Families Articles

What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate!

Monday, January 19th, 2015

couple-arguing-in-bedI am constantly shocked and reminded just how easy it is to hurt or be hurt by our loved ones due to problems of communication. Communication is supposed to consist of both talking and listening in somewhat equal measure. But regrettably, sometimes there is one but not the other. Sound familiar?

In some families, everyone seems to be talking but no one is listening. In others, members of a couple or family feel alone, left in the dark, because there is so little discussion or sharing. The truth is–healthy communication is much much more difficult than it seems at first glance.

file000637797981This is why when couples or families start therapy, improving communication is often the first goal. Without it, no problem can ever get solved. Few people have been taught the necessary skills, and many have picked up some pretty bad habits along the way. Most people, in fact, enter therapy quite convinced that they are already good communicators, only to discover that many of their skills are problematic or lacking.

Since effective communication seems so elusive–what are some of the most common mistakes all of us make?

file7121258884475One of the most universal communication errors in our relationships with our parents, partners, and children is that we are tempted to speak without thinking first. This is understandable because we are typically less guarded with people we feel close to. The downside of having this increased freedom of expression is that we often blurt things that we would never even dream of saying out loud to a friend or colleague.

And then, to make matters worse, after having said something hurtful, tactless or even downright mean, we often make the further mistake of justifying what we’ve said rather than apologizing and owning up to the fact that we misspoke. (Here’s another blog on the problem of contempt in communication).

Triune-Brain-TheoryHence, Tip #1: Engage your brain before you open …


Are You Tending Your Garden of Love?

Monday, December 29th, 2014

DSCN4431“Your family and your love must be cultivated like a garden. Time, effort, and imagination must be summoned constantly to keep any relationship flourishing and growing.”  -Jim Rohn

The wish for a deep sense of human connection and commitment is universal. Ask people what is most important to them and their first answer is always the same–their family. Our families give us a sense of identity and belonging, reminding us of who we are and what is unique about us. They are also the context, the garden soil, out of which our individuality flowers.

The metaphor of a garden is an apt one for many reasons. All over the world, there are gardens of vastly different designs, planted at different times, at different stages of growth and decay, with different types of plants. In spite of the fact that no two are alike, all gardens have some common needs–sunlight and water, planting of seeds and cutting back weeds. In short, for a garden to flourish, it needs tending.

HummingbirdHow Does Your Garden Grow?

What gives families a strong sense of connection? The answer is simple even though often so difficult to do. We must spend quality time together, or if separated by geography, spend time communicating. Only by making the time to share the details of our daily lives as well as our successes, hardships, dreams and disappointments can we reap the rewards of our intimate bonds.

Twenty-first century families are more isolated than ever before. With both parents working more hours than ever and with the demands of work infiltrating family time via computers and cell phones, most everyone we talk to complains about the same thing. There’s just not enough time!

What Happens When We Neglect Each Other?

The lack of emotional security of our American young people is due, I believe, to their isolation from the larger family unit. No two people — no mere father and mother — as I have often said, are enough to provide emotional security for a child. He needs to feel himself one in a …


Celebrating the Essence of Thanksgiving

Monday, November 24th, 2014

file9021344553210“When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies in yourself.”   -Tecumseh, Shawnee leader

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if every day had a little bit more of the essence of Thanksgiving? Although it may seem at first glance that the holiday is all about turkeys, yams and other scrumptious food and flowers that adorn our tables, these things are but the outer trappings.

The deep inner essence of Thanksgiving is the presence of family and friends coming together for a time-honored tradition of joyful celebration with the deliberate practice of gratitude as the central focus. The ritual is there to remind us to be grateful that we are alive and have food on our table, since not everyone on our planet is so lucky.
UnknownA Holiday with Ancient Roots
Although Thanksgiving as a national holiday is a specifically American and Canadian tradition, it is actually celebrated all over the globe by many different names and types of rituals. Thanksgiving is the North American version of ancient harvest celebrations that have taken place for thousands of years wherever crops were reaped and sowed.

Think of the Festival of the Harvest Moon in China or the yam festival in Ghana, Africa, or the Chu Suk in Korea. Expressing thanks is a universal urge and a human strength that can be cultivated, not just at Thanksgiving but on any day.

All of the world’s religious teachers, ancient philosophers, and indigenous people have spoken about the importance of gratitude for over a thousand years, seeing it as an important virtue to be cultivated and practiced. In religious traditions, the saying of grace before each meal is a way of thanking God for the food on your table.

Most parents teach their children the “magic words” of saying “please” and “thank you”. We have always known intuitively that grateful people seem to be happier with their lives …


Laughter Really Is the Best Medicine

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

file000321021304“The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.” -Voltaire

Although we have known instinctively for millennia that laughter, like crying, can be a powerful antidote to pain and suffering, the scientific world is finally catching up. According to the American Association for Therapeutic Humor, laughter may have a direct effect on the body’s ability to fight infections, boosting the number of “killer” white blood cells produced to attack viruses and bacteria.

Laughter is Like Exercise

“We now have laboratory evidence that mirthful laughter stimulates most of the major physiologic systems of the body,” said William Fry, M.D., professor of psychiatry at Stanford University Medical School, and expert on the relationship of humor to health. According to Fry, a good belly-laugh brings about physiological changes similar to aerobic exercise, speeding up the heart rate, increasing blood circulation and working numerous muscles all over the body.

file000152315752Another way to think about laughter is that it can be like a mild workout and may offer some of the same advantages. Fry claims it takes ten minutes on a rowing machine for his heart rate to reach the level it would after just one minute of hearty laughter.

Laughter Prevents Disease

Fry and his researchers believe laughter may help prevent heart attacks and strokes by easing tension, relieving stress and reducing anger. It can also help lower levels of anxiety, depression, and other negative mood states which leave the sufferer vulnerable to illnesses of all sorts.

Research at the University of Maryland examined the effect on blood vessels when people were shown either comedies or dramas. The group who watched comedies had normal blood flow, expanding and contracting easily. In contrast, those who watched dramas tended to tense up, restricting blood flow.

saw 024Laughter Dulls Pain

The benefits of laughter were first introduced to the public when Norman Cousin wrote his memoir, Anatomy of an Illness. After Cousins was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, …


The Hard Truth About Happiness

Monday, November 10th, 2014

file6331286648519

“I just want to be happy!”

Young and old, male and female, rich and poor, we utter these six simple words. If you ask parents what they most want for their kids, they say the same thing—“I just want them to be happy.” Why is this precious human emotion so available to some and so elusive to others?

Although happiness has been the subject of thought and writings going as far back as the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, it has only been the subject of serious study by psychologists for the past forty years.

What social scientists have figured out so far is that the source of our happiness comes from three distinct arenas—our genetic make-up, from life events that occur, and from the values and beliefs we carry. This helps explain why happiness is indeed more difficult for some people to experience than for others.

file4671348049272Some Happiness Is Hard-wired

In studies of identical twins brought up in different family settings and environments, researchers found that almost half (48%) of our subjective sense of happiness is determined by our genes. That’s big but not all of it.

Psychologists have been long debating about what parts of our personality are due to “nature” vs. “nurture”. We currently know that there are nine aspects of temperament that are inborn. One of the nine aspects that differ from birth is mood. The hard truth is that some babies are happier than others from the start. Ask any parents with several babies and they will tell you the difference in temperament from one to the next.file6511234090560

No wonder Winnie the Pooh is so loved and so timeless. The world really is populated with Piglets (the shy, sensitive types), Eeyores (the often depressed, serious, gloomier types), Tiggers (the hyperactive, funny, easily distractible types), and Pooh Bears (the calm, optimistic, adaptable types). Here is a perfect example:

“There now. Did I get your tail back on properly, Eeyore?” says Christopher Robin. “No matter. Most likely lose it …


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 …


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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