feelings

-Insisted they agree with you

-Assumed that because they are kids their input is inherently inaccurate or inconsequential.

-Invalidated their feelings

Ask yourself, or your co-parent, if these feel true of you. If so, go do your own work with a counselor to improve your own vulnerability in relationships, including with your kid(s).

10 Brave Questions to Ask Your Kids

  • If you could change one thing about your life, what would you change?
  • What is something you wish I would change?
  • What is something you wish your other parent(or caregiver) would change?
  • Do you feel like you can share most things with me? How about your other parent(or caregiver)? If not, is there something I can change?
  • What is something you dislike about our family or would change if you could?
  • Is there anything you’ve wanted to ask an adult about, but haven’t?
  • When you think about the biggest hurt you’ve experienced, what comes to mind?
  • Who are the people you trust the most and distrust the most, and why?
  • Has anyone ever made you feel uncomfortable?
  • Has anyone ever touched you in a way that felt uncomfortable or wrong?

The point of these questions is to have an open dialogue and invite your kid to share with you in ways they may not otherwise consider. Some of these questions may need to be tweaked based on the age of your kid, but I strongly believe every single one of these can be asked in some way at any age or stage. For a younger kid, one or two questions per conversation, more for middle-aged kids, and teens might be able to have one whole conversation, though maybe not depending on their personality.  And don’t ask these only once. Ask them every so often! And if your kid shares something that falls into the category of abuse, bullying, self-harm, etc. DO SOMETHING. If you aren’t sure what to do, ask your child’s school counselor, pediatrician, or make an appointment with a counselor.

Survival Tips for the Holidays

by Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC

Here are a few small tips for changing the ways you engage with your relatives around the holidays. It isn’t easy to change the ways we relate to people we’ve known most or all of our lives, but it is often worth the work. This list is by no means conclusive, but a good place to start.

Take people at their word.

Try to notice how often you are attempting to read between the lines of others’ words or times when you feel expected to know what someone else feels or wants without them actually saying anything. Reading between the lines or finding the hidden meeting is common in family systems that operate more passive aggressively. Taking people at their word forces others to speak up on their own behalf, say what they really mean, and address one another with respect.

Mean your words.

The reverse of taking people at their words is true as well. If you are frequently not saying what you truly mean, then feel upset when others are not doing as you want, odds are you were not meaning your words. Speak directly and kindly, and you can avoid many of the passive-aggressive communication games that conflict avoidant families tend to get bogged down in.

Check your expectations.

Holidays are filled with expectations and typically time with family is also, therefore holidays with family members can be a double whammy. It can become the perfect traffic jam of various expectations.

Know your limits.

Try to realistically assess your limits on various planes prior to making your holiday plans. Are there certain family members you have a lower tolerance for spending time around? Is your social/extroversion threshold depleted more quickly at family gatherings? Are there certain relatives’ houses where you become a worse version of yourself longer you stay? Does being around babies and toddlers bring out the worst in you? Is your alcohol tolerance lowered in family settings? Assessing your limits prior to making your plans can help you make a more informed choice, and perhaps plan action steps toward self-care when you can’t predict that your limits will be tested and or pushed.

Know your triggers.

This one is similar to knowing your limits, in that it can be helpful to do some self-assessment prior to walking into family dynamics that are laden with emotional landmines. Try to think about instances in the past when time spent with family has led to blow-ups, arguments, hurt feelings, or even the silent (or shouted) conclusion that you’ll never go back again. Try to see if there’s a pattern between these various situations. Do you tend to be triggered by your mom’s passive aggressive comments? Do you tend to be triggered by your brother’s constant bragging about his successful career? Do you tend to be triggered by your niece talking all of the toys leaving them for the other cousins? Whatever your triggers, knowing them in advance can help prevent them from being a surprise, or even activated at all.

Make a private game of unavoidable unpleasantries.

Now, this is a little bit nuanced because it needs to be done discreetly and with wisdom, but can be helpful in surviving unavoidable unpleasantries. However, if you and your spouse or sibling share a negative feeling towards a person or behavior, you can make a private game out of how often you have to witness or endure that behavior. For example: does your dad tend to condescendingly correct other peoples grammar? Making bets on how often that will happen during the time that you spend with him. Does your aunt make snide comments under her breath? Rather than fume as you, it can be a survival strategy to find a way to laugh about it. What makes this game nuanced is you certainly don’t want others to find out about it or extend it to the point of being disrespectful.

Kids, Feelings, and Parents, Oh My!

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

Inspired by How to Talk so Kids will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk, by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

Parenting is exhausting.  Taking part in relationships with adults who struggle to communicate their emotions is hard enough, but engaging with kids who don’t know what they are feeling or how to tell you their feelings is even harder!  Being in tune with our children’s emotions and experiences allows us to more naturally engage in our relationship with them.

Just because kids are “young, little, a baby” does not mean their emotional experiences are less real or matter less than our own experiences.

The author of How to Talk so Kids will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk describes her experience of parenting and how she “could be accepting about most of the feelings [her] children had, but let one of them tell me something that made me angry or anxious and I’d instantly revert to my old way [of parenting]” (page 3).  Her old ways were when she would disregard, minimize, invalidate, avoid, or ignore another person’s experience.

How do we feel when someone disregards our feelings?  How do we feel when people pretend they didn’t hear what we said? Or, when people try to “help” or “fix” a situation when all we want is someone to listen.

When we feel listened to and understood it is easier for us to manage our emotional responses.  The same happens with our children.

When they feel listened to and understood, they are able to work through their emotional experiences and problem solve more clearly.   Often, children are just wanting someone to intently listen to them.  Our attunement to the conversation and small responses, like “uh-huh” allow our children to know we are paying attention.  This response only works if you are looking at them, not at a screen!

Children need help naming their emotions and giving words to their experience.

The naming of emotions acknowledges their experience and helps to increase their engagement in the relationship. It also helps to teach children about emotions.  It can be helpful to have an emotions chart on the refrigerator with faces on it, or for older kids a wheel of emotions.

Being in relationship with our kids is hard work. This hard work is laying the framework for better relationships as they age. We hope they have learned about their emotions and how to verbalize them and deal with them safely.   We are teaching something important to our children that they don’t yet know is important!

Stress During the Holidays

Stress During the Holidays

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

This is a time of year full of stress. We are quickly approaching Christmas, Hanukkah, and the New Year.  This is a season when we spend a lot of time celebrating both with friends and family.  It can also be a time where we experience increased stress and pressure.  Knowing you are soon going to be spending long hours with your family, how do you prepare?

Below are some tips or ideas to help make the holiday celebrations more manageable and enjoyable.

Exercise: Research shows that exercise can help to increase your positive mood and fight against feelings of anxiety and depression.  Exercise while with family can also provide that needed space for quiet or reflection, smaller group conversations, or stress relief, and it can create a personal “time out” from the stressors you are experiencing.

Change your Intake: Limit certain foods and beverages during the holidays.  “Eating your feelings” may help for a short time, but it won’t change once the sugar has worn off or the alcohol is no longer in your system. Also, change your physical and emotional intake.

  • Caffeine can mirror symptoms of anxiety in our bodies.  If you are already feeling anxious about the holidays cut back a little on your intake or switch to decaf.  Increasing alcohol may seem to help in the moment, but it can later impact your sleep and mood.
  • Change up the environment.  If you start to feel overwhelmed, take a short walk outside (even if it is only to the mailbox or to your car).  Listen to some relaxing music or watch a funny video. Create a break in the day to clear your head and check in with your own emotions. Changing the experience around you can help to recalibrate your mood.

Reality Check:  When you get stuck talking to Aunt Mildred, who is telling you how to live your life, graciously break away from the conversation and connect with someone with a more positive attitude. That connection can be via personal contact, a phone call or even a text.  Use your social network to your advantage! Do an internal check of the facts from your conversation or experience.

When our thoughts become misconstrued or faulty it can lead to more negative emotional experiences and more stress in our relationships.

Prayer/Mindfulness/Meditation: Take a few moments each day during your holiday season for reflection.  During this time, take time to notice and observe.  Use your five senses to experience the season by noticing the decorations, the lights, the sounds, the special foods, the activities, clothing.  Be fully present while wrapping gifts, paying attention to the feel and sounds of the paper.  Push all the thoughts from your mind but the present moment.  Take time to give thanks, rejoice and celebrate the kindness you have experienced.

Blood is Thicker than Water, Part III

What does “holding out for healthy” look like, anyway?

By Jonathan E. Hart, LPC

This blog presumes you’ve read the previous two in the series.  If you haven’t, Click HERE to be taken to the first entry.

Now that you’ve recognized that your family member is not the person that their job description calls for, you’re beginning to take some steps.  You’ve come to understand that, for example, Dad is not in the “Parents and Siblings” ring of intimacy.  He is more an “Acquaintance”, based on the way that the relationship feels and works.  You’ve started to give yourself permission NOT to call every week because you don’t call your other acquaintances that often.  You’re arguing with the guilt that arises from being a “bad child”, and with the healthy compassion that comes from seeing him struggle with loneliness.  You’re resisting the impulse to go in and rescue him.Levels of Intimacy

And you feel like you’re being mean, cold-blooded, and harsh.  You’re being told, “You’ve changed, and not for the better.”  Other family members are calling you to convince you to “seek reconciliation”, or to chew you out for your “bad attitude”.  The pressure becomes enormous, and you sometimes forget what you are fighting for.

“Holding out for Healthy” is hard.  It means defying everything the relationship in question has taught you all your life.  It means holding on to the desire for real intimacy, even if your hope that the desire will be fulfilled looks too remote to be realistic.  A very old aphorism says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick”.  It means clinging tight to the idea that a healthier relationship with your father is worth the loss of the false intimacy you’ve been used to all your life.

Because what you’ve been used to all your life was not real.  It was a counterfeit of relationship and, when you tried to use it as currency, you discovered you’d been cheated.  Which would you rather have: A fist full of play money, or nothing?  It’s a trick question.  You’ve got nothing either way.

The hard truth is that when you start operating according to the way that the relationship actually exists, you are not changing anything about it.  You’re merely speaking the truth about it for once.  You’re finally allowing the natural outcome of Dad’s way of being to actually touch him for once, rather than protecting him from it.

The reason the relationship persists the way it does is likely due in part to the fact that nobody has dared to tell him what it’s like.  Nobody has named the fact that the Emperor has no clothes.  Naming it to him hurts, but it also offers him the chance to see that what he’s doing is hurtful, and provides him with an opportunity to grow.

“Holding out for Healthy” invites the other person into a better place themselves.  It calls them to be a better human being, to seek healing for their own wounds, and to acknowledge the wounding they have done themselves.  They will either be able to do this, or they won’t.  Even if you can step into one ring closer with them, you have more than you’ve ever had before, and that is wealth indeed.

“Holding out for Healthy” also leads you to healing of your own.  This relationship loses its power to define you because you are actively defining the relationship.

What does Holding out for Healthy look like?  It’s a mess.  It’s painful and it rocks the boats of a lot of people.  You’re not going to do it well.  But doing it at all represents a change that has real value on your own life, and — potentially —  in the lives of those you love.  It’s worth the risk.

 

 

Do You Have Mommy Issues?

mum
by:  Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC

Do You Have Mommy Issues?

It is often said of grown women who exploit their bodies for attention from men must have “daddy issues.” A topic less discussed, probably because it is less obvious, is that of with “mommy issues.” From our first moments in the world, we are dependent on our mothers, or our mother-figure, for our well being, our needs, our safety….both physically and emotionally.

An important step in understanding yourself is asking the question “Do I have Mommy issues?”

Our culture, and many others, reveres motherhood with a sacredness that does not leave much room for criticism. And yet, as every human has different gifts and imperfections, so does every mother. The reality that this has an impact on the impressionable children who look to her to define and explain the world as they grow to understand it, cannot be refuted.

Now that I have ruffled our cultural feathers, and perhaps yours, let me clarify. I’m not talking about blame. As adults, we are responsible for our lives and actions. What I’m talking about is understanding. Understanding how you have become who you are, understanding where you may have learned ways of doing life that are hindering you, understanding the impact of this significant woman. All that she is and all that she is not.

If your mother struggles with her own security, sense of self, or emotional life, that will have had an impact on your own growth as a person. If she wrestled with empty places inside herself, then she had less to give you than you needed. If her dark places often resulted in ugliness spilling out onto you, then you carried more than you were able to as a child. If what she lacked inside herself created a vacuum that sucked more from you than you had to give, then you wore the burden of striving to meet unmeetable emotional needs.
Do you ever ask yourself these any of these questions:
  • Will I ever be good enough?
  • Why do I feel unlovable?
  • Why do I never feel good enough?
  • Why do I feel so empty?
  • Why do I always doubt myself?
If you do or have in the past, it might be worth looking back over your relationship with your mom. The ways it blessed you and the ways it pained you. The complicated nature of this vitally important relationship makes such a profound impact, it is one of the most important keys to understanding ourselves.

Blood is Thicker than Water, Part II

Blood is Thicker than Water, Part II

by: Jonathan Hart, LPC

Back in February, I wrote a blog called “Blood is Thicker than Water”.  You can find it here.  It might be a good idea to check that post out before reading on.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Welcome back! Just in case you didn’t actually go read the previous post, I’ll give you a quick summary:  The main thrust of that post is that we keep “holding out for healthy relationship” with family far longer than we do with anyone else because family relationships are so vitally important. We still maintain our limits, and we don’t settle for less than the real deal, and we keep at it.

I used the image of the vehicle that starts making funny noises.  We don’t “just deal with it” when that starts to happen.  We do what is necessary to get it fixed.  The problem is that some things on cars (and in relationships) are not fixable.  This brings us to the question in family relationships: At what point is persisting in relationship futile or foolish based on the other person’s lack of willingness to move toward healthy?

The short form of the question is, “When do I quit trying?”

The answer is, “It Depends.”  It depends on the actual nature of the relationship.  We have varying levels of intimacy with different people.  Some are genuinely close and emotionally connected.  Some are truly intimate.  For some relationships, deep intimacy is not expected or required.  A friend of the family might stop by for a visit, but we might feel odd if they were to begin sharing their closest struggles and marriage woes.  It would feel “too close”.

Levels of Intimacy

Some Immediate Family relationships feel “too close” like this: “She may be Mom, but I don’t tell her things like this because she couldn’t handle it/I’d never hear the end of it/she’d tell all her friends/she’d use it against me…”

The categories in the diagram do not describe the blood relationship, but the nature of the relationship.  Dad may be a nice guy, but we have to keep the conversation about sports or things go south in a hurry, then the actual relationship may be more in the “Acquaintance” circle than “Immediate Family”.  I can have friends that are so deep and close that they actually belong in the “Immediate Family” Circle.  The functional question is “who are they to you, really?”

This can be a challenging question to answer, especially if the family culture says that “Siblings Equals Close, period”.  It’s especially hard because deep down we *want* real and close relationships with close family and friends, no matter what the actual relationship is.   Pretending the relationship is closer than it really is becomes wearying and is always silly. We have to start by acknowledging the actual nature of the relationship, before we can proceed.  Once you’ve done that, then you can begin the process.

    1. Relax.  Start letting yourself be OK with relating according to the nature of the relationship.  You can release any guilt you may experience because the relationship isn’t closer.  You can’t make it happen alone.  The guilt only makes you go back to pretending something is true that isn’t.
    2. Reach.  Imagine what the next tier closer might be, and begin reaching for it.  This is important: don’t try to go from “Acquaintance” to “Close Personal Friend” all at once.  You’ll scare them.  Only reach for one tier at a time.   
    3. Give it time.  Deepening intimacy and connectedness is a process and generally does not happen overnight.  You may be hungry for a better sense of connection, but they might not realize what’s missing.
    4. Pay attention.  If they flat-out reject any overtures or offers of legitimate closeness, if they accept and then take advantage of your vulnerability, or if they continue to identify you as the problem (the “Take it or Leave it” stance), this may be as close as is possible for the foreseeable future.
    5. Repeat steps 1-4.  Ideally, the other person will eventually be able to recognize what you are doing and reciprocate.  IF they do, everybody wins better relationships.  If they do not…
    6. Repeat steps 1-4 in increasing time increments.  Maybe you make the offer of “closer” once a month for a while, and get the same answer every time.  Maintain your current position for several months and then offer again.  Continue this process and lengthen the time between offers a little at a time, and you will eventually discover the equilibrium point at which they are willing to operate with you.

This is effectively the “process answer” to the question of “When do I quit trying?”  This may mean that you will never have a “Daddy” relationship with your father, but you can operate kindly and respectfully as acquaintances.  You’ll have to grieve the loss of your father (Yes, grieve.  As though he died), but you won’t be expecting an acquaintance to be a “Daddy” to you, either.

Ultimately, unless the relationship has been vicious, brutal, fully abandoned, or otherwise horrible, you are never completely out of relationship with someone who is related by blood.  Even in the case of the horrible relationships above, even in the absence of any contact whatsoever, there is always a biological connection.  Even at its best, navigating these relationships is complicated and messy.  Trying to keep up the appearance of a “Normal Family” can be exhausting when “normal” isn’t true … and let’s be honest…  What does “normal” even mean, anyway!?

Concept image of a lost and confused signpost against a blue cloudy sky.

So, step back, find your footing, acknowledge what is true of the relationship, and then carefully, slowly, reach for more.  You will either gain a closer relationship, or be able to relax into the best relationship that is legitimately possible with the person in question.

Look out for Blood is Thicker than Water, Part 3: What Does Holding Out for Healthy Look Like, Anyway?

 

Blood Is Thicker Than Water

by Jonathan E. Hart, LPC

“Blood is thicker than water.”  

It’s an old saying. I don’t know where it came from. The meaning is that family relationships are more important than any other. You’re supposed to be loyal to your family first and foremost, because “They’re blood”. The genetic familial bond is deep and powerful.

Use your imagination for a moment.

Imagine you have an acquaintance who routinely cuts you down, employs guilt trips or unreasonable expectations to get you to do what they want, yells when you let them down, or tells you that you don’t measure up to their expectations. Perhaps they aren’t as directly difficult to handle, but many of the conversations you have with them feel “off”, like they’re doing something inappropriate, but you can’t quite put your finger on it.

Now imagine that when you mention or resist any of these ways of communicating, they shrug and say, “I’m doing the best I can. Don’t judge”, or “This is who I am, you need to figure out how to deal with it,” or, “You’re too sensitive,” or “You know, it’s for your own good.”

How much time would you want to spend with this person? How often would you want have them over, or pay them a visit, “just to catch up”? Would you want to take your kids over to their house and leave them in this person’s care for a few hours while you went on a date with your spouse?

I’m guessing that the answer is somewhere between “Not so much,” and “Are you kidding me!?”

And yet as a relationship therapist, I routinely see people who place themselves and their children in the path of people who relate in these hurtful ways. These are not reckless or foolish people. They are common, everyday folks who care about their families and friends, who are careful parents and thoughtful about their choices.

And yet, when I ask them why they would want to make themselves or their children vulnerable to someone who treats others so harshly, they reply, “It’s important to maintain a connection with this person! The kids need to have this relationship.” All the while they acknowledge that they feel the pain of being treated this way, and though they feel like withdrawing, they refuse to do so. Parents acknowledge that the way the people in question treat their children to is inappropriate as well. They feel a protective instinct, but routinely squash that instinct in favor of maintaining the connection.

The reasons these wounded people (whether they are parents or not) offer for why they persist in this pattern of maintaining connection with relationally reckless others are many, but generally have one theme. See if you can pick it out:

“But they’re Family!”

“The kids need their grandparents. They need to know where they came from.”

What am I supposed to do? He’s my father/ She’s my mother.”

“I have to stay connected. I can’t just NOT have relationship with them.”

“I have to put up with it and do damage control after.

“What am I supposed to tell them? They have to change who they’ve always been just to please me?“

One of the hardest questions I have to ask anyone is, “If it was anyone else, would you be so willing to put up with it?”

The answer is pretty universal. “No. But… they’re not just anyone else. They’re family.”

“Blood is thicker than water.”

Except it’s not. And it is. Let me explain.

Because a person is related to you by blood does not give them carte blanche to treat you as they will. It does not mean you have to take whatever they say or do no matter what. It does not mean you MUST maintain connection with them in spite of the history and/or ongoing damage they do in their recklessness. If you wouldn’t put up with it from a friend, acquaintance, or stranger, you don’t have to put up with it from family. Period.

“Blood is not thicker than water.”

Except it is.

The difference between “blood” and “not blood” is not what we have to put up with, it’s that we keep on reaching for healing. It’s not that we accept whatever they have to offer, but that we hold out for healthy relationship. We don’t give up on the relationship quickly, but we also don’t settle for less than what it is supposed to be: healthy, mutually affirming, encouraging, strengthening. We resist recklessness in family relationships more than in any other precisely because they are so important.

If our vehicles start making funny noises, or dripping fluids from strange places, we don’t generally say, “But it’s my car. I just have to put up with it.” If our physical bodies start making funny noises, or dripping fluids from strange places, we don’t usually say, “But it’s my body. I just have to learn how to deal with it.” In either case we take steps to seek the cause, seek a remedy, deal with the issue, and keep confronting the problem until it’s fixed. (OK, you might end up having to sell your car, I get it. I’ll deal with that in Part II.)

The difference between family relationships and other relationships is the persistence we use in seeking healing. “Any other a-hole can take a hike, but this a-hole is family.”

Maybe blood actually is thicker than water. And maybe we’ve gotten confused about what that idea actually looks like in real life.   –JEH

Click here to be taken to “Blood is Thicker Than Water, Part II: I Tried, But They Won’t Change! Now What?” And click here for Part III