Category Archives: Parenting

You Really Do Know What’s True

 

Proceeding wisely through life requires a sharply focused awareness of our emotions. Being blind to them handicaps our ability to take effective action in any given situation.

Let’s say, as a small child, you hear a loud noise. Instinctively, you place your hands over your ears. Then you’re told, “It’s not too loud.”

Let’s say you fall down and get hurt and your parents tell you, “You’re not hurt.”

Let’s say you tell your parents you saw two lizards in the backyard and they respond by saying, “No, you didn’t!”

If this happens often enough, you may—understandably—begin to distrust your own experience of reality. The same goes for emotions. If our emotions are continuously discounted instead of being validated, we stop relying on them for useful information. Unfortunately, we learn to rely on how we’ve been programmed to think and feel.

Cheri was raised to doubt her own emotions. Consequently, she second-guesses herself whenever someone treats her disrespectfully. Nate, her 22-year-old son, is no exception. He has been doing it for years.

But Cheri’s waking up. “Enough is enough,” she said in our counseling session. She had reached that point after returning home from a short business trip and discovering that her house had been trashed. Without her knowledge, much less her approval, Nate had thrown a party while she was gone. It really wasn’t out of character for him to ignore his messes. And it wasn’t unusual for him to erupt in a rage when confronted.  He can be cooperative, but only when he wants something, and it’s at those times he pleads for a second chance. Up until now, Cheri has obliged him.

“What can I do?” Cheri asked. “I feel used.”

Merely teaching Cheri better methods for dealing with her adult son would prove futile. That’s because the source of the problem—her major stumbling block—resides in how she dismisses her own feelings.

Like her parents, Cheri tells herself how she should feel and think instead of listening to the wisdom of her emotions and using her better judgment.

Her actual emotional response toward her son’s blatant disrespect is a combination of pain, outrage and disgust. She may love him as a son, but she honestly doesn’t like the person he’s become. According to Cheri, he treats people poorly in all arenas, not just at home. And on several occasions, his troublesome behavior has led to problems with the law and with employers. It distresses her that his sole focus seems to be on self-gratification. Displays of sensitivity toward others or demonstrations of a social conscience are virtually nonexistent.

But Cheri’s criticism of her son—realistic as it may be—immediately activates strong feelings of guilt. She believes she would be mean and selfish if she stopped giving him chances, lending him money, doing his laundry and other such favors.

Ironically, she feels okay about judging herself, but feels wrong about judging her son.

When I pointed that out to Cheri, she said, “I was brought up to believe that it was wrong to judge others.”

I explained that there is a difference between open-eyed clarity and being judgmental. We possess discerning minds. That ability, along with our values and emotions, tells us when someone’s actions are just plain wrong. Emotions alert us to discomfort and repulsion—our mind tells us why. Both provide valuable feedback so we can respond appropriately.

I emphasized to Cheri the importance of listening to her soul’s indigestion.

“It’s telling you something.” I urged her to pay attention to that sick feeling in her gut. “We shouldn’t ignore what we find disturbing,” I said.

“I can’t differentiate between judging and what’s distasteful to my soul,” Cheri said. “In my mind, choosing what’s right for me is equivalent to judging.”

“Where did this idea come from?” I asked.

“I was constantly told as a child that I shouldn’t feel what I feel…that the way I felt was wrong. Any feelings, anger or tears were considered wrong. I wasn’t allowed to say what didn’t work for me. So I don’t feel I have the right to complain or to even expect my son to be different.”

I felt optimistic when Cheri left my office that day because awareness is the first step in re-programming ourselves. Hopefully, she will begin to override her guilt and start validating her emotions. And as a result, she will effectively respond to her son’s disrespectful behaviors.

He just may be in for a bit of a surprise. Hope so.

 

 

(c) Salee Reese 2018

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

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Thank You, Daddy

daddy-kiss

Whether you’re a grown-up or a young child, your father probably occupies a special place in your heart. 

Over the years, my clients have shared many thoughts about their fathers with me. One client made me smile with this one: “I remember Sunday mornings listening to records and Dad dancing the polka in stocking feet on the linoleum floor in the family room!”

Can’t you just picture that?

Annette recalls: “I treasure the simple memory of Dad tucking us in bed each night and kissing us goodnight. And he was the one to get us up in the mornings and make us breakfast.” He cooked the evening meal, as well. She was especially touched by how he went out of his way to make their favorite meals.

Chad told me of his father’s endless patience: “Whether Dad was showing me how to throw a ball, helping me with my homework, or teaching me how to drive, he was always patient.  And when I got in trouble, or failed at something, Dad wasn’t the type to blow up. I can still hear him say: ‘Well son, what did you learn?’”

Claire loves that she can go to her dad for reliable advice: “What stands out about my father is how well he listens. I can talk to him about anything and I know I’ll get his undivided attention. I remember one time when I had been offered a new job and was debating whether to keep my present job—which I really liked—or take the new one. So when I shared my dilemma with my dad, he asked me questions about both jobs—what I liked about my present job and how different the new job would be. In essence he was causing me to weigh the pros and cons of each. He didn’t actually tell me what to do, but prodded me to examine all aspects so I could figure it out for myself. It fills me with a sense of security to know I can always turn to my dad and he’ll listen to every word.”

My own father never had much to say, yet somehow his love for his three girls infused the air with an ever-present soft glow. When he did share his thoughts, I could tell he was in the habit of doing some deep thinking when off by himself.

Dad was the playful one. I have precious memories of him playing hide-and-seek with us. He taught us how to swim, how to fish, how to plant a garden, how to dance and how to go after what we yearned to achieve. Like Annette’s father, he did the cooking.  When we came downstairs in the morning, a smiling dad and a breakfast of poached eggs awaited us. There were no exceptions. Even on Christmas morning, Dad made it mandatory that we eat breakfast before all else. Our presents would just have to wait. Seemed like hours! 🙂

Jan, another client, was moved to write about her late father.

“As I sit here anticipating my first Father’s Day without my dad, I wonder: Does everyone who has lost their father feel the same emotions I’m feeling?

“Before he passed on, Father’s Day meant worrying about purchasing the right gift and hoping it was something Dad would enjoy. It was trying to get everyone together and accommodating schedules. With five other siblings, this wasn’t always an easy task.

“My father was a man of few words. He had minimal education and worked construction his whole life. He worked many hours to provide for a family of eight. There weren’t many heart-to heart talks with my dad or one-on-one moments. Sometimes—I’m embarrassed to admit—I even wondered if my dad really loved me.

“But as I sit and ponder, I realize it wasn’t really about the gift I had to buy or the time it took from my busy schedule. Father’s Day represented the man in my life who was always there. He wasn’t going to divorce me or leave me. He was there for every holiday, every marriage, every divorce. Basically, Dad was there for every event.

“Although we didn’t spend a lot of time together and never talked about the latest topics, he was present and always watching over all of his children. More and more I realize there’s something comforting and important about the feeling of being watched over.

“Recently we buried my father, and as all six siblings stood watching over him in his final days, I realized there was no animosity between us. We were in total agreement in his last hours about how we would make him as comfortable as possible.

“It was the night my dad passed away that I finally realized what he’d taught me. He taught me how to love.

“And as I watched my five siblings gather around his bed that final night, I also realized they were given the exact same gift.

“Most importantly, I realized that with my brothers and sister in my life, my dad would always be there. I can now see him in each and every one of us.

“So here’s to you, Dad: You might not have taught me to put a napkin on my lap or how to write a letter, or to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ but what you did teach me was so much more valuable. Thank you for the gift of love. It outweighs everything else.

“Happy Father’s Day, Dad.”

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality

(c) 2018 Salee Reese

 

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Moving Through Grief

 

It has been two years since her husband, Trent, died. But to Amy it feels like yesterday.

“Why am I grieving?” she lamented. “I thought I was over it.”

I answered her simply: “We’re never over love, Amy.”

After his fatal car accident, she told herself she must be strong for the children. So she stuffed her feelings—locked them up in a steel vault deep within. The truth is, such attempts fail miserably. Denied or submerged feelings slowly creep into our everyday consciousness, so eventually we’re forced to face them. This is what happened to Amy, prompting her to seek help.

In our counseling session, I explained that when tragedy strikes, numbness is a natural response—an automatic defense mechanism—that cushions us from experiencing horrendous and often incapacitating pain. But such numbing is a temporary fix—it doesn’t heal the wound. Healing must occur before we can move forward, before we can be intact as a complete person, and before we can engage in our life wholeheartedly again.

On the emotional level, Amy needs to experience and talk about every aspect of the loss associated with Trent’s death, including the loss of his presence, his companionship and the loss of their dreams.

She needs to let herself miss the sound of his voice, his smiling eyes, his laughter, his scent.

He’s no longer there as a father figure for their children. That’s a loss.

Yes, he had flaws and idiosyncrasies. But she’s surprised at how insignificant they all seem now.

“It’s what made him unique,” she said fondly.

I suggested she set aside time to quietly reflect on Trent, letting her heart call forth countless warming memories.

“And if you feel moved to write, don’t resist doing so. Most likely, your instinctive wisdom is nudging you in the direction of healing,” I said.

To keep it simple, some people write down single trigger words associated with special memories.

“Maybe you’re moved to visit certain places, like favorite vacation spots. Go there again,” I insisted.

“Above all,” I said, “let yourself cry.”

I advised her to take her time—to be patient with the process.

Grief can neither be hurried nor directed. At best, we can only surrender to it.

I asked Amy about her childhood, how her parents dealt with negative emotions.

“Emotions weren’t dealt with,” she replied. “They were ignored—never discussed.”

As a result, when Amy’s dog died, or when she wasn’t invited to the prom, or when her best friend moved away, she felt isolated and alone in her suffering.

“So, do you think your children feel alone in their suffering—even two years later?” I asked.

She nodded.

Amy handled her husband’s death in the only way she knew how. And she believed she was doing the right thing for her children—by being strong.

“Your children need for you to be strong in a different way,” I said.

“Strength isn’t demonstrated by being emotionless, but by one’s willingness to face emotions head-on.”

Healthy coping isn’t exemplified by ignoring or hiding unpleasant emotions, but by going through them. It takes courage to grieve, and children benefit when they witness their parents embracing the process and coming out fully intact on the other side.

In contrast, emotional numbing may force a family to pretend the deceased family member never existed. This was true in Amy’s household. After Trent’s death, he wasn’t mentioned at all. Such silence and avoidance is akin to erasing him from every picture in the family album.

“That doubles the grief, Amy.” I said.

Not only did she lose him, she lost the memory of him as well.

“How can he touch your life—yet today—if his memory is eradicated?”

I went on to explain that a cloud of gloom persists because she’s looking at what went wrong instead of what went right. He showed up in her life. He added a strand to the fabric of  her existence that would not have occurred otherwise. He not only enriched her life but he also enriched the lives of his children. That fact should be celebrated.

I suggested she break the silence and get everyone talking about Trent. She should expect tears and laughter. Both are good. They will express and acknowledge Trent’s powerful impact on their lives.

Amy followed my advice, and now that she is bravely sharing her emotions with her children, things should soon be much better in their world.

An emotional wound is finally being allowed to breathe, and I think Amy will be surprised at how much healing can occur when emotions are allowed to see the light of day instead of being buried in a vault of silence.

 

(c) Salee Reese 2018

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Parenting Gumby-Style

 

Confining adolescents to the basement can be a deliciously tempting idea at times.

Melissa feels she’s losing control of Carly, her 12-year-old daughter. Of greater concern:  She fears she might be losing her altogether.

“We used to be so tight,” Melissa said in our counseling session. “My worst nightmare has been that Carly would someday resent me the same way I resented my own mother.”

Friction between Carly and her mother began about three years ago. “She just wouldn’t listen anymore,” Melissa complained. “If I said, ‘No,’ she would argue with me. Since I wasn’t about to give in, she would storm off screaming and crying.”

The problem has only worsened over time.

“You must learn to be pliable,” I said. “Your rigid parenting style is not only encouraging her to defy you, it’s also alienating her—the very thing you don’t want.”

Many people equate flexibility with being weak. Flexibility isn’t as much about changing the household rules as it is about changing your approach. Rather than “bringing the hammer down,” flexibility welcomes open discussion, mutual cooperation and, possibly, negotiation. It’s important that a teenager’s ideas are listened to and considered. We all need a sense of having some influence over our day-to-day lives. Rigidity only breeds resistance.

Flexible people strive to understand, listen and be fair. Their desire is to collaborate—not to control. How they impact others matters to them and they’re willing to change their style for the sake of the relationship. After all, a parent has zero positive influence if the relationship is in need of repair.

When adolescents defy authority, there’s no need to panic.

They’re instinctively preparing for the self-reliance and independence that will be necessary in adulthood. We should view resisting authority as a natural aspect of growing up.

I asked Melissa, “What did you most resent about your own mother?”

Melissa responded, “She didn’t seem to care how I felt. She could be cold and detached. There was no sympathy.”

After sharing several painful examples, I remarked, “You needed to feel her caring heart, didn’t you, Melissa?”

Her silence and bowed head spoke volumes. Suddenly she looked up with concern.

“Carly feels like I don’t love her, just like I felt with my mom. I never meant that!”

“Melissa,” I said, “instead of being worried about Carly resenting you, be more concerned that she will suffer the same way you suffered.”

There was a pause.

“Sometimes she even says she wants to kill herself,” Melissa said. “But I know she doesn’t mean it. She’s just trying to get my attention.”

“Well . . . could be,” I said, “But, you make that sound like a bad thing.”

The truth is, Carly is showing how profoundly frustrated she is. Undoubtedly, she has learned that words won’t make a difference, so saying she wants to kill herself may be her one and only way of expressing her immense sadness. It’s a cry for help . . . to her mom.

My advice to Melissa was to focus on repairing the relationship. She needs to start out by telling Carly what she’s learning about herself as a mom. Admitting her mistakes and expressing the fears she conveyed in our session is vital for laying the groundwork for a new connection. Then she must listen to Carly’s response while looking warmly into her eyes. Never interrupting, never becoming defensive. Carly will have a lot to spill out—including emotion. I instructed Melissa to resist getting hooked and to see it as part of the healing process. Convey comfort and understanding.

And in going forward, when the old pattern returns—and it will—to simply ask Carly, “What do you want me to understand?” For it to work, I suggested she apply the same listening skills she learned earlier.

This approach will give you a much better relationship with your adolescents than consigning them to the basement. 🙂

 

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality..

(c) Salee Reese 2018

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Raw Truth from Teens

 

Let’s dispel a common myth about teenagers. They actually yearn to communicate with their parents, despite evidence to the contrary.

But communication must be a two-way street, and for a vast number of teenagers, that isn’t happening. It’s not so much a refusal to open up—instead, their silence is often rooted in discouragement because of something the parent is doing or not doing.

Nell, a 17- year-old client, put it succinctly as she expressed the frustration that many teenagers experience: “Parents think that just because they’re older, their opinions are always right. Many times, when my mom is talking to me, she’ll accuse me of not listening. That’s not true at all. I am listening, but I just keep my thoughts to myself. I don’t bother to share my opinions or disagree with her because she thinks she’s always right.”

Apparently, her mother feels she’s right about Nell’s emotions as well: “My mom will ask me how I feel, and when I tell her, she says, ‘No, you don’t.”

Allison and Tara provide another example of a communication shut-down.  In one counseling session, 14-year-old Allison opened up to her mom, Tara, saying, “I’ve always felt you liked [my brother] Mark more than me . . . .” Before Allison could even finish her sentence, Tara interrupted defensively, “That’s not true! I have always cared for you kids the same!”  The desire for any further discussion was effectively squashed.

Because Allison became quiet, Tara mistakenly believed that the problem was resolved. It wasn’t. That’s because the problem is rooted in the heart, not the head. Allison doesn’t need words to straighten out her thinking—the remedy must be aimed directly at the heart.

Allison may have her facts wrong—her mother may truly love her children the same—but her personal experience says otherwise, and that’s where Tara needs to go.

Here is the advice I gave Tara: Get control of that knee-jerk need to defend yourself. Instead, strive to understand why your daughter feels that way so you can tackle the problem at its roots. Be receptive to her perspective as she reveals why she feels the way she does. Comfort her and apologize for any pain you may have unintentionally caused.

Tara was game to give it another try. She warmly invited Allison to explain why she felt her mom was favoring her brother.

Allison tearfully responded: “Because you never get mad at him. You’re always yelling at me. I can’t do anything right! You think I’m a terrible kid.”

Again, Tara went on the defense.  “No I don’t!” she argued, giving examples to the contrary. The brief argument that followed ended with Allison’s silence once again. Tara didn’t win the argument. In fact, she lost. She forfeited communication with her daughter and reinforced Allison’s reluctance to share her thoughts and feelings.

Sixteen-year-old Justin’s parents complain that he never talks to them. The reason became obvious in a family session about Justin’s grades. Justin’s parents grilled him like police officers. Their interrogating, warning, shaming and lecturing tactics virtually guaranteed a shut-down. With his arms folded, Justin said nothing as he gazed at the floor. If Justin’s parents want productive dialogue with their son, their manner must invite that.

What makes teenagers comfortable enough to open up to their parents?  For the answer, we adults need only to look at what works for us. What entices us to open up and talk?  The answer is simple: We feel safe, and we feel convinced that the other person is truly interested in what we have to say.

We want to be heard, they want to be heard . . . no difference.

 

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) 2017 Salee Reese

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I Want a Silverback Father!

I’m certain we could learn a lot from silverback gorillas. Not about grooming habits, but about the way they care for their young.

The movie Instinct stars Anthony Hopkins as an anthropologist who lives among a community of gorillas for two years. He starts out as a detached observer, but it isn’t long before they win over his heart. He admires and adores these powerful yet gentle creatures and is especially touched by their undying devotion to their young.

Gradually, he is accepted as one of them.

One day, sitting among the gorillas as they groom themselves and nibble away at leaves, he becomes aware of a constant, attentive gaze that embraces them all. The gaze was coming from the “silverback,” the name given to the chief male—the elder or overseer—of the gorilla clan. His job is to protect and maintain order.

“It’s an amazing experience—the feeling of being watched over,” the anthropologist observed.

The gravity of that simple statement struck me. I wonder . . .  do our children feel “watched over” by their fathers . . . and in this manner?

I think a lot of kids feel “watched,” but not “watched over.” To me there’s a huge difference. To be “watched” implies a suspicious, critical eye. “Watching over” combines guidance with compassion.

Sam Keen, author of Fire in the Belly, has this to say:

In the quiet hours of the night when I add up the accomplishments of my life, those things that rank first, in terms of true success, have to do with my children. To the degree I have loved, nurtured, and enjoyed them, I honor myself. To the degree I have injured them by my obsessive preoccupations with myself, with my profession, I have failed as a father and a man. The health, vitality, and happiness of the family is the yardstick by which a man, a woman, a society should measure success.

To the dismay of many men and their children, that lesson is typically learned in hindsight. One such father put it this way: “Men fall into the trap of believing what their family needs most is a secure financial foundation. This isn’t so. The foundation comes from the heart, not the wallet.”

Turning again to Keen: “We learn to trust in a world that contains evil when we come crying with a skinned knee and are held, hurting, in arms; and the voice that is forever assuring us, ‘Everything is going to be all right.’”

Boys learn how to use their masculinity—in both positive and negative ways—by watching their fathers. Keen says, “A boy naturally learns how to be a man by observing how his father treats women, how he deals with illness, failure, and success, whether he shares in the household chores, whether he cuddles and plays.”

Keen mentions how his priorities as a father have gradually changed. “First time round as a father I had truckloads of rules, oughts, ideals, and explanations—all of which kept me at arm’s length from my children . . . . Lately I have come to believe that the best thing I can give my children is an honest account of what I feel, think, and experience, to invite them into my inner world.”

We frequently hear the term “the absent father.” This doesn’t necessarily refer to the actual physical absence of a father. It can also refer to emotional absence. Children need to feel that there’s a special place in their dad’s heart reserved just for them. They need to see a certain delight in his eyes when they talk to him about their day or when they share their dreams and achievements with him. They hunger for his full attention—chunks of time in which he’s not distracted by schedules or electronic devices.

They need to see their father as powerful, but not “powerful” as in domination or through tough displays of fierceness or force. A father of young children once told me that good fathers are good leaders and that being a good leader requires a delicate balancing act. He said, “I must maintain an air of authority, but I have to be the right type of authority. I’m learning that the best leaders lead without squashing the spirit.

So, good fathering is about a warm and receptive heart. It’s about being involved and interested. It’s attentive to needs and distresses. It nourishes self-worth. It protects, guides and maintains order. It’s about cherishing and listening. It models strength, self-restraint and kindness. It comforts when there are tears. It accepts when there are mistakes and failures.

Being watched over is an amazing experience! The world needs more “silverback” fathers, wouldn’t you say?

© 2017 Salee Reese

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A Mother’s Heart

“Making the decision to have a child—it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”     —Elizabeth Stone

I don’t know about you, but that speaks to me. I have two sons, and although they’re full-fledged adults now, they’re never far from my heart-thoughts.

From the earliest days of changing diapers and changing diapers and changing diapers, I’ve experienced degrees of joy and warmth I never thought possible. But I’ve  experienced degrees of frustration and anguish I never thought possible, too.

Nope, motherhood is not for the faint of heart. It exhausts and tests you to the point of wondering why you ever signed up for it in the first place. I could say it challenges you to grow—and that’s true—but it’s more accurate to say it forces you to grow.

There were times—humble times—when I knew that staying stuck in the old me was merely going to make matters worse. I had to change. I simply had to upgrade my way of seeing and doing things.

Yes, my sons have been my teachers in many respects, and I thank them for that. They’ve made me a better person, but most of all, they’ve made my heart grow.

 

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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