Keep those lines of communication with your kids open- even when it's tough!
Hi there! Welcome back. Lisa here. Hopefully last week’s post helped you breathe a little easier. While you’re taking some deep breaths and centering yourself, now’s a great time to think about what you’re grateful for. We’re entering the holiday season and while it may look different than it has in years past, there is still a sense of busyness and frenzy that accompanies the season. If your typical holiday plans have been disrupted, it can feel like there’s nothing to celebrate. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Even if your life feels unsettled, there are still things to be grateful for.
Research has consistently shown the benefits of practicing gratitude or developing an “attitude of gratitude.” Consistent practice of gratitude has been related to better relationships, improved physical and mental health, improved self-care, better resilience, increased empathy, decreased aggression, decreased social comparison, and even improved sleep.
Gratitude is not a magic pill. You won’t necessarily feel better immediately or develop a permanent rosy outlook. The benefits of gratitude are cumulative, so you’ll notice that you feel better over time. It will also become easier to bring to mind those people and things for which you are grateful.
Especially at this time of year, it seems like everyone is talking about gratitude. But what is it? Is gratitude just a matter of making a list of things you are thankful for and then moving on to your next task? Is it just a way of tricking yourself into believing that everything is okay even when it’s not?
Nope! Gratitude is not a matter of looking for a silver lining or appreciating suffering. Instead, it’s a practice of recognizing and then actively appreciating who and what adds to your life. If you’re going through a difficult time, gratitude may involve appreciating the people who are helping you through that hard time or feeling thankful for the resources you have that are making things just a bit easier. As human beings, it’s impossible to ignore negative events for long. Gratitude allows us to recognize and appreciate the good that exists alongside the bad.
Hopefully as you read this, you’re starting to think about some things you feel grateful for. If you’re like most people, the first things that come to mind are the people and things that feel like a “given” to be grateful for- like your family, your friends, your home, and other big things like that. Those are typically pretty easy to access when we start our “gratitude lists.”
But what happens when your kids are getting on your nerves, you and your partner are arguing about something, and you just found out that your house needs the roof repaired? Gratitude may feel kind of hard to come by in those moments. That’s when you look to the little things. You may have enjoyed a delicious cup of coffee this morning, you may have gotten everything you needed at the grocery store in only one trip, you may have gotten to take walk today because the weather was great. See where I’m going here? The little things are also a great place to focus our gratitude. Most of the time we’re not having huge accomplishments or major life events that are clearly moments for gratitude. Being able to recognize and feel grateful for the small things can sometimes make all the difference.
An issue that comes up for a lot of the parents and kids that Sarah and I work with is how they can practice gratitude. For many people, just making a list is not a good fit. This is partly because making a list can feel like a chore- just something to check off your daily To Do’s. Gratitude is a feeling, so you have to do something to access that feeling. Instead of just listing off who or what you’re grateful for, think about why you feel gratitude. Then just sit with that feeling for a minute. Go ahead, try it now. Write, think, or say out loud, “I am grateful for _____ because _____. The “because” is important as it allows us to access the feeling of gratitude. Really pay attention to how gratitude feels. Once you’re able to generate that feeling in yourself, you’ll be better able to activate gratitude in the moment.
While thinking about and feeling gratitude will have benefits for you in the long run, it’s also important to share your gratitude with others. How nice does it feel when someone thanks you for something and you can tell they genuinely mean it? Sharing gratitude lets others know that they’re important to you and that you recognize the positive ways they impact your life. It also strengthens your connections with others, which improves your relationships and your sense of well-being. When you’re thinking about and feeling gratitude for other people, also take moment to think about how you can show them or tell them that you’re grateful. Sharing gratitude doesn’t have to be a big production. Simply saying thank you and meaning it is often enough. Other times, you’ll want to say or do more. The key at those times is to be specific- share exactly why you’re grateful for them.
So, as the holiday season gets underway and as we all continue to cope with everything that is going on in the world, remember to take some time for gratitude. You’ll feel better for having done so.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post. Sarah and I appreciate you for supporting our efforts and for using the information we share to make your lives and the lives of your family members healthier and happier.
Check out Greater Good in Action at UC Berkeley for some helpful gratitude practices that you and your family can use: https://ggia.berkeley.edu/#filters=gratitude
Sarah here. Right now, there’s a lot that’s in flux. It’s been a couple of weeks since the election. Thanksgiving is around the corner. Flu season is underway. And around the world, there are new COVID-19 related restrictions in place. Even concrete events feel less stable as there is an ongoing sense of uncertainty in 2020. Exactly when and how things will transpire feels more up in the air than usual. Many of us aren’t experiencing the sense of relief that we normally feel after major decisions are settled or stressful events have passed. This apprehension has left us with a fairly constant tension in our minds and bodies. So, what do we do about it? We need to follow the advice of that old expression “don’t hold your breath.”
“Don’t hold your breath” means don’t count on something because it’s unlikely to happen or won’t happen for a very long time. The idea behind this phrase is that it will take longer for the event to transpire than you could possibly hold your breath. You may or may not realize it, but people often hold their breath when they are anticipating something. That phrase “waiting with bated breath” may seem a bit melodramatic but it rings true for a reason. When we’re eagerly awaiting something, we hold our breath. People also hold their breath when they’re stressed, anxious, excited, upset, frustrated…there are a lot of times when we inadvertently hold our breath without even realizing it.
So, why does holding your breath matter? When we’re relaxed, our muscles are working while we inhale, but are relaxed as we exhale. When we are physically and emotionally tense, both inhaling and exhaling are restricted due to muscle contraction. This means breathing is more labor intensive and less productive- it feels “harder to breathe” and leads us to feel like we aren’t getting enough oxygen, which is just downright uncomfortable. Tension also shortens or eliminates the natural “expiratory pause” (i.e., the cessation in movement of our breathing muscles) we experience after exhaling. Without this pause, we may feel an increased sense of threat.
Let’s get back to 2020. A lot of things that we normally take for granted haven’t gone as planned, including major stuff like our kids being able to go to school or us being able to go to work. At the same time, there’s a continued sense of uncertainty as we face unprecedented situations left and right and we haven’t necessarily experienced the relief we’d normally experience after stress has passed. So…now does it make sense why I said not to hold your breath? It wasn’t eye-rolling sarcasm. I wasn’t being snarky or a smart aleck about 2020. It was me looking out for you.Your body’s natural response to this year of uncertainty may very well be to hold your breath and that response could be making you feel worse. You may be wondering what prompted this post. This morning, I felt a strong sense of pressure in my body before realizing that I had been holding my breath while thinking about the coming weeks. So, trust me when I say we are in this together.
What can you do if your natural response to anticipation and/or stress is to hold your breath?
Increase your awareness of your inner experience. Be mindful not just of the thoughts or emotions you’re experiencing when stressed but also pay attention to your physical sensations. Sometimes, resolving those somatic symptoms can quickly and painlessly resolve our distress. So, breathe and stretch out your tense muscles. Breathing may not decrease your uncertainty about the future, but it may help you feel more in-control physically. And feeling a little more in control of your body may be just the boost you need to take charge mentally.
Do you encourage your kids to stand up for themselves when they feel something isn’t right?
Do you also get frustrated when they correct you or point out something you’ve done wrong?
Do you encourage your kids to think for themselves and make their own choices?
Do you also find yourself getting frustrated that your kids argue with you about rules?
Do you encourage your kids to ask their teachers for clarification when they don’t understand something?
Do you also get frustrated when you hear that your kids are questioning or disagreeing with their teachers?
Lisa here. If you identified with any of these conflicting thoughts or feelings, you’re not alone. Most parents want their kids to grow up to be independent adults who think for themselves, make their own decisions, and stand up for themselves when they need to. However, those very same parents often undermine their own efforts to foster these skills. You want your kids to use their voice, but it may not always go well when they use that voice with you. It can be hard to find the balance between teaching your kids to be respectful/cooperative and independent/unafraid to speak up.
The good news is that there are many things you can do to help your kids find and use their voice.
Give your kids the chance to make choices: It’s important that your kids know how to make up their own minds. An easy way to encourage this is to give your kids opportunities to make decisions. Choices can be about simple things, like what to wear to school or what book they want to read at bedtime, or about more complicated things, like who they want to be friends with or where they want apply to college. Toddlers are great at having strong opinions, so you can start teaching decision-making skills from a young age. As they make choices, you will certainly have input, especially if they’re making unsafe choices (e.g., “It’s 30 degrees outside, so shorts are not a great choice today.”) But you will also validate their right to make decisions and support them in the choices they make. By the time they’re ready for harder choices, they’ll feel comfortable with this skill and they will have learned to trust their decision-making skills.
Take your kids seriously- validation is key: When your kids bring up a point or express their feelings, it’s critical that you validate them, even when you don’t agree with what they’re saying. This can be very hard for parents, especially if your kids are expressing thoughts, values, or opinions that are different from yours or from what you’ve taught them. Remember that validation is not the same as agreement. Validation involves letting your kids know that you hear them and agree with their right to their own opinion. If you don’t agree with what they’re saying, feel free to give your perspective, but be clear that it’s just your perspective- they don’t have to change their minds unless they decide to do so. Take what they’re saying seriously. If you want them to believe that their voice is important, take them seriously when they use it. Otherwise, they won’t use their voice out in the world.
Don’t be afraid of questions- even when they’re questioning you: This can be another tough one. Kids are great at questioning their parents. They may question the rules, “correct” you about your own behavior, disagree with your beliefs, etc. For parents of younger kids, you’re probably sick of the word “why” at this point. Part of the reason why kids ask so many questions is that they’re trying to understand the world- they legitimately don’t understand why adults tell them certain things or make certain rules. In all honesty, “because I said so” is sometimes the answer to the “why” question, but this can’t be the only answer you ever give. For instance, if you’ve decided that it’s time for your kids to do their own laundry, giving them the reasoning (e.g., this is a skill they’ll need in life) helps them understand why you’re all of a sudden adding to their list of chores.
Allow your kids to disagree: Sarah and I work with many parents whose parenting philosophy is that disagreement equals disrespect. When their kids question them or express disagreement with what they say, these parents generally scold their kids in some way or miss an opportunity to validate their kids’ right to their own opinion. Interestingly, another thing that we often hear from these parents is bewilderment that their kids never stand up for themselves with other people. If this sounds familiar, think about that for a moment- if your kids learn that they are not allowed to voice their opinion or disagree at home, they’re going to struggle to do that out in the world.
Apologize when you’re wrong: You’re human. Sometimes you’re going to make mistakes. That’s okay. It’s also okay to apologize to your kids when you’re wrong about something. Many parents feel that if they start apologizing to their kids, then their kids will not take them seriously. Here’s the thing- when you’re wrong, your kids already know it. I’m sure they see/hear you apologizing to other people when you make a mistake. So, if you don’t apologize to them, you’re inadvertently sending them the message that they’re not worth an apology.
Help them practice problem-solving and standing up for themselves: A lot of kids (and adults) struggle with problem-solving and with appropriately standing up for themselves. You can help your kids with this at home. Using the skills I described above goes a long way toward helping them feel like they have a voice and the right to use it. You can also help your kids learn how to effectively problem solve. When things happen at home (e.g., between siblings, between you and your kids, etc.) you and your kids can discuss the best way to resolve the issue. Talking about compromise, practicing hearing each other out when differences arise, and discussing the best outcome for everyone involved are great strategies to use. You can also help them problem-solve issues that come up for them with friends, teachers, co-workers, etc.
Teach them the difference between speaking their mind and being disrespectful: Disrespectful behavior is a real concern and many kids have a hard time knowing the difference between being assertive and being disrespectful. Modeling the difference and role-playing acceptable behavior can help them learn this. Let your kids know that it’s not what they’re saying that’s problematic, it’s how they’re saying it. If you validate their thoughts and feelings first, addressing inappropriate behavior is much easier because they are less likely to feel attacked or dismissed and more likely to listen to your feedback.
As always- you’re their role model: As Sarah and I have talked about many times, your kids are always watching you and modeling what they see you doing. So, if you fly off the handle and yell at your co-worker for making a mistake, your kids are going to think that’s the way to stand up for themselves. But if they see you calmly but firmly stating your opinion, enforcing your boundaries, and making your own choices, they’ll model that behavior.
As you’ve read this post, you’ve hopefully recognized many things that you already do. Just remember that you’re helping your kids build a strong foundation for their self-esteem and self-confidence. Keep valuing their voice and showing them how to use it and they’ll be well on their way to becoming the independent, self-assured adults you want them to be.
Click here for a printable version of this post.
How do you help your kids use their voice? Leave a comment below, click this link or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a reminder, we have an amazing handout for families with information about COVID-19 that you may find helpful when speaking with your kids. Click here to take a look.
Feel free to peruse our blog and see what Sarah and Lisa had to say about topics related to your needs as a busy parent. We will talk about everything from parenting values, to life hacks, to realistic self-care.