Parenting Tips A blog about parenting skills and tips. 2016-08-18T01:14:18Z Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW <![CDATA[Back to School Blues: How Family Matters]]> 2016-08-14T23:48:27Z 2016-08-14T23:48:27Z _DSC2330A three year longitudinal study confirmed what family therapists have observed clinically for decades–namely that patterns of family interaction have profound effects on children–both for better and for worse. Here’s the bottom line: if you want your kids to succeed in school, build a stronger, more loving family.

Melissa Sturge-Apple, a researcher from the University of Rochester, studied 234 families with 6 year-old children, and followed the adjustment of the kids in their first three years of school. The study included direct observation of the kids as well as both parent and teacher reports.

file5961243012756What is your family’s structure?

The team identified and described three different family structures that they named cohesive, enmeshed, and disengaged. What family structure best fits the family you grew up in? How about your current family?

  • Cohesive families have an emotional glue that helps everyone feel connected–when push comes to shove, family members stick together and feel a sense of unity. The cohesive families observed in this study (and many others) were more happy and loving with relationships characterized by harmonious interactions, emotional warmth, firm boundaries, and clear roles for parents and children.
  • Enmeshed families lack healthy boundaries, and the roles of children and adults are not as clear or differentiated. There are children involved in adult conversations and activities and vice versa. Researchers noted how the enmeshed families were emotionally involved with one another but in addition to warmth, there were higher levels of hostility, over-involvement or destructive meddling in each other’s lives, and only a limited sense of teamwork.
  • Disengaged families lack the sense of connection that makes members feel safe, loyal, and unified. There may be rules but not as many shared rituals or time together. Spurge-Apple’s team noticed how disengaged families were characterized by too little emotional connection between family members, a lack of teamwork, and relationships that could be described as cold, controlling and withdrawn.

Can you guess what effect the family structure had on kids’ adjustment in school?

file000115070389Results of the study on school adjustment

The children from the disengaged families had the most problems adjusting to school, and their problems showed up right away. Kids from this type of unhappy family were more likely to be aggressive and were often inappropriate in class. They were more alienated from teachers, and had a harder time obeying the rules.

Over the course of three years (the length of the study), the problems continued to get worse. Kids from disengaged families became more alienated from teachers and peers and were later prone to depression and anxiety as well.

The children from the enmeshed families looked initially like they were adjusting to school as well as the kids from the cohesive group since they didn’t have the behavioral problems seen in the disengaged group.

file3651288616097However, as time went on, the children from enmeshed families had more problems with “internalizing” behaviors like depression and anxiety. As their problems progressed, so did their alienation from teachers and peers.

Why does this matter so much?

This research is important in a number of ways. First, it verifies what family therapists have described about the importance of healthy boundaries and emotional connection for the success of children, whether at school or in relationships.

The cohesive families had clear boundaries, particularly between adults and children, in contrast to the overly close, boundaryless enmeshed or the rigidly distant disengaged systems. As a result, the kids from these families were able to adjust socially and emotionally and could adapt and thrive in their new school environment.

Besides helping to confirm the importance of family structure, the researchers learned another important fact. They noted that, “What was striking was that these family relationship patterns were not only stable across different relationships but also across time, with very few families switching patterns.”

DSC_0390_Iván_Melenchón_Serrano_MorgueFileI would add: without help. These patterns rarely change without intervention.

Given the pain and difficulties encountered by the kids from these less healthy family structures, hopefully this research will encourage parents to get the help they need–the sooner the better–to change problematic modes of relating.

Armed with this information, hopefully teachers will make referrals more quickly to programs that offer parents education, suggest books on how to create cohesive families or make referrals to family therapists rather than simply focusing on the acting out or anxious child.

Like a good remodel on an old house, new structures can be built that are safer and sounder for all that occupy them. If your child is struggling to adjust to school, you may just want to take the whole family for a check-up.

Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW <![CDATA[Selfies, Sharing & Internet Safety: What’s A Parent to Do?]]> 2016-02-02T17:49:14Z 2016-02-01T23:35:03Z iphones“Please, just tell me what to do about my daughter’s constant use of her cell phone!”

“My son throws a fit every time I tell him to get off the computer. Please help.”

“How many hours a day should I let my kid be on line? Is it safe?”

Everyone working with kids and teens these days is constantly being asked the same questions and lots more. Questions about cyber-bullying and sexting and Internet safety. About tweeting and Tumblr and lurking predators. It is a brave new world and social media isn’t going away.

In fact, part of what makes this issue so overwhelming is that it is an ever-changing, complicated, moving target. New social platforms, videogames, and apps appear every week. How can a parent keep up when most of today’s teens can run circles around their parents when it comes to computers?

Do your best to stay abreast of the newest trends.

MT241216According to research by Pew in 2015, Facebook continues to be the most popular social media and networking site used by teenagers and young adults aged 12 to 24 years. Although 74% of young people surveyed reported using Facebook, two platforms have now gained increasing popularity. You should know about them: Instagram (59% report using) and Snapchat (57%). If you hone in more specifically on the 16 year olds, Instagram is now more important to them than Facebook.

Instagram was founded in 2010 (and later acquired by Facebook) and focuses on photos and videos. The user takes a photo or video, edits it to their liking, adds a short caption, ands posts it. Voila! Your son or daughter’s photo is now public.Other users can “like” a photo, share it with others, and make comments on it.

The social currency has changed–popularity is measured in “likes”.

What makes you “popular” on sites like Facebook or Instagram is amassing hundreds or even thousands of “followers” and likes. Unfortunately, shocking or suggestive photos can bring lots of attention—and not all of it is the kind of attention you want your son or daughter getting. (Please note: The DSC_0083default setting on Instagram makes posts visible to the public. Here is a link with Instagram safety tips).

Kids can also be naïve, trusting that their friends would never share their photos or comments with others. Unfortunately, once uploaded, images or words posted impulsively (a hallmark quality of adolescents) can’t be taken back. I have personally worked with kids who have been kicked out of school because of posts that other kids innocently shared–photos of that teen using drugs or doing something else illegal. In other cases, sexually provocative photos have damaged images, forced kids to change schools, and provoked suicide attempts.

Another rapidly growing app is Snapchat, perhaps invented because of some of the problems stemming from Instagram file000172853653posts that got kids (and adults) in trouble. Users are able to put a time limit on the pictures they send before they disappear (or seem to). Now your teen can send an embarrassing photo to a few friends, then poof it is gone, so others (including your parents) don’t see the post.

The problem is–if someone took a screen shot of your post before it disappeared, then voila! It’s back and potentially public–and problematic. And Snapchat is just one of the so-called self-destructing or secret apps. Have you heard of BurnNote, Whisper, YikYak? Perhaps you know others–if so, tell other parents in your kid’s social network. Create a zone defense. It works when you are not around…

These are just a few current examples but now there are so many more apps and websites that kids use or know about that most parents will need regular updates about what is currently vogue. A good reference to bookmark on your computer is Common Sense Media which is an excellent, constantly updated resource for age appropriate movies, books, and all things educational.

Don’t forget that the “computer” your child uses the most is now a cell phone.

MALE HAND HOLDING SMARTPHONE 2When the Pew researchers looked in 2013, they found that 25% of teens were accessing the Internet via mobile devices. In two short years, that number climbed to 93%. Teens and young adults spend more time online via their mobile devices than any other age group and about the same amount of time as on their computers.

How much time is the average 16-24 year old spending daily on their mobile?

The answer is almost 200 minutes per day, and most if not all of that is when you are not looking. It was far easier for a parent to know and monitor their kids’ behavior online when it was via a computer screen in the kitchen, wasn’t it?

Here is what we know about how average young people are spending their screen time: They are constantly texting or checking Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. When asked by parents what they are doing, the favorite retorts that I hear multiple times each week are, “I need it to do my homework” or “No one else has limits!”

ALPR-2Boys and girls are not always doing the same things online.

Teenage girls like to use social media sites for sharing more than the guys do. Girls particularly like the more visual platforms like Instagram and Tumblr. In contrast, boys are more likely than girls to be playing video games by themselves or with other friends (and strangers) online.

What are some tips to increase our kids’ safety?

There are minimum ages for the use of different games and social platforms. Don’t let your kids bend the rules. If they lie about their age, it is an instant indicator that they need more monitoring and protection. You need to be 13 to sign up for Instagram. It is safer to have them wait.

file0001018506529In the meantime, make sure your child’s privacy settings (on whatever app) make postings only available to friends and family, and turn off geotagging on the camera. Use a 20-something young adult as a consultant to help familiarize you with any and all privacy and safety options on any media platform your child or teen is using. Have your kid show you what they are posting and why. Listen and ask questions. (Don’t just freak out or judge–do that later, privately.)

After educating yourself more about the newest trends, talk to your kids about the appropriate use of technology and the Internet. The web is an extraordinary resource, but it requires responsible decision-making and caution. We all taught our kids not to get in a car with strangers, didn’t we? We need to educate and then remind them about not revealing names, addresses, and current locations with internet strangers either.

file0001849487704Be crystal clear about your family’s rules and about specific consequences for failure to abide by the rules. There are numerous examples of contracts that parents can adapt to fit the particulars of your kids and your values. Let them know that you will be regularly monitoring their use–not every moment or every day but occasionally and unpredictably.To do so, you will need to know your kid’s username and password for various sites.

Expect your teen to grumble about this but do it anyway. Don’t you usually check to make sure they are going where they say they are going and that there is adult supervision at said location? The same principle should apply. (If you have power struggles galore, this blog might be helpful.) Even when we trust our kids, it is a parents’ job to keep them safe and out of harm’s way. It’s just that times have changed. Now we are trying to keep them safe from the whole wide world. Wow. No wonder parents are exhausted.


Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW <![CDATA[Fighting the Back to School Blues?]]> 2015-08-20T16:59:18Z 2015-08-20T16:59:18Z _DSC0285If you are one of the lucky parents whose kids can’t wait to go back to school, you probably aren’t reading this blog. If, on the other hand, your child is getting more anxious by the day, you are not alone, and there are things you can do to help ease the transition. Millions of kids have a hard time when school starts–for many different reasons.

Some are starting kindergarten and just plain scared of the unknown. Others (over 6.5 million kids in America) are heading off to a new school where they lack friends or familiarity.

Even larger numbers already know what they don’t like about school. They’ve been there, done that. They have to get up early, sit in classrooms and do what the teacher tells them to do all day long–including homework when they get out.

Although we all agree that getting a good education is essential, that doesn’t mean that many kids don’t hate the loss of freedom that goes with it.

IMG_5910_Many Public Schools Are Hurting

To make things worse, public schools in America have been profoundly impacted by both the troubled economy and by the mandates of the No Child Left Behind legislation. Many schools doubled their math and reading instruction but, in order to do so, eliminated music and arts education, the very classes that many kids looked forward to the most.

The other program that has taken a deep cut is physical education. Although health organizations and pediatricians recommend that kids exercise for at least an hour every day, only 3.8 percent of elementary schools, 7.9 percent of middle schools and 2.1 percent of high schools currently provide daily PE. If you have one of those kids who needs to be in motion, this makes school even more challenging.

Sunday Service047How Can Parents Prepare Kids?

First, ask how your child is feeling about going back to school. Some parents make the mistake of either filling their child with their own fears, or telling them not to be scared or upset. First, simply listen to your child’s unique thoughts and feelings. Ask questions and keep listening.

Let them know you can empathize and then offer reassurance. If your child seems upset, suggest that “Lots of children feel sad or scared. Are you feeling something like that? I can understand how this might feel like a big step.” Once feelings are on the table and normalized, your child can more easily hear your words of encouragement and reassurance that everything’s going to be okay.

a-pair-of-pearsHelp your children view change as an opportunity. Even though it’s normal to have uncomfortable feelings of anticipation, the butterflies in their tummies can also playfully be viewed as “excitement” instead of just anxiety.

Program positive thinking. As much as possible, scout out the school, teacher or classmates ahead of time so your child can mentally rehearse what things will be like. Have them close their eyes at bedtime and imagine how their experience will be fun and positive.

Re-establish routines. Providing a sense of security gives children a firm foundation for tackling the unknown. Keep things loving and positive, but with a return to the predictable routine. Sleep is essential to reducing fears and irritability. Spend a few days before the first day of school getting your child back on the new sleep schedule.

deskchildCreate a ritual of planning. Create a checklist of things to do ahead of time, including purchases, and make it a fun adventure around decision-making. You can also avoid last-minute panic by packing the backpack and laying out the first day’s “special” clothes the night before.

Talk about your own experiences around transitions. It’s helpful for parents to teach by example. Share not only our childhood triumphs, but also times that, even as an adult, you overcame your butterflies of anxiety and are happy you confronted a necessary change.

file2611299953331Coach them to reach out. Children often wait for other kids to initiate contact with them rather than making the first move themselves. Encourage them to smile, say “Hi” to those they know, and reach out and introduce themselves to new kids. Remind them that many other kids are also feeling anxious and insecure.

Deal with your own feelings. Facing and constructively expressing your own feelings about your child’s transition provides them with a great model for letting go, and also helps to file9021344553210clear some family tension that could otherwise affect them adversely.

Celebrate the day! How about a special healthy breakfast and end of the day celebration for their accomplishment? Give yourself a pat on the back as well. Given that the only thing constant in life is change, realize that you are helping your kids build muscles to survive challenges and to thrive in the future.

Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW <![CDATA[Surviving the Summer Blues]]> 2015-07-13T18:13:54Z 2015-07-13T18:13:54Z file9541282977224If there were no schools to take the children away from home part of the time, the insane asylums would be filled with mothers. — Edgar W. Howe

Perhaps you have been enjoying your summer, getting extra time to have fun with your kids without the pressure of homework and extracurricular activities. Perhaps not.

Let’s face it, summer is a mixed bag. For working parents who don’t get time off in the summer, it means an extra set of 30 hours to figure out how to keep your kids safe, occupied, and out of trouble. If you are feeling overly burdened, and more stressed than excited about summer, you are definitely not alone.

Here are a few things to keep in mind so that you don’t go crazy and blame yourself when things are not running as smoothly as you’d like…

Remember that it is not your job to keep your child from ever experiencing boredom.

file0001946946654Boredom is an inevitable part of life, especially for children. It is also an important teacher. If you allow your kids to feel bored and you don’t immediately jump in to “fix it,” your kids will have an opportunity to learn how to find something to do and how to be alone. They will also realize that they can’t always be the center of your universe. These are lessons that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

If your kids don’t know how to amuse themselves when alone, they will become more and more dependent on others to entertain them. Most of the greatest inventions and works of art were only completed by individuals who could spend countless hours alone.

file1891283659092A good summer for kids can include both work and play.

Far too often, parents feel guilty that they are not spending enough time with their kids. As a result, they overindulge them with too many material things, video games and TV time, and far too late bedtimes. In many parts of the world, children work side by side with parents and relatives, and have great fun doing so.

Unless you teach a child that work is bad and play is good, they will be curious about exploring any activity. Summer is a great time to let your kids help more around the house so you can ALL do something fun together.

boundaries for kidsDon’t relax the rules and routines too much.

Just because there is no school to rush off to in the morning doesn’t mean that parents should abandon the structures that are typically in place during the school year. Most parents still have to go to work and still need time to be alone with a partner or with other adults.

Younger children can’t usually sleep in, so later or irregular bedtimes can create sleep deprivation and irritability. Kids thrive when parents provide lots of love and warmth, but also firmness and structure. Don’t be pressured or guilt-tripped into more overnights or unlimited screen time.

file3371253285836Make sure that reading is built into your daily summer routine.

Reading books and magazines is one activity that kids can do when bored, and it’s a routine ideally built into every child’s summer. Libraries are important places to explore because kids can try a dozen books for free and discover what they enjoy.

When kids are asked why they don’t read, they say it’s because they can’t find books they like. Freedom of choice is the ticket to getting them motivated and excited. Never mind that the books are about sports heroes, or bugs or ghosts and vampires. Reading a comic book still counts as reading–especially in the summer.

niños_jugando_veranoMake sure that your kids spend time in nature.

Try to spend as much time outside as your climate allows. Since kids spend the majority of the school year sitting in classrooms, summer is the time to get outside and make exercise a daily habit. Play outdoor games, run in the sprinklers, build forts, plant gardens, set up lemonade stands, catch bugs, and make collages out of leaves and flowers. The sky is literally the limit.

A growing body of literature shows how exposure to nature has profound effects on the health and well-being of children and adults alike. Just last week, psychologists at Stanford published a new study showing how a 90 minute stroll through the woods or other unspoiled landscape reduced the negative thinking associated with anxiety and depression.

Add creative outlets to your summer.

file000759659314During the school year, most kids complain that they don’t have enough time just to play. Summer is the perfect time to bring out the arts and crafts, the crayons and paints, the scissors and glue.

There are countless ideas for arts and crafts projects for kids of every age (grown-ups too) that can be found on line or in books from the library. Dedicate a room, or part of a room if you can, that can stay “messy” so that creative ideas can be worked on whenever the mood is right (or the weather is bad).

Put on music in the house and dance, sing and play along. Music CD’s and educational DVD’s can be taken out of the library for free when you go to get books. Have the kids write and put on a play or a concert. There are educational sites on the web that offer music for kids along with free activities that can promote new learning in fun ways.

file0001213611731Connect with family, friends, neighbors and find what your local community offers and what you can give back.

Every family in your neighborhood is probably hearing the same complaints that you are–(“I’m sooooo bored.”) so work out trades with other parents. Give each other a free evening off by trading babysitting. One evening each week, arrange a potluck picnic with several families at a park or the beach so that the kids can play together and the parents can commiserate.

Summer is the perfect time for service projects that give back to the community. Encourage your teen or older child to volunteer at a summer camp, local library, trash clean-up day, community garden, or animal shelter. Just having your kid do the research about what the community needs is an excellent learning. Let your kids pack up outgrown clothes, toys and books and plan a garage sale where they donate the proceeds to a cause they believe in.

photo copy 4Remember the big picture and listen to your own needs.

Try to make learning, loving and living in the moment your highest priority. Be on the lookout for positive moments so you can share appreciations and praise. Families do best when everybody (including adults) feels more appreciated.

Create time to be apart from the children and nurture yourself and your adult relationships. Families are often not accustomed to being together so much of the time. Allow some ebbs and flows of being together and apart, and of quiet and more active times.

One of the greatest gifts you can offer your children is your own sense of happiness and well-being. Look after yourself. Get enough sleep. Give yourself a break. Take a deep breath. Go barefoot in the woods.


Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW <![CDATA[Are Your Kids Ruling the Roost? Parenting A Strong-Willed Child]]> 2015-03-16T17:08:28Z 2015-03-16T17:08:28Z
  • Do you have to raise your voice, lecture or repeat yourself to get your kids to behave?images-2
  • Do your kids ignore normal, everyday requests when they just don’t feel like listening?
  • Have you tried to avoid spanking and yelling but nothing else seems to work?
  • Are you exhausted and upset because your kids seem disrespectful, entitled or ungrateful for all the things you do for them?
  •  Are you feeling frustrated and defeated despite your best efforts to be a great parent?
  • Too Many Kids Are Out of Control

    file000390505026Studies show that an increasing number of kids have too much power in their families. Some kids won’t go to bed early enough to get enough sleep. Others have a hard time making or keeping friends because they don’t share very well or want to be center stage. Many throw temper tantrums when they don’t get the treat they want at the grocery store.

    Letting children get away with too much—or overindulging them by giving them everything they want—can be as damaging to their feelings of self-worth as being too strict.These are all signs that you may want to try a new approach.

     Why Is This a Problem?

    Children who have too much power over their parents are at risk for a host of problems. They become anxious about the impulses they can’t control and, as a result, feel badly about themselves and guilty about the pain they are causing. Kids who act and are treated like they are the boss of the family not only drive their parents crazy but often get in trouble in school, have difficulty with peers, and are deprived of fundamental lessons needed to survive in a world that will not always revolve around them.

    Some reasons why kids misbehavefile0001956356954 2

    • Testing to see what they can get away with
    • Not wanting to face frustration
    • Wanting parents’ attention
    • Showing their parents that they are upset
    • Retaliating for feeling like they’ve been mistreated
    • Expressing anger or upset about anything going on in their lives
    • Distracting their parents from their marital conflict
    • Sacrificing themselves by drawing attention to their behavior and away from a parent’s own struggles with stress, anxiety, depression, conflict, etc.

    file4171335316332Balance Love with Firmness

    Family researchers have known for years that healthy families create environments that balance large doses of love and warmth with sufficient firmness and structure. Kids thrive in these settings. Without love and warmth they tend to feel abandoned and resentful, and without firmness and structure they will often test until or unless limits are set.

    This core concept has not changed and is not likely to do so. The goal is simple—namely to help children feel good about themselves and have love and respect for others.

    For kids to be happy and successful, it means teaching them to respect the needs of others, honor rules and limits, and learn self-control. We also need to dish out daily doses of love and warmth, say yes to their efforts, support their unique passions, and ask them to make age-appropriate contributions to both family and community.

    Roadblocks to Setting Effective Limits

    imagesThere are a number of roadblocks to parents setting effective limits. One is not adapting to a child’s age. For example, an important ingredient of early parenting is to bond with an infant and provide what is called attachment parenting.

    Infants need to be spoiled, but as children grow older it’s best if they are weaned from being the center of the universe. They need to be able to tolerate frustration. There’s also a big difference between parental behaviors that are nurturing versus indulgent— doing things for kids that they can do for themselves.

    Another roadblock to setting limits for some parents is when they feel sorry for a child. One mom realized in therapy that she had relaxed the rules too much with her eight-year-old son, Matthew, because of recent family traumas. The parents’ divorce was immediately followed by the loss of their home in a wildfire. Matthew had lots of feelings about losing his family and all of his possessions, but was also acting out as a way of testing boundaries. A dramatic reduction in his anxiety occurred only after the parents learned to set better limits.

    file0001046091296Being a Parent Isn’t Like Being a Friend

    Some parents are afraid of making waves or being in conflict with their children. For others, it’s too important to be their child’s best friend. This is especially true when parents lack adequate social support from extended family or friends.

    Since a crucial part of parenting is being able to put your foot down now and then, you can’t be dependent on your children’s love and approval. It helps not to have all of your emotional eggs in one basket. If your child isn’t upset with you sometimes, you probably aren’t setting enough limits.

    happy mom and daughterParents can learn to endow their children with the social and emotional tools they need to survive life’s inevitable stresses and frustrations.  There are ways to turn things around, using a child’s willfulness as an asset instead of a liability.

    For a practical hands-on manual for turning around the power imbalance, check out the new book, Who’s the Boss? The Win-Win Way to Parent Your Defiant Strong-Willed Child. Other helpful resources can be found at

    As we take on parental authority in a firm and loving manner, or take it back after having lost it, our kids can go back to being kids again—relieved to let parents do their job of parenting. It’s a win-win.


    Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW <![CDATA[What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate!]]> 2015-01-19T21:20:51Z 2015-01-19T21:20:51Z 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 your mouth, and ask yourself if anyone will really be served by what you are about to say. The old adage “some things are better left unsaid” happens to be true. Healthy families are lavish when it comes to sharing positive words and more restrained and deliberate when it comes to delivering negative feedback.

    The second most common error is that we assume that the other person actually understands precisely what we have communicated. Unfortunately, this is very often not the case. The best remedy for this (besides making your communications short and to the point) is to learn how to paraphrase and make a habit of asking the listener what they heard.

    file000588845182This is especially useful when something important is being shared. If you are a parent and you want to make sure your child is listening, this is a helpful tool. (Or check out these songs for kids about talking and listening.) In our busy, multi-tasking complicated world, most adults also benefit from this practice when trying to talk to each other.

    I know that this may sound incredibly tedious, boring, and unnatural–which it will be until you get better at it. Difficult as this may be at first, the great news is that it really works. Paraphrasing or “active listening” is an amazing tool that can prevent misunderstandings from blowing up into big fights or painful exchanges.

    Precision of communication is important, more important than ever, in our era of hair trigger balances, when a false or misunderstood word may create as much disaster as a sudden thoughtless act. — James Thurber

    file0001811026230If you are the speaker, and from the look on your partner’s face, you can tell something has gone wrong, you can simply ask her what she just heard you say. This gives you a chance to correct things. If you are the receiver of a message, you can check out what you have heard by starting with “In other words, what you just said is…. or what you are wanting is…”

    Hence, Tip #2: The more important the information being communicated, the more we need to slow down, taking ample time to make sure that the message we are sending is the same one that our loved one is receiving.

    6a013488374944970c0148c86b26af970cAnother common mistake we often make when talking things over with our loved ones occurs when we believe that we are right and they are wrong. We get stuck in debate mode, and we begin to think more about our next response than about trying to listen and understand the other person’s point of view.

    file50e9dcb10fdd0Both parties then become defensive and get locked into a position rather than trying to find common ground. Hence Tip #3: If you want to be right, carry on. If you want to feel close and connected, stop and listen as long as it takes to have some empathy or understanding for the other’s point of view.

    Another glaring error is when we assume what someone is thinking or feeling rather than really listening. As the old adage goes, to assume is to make an “ass” out of “u” and “me”. Many avoidable misunderstandings stem from the fact that we too quickly assume we know what the other person means.

    file0001277795411Hence Tip #4: When speaking with your partner or your child, ask as many questions as you need to in order to understand where the other person is coming from. Don’t do all the talking yourself—ask questions and listen with an open heart and mind.

    Since none of us will ever be perfect, we all need to know how to say we are sorry when we hurt someone’s feelings–whether we intended to or not. The whole point of communication is to strengthen our relationships with others and with ourselves.

    man consoling womanKeep the goal in mind and remember that mastery only comes with practice. Hence Tip #5 is to remember the power of apology and to practice it often. Try to remember to be loving and respectful in your choice of words, body language and tone of voice. And when you slip (which all humans do), learn how to take responsibility. “I’m sorry–that came out wrong.” or “Forgive me–I wasn’t listening to you–tell me again.” Trust me, it’s a lifelong learning. Start by simply slowing down and paying more attention. Go gently with yourself and others.

    Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW <![CDATA[Are You Tending Your Garden of Love?]]> 2014-12-29T20:10:46Z 2014-12-29T20:10:46Z 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 world of kinfolk, persons of variety in age and temperament, and yet allied to himself by an indissoluble bond which he cannot break if he could, for nature has welded him into it before he was born. ~Pearl S. Buck

    file591303253587When we neglect our close family and friends, not only do we feel more lonely and isolated but we are far more likely to suffer from depression. Psychotherapists have long known that social support is crucial–not only when the patient suffers from depression but with any physical or emotional illness or disability.

    When you visit your doctor for your annual check-up, how often are you asked about the quality of your relationships? We now know that this is even more important than we thought. Is it time for you to reach out to those you care about?

    heartttA new study by Alan Teo and his team in the Psychiatry Department of the University of Michigan conducted a ten-year follow-up of almost 5000 adults aged 25-75 to determine just how big a part relationship factors played in the risk of developing depression years later. Their conclusion: the magnitude of the impact of social relationship quality on risk for depression is as strong as the effect of biological risk factors (like obesity, smoking, high blood pressure) for cardiovascular disease.

    It turns out that what is relevant is how each of us subjectively feel about the quality of our relationships. The study revealed that of the people who rate their relationships as positive and supportive, only 1 in 15 will develop a diagnosable depression in ten years time. In marked contrast, 1 in 7 who describe poor social relationships will get depressed. Now that’s a big difference.

    file2661347287141Remember to Tend Your Garden

    So remind yourself in the following week to take some time each day–even if only minutes– to connect with your family members. Remember to use the precious times you already have to talk and listen rather than remain plugged into cell phones or ipods.

    Catch the moments in between–like driving in the car, eating a snack, walking the dog–to share thoughts and feelings with your loved ones. These moments don’t have to hold long or intense conversations. Just checking in lets your spouse or child know that you are thinking about them during the day.file0001508919007

    Sometimes the fastest way to nourish your garden of love is to stop what you are doing when someone walks into the room and just smile. Call them an affectionate nickname. Even better, offer a hug or a kiss.

    Offer to help with a chore. Leave a secret love note. Say please and thank you. If you are really brave, ask your partner or your children how you can better show your love and appreciation. Even the smallest of efforts can grow miraculously. Who would ever believe that an acorn becomes an oak tree?


    Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW <![CDATA[Celebrating the Essence of Thanksgiving]]> 2014-11-24T19:46:56Z 2014-11-24T19:46:56Z 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 and also more able to confront life’s challenges.

    DSC_0094Research on Gratitude

    Scientists were latecomers to this awareness. Only in the past ten years have researchers started to take a hard look at exactly how and why gratitude leads to increased health and happiness. Now, a growing body of research is emerging that verifies not only this but much more.

    Psychologist Robert Emmons from the University of California at Davis is one of the prominent researchers on gratitude, now conducting highly focused, cutting-edge studies on the nature of gratitude, its causes, and its consequences. Many other researchers are following suit.

    They have found that gratitude helps boost the immune system and is in itself a form of stress reduction. We are also learning that adversity can, paradoxically, bring an increase in thankfulness. People who have faced losses early in life often have higher levels of optimism, suggesting that adversity can add to personal growth over time.

    thanksgivingturkeyParenting with a Positive Spin

    Research on happy, healthy families has found that the parents in these families emphasize the positive, yearning to bring out the best in one another in spite of individual differences in temperament, talents or interests. They teach core values such as honesty, fairness, kindness and responsibility, and typically foster a spiritual or philosophical perspective that includes serving something greater than just ourselves.

    Rather than focusing on complaints or how the glass is half full, we want to teach children–and remind ourselves–how to learn from mistakes, apologize for wrongdoings, and have gratitude for what we already possess. When we cultivate our positive feelings of joy, empathy, gratitude and love, we are opening our hearts and activating pathways in our brain that lead to more helpful thoughts and actions.

    mother and sonFilms and Music That Inspire

    If you would prefer to be inspired through film rather than through a book, depending on the age of your children you could watch The Lion King and discuss the virtues illustrated in this film classic. Two other favorite movies of mine to help jumpstart more positive thinking are Pay It Forward and The Pursuit of Happyness. Watching a movie together at home, taking the time to talk about what you each have learned, can be a fun way to cultivate more positive outlooks and behaviors in yourself and your kids.

    Music is yet another universal way to be inspired and uplifted. What are the songs that build you up rather than bringing you down? I love “Climb Every Mountain” from the Sound of Music and “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen. For songs and activities that bring positive messages to young children, check out the Golden Rule song at

    If you want to be inspired but don’t have time for a whole movie, take ten minutes when you can stop, breathe, and open your heart to the exquisite beauty of nature. Louie Schwartzberg has been doing time-lapse photography of flowers for thirty years. In a Ted talk, Nature, Beauty, Gratitude, his stunning images are accompanied by powerful words from Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast on being grateful for every day.

    mdedit_090Learning to Love What Is

    The German mystical theologian, Meister Eckhart, taught, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” This quote made me think about how most people generally pray for something, and we generally pray either for our loved ones or ourselves. We typically ask for good health, for food and shelter, for love, for an end to suffering, for miracles, for a job, or simply for strength or wisdom.

    Today, and this Thanksgiving, my prayer is simply this: to be grateful for what is. All of it. The blessings and the suffering, for they both are teachers, and they walk hand in hand. Or as Leonard Cohen reminds us, “There is a crack in everything–that’s how the light gets in.”





    Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW <![CDATA[Laughter Really Is the Best Medicine]]> 2014-11-21T04:25:44Z 2014-11-21T04:25:12Z 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, a painful spine condition, he discovered that watching old comedies, like Marx Brothers films and episodes of Candid Camera, actually made him feel better physically. He reported how ten minutes of laughter enabled him to have two hours of pain-free sleep.

    This personal experience as reported by Cousins has subsequently been studied by researchers. Robert Provine, author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, writes that the most convincing health benefit he’s seen from laughter is its ability to dull pain. Numerous studies of people in pain or suffering discomfort from illness say the same thing: when they laugh, their pain doesn’t bother them as much.

    Laughter Amps Our Immune System

    DSC_0019Subsequent research has also shown that laughter (and tears) help stimulate our immune system to go into high gear. This is especially important during times of stress when our immune system is taxed. Research suggests that using humor and laughter can raise the level of infection-fighting antibodies in the body and boost the levels of immune cells.

    In another study following diabetics, researchers examined how laughter impacts blood sugar. After eating a meal, one group attended a serious lecture while another watched a comedy. Guess which group had lower levels of blood sugar…yes, those that laughed.

    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALaughter is a Social Affair

    Provine discussed his own research, discovering that people are thirty times more likely to laugh when in a social setting with other people rather than alone. One of his hypotheses is that folks who laugh a lot may have or perhaps be building stronger connections with those around them. He surmises how that in and of itself may have positive health benefits.

    This is just a small sample of the positive effects of laughter. In short, the scientists have come to the same conclusion….Laughter is indeed good medicine, and should be added to the list of things we do each day to prevent serious diseases.

    file2021335717961Laughter IS the Best Medicine

    And since no one has ever died of laughter that I know of, this is a super powerful medicine with no known side effects- other than, perhaps, increased happiness and longevity for you and your family. If the ability to laugh could be packaged and sold, customers would be lined up around the block to get it.

    I was shocked to learn another statistic while I was studying up on this topic. According to Fry, the average kindergartner laughs 300 times a day in contrast to adults who average only 17 laughs a day. Now that’s something to stop and think about.

    I don’t know about you but I’m going to start counting my giggles and see if I can get back into the hundreds. Clearly, most of us grown-ups are taking life far too seriously for our own good.

    Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW <![CDATA[The Hard Truth About Happiness]]> 2014-11-10T21:22:10Z 2014-11-10T21:22:10Z 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 again anyway. It’s not much of a tail, but I’m sort of attached to it.”

    Life Events Bring Temporary Happiness

    emily and xemenia 251We all tell ourselves stories about what will make us happy when we are not. Here are some of the classics:

    • I’ll be happy when I have a girlfriend, make more money, have a job, house, car…
    • I’ll be happy when I get to go on vacation, do what I want to do, have more sex…
    • I’ll be happy when my kids are out of the house, getting good grades, out of trouble…
    • I’ll be happy when my partner stops criticizing me, listens to me, hugs me…
    • I’ll be happy when I don’t have homework, get into college, pass my test…
    • I’ll be happy when I have my own room, get an allowance, stay up later…

    What studies have shown is that while life events do indeed bring us happiness, the positive feelings are quite short-lived. Even when a person accomplishes a goal that has taken years to accomplish, the happiness generated from that success dwindles after a few months.

    Painful, negative events also have an impact on our happiness. Some losses and traumas bring more sadness and last for weeks or months while others are more fleeting. All in all, life events determine about 40% of our happiness quotient at any given time. Significant but transient.

    IMG_5787Our Values & Attitudes Create the Rest

    Since the happiness derived from life events is fleeting, it is critical to live according to values that can bring more lasting satisfaction. Value-driven happiness gives us the sense that our lives have meaning and fulfill some larger purpose. People whose satisfaction derives from religious faith, or spiritual or philosophical beliefs and practice remain happier even in the face of hardship.

    Think about what provides the most meaning in your life. If you answered things like family, friends, community, and helping others, then you are likely to be on a path towards more happiness. Few people when facing death are saddened by regrets that they spent too much time with loved ones or helping the world become a better place.

    Research also has taught us that unhappy people spend far more time comparing themselves to others. Instead of deriving happiness from within, unhappy people are too focused on what others are getting. The grass often looks greener (and therefore brings dissatisfaction) when you focus on the other person’s prize, accomplishment, spouse, children, or job. If you want to learn to become happier, get to know yourself  better. In this way, you can follow your own bliss–not someone else’s.

    file000463903967Rewarding Work Brings Us Joy

    Our relationship to work is crucial to our happiness, no matter what line of work we are in. Since so much of everyday life includes doing things we call work–everything from laundry to dishes to childcare to actual tasks on the job–if we have a negative attitude towards work, it can dramatically affect our happiness.

    Rewarding work is not about money either. Once people have enough money to meet their basic needs, having more money does not correlate with increased happiness. According to one recent survey, almost three-quarters of Americans say they would not quit their job even if they suddenly received enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. How does this make sense?

    file5611249566448Work, when in alignment with our core beliefs, gives us the way to live a life of value. As Franklin D. Roosevelt so wisely reminded us, “Happiness is not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.”

    Happiness is Luck–and Then Somefile801343155029

    If you look into where the word “happiness” came from, it was thought to be all about luck. Hap, the Old English and Norse root, means luck or chance. The Germans gave us the word Gluck, which to this day means both happiness and chance. Clearly the ancients believed that happiness was in the hands of the gods. Although so much of life is out of our control, we now know that we can change our mood states with conscious thought and practice.

    In addition to meaningful work, one of best ways to become happier is to bring happiness to others around you in any way you can. For those who are suffering, we can bring empathy, kindness and compassion. Happiness grows in a circular motion. What we do for others helps us grow. Joy, like sorrow, is contagious. What we give, we receive–the circle continues.