Demons and Ghosts

Nov 19 | Tony | No Comments |

For fathers who grew up in less than hospitable environments, it can be an enormous challenge to be the kind of parent we strive to be.

The giant hurdle (and the white elephant most often in the room) is that in trying to parent kids, a father is constantly re-parenting himself at each and every developmental stage. As long as your kids are growing and becoming, the work is never done. This father must manage information bubbling up from two parallel systems: (1) his child (or children), and  (2) his own past.

These two systems are always running in tandem. At any time, either or both can trigger strong emotions. Conflicting and confusing messages and intense feelings can arise, as well. These are often shrouded in the shadows of the past, or are muddled in fears about the future. For a father on the front lines who is trying to be an engaged dad, these internal stirrings are a lot to manage.

In effect, this father has to wrestle with his own demons, and he must make some peace with the ghosts that try to haunt him at each child’s new developmental stage.

For a father, this is not easy work. Exorcism and divination. Any father who is even half awake knows a little bit about his demons and ghosts. The Journey Toward Deep Fatherhood, which starts out being traveled in the now with a eye toward the future, most assuredly drags us into the past.

 

Parent Re-Boot

Nov 17 | Tony | No Comments |

When my electronic devices start acting up, I tend to get all worked up about how big the problem is going to be. When I call the help desk, they almost always start with, “Turn it off and unplug it. Wait a few minutes and then turn it back on.” Miraculously, it fixes a majority of the problems.

Embarrassingly, I often get so worked up about the problem that I forget to try this simplest of solutions. I forget the magic of the re-boot. As a parent, it can be the same way with our children. When they are misbehaving, we tend to focus more on their unwanted behavior than on simple solutions.

When a child is misbehaving or acting out, it is often a sign that they are not getting enough attention from you. Developmentally, children want and need attention. If they don’t get it in positive ways, they will act out to get it in negative ways. Either way, they are just trying to get what they need.

Tired of battling with children? Are you constantly correcting unwanted behavior? Want to stop playing the referee between quarrelling children? Here are three simple “parental re-boots” you can do to get things headed in the right direction:

Re-Boot 1: Give your child (each child separately) some undivided attention for just a little while each day. It doesn’t have to be for a long time – even just a little in the morning and a little in the evening. If time is tight, then do it once a day. Put your laptop and cell phone away. Shut off the TV. Ask your child what he or she would like to do with you for the next little while, and then jump in and have some fun with him or her. At the end, thank your child for the fun you shared. Tell him or her you are looking forward to more fun tomorrow.

Re-Boot 2: Eliminate the attention and commentary you give to your children’s unwanted behavior. Acting out is their way to get your attention. If no attention is given, the negative behavior usually gets a little worse at first. They are testing you to see what they have to do for the payoff (your attention). Just keep ignoring it. If you do not engage, the negative behavior starts to disappear. Pretend you didn’t hear it or see it. Get up and go into a different room. Remove yourself from the spectacle. If the referee leaves the room, the fights usually fizzle out, or they resolve it themselves.

Re-Boot 3: Catch them being good. Notice and praise only the good things. This usually produces more good behavior. “Thank you so much for cleaning your place at the table. You do great work.” “Wow, you are learning to use your quiet feet up and down the stairs! You go, boy!” “Let me see those teeth. Whoa, those are sparking! Show me how you scrubbed.”

Hey, it’s not rocket science. But then again, neither is turning your computer off and back on again. It just works. Maybe it’s time to re-boot.

 

Surviving Children

Nov 17 | Tony | No Comments |

Can your marriage survive children? Research shows that marriages are particularly vulnerable during the early years, with the addition of children, and when children start to launch from the home. During these times, the culture, families, and the parents themselves all look forward with such great joy and anticipation. But there is another more sobering truth lurking below the surface: These times, in particular, are times of incredible stress and upheaval for couples.

Allow your mind to float back and reminisce about all the wonderful thoughts, plans, and daydreams you and your partner shared when you were pregnant. As a couple, those conversations brought you closer together in many ways.

Now allow your mind to drift back to today, with the little ones scrambling under your feet (or your teenagers tuning you out). While you may have made good on all those hopes and dreams of becoming great parents, many couples report deep strains in their relationships with each other. Underneath the veneer of good parenting, the couple’s relationship is suffering greatly.

In the old TV show Star Trek, when the Enterprise was under heavy attack they divert full power to its deflector shield while leaving just enough internal power for life support systems. (OK, so I’m a guy.) In much the same way, couples during this period often divert all of their energies to the children, barely saving enough for themselves and almost none for the relationship with their partner.

As a marriage and family therapist, I find that struggling couples with children often need to hear that if they don’t “put the oxygen mask on your relationship first” they are in danger of not making it as a couple.

There are tremendous sacrifices that everyone makes along the way to welcome children into families. Most parents make those sacrifices willingly and without question or hesitation. Deep down, everyone is hoping those sacrifices will also benefit the relationship. Children will bring us closer together, we think. In fact, they often do just the opposite. They expose our weaknesses and biggest challenges in relationship.

There is no easy way through this period for couples. Putting your couple’s oxygen mask on first is a way of continuing to make the relationship a priority even in the midst of very busy, long, and tiring days and nights. Staying connected is not easy with the constant demands that children place on parents. It’s definitely not foreplay, to say the very least!

As a couple, maybe it’s time to sit down together and assess where your energies have been going. Can you re-prioritize and put your relationship back near the top of the list? It takes ongoing effort during this period to keep it there. Each couple nurtures their relationship in different ways. What does it look like for you? If you can at least continue to have the conversation, you give your relationship a fighting chance to survive children.

I-N-T-I-M-A-C-Y

Nov 17 | Tony | No Comments |

Many couples say that it is hard to stay connected during the early years of child rearing. Often, they report a lack of intimacy as the major problem during this time. True intimacy goes far beyond having a date night in order to get re-connected. (Although that can certainly help!) Let’s explore some of the more nuanced aspects of intimacy using the acrostic below. See how many letters resonate with you. Ask your partner to read it, and then compare notes. It just might start you back on the open road to…

I-N-T-I-M-A-C-Y

 I – It always starts with “I” doesn’t it? The closer I am to myself, the more relaxed I am in my own skin, and the more “free and easy” I can be with my partner. What are you doing to tend the relationship to your inner self?

 N –  Never stop building an honest relationship where your partner can feel at ease and comfortable. Only when I am at ease, can I feel secure enough to reach out and draw closer to my partner.

 T – Time and time again. Intimacy is that sweet spot of not being too close (suffocating, co-dependent) or too distant (checked out, unavailable). Over and over again, we try and dial into that comfortable, close place together. It waxes and wanes quite naturally in relationships just as it does within ourselves. Can you share with your partner what it feels like right now?

 I – In the soup. Intimacy is created in relationships. You can’t learn to ride a bike by just reading about it. You have to get out there and be willing to scrape your knees a bit in order to learn…with your partner. (“Ouch, that hurt! Let’s try again.”) Can you learn the dance together?

M – Much ado about nothing. When I have that intimate connection with my partner, it somehow makes all the fuss and muss of life so much easier to bear–even when we are going through really hard times either individually or together. What was the last hard time that you went through during which you felt really connected?

A – Authenticity. Intimacy blossoms when we are our most honest and authentic selves in any given moment. It takes real courage to be authentic at first. Anything less creates space and distance. And then, that space and distance must be dealt with–sooner or later. Where are the spaces between you and your partner? Can you both talk about it?

 C – Choice. At every turn, I can choose to feel what I am feeling, or turn away from my own truths. When I turn away, it takes a while to find my way back home. But once I am there, I am free to invite the ones I love into that sacred space–and just as free to invite them to leave when we have had enough. What are you choosing to do right now?

Y – Yucky stuff! Intimacy reveals the best and worst in each of us in a way that is supportive and actually draws us closer. If you have seen me at my worst, and have not run away, then I can begin trust you and show you more of myself–and vice versa. If I cannot be fully myself with you, intimacy evaporates. I must care take of you by pretending to be whatever version of myself that you want me to be. How have you and your partner held the best and worst of each other?

Bait Your Own Hook, You Big Sissy!

Nov 16 | Tony | No Comments |

I confess to having been scared of all things creepy-crawly as a boy – a trait I am sure I inherited from my mother. My stepfather took to me fishing once (and only once) as a young boy in an effort to bond. I was excited at the prospect of catching the big one but did not anticipate having to impale slimy worms on razor-sharp hooks in an effort to lure it in.

After baiting the first hook for me and wiping the excess worm guts and juice off on his pants, he expected me to bait the rest after that. There was no way I was going to fish around for a worm in the dark dirt in the bait container, let alone hold one in my hand and impale it on a hook so that I could actually fish around for fish! Needless to say, it was a long, uphill battle for the two of us from then on.

Fast forward three decades and I find myself in conversation with two other dads. One guy, a big, strong former football and baseball player born and raised in the Bronx, lets it be known how much he hates fishing for the same reason. The other dad, another tough-as nails guy who grew up in Canada playing hockey, had a similar experience trying to ice fish with his dad.

So there we are: Three big, burly guys carrying our little boy shame of not quite measuring up with our fathers or stepfathers, and now trying like hell to not make our children measure up for us. Trying not to repeat the past. Trying to say, “Hey, maybe there is a better way – a different way – through the dark forest of fatherhood.” Three dads today who are willing to say, “Hey, it’s perfectly OK. This is gross. I’ll bait your hook for you. No worries. I got your back. Let’s still see if we can have some fun together.” Three dads taking a step further and asking, “What is that you want to do?” And then having the courage to give it a try.

New dads for a new day. Lucky me for having bumped into these guys. It is nice to know that I am not alone in the world. Lucky kids for having such big tender-hearted dads!

Baa Baa Black Sheep

Nov 16 | Tony | No Comments |

Almost everyone who has siblings will say that someone in the family was a “golden child” and someone else was a “black sheep.” (“You were always dad’s favorite!” or “I stayed in trouble!”)

Who was (is) the golden child in your family? The black sheep? Have those dynamics changed over the years? Were you assigned the role, or did you seek it out? Do you know why?

Some black sheep say they felt unwelcome. (“It was like I was adopted and everybody knew it but me.”) Some golden children, as if by divine decree, are given the keys to the kingdom from the very beginning. But in most cases, the underlying dynamics are complex and operate on very subtle levels.

I wonder where black sheep come from in the first place? Most every family has one for at least some period of time. Do they only show up when the golden child starts to shine too brightly? Once a child has the high ground, does that sentence another to somehow feeling less than?

Realizing they can’t overthrow the golden child, does one of the children naturally just give up the fight and decide to look for new, unclaimed territory? A search for some psychological ground where there is no competition, or no place to measured and found lacking? Interestingly, black sheep territory is also a space where the light can shine just as brightly as it does on the golden child – albeit for all the wrong reasons.

Parents know that kids don’t care what kind of attention they get, just as long as they get some kind of attention. So, a golden child and a black sheep are really opposite sides of the same coin, and the currency of the realm is a parent’s attention. And kids will do anything to get it. A golden child constellates a black sheep, and a black sheep constellates a golden child. (The argument about the chicken or the egg will be left for another day!)

Is it possible to have a family where there are no black sheep? In order to eliminate the possibility of creating black sheep, do we have to do away with the notion of having a golden child? What might that look like?

The challenge is as old as parenting itself. Our mythologies, fairy tales, and sacred texts are littered with thousands of stories of sibling rivalry, princes and frogs, good witches and bad, and lost boys and prodigal sons.

Maybe the work of a parent is to create a flock of gray sheep. In truth, we are all a little bit of both, aren’t we? We have golden qualities that endear us to our loved ones, and we have darker sides that can make us quite prickly and harder to love.

So, as parents, maybe we need to make sure that a child marching toward gold status is held accountable for less than golden behavior, and a child wandering toward the darker side has a constant light shone on his or her golden qualities. Neither all good, nor all bad – just like the rest of us.