Most 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.
The Elements of Healthy Conflict
The Elements of Destructive Conflict
In 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.
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.
Don’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.
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…
Discuss 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.
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 …
The White family overwhelms my office with noise and activity from the first moment they arrive for family therapy. The three boys, aged 6, 10, and 13, immediately begin to argue over who sits where.
Pouncing on one another’s laps, they push and poke. The youngest one screams as though he has been mortally wounded. Mom and Dad make a feeble attempt to create order out of chaos but they are clearly outnumbered.
Is this normal sibling rivalry? (After all, boys will be boys). Almost anyone who grew up with siblings, particularly those fairly close in age, will not have trouble imagining this scene or one like it.
Didn’t you fight over who got to sit in the front seat of the car (before the laws changed), who decided what channel the TV would be on, or who got first dibs at the dinner table? Or was it about who mom loved best?
Sibling Rivalry is Normal–and Annoying
I’ve listened to so many couples arguing about whether or not their kids are normal…
“It’s way too much!” insists Sylvia. “They might kill each other.” Her husband Sam rolls his eyes. “You never had brothers–girls are different!”
The parents sounded like two kids fighting over the rules of a game. The truth is–no one knows just how much is normal since it depends on the “rules” that silently govern each family.
Depending on your culture, your ethnicity, your gender, your age, the size of your family, and the rules of the family you grew up in, what seems inappropriate or out of control to one family can seem funny or like normal bickering to another.
That being said, one of the most frequent complaints I hear from parents is about the incessant fighting between the kids. If the conflict in your family is driving you crazy, perhaps it’s time to turn the volume down to the extent that you can. The first step is to understand what all the fighting is for.
The Roots of …
Ashley 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?
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.
What 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 …
Hardly 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?
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 …
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.
Stress & 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.
“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.
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?
If you were one of the lucky people, raised in a happy loving family, you’ve most likely emerged with many of the skills and strengths necessary to form lasting healthy relationships…and you are probably NOT reading this blog right now.
Unfortunately, far too many people were raised by parents filled with good intentions but plagued by bad, sometimes destructive habits from their own childhood upbringing. These ghosts of the past, if not recognized, can haunt our families.
Our histories pack a powerful punch when we’ve buried (or tried to bury) old feelings as a way of avoiding the pain associated with them. Unfortunately, the unfinished business from our childhood and previous relationships also tends to get projected onto and then played out with our partner and/or our children. It is sad but true that the people we love the most in the world become the unwitting victims of this process.
Our emotional brains allowed us to survive as a species. We had to learn–and then be able to respond very quickly–about what or whom to approach and when to run like hell. Memories, especially ones with strong emotions, get wired into our brains without our awareness. Events that remind us of an emotionally charged experience from the past then trigger the same thoughts, feelings and body memories.
The emotional mind reacts to the present as if the past event were happening again. The combat veteran who leaps into the closet at the sound of a door slamming is instantly back on the streets of Iraq running for cover. Luckily, most people don’t suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a severe syndrome now widely publicized and better understood. But our brains are wired the same. Every one of us has our “emotional triggers” or “buttons” that move our emotions to the foreground and our clear …
Parenting is one of the hardest jobs around. Especially here, especially now, in our rapidly moving, constantly changing modern world. Most parents seek out this job willingly and joyfully with the best of intentions. Doesn’t everyone want to raise happy healthy children who grow up into competent independent adults? Of course. So what goes wrong?
It is easy to pick out the parents who are not doing their jobs. These are the parents who have too many problems of their own to contend with–like substance abuse, severe untreated mental illness, domestic violence or highly conflictual marriages, inadequate physical and emotional resources–so that they are clearly unable to provide the nurturing and supervision that all children need. Anyone can understand why children raised in unsafe and chaotic environments are at risk for developing emotional or behavioral problems.
But what about the kids who come from loving homes with well-meaning parents who shower their kids with attention, affection, guidance and opportunities of all kinds. Can you ever love a child too much? Probably not. Can you smother a child with too much love and attention? Yes indeed.
Parents today are far better informed about the importance of forming strong secure attachments with their infants. Babies need to know that their caregivers will meet not only their survival needs but their needs for touch, empathy, and connection. But with every passing year, children also need the freedom to explore independently in order to develop a sense of autonomy.
Finding the balance between the two is an exquisite dance of moving apart and then moving together again, like breathing in and breathing out, stepping forward and stepping back, leaning in and letting go. In my experience as a family therapist, I am seeing more and more parents struggling with the desire for too much closeness, and as a result producing kids–particularly teens and young adults–drowning …