The Holiday Season is quickly approaching. With Thanksgiving just around the corner and Christmas and Hanukah sneaking up behind it, I already feel the buzz and excitement of it all. Those of you with children who celebrate, know that energies are about to soar. Just as we get them under control from the sugar rush of Halloween, the winter holidays begin.
With all the excitement and projected fun, why do many feel blue and sadness during this time of year? I hear from many in my practice that the Holidays seem to shine a light on their lives showing where they are in the moment. Sometimes this direct realization can be great, but other times, a bit unsettling. Those of you who have lost someone or something important this year such as a loved one, marriage, home, family pet will understand that doing the Holidays without this special someone/thing can be difficult. If your life is not where you want it to be, maybe there has been a job loss or move or maybe you or a loved one are chronically ill, then the Holidays make this challenging too.
The common thread to all of this is EXPECTATIONS. The Holidays bring about an expectation that things should go a certain way or feel a certain way and when they don’t we either feel disappointed or greater still maybe even feel failure. Sometimes it is easier to glide through life and not notice where we truly are until something makes us…forces us to stop and assess. Holidays are notorious for that. “I am supposed to feel connected” "I am supposed to be with my kids on Thanksgiving” “I am supposed to be happy..it’s Christmas!” All of these self messages become loud enough to hear when something as magical as the Holiday season forces us to feel our lives more authentically. Sometimes the dissonance between what we feel should be happening and what is happening makes us want to hide.
I don’t suggest hiding at all. What I suggest is moving through the Holidays mindfully. Make mindful, purposeful decisions every step of the way. If you all of the sudden feel blue, take a step back. Ask yourself what just happened to create that? Find out what you can do in the moment to stop the spiral downward. Sometimes it is more than stopping or controlling the impact of the negative. Sometimes it is guarding what is good and increasing the possibility of positive connections and experiences. Make use of time and activities. Only do the ones you want to do…the ones that fill you or other family members. Who says you have to over schedule yourself and attend everything to which you are invited? When you spend time with family, pick something meaningful. Start new traditions. Whatever you decide to do, remember that it IS a choice and that you CAN navigate the holidays mindfully and wind up better and more fulfilled on the other side.
I didn't know I'd be learning several highly scientific principles of parenting ten years ago when we brought home our two beloved puppies, Poncho and Siesta (names not changed to protect confidentiality).
Poncho, the brown and black one, was eager to please and passed all good puppy tests such as fetching, coming when called, etc. Siesta failed all such tests, especially the one when you put a blanket over your puppy to see how vigorously it tries to get out. She liked it there and to this day loves to hang out on or under a blanket. This was our first parenting lesson in appreciating everyone's unique personality.
The Poncho Principle was learned way later, when our two daughters were toddlers or preschoolers and the demands of childcare and scheduling had gone way up. Up to the point when trading $500 for one uninterrupted hour of personal time would have seemed totally reasonable. So, in my overworked state, I was trying to get out the door for a scheduled appointment and needed to take my normally obedient dogs out for a bathroom break first. After running around getting everything ready with little help, Poncho could sense the stress and wanted nothing to do with me. He wouldn't come. I recall screaming near the top of my lungs at him: “Get over here!!” He promptly froze and peed on the carpet.
Poncho Principle—As angry yelling goes up, productivity goes down.
Yes, it's a true, little-known scientific principle. Yelling orders in anger is counterproductive. You will end up cleaning up extra messes if you fall into this regularly because kids will either (1) freeze and regress in fear like Poncho; (2) learn that push back is an effective way to get your attention, and your emotional reaction may end up fueling more oppositional behavior; or 3) be like Siesta and hide. Some kids will respond with compliance to occasional yelling, but these kids are also likely to respond just as well to much milder forms of instruction.
Bottom line: As your ability to keep calm increases, so does your child's ability to comply. Don't worry if you've done a good bit of yelling at your kids. We've all been there. The point is, it could be a sign to spend some time thinking about the next two principles.
Principle Two—Routines and praise work with dogs and kids.
If you are yelling a lot, it may be time to take a step back and think of what behaviors you need more of from your children. Whether it's self-care, using kind words, or being compliant, talk about what needs to change and make your expectations clear. Create a little routine and provide incentives. This could sound something like, “We've been having trouble getting out the door in the morning, so we need to focus on getting everything done by Go time. You will earn points to cash in for computer time at the end of the day when we follow our morning checklist cooperatively and are ready to go on time.” Get a visual timer. Make a game of it if you can.
Once you've developed a reasonably consistent routine, praise praise praise each step toward greater compliance with that routine. Using the incentives and specific praise will get you far, and you might even find over time that you're making very little use of consequences.
Dogs only need treats and lots of “good dog!” praises to know they're doing well. Kids are tougher and they will push back on routines for a while. The more oppositional or distractable your child, the more consistent work you'll have to put in. But keep telling him what you specifically liked about something he did each day, and eventually he'll see the pay-off of complying with family routines. Think, “I like how you put that game away right when you were finished with it. That really helps things go smoothly,” or “I like how you went to your room when your brother was starting to pester you. That seemed like a good choice.”
Because it is such hard work to be the creator of routines, and to keep giving praise on little points of progress, the Siesta effect might be the most important to remember for all overworked parents.
Siesta Effect—As you save energy and time for yourself, your parental effectiveness goes up.
Siesta loves to lounge and sees no need to jump up and do something for someone every time they ask (unless of course there's a highly attractive treat in hand). Think of her when your kids are asking for too much help and you're thinking they should do this themselves, but you just need to make the whining stop. Go back to thinking of the routine you'd like to see developing and start working on it. Your child will become self-sufficient more quickly and feel proud of the accomplishment if you take the time to set up that routine.
Think of how scared little Poncho must have been when I lost it and yelled at him. But remember, don't beat yourself up if you have yelled. Just return to following routines and the Siesta effect. Because four out of five seasoned parents surveyed would probably rank “Taking Care of Yourself” as Important Parenting Principle Number One.
These blog entries are written by our very own clinicians. When inspiration hits, another entry will be logged.
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