Families Articles

Do You Want to Avoid the Next Fight?

Monday, September 1st, 2014

argument1227837759.jMost people are now aware that high levels of conflict–loud, angry or bitter fighting–can be tremendously destructive not only to marriages and intimate relationships but can cause lasting harm to the children caught in the crossfire.

As painful as divorce can be for kids, what we know now is that excessive fighting is what troubles kids–whether the family remains intact or not. On the flip side, disagreements and differences go hand in hand with any relationship whether it be marital partners, parents and children, co-workers or siblings.

One of the crucial skills we must master in order to sustain close, long-term relationships is healthy communication. Not only do we need to be able to communicate our positive feelings of love and appreciation but we need to be able to talk through issues when we don’t see eye to eye.
file1601299643113The Elements of Healthy Conflict

  • Both parties involved talk and listen, taking turns at sharing. Rather than gearing up to defend one’s point of view, there is a desire to understand more about what the other person feels, thinks and wants. Both realize that compromise is essential to trust and intimacy.
  • Although difficult conversations may be heated, there is no name-calling, yelling, threatening or bullying. In other words, there is a certain level of respect and self-control that is maintained.
  • When one or both parties gets overcome by strong emotions, the couple knows that it is usually wise to take a break to cool down, finding another time to resume the discussion when both parties are calmer. There are many resources (books, articles, videos) and how-to instructions with tools for healthy communication.

The Elements of Destructive Conflict
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn destructive conflict, all bets are off. Psychologist John Gottman’s land-breaking research on couples brought to light the negative aspects that can lead any discussion to the dark side. He aptly labeled these the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse because once they are predominant in a couple’s conflict, the likelihood of divorce dramatically rises.

Here …


Breaking Free from Your Victim Story

Monday, August 25th, 2014

fitnessjog“You can either be a victim of the world or an adventurer in search of treasure. It all depends on how you view your life.” -Paulo Coelho

How often do you say things out loud or to yourself like: “He makes me feel stupid” or “I’m depressed because she is always criticizing me” or “I would be happy if my partner would only treat me better? He/she won’t let me do that, think that, feel that…”? Underneath these statements is the same negative belief–I can’t change because…

If you believe that your self-esteem or happiness (or lack thereof) are caused by how your current or past family members treat you then you are falling into the role of “the victim” whether you like to think that way of yourself or not. Any time we blame someone else for our problems, we are telling ourselves a victim story.

file000255429846Don’t be afraid to admit it. We all do this sometimes. Some people seem to do it constantly. The problem is that once we get lost in this hopeless narrative, we become more depressed, angry and fearful. If someone else can readily manipulate your mood state then you are like a puppet on a string. Someone else is in control. Pause to think about this for a moment: Who have you allowed to become your puppeteer?
Having a victim mindset vs. being a current victim of crime
Of course, there are times when a person is a very real victim. There are numerous websites and blogs to describe the psychological effects and treatment of victims of domestic violence, child abuse, rape or assault, embezzlement or theft, not to speak of the aftermath of war, terrorism, or poverty.

This blog is not attempting to address recovery from trauma (a very big subject indeed with countless books on it) but to examine how a victim mindset can plague anyone long after the trauma has ended.

Holding fenceIt is certainly true …


10 Tips to Help Kids Cope with War & Traumatic Events

Monday, August 11th, 2014

yolo “I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, ‘Mother, what was war?’” ~Eve Merriam

These are uncertain, turbulent times, colored as they are by fears about war and terrorism. As a result, children as well as adults are experiencing higher levels of stress.

When a flu bug is going around, conscientious parents make sure their child is getting plenty of sleep, vitamins, and a healthy diet to build their immune system. How can we, in a similar fashion, build up our children’s capacity to deal with current stresses?

Although there is no magic pill, there is a healthy diet of social and emotional skills that you can provide children. Increasing these skills is the most effective way to help them deal with the current threat, as well as learn valuable lessons to last a lifetime.

It is normal for them to feel afraid, yet there are things we can do to help our kids function optimally in these trying times. Here are some tips for parents, teachers and child professionals…

Tip #1: Ask questions and listen.

_DSC0285Discuss the concerns that your children have by first asking them what they are hearing from peers, school and the news. Don’t push the issue. It’s best not to fill them with fears they don’t have, but also realize that concerns don’t go away if we try to ignore them.

If they are worried, reassure with words like “I can see you are feeling really scared. This is a hard time for us.” “I know we’ll feel better when it’s over.” Avoid telling them “Everything will be okay,” because if something does happen, you’ll lose their trust.

Tip #2: Help them separate imagined from realistic fears.

Entertainment and real events can blend together and their imaginations can run wild–like thinking that a war with Iraq will be like Star Wars. Many kids who saw the twin towers falling on 9/11 insisted it was a movie. Others seeing the image repeated on the news thought the event was happening over and over again. Children need …


Could You Be Suffering from the Summertime Blues?

Monday, June 30th, 2014

file1691345353992Summer is in full swing and all around you, people seem to be enjoying themselves. Happy to be outdoors, puttering in the garden, reading cheesy novels, going to the beach or nearby parks for picnics. Not only do you not get it, you feel worse just seeing their rosy complexions. Like Scrooge at Christmas, you want to scream “Baaaah humbug!” but nobody wants to hear your complaints.

Or perhaps it’s not you but one of your kids or your mate who is cranky and out of sorts. What’s going on? It may be a bad case of the summertime blues.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) Might Be the Problem

Most people, if they even know about SAD, think of it as a type of depression that occurs each year in the winter–especially in places with long winter nights and little sunshine. Like other forms of depression, SAD occurs more often in women than in men and can first occur either in adolescence or adulthood.

file0001006380164What many people, including psychotherapists, do not know is that a small but significant percentage of people have recurrent bouts of depression every year in the summer. While the winter blues typically make people withdrawn and lethargic, craving carbohydrates, oversleeping and overeating, the effects of summer depression are the opposite.

In the summer version of SAD, people get agitated, anxious, and irritable, struggling to get enough sleep. Since they also lose their appetite, they often lose weight. As with other depressions, they can struggle with suicidal thoughts.

No one knows exactly why summer affects people in these ways, but there seems to be three ways the season triggers symptoms. Some people are the most bothered by excessive sunlight, others by excessive heat, and a third cause is the disruption of the daily body cycles called circadian rhythms.

file801343155029Bipolar Disorder Might Be the Problem

Another cause of increased problems in the summer can be due to bipolar disorder. Too much light exposure can provoke mania in the …


The Aftermath of the Isla Vista Massacre: What Can Be Learned

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

imagesThe tragedy in Isla Vista has left my precious Santa Barbara community—and the nation—reeling. The senseless violence, claiming the lives of innocent young people, has stimulated many different conversations…Conversations about mental illness, about more stringent gun control laws, about violence against women, about inappropriate parenting and the rise of narcissism.

No one, myself included, wants to accept that we are utterly powerless, and that the rising tide of mass murders cannot be stopped. We should all be asking ourselves, our loved ones, our colleagues, our communities and our government officials—what can we learn from Isla Vista, from Newtown, from Aurora, from Columbine?

Is there anything we can do to prevent this kind of violence in the future? Even if we only make a dent in the numbers, we will have made a difference. There will not be one answer or a quick fix. Hopefully, we will respond on many levels.
The Mental Illness Issue
When stories about mass murder break, spotlights are often focused on mental illness. Experts and armchair therapists alike weigh in on possible diagnoses, lack of adequate or appropriate treatment, and decry the culpability of parents, psychiatrists, and an underfunded mental health system. Although an important part of the story, it is only one piece of the larger puzzle.

images-2What are the dangers of limiting ourselves to the conclusion that these crimes are the result of improperly treated mental illness? One negative outcome is that we further stigmatize all forms of mental illness—including the many diagnoses that have no significant correlation with violence at all.

For example, in the case of the I.V. massacre, the perpetrator was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. What most of the reporters failed to mention was that people with Asperger’s or other autism spectrum disorders are not typically violent. In fact, people suffering from these and other mental illnesses are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

In the absence of more complete and accurate information about mental disorders–putting horrific crimes like this into a broader context–we increase levels of fear in our culture …


Depressed? 6 Tips to Help Find Your Soul

Monday, April 14th, 2014

file000623936896Ashley burst into tears within a few moments of sitting down in my office. “I don’t know why I’m crying. I have a loving husband and two precious children. I work out a lot and I eat well–at least most of the time. I have really great girlfriends although I never get enough time with them. I just don’t know who I am any more…and I don’t know where I lost myself.”

It didn’t take long for Ashley and I to uncover the source of her despair. Like so many of us, the noisiness of all the external demands of life had drowned out the needs of Ashley’s inner voice. She was taking quite good care of herself on the outside but simultaneously ignoring her emotional vulnerability, her desire for quiet alone time, and her connection to her soul.
Are You Tending Your Own Garden?Hummingbird
One of the most important lessons I have had to learn (often the hard way)–and continue to teach the many parents who come for counseling–is how important it is to take care of yourself in order to be able to take care of others. I often use the metaphor of a garden because even the most beautiful garden, if left unattended, will eventually wither and die.

Just as plants need water, healthy soil and regular weeding, so do budding humans need care and attention in order to thrive. Perhaps this seems obvious (as truth often does), but most of us get so caught up in taking care of the kids, the house, the job and all the other responsibilities of daily life that we simply forget ourselves or run out of time to listen to the crying of our soul’s deep inner longings.
file0001304805699What About Your Inner World?
“Scarcity of self value cannot be remedied by money, recognition, affection, attention or influence.” ~Gary Zukav

Most of us know by now–and are constantly reminded by self-help literature and blogs–that we need to tend to our physical bodies in order …


6 Tips for Breaking the Blame Barrier

Monday, March 31st, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHardly a day ever goes by when I don’t hear someone blaming someone for something. It is one of the most common–and one of the most frustrating patterns that confront couples and families. Blame can destroy a good marriage, wreak havoc on our friendships, and put innocent kids in the middle of their parents’ arguments.

Not only are families besieged by this destructive pattern, the whole culture is mired in it. We blame the President; the Democrats blame the Republicans and vice versa; women blame men; consumers blame companies; patients blame their doctors. The dance goes on and on all around us. Is there any way to break through the blame barrier and why should we even attempt to do so?

file0001915505944Here’s what it sounds like? Sound familiar?

  • “You never listen to me. If you had just listened, you would have remembered what time we were meeting.”
  • “You started that whole thing with your brother. One of you always gets hurt when you rough house like that.”
  • “If you stopped nagging me all the time, I would want to ask you for a date night.”

So Why Do We Blame Others?
file000390505026If blaming is so universal, there must be some reason for it. In fact, there are loads of reasons to blame someone else for things that go wrong.

We actually believe that we are right. Since the time human beings lived together in tribes and villages, there had to be laws to govern our behavior. Rules and laws are typically black and white with a right and a wrong answer. You are guilty or not guilty of a crime. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, we simply apply this black and white reasoning (whether or not it is helpful or endearing) to our partner or child’s behavior.

We are blind to our side of an interaction. Most all of us are trained to see the world in a linear sequence: A causes B. In …


10 Tips to Manage Stress More Effectively

Monday, March 24th, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA—Countless research studies have underscored how anxiety and depression correlate significantly with an individual’s sense of control or lack of control over his or her own destiny. The same thing is true when it comes to stress.

In fact, given our mortality combined with our lack of control over so much of life, stress goes hand in hand with being human. Although we can’t make all our stresses disappear with a magic wand, we can learn to cope more effectively with stress so it doesn’t kill us.

(Although don’t all of us secretly long for a fairy godmother or a genie who will grant us three wishes and remove all the suffering in the world? I know I do).

Stress is a complicated process that affects us on every level–physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Because of this, we need a holistic approach to build our resilience. It is best to work with all four levels but start wherever you know you are weakest, and build your stress-proof muscles one day at a time. Until the fairy godmother comes around, here are some lifelong practices that will help immunize you against stress.
_DSC4245Stress & the Body
Stress stimulates our fight/flight response, sending the signal to our bodies that we need to run for the hills or turn and face a threatening attacker. Our bodies rush with adrenaline and our heart rate quickens. What are the best tools to help the body recover?

Tip #1: Practice deep breathing and get regular exercise. The fastest way to calm down your nervous system is with your breath. Learn how to breathe from your belly. This is taught in yoga, in voice lessons, in self-hypnosis, and in instructional videos on line. No one thinks twice about brushing their teeth every day. If you practice self-relaxation or meditation for ten minutes twice a day for the rest of your life, you will be more able to remember how to calm your emotions when you need to do so quickly.


Stressed to the Limit. No End in Sight.

Monday, March 17th, 2014

file891237402521“Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.” -Alvin Toffler

I received a call from a distressed mother last week asking if her whole family could come to see me. “I’m really worried,” she explained. “Every one of us in the family is completely stressed out, and we need to find out how to cope better.”

I am used to getting calls when someone is suffering from any of a number of symptoms-illness and loss, depression and anxiety, addictions, behavioral problems in children and teens, communication breakdowns in couples–but these days more and more calls simply describe unmanageable stress as the presenting problem. What is going on?

Signs of Stress in the Familyfile0001987619617

  • Do you or your loved ones have trouble sleeping?
  • Do you lack your usual patience?
  • Are members of your family irritable, grumpy or unhappy?
  • Do you have symptoms of tension–headaches, stomach aches, neck and shoulder problems?
  • Is there never enough time to do what you want to do or even to get things done?

If you answered a resounding yes to most of these questions, you are certainly not alone. Recent studies not only in America but across the world indicate that far too many people are suffering from the excessive demands of modern life. Stressed to the limit with no end in sight.

Causes of Stress in the Family

file0001246104116Not that much of this is really escapable. Stress is woven into the fabric of life. In days of yore, the stresses may have been different and were certainly less talked about.

Stress has been studied since the 1950′s by medical doctors as well as psychologists and social scientists. Whenever circumstances put more physical or psychological demands on an individual than that person can handle, stress is the inevitable response. When pressures mount up, the body’s natural fight or flight mechanism goes into high gear.

Stress is most likely to occur whenever the demands put on us are intense, …


We Are Only As Sick as Our Secrets

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

file1801281015946“Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough. Not only have I found that when I talk to the little flower or to the little peanut they will give up their secrets, but I have found that when I silently commune with people they give up their secrets also–if you love them enough.”  -George Washington Carver

I’ve been a psychotherapist for over thirty years. I have long ago lost count of just how many of my clients have commented–sometimes with appreciation, other times with disbelief–on how they don’t know how I do what I do. How can I possibly listen to so many terrible stories, they wonder. These comments invariably emerge after a patient has shared a deep dark secret.

I reply with my genuine feelings–I am constantly grateful and feel deeply privileged to do what I do. Although I do hear horrible stories at times–those of violence and pain, rife with injustices and betrayals–I also bear witness to the healing that can come when people reveal certain secrets about themselves or their loved ones that they thought they had to carry alone.

arguing with teenWhy Do We Keep Secrets from Others?

People keep secrets for a variety of reasons that are not necessarily good or bad. Each individual, family, and culture has spoken and unspoken rules about privacy vs. transparency. I am not suggesting that it is better to tell everyone everything.

But there are some secrets that become toxic when not revealed to anyone, ever. Underneath toxic secrets there is some fear that keeps that person from opening up. Sometimes the fear is justified but often it is misplaced, magnified or completely false. What are some of the reasons all of us keep information buried inside even when we desperately want to tell someone?

  • We keep secrets because we are afraid of being rejected by others.
  • We keep secrets because telling the truth will make us appear sick, weak, or inadequate.
  • We keep secrets to protect ourselves.
  • We keep secrets to protect others that we love.
  • We keep secrets …

How's Your Family Really Doing?
Don MacMannis, Ph.D. & Debra Machester MacMannis, MSW are the author of How's Your Family Really Doing?.

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