Archive of ‘Family’ category

Building A Better Mental Health Future for Our Children

We are living in an unprecedented time – not only are we facing a global pandemic that is having a profound effect on millions of people around the world, but we are also simultaneously navigating difficult issues like climate change, natural disaster, racial injustice, gender equality, political polarization, economic turbulence, war, etc.  All these factors have taken a toll on our mental health.  Mental health disorders can affect anyone; they do not discriminate based on gender, race, age, ethnicity, occupation, religion, economic class, or ethnic background.  It is very likely that each of us knows someone with a mental health challenge or has one ourselves. 

Our children have been hit particularly hard during this challenging time, with us seeing a mental health crisis in children like never before.  Mental health is just as important as physical health, which is an essential part of children’s overall health and well-being. As a therapist, I am seeing an increasing number of parents reaching out for help with their children’s mental health.  Anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, self-harming, internet addictions and truancy are just some of the conditions that are prevailing in young people during this mental health crisis.  Putting the well-being of our children as top priority is paramount now.  Whether you are a parent, caregiver, educator, coach, counselor or anyone who interacts with children and is genuinely interested in their overall wellness, you have the ability to influence them in a positive way. You can make a difference in their lives.

I would like to share with you five things with the acronym, “CARES”, that I believe our children really need.  With those, we can help nurture their mental health:

1. Connection with compassion

We are all social beings that have the innate need to connect.  The social distancing/isolation during the pandemic has made it very hard for us to connect with each other.  Most of our kids today connect with their phones and computers more than they connect with human beings. Research shows that this disconnection has detrimental effects on the mental health of our children.  Dr. Bruce Perry believes that connectedness has the power to counterbalance adversity:

“Human beings are social creatures, and because of that, we are neurologically designed to be in relationships with other people. When you see another person and they send a signal that you belong, or they smile and give you a gentle touch, that literally changes the physiology of your brain and body in ways that lead to a more regulated stress response system, healthier heart, healthier lungs, and literally it will influence your physical and mental health.” 

Let’s focus on building true connections with our children.  When was the last time you sat down with them to have a deep conversation that made them feel seen and heard?  When was the last time you played or created something together?  Giving our children undivided attention and being attuned is connecting with them.  Being curious and asking questions to genuinely get inside your child’s world is connecting with them.  When we connect through compassion, we begin to see things from their perspective without judgement.  Dr. Brené Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” 

2. Acceptance and authenticity

Dr. Alfred Adler teaches us that a human being has an instinctive need to belong and feel significant.  Dr. Abraham Maslow places belongingness as the next most important need just above the physiological and safety needs in his hierarchy of needs model.  Many kids nowadays are not getting this basic need met.  As a result, they become people pleasers and do things to please others to seek approval.  They rely on external factors to define themselves.  They also act out and become defiant to get adult attention. 

So why do kids do these things?  Because they are not being accepted for who they are.  Their most important need is not being met – the need to belong.  Children need to know that they are accepted for who they are.  When children are accepted, they will have a sense of belonging which will allow them to be their authentic self.  They will see their self-worth, which then leads them to a more meaningful and fulfilled life.  Truly accepting a child means to let go of our own expectations of who we want the child to be and embrace who the child really is. 

3. Resilience and responsibility

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from setbacks or failures.  It is a skill that can be learned and practiced.  Many parents like to teach their kids how to win, but I think it is more important to teach them how to fail and get back up.  Allowing our kids to accept failure as part of learning and growing is one way to teach them resilience.  Do not rush to rescue them from moments of struggle or you will deprive them of opportunity to build their resilience muscles.  Another way to help kids develop resilience is by teaching them responsibility and allowing them to contribute to the family and society.  This not only allows them to have a sense of significance, but also allows them to see how capable they are.  

4. Encouragement and empathy

Oftentimes, we tend to criticize our children and focus on the negatives rather than the positives.  When all our children hear from us is how incapable they are and how much they are doing things incorrectly, they will feel discouraged.  It is important for children to know that we all make mistakes.  Let’s model self-acceptance and self-love even when we make mistakes.  Being encouraged and supported builds self-worth and self-confidence.  Alongside encouragement is empathy. Children need to hear encouraging words that come from a place of empathy. 

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.”

– Dr. Alfred Adler.

5. Safety and support

Providing a secure environment for children to grow and develop is very important for both their physical and mental health.   According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety is one of the most basic human needs for motivation.  Safety does not only refer to physical safety but emotional safety as well.  We want to provide a safe environment for our children to freely express their emotions.  It is important for parents to talk to their children about feelings.  Dr. Daniel Seigel said:

“Parents who speak with their children about their feelings have children who develop emotional intelligence and can understand their own and other people’s feelings more fully.”  

Our goal is to be their anchor so that they feel safe to come to us when the outside world appears to be scary and unsafe to them.  When children have a secure base, they will be more likely to have the courage to explore the world. 

Life is full of unpredictable challenges.  Let’s prepare our kids for whatever lies ahead by fostering their mental health and well-being.  Now more than ever, our children need our support.  Let’s focus on building a better mental health future for our children. 

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

– C.S. Lewis

Navigating Religious (and Political) Differences in your Family

I’m not talking about the stereotypical crazy uncle at your Thanksgiving dinner. I’m talking about your sister or father or son whose beliefs are a real impediment to your family functioning. Maybe you don’t have a relationship with them any more. Or maybe you do, and that’s what hurts.

If you’ve listened to or read the news in the last decade, you’ve come across someone discussing how polarized America is these days. Today, with unprecedented access to infinite opinions and knowledge, these polarizations have begun to infiltrate our normally monolithic institutions, like our schools, churches, towns, and yes, families. 

I come from a Jewish family, and my parents have been proud Democrats since I can remember. In the last 20 years, 3 of my family members have gone steadily to the “right,” either religiously or politically. And the other 3 members of my family have drastically moved “left,” BOTH religiously and politically.  So you can see, I have some personal experience with familial polarization, not to mention that as a therapist I work with many individuals and families with similar family dynamics. 

I’d like to offer some ways I’ve learned to navigate this incredibly difficult situation. 

#1: Talk to them about it.

I put this at number 1 not necessarily because you should start with this, but because it’s the most important and, also, the hardest to do. HOW do you talk to them without it blowing up in your face and ruining your already fragile relationship? Read on. 

#2: Set aside your ego for a short period of time

This means even though you “know” you’re right and they’re horribly misguided, for the duration of one conversation, assume they’re right, or at least that they’re not stupid or evil. This doesn’t have to mean you’re “wrong.” I’m just asking you to pause that part of your brain so that your family member can express their opinions without you attacking them or defending yourself. And when I say “a short period of time,” I mean enough time for them to feel like you might be interested in what they have to say. Once they feel comfortable that they’ve been heard (see #3 below), then you can ask them for a chance to talk about your beliefs. You might want to wait for a separate opportunity to discuss your opinions, rather than immediately after they’ve shared theirs for 2 reasons: they might be emotionally unavailable to listen to you after sharing their beliefs with you; and you might be feeling defensive about your beliefs and end up sharing a little more aggressively than you hoped.

#3: Listen to them

Don’t spend all your energy waiting for them to stop talking so that you can interject counter arguments. In fact, I challenge you to not use one counter argument. Here are some guidelines for listening to people (this is literally my job, so hopefully you can trust that I might have something useful to say about listening to people):

  • Ask them if it’s okay if you ask them a question before asking your question. They may still have more to say before wanting to change the direction of the conversation.
  • Be curious (or at least pretend to be curious). Ex: “Oh that’s interesting… does that mean you also believe _____?” “Where did you learn that?” “When did you first start believing _____?” “Does it bother you when I talk about my beliefs?”
  • Ask for clarification. This can REALLY help avoid any misunderstandings. Ex. “You just said that ______, right?” And let them correct you if you’ve misheard them.
  • Don’t interrupt them. Wait until there’s an obvious end to the point their making. (This one sounds easier than it really is.)

#4: Protect yourself

Don’t let them attack you or your beliefs (Ex: “Liberals are too sensitive.” “Trump supporters are Nazis.” “Secular people are immoral.” “Religious people are nuts.” “You’re in a cult, and you’re being brainwashed.” etc.). Stand up for your beliefs. Let them know that judgements like that are not going to help your relationship. Save those judgments for AFTER your conversation, when you’re home and talking to a supportive friend or significant other. Also, don’t forget to check in with your own emotions. It will likely be incredibly difficult to hear some of the things your family member is saying. Take a break, be it a few minutes or a few days. Ask your family member to slow down. You’re taking a very difficult step in your relationship with your family member. Recognize that it’s not supposed to be easy. If it was easy, you wouldn’t be reading any of this.

#5: Be prepared to have more than one conversation

Depending on many factors, including the depth of your relationship and the length of time you have held opposing views, you may not come to any deep understanding after your first confrontation. The goal of speaking to each other is not to convince one another of your beliefs. It’s to be able to have a relationship where you can respect each other. This requires more than one conversation. 

#6: Have them read this article too!

Being on the same page with your family member will drastically improve the odds that both of you come out feeling more connected with each other. It also will make it less awkward when you try to ask a curious question and fumble through it, because they’ll understand what you’re trying to do.

You can do this!


3 Strategies to Setting Clear and Effective Boundaries

1. Keep it short and simple

When setting boundaries for kids and teenagers, you want to make it easy to remember, easy to reference and repeat. “Please be home by 9pm” or “No friends allowed at home if we aren’t home”, instead of “It probably makes sense that you don’t have anyone over for tonight, we are going to be gone until 10pm and there won’t be anyone here to supervise you and your friends”. We often fall victim to explaining the boundary as we are stating it. Explaining why the boundary exists is a valuable conversation to have, just make sure you separate that conversation from the rule/boundary being stated. The more information or discussion being had while setting the boundary, the higher chance for loopholes, exceptions, or power struggles to follow. When you keep it short and simple, you can reference the boundary easier as well, it is easier to remember for the child/teen and less ambiguity.

2. If “this happens”, then “this is the consequence”

If/then statements are much clearer and easier to understand for a child/teenager. For example, “When homework is done, then you can hangout with your friends” or “If you are late for curfew, then you lose your Xbox for tomorrow”. The limit is clear, if a certain behavior is done, then the consequence is clear, whether it be positive or negative. These statements can be quite helpful in avoiding power struggles as well. If you find yourself getting into a power struggle, you can just take a pause and come back to the original limit set, if “x”, then “y”, end of story. Just as important as the content of the limit, it is even more crucial how you say it. Say it with confidence, keeping it short and simple and in a matter of fact way. The stronger you sound when you state a boundary, the less likely there is pushback.

3. Recognize power struggle attempts and repeat the limit

It would be wonderful if there was never any pushback on a boundary or limit set but that is not the world we live in. If you keep getting pushback, that is okay, just stay consistent and maintain your boundary. The minute you start back peddling on a boundary, you are setting yourself up for them to not believe in future limits set or feel they can wiggle out of them. They might even get upset that you are not budging or that you keep having to repeat the limit, that is okay, this is partly why you are reading this, because holding boundaries is not always easy, it takes consistency and is especially difficult if holding firmer boundaries is a new practice. Remember this: each time you set and hold that boundary is an investment, an investment into future limits set, into your child learning that when a limit is set, it matters and an investment into furthering mutual trust between you and your child. 


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