Dealing with Change

The saying “there is nothing more constant than change”  truly fits the experience of family life.

Indeed, no family remains the same through the years. Children grow up and become teenagers, and then adults. Parents move through young adulthood to become middle aged and eventually to become members of the seniors population. The number of children in the family grows and contracts, as births, adoptions, deaths and marriages occur. Priorities of each family member will change, as well as the relationships between people. Even events outside the family, such as an economic recessions or job loss, can significantly impact everyone in the household. The immediate community will also influence attitudes and outlooks. And significant life events, such as illnesses and trauma, can change the course of family living.

The following are just four of the many dramatic transitions families go through, alongside some tips on how to navigate them:

The Birth of a New Baby
The birth of a child is one the first major transitions in a couple’s life. It requires such a major shift in priorities that it’s not unusual for new parents to experience intense stress. But the key to starting a family is adequate discernment and preparation. If a couple invests a little time in planning their envisioned family, then they need not be blindsided by the many changes that come with their first pregnancy. Reading books, taking classes or joining online forums focusing on the challenges of baby’s first year can really help new parents know what to expect and how to deal with it. Why wait until crisis hits? Knowledge is power!

Expanding the Family
Is the birth of a second, third or fourth child a major family transition? You bet! Expanding a family requires a lot from parents. Parents don’t just need more hands to deal with more tots; they also need a more stable source of income to keep up with their expanding family’s many needs. Flexibility is also required in attending to each child’s individual needs — after all, each member of the family has a unique personality and is going through a unique developmental stage. There is no one size fits all in parenting multiple children, and unless parents are up for the challenge, they will experience extra stress. Now may be the time to take a more serious look at parenting courses and resources. Parents need more options in order to be able to meet the differing needs of each child. If it’s financially feasible, this may be the time to hire a little more help – someone who can assist with children or household tasks. Parents may have to do more tasks than they did before; for instance, a father who was not very involved in childcare when there was only one child in the family, may have to take on many extra parenting tasks now that there are more kids to look after. Or, a mother who was able to manage her full time job while raising two children may now find that she can’t continue when her third child is born; she may opt for part-time work or even full-time mothering. Of course, changes such as this may also necessitate other lifestyle changes such as cutting down expenses.

Kids Turning into Adults
One of the more sensitive family transitions is the change of children from young kids into full grown adults. Many changes happen, of course, during the transition from child to teenager. Parents have had to offer greater levels of autonomy and independence with each advancing birthday. The ultimate independence comes, however, when a child is ready to leave home. This is often a very difficult transition for parents. While the child is eager to move out into the world, the parent feels mixed emotion: pleasure at seeing the positive outcome of an undertaking that occupied two decades (raising the child) and sadness and grief over losing the companionship that a child brings. It can be hard to let go. Parents have to learn how to treat their young adult as an adult instead of the little girl or boy the person used to be. To parents, a twenty-two year old child might as well be a two year old child – it’s still the same person they carried, dressed, bathed, fed and guided for all those years. While parents may feel this in their hearts, they have to work hard to show new respect for the individual who stands before them. There’s no more asserting one’s authority. The parent-child relationship will now be based on mutual positive regard and respect or else it will be distorted in pain. Parents have to take a back seat and let their child do the driving of his or her own life. When consulted, they can offer advice but they need to learn from offering the unsolicited guidance that was their right not so long ago. Parents may find it helpful to read up on how to negotiate relationships with adult children – there are books and online resources that can provide insight and practical tools. If there are relationship problems at this stage of the game, family counselors can help you negotiate and resolve them.

The Death of a Loved One
Transitions are not just a cause for excitement; they can be tragic as well. The loss of a family member is one of the most painful family transitions there is. Death is a word nobody wants to hear because it means permanent physical separation from a loved one. When a family member becomes terminally ill, or experiences a fatal accident, the pain is almost unbearable. The challenge becomes: how to grieve and yet still move on as a family? Sometimes grief counseling or pastoral counseling can help. Techniques like Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) and EMDR can help speed and complete the healing of unresolved grief or death-related trauma. Professional therapy is appropriate when grief lingers longer than a year or when it interferes with functioning, or when it is accompanied by feelings of depression or anxiety.

Going with the Flow
How can families deal with transitions effectively? There’s only one way: being able to adapt to change. With so many changes happening both within and outside a family, it’s important that individual members are dynamic and responsive to new situations. Family transitions are crucial turning points; if family members are resistant to change, the transitions become a source of stress instead of a source of growth. What is important is to be able to let go — but also let come. Nothing stays the same forever, and it’s important that we are open to the blessings of the next stage in of our family life.

In-Laws

Dealing with your spouse’s family, especially his or her parents can be quite stressful. Sometimes your mother-in-law criticizes the way you raise your children. Perhaps your brother-in-law excludes you in the family reunion. Maybe you feel like your spouse’s entire clan is ganging up on you. In most families, there are interpersonal challenges. It’s hard enough to deal with one’s own clan; it’s doubly hard to deal with one’s spouse’s clan.

However, it’s important to exert every effort to get along with, even establish a close relationship, with one’s in-laws. Not only because you have no choice (technically, you married into their family), but because in-laws are a rich source of support and caring. There is nothing that says you can’t expand your family; in fact, you are giving your children greater stability when you are in good terms with everyone.

The following are some tips on how to build healthy relationships with one’s in-laws:

Earn Their Positive Regard
Problems arise when we have the mentality that our spouse’s family should automatically accept us, simply because their loved one chose us to marry. While it’s an ideal, the reality is: we are strangers to our in-laws. To be really accepted into the fold takes work; at the very least we should exert the effort to establish rapport with everyone. After all, you can’t expect your in-laws to like you if you yourself don’t work on the relationship.

So do your best to earn your in-laws positive regard. Create opportunities to get to know them — and for them to get to know you. Invite them for dinner (or at least, lunch!). Bring them small gifts. Express gratitude easily and gerously. Show interest in what they have to say. Compliment them. Offer to help out – especially when you are a guest in their homes. And be patient; relationships take time. What’s important is that you consistently communicate your openness to be part of their family.

Set Boundaries
Your in-laws are not YOU; they have a different way of doing things than you do. They might feel strongly about giving the baby his or her own room; you’re from the co-sleeping school of thought. You don’t like junk foods ever; your father-in-law wins his way to your child’s heart through sweets. Your mother-in-law may think you’re starving her child; you’re quite confident that you’re doing a good job as a spouse. The possible areas of contention between a spouse and in-laws are broad and limitless.

What’s important is that you set your boundaries beforehand. Just because you want to earn their approval doesn’t mean that you have to give up your values and beliefs. At the end of the day you are raising your own family —a different family from theirs. While your in-law’s input and experience are valuable, you have to use your own values as compass for what to do.

So make a list of what for you are non-negotiables, and what you can concede to your spouse’s family. And then, discuss this with your spouse. If the two of you are in consensus regarding an issue, then you can both communicate your boundaries to the family.

Strike That Balance
It’s important to set boundaries, but it’s as important to be reasonable. When there’s conflict with the in-laws, don’t make your spouse choose between you and his or her family. You don’t want your in-laws to do the same (blackmail their loved one into an agreement), so play fair. All issues can be attacked objectively, if you only present facts instead of emotions.

It’s important to concede from the very beginning that your spouse will always have loyalties to his or her family of origin. And the closer your spouse is to the family, the stronger is this bond. Be willing to compromise. This will work well for you when it’s your spouse turn to have conflict with your own family!

Ways to Show Love

Although parents love their kids, they don’t always feel the love in a parenting moment. In fact, parents often feel irritation, upset, fear and distress in the midst of parenting. However, when the kids are asleep in bed, parents look at their angelic faces and feel a surge of affection and adoration. They really love them!

It is crucial for a child’s healthy development that he or she actually feels loved. It’s not enough that parents love their children – they have to successfully convey this love in order for the kids to benefit from it.

What are some effective ways for parents to show love and affection to their children? Consider these five tips:

Attend to Basic Needs
Meeting a child’s basic needs doesn’t in and of itself, make a child feel loved. However, neglecting such needs is a quick way to make a child feel unloved. Basic needs include things like keeping a tidy house (tidy enough – not compulsively tidy), serving good-tasting and nutritious meals, and providing appropriate, attractive and clean clothing). In order to meet the child’s needs, the CHILD needs to feel that the house is tidy enough, the food is good enough and the clothing is suitable and available. It’s usually easy enough to attend to a child’s basic needs in this way, but if there is some difficulty, don’t underestimate its potential impact. Failure to meet basic needs can leave life-long scars.

Provide a Home Where Love Abounds
Home is a place for the family to create positive memories — so make sure your home is conducive to happy ones! Minimize criticism and anger. Try to parent without raising your voice (read Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice, by Sarah Chana Radcliffe). Give LOTS of positive feedback, use humor to lighten things up, listen empathically, offer treats and privileges generously and use positive methods of discipline. Take parenting courses in person or on-line to give yourself extra skills and options.

Be Generous With the Hugs and Kisses
Words are powerful, but so are non-verbal ways of expressing love and affection. So don’t be shy! Give your children a hug when they wake up, as they leave for school, upon coming home and as they get ready for bed. Kiss them when they are hurt, sick, happy or sad. Hugs and kisses are simple and free ways of communicating that you care. Pats, tickles and gentle touch are good at any time – as long as the child enjoys it. If the child is laughing when be tickled but saying “stop!” then the parent should stop immediately. Similarly, if the child finds touch pleasant – go for it, but if the child says “I don’t like it” then the parent has to refrain from this way of conveying love. There’s lots of other ways to give this message over.

Love Your Children Unconditionally
Newsflash: parenting can be a rocky terrain sometimes. There will be times when your children will hurt you, disappoint you, anger you and/or make you miserable. Take heart, mistakes and rebellion are parts of growing up. From bad choices, kids can become better people. What is important is that parents remain consistent in showing their love and affection. Remember, these are also the times when your kids need you the most. Be patient, go slowly, don’t try to educate your child when you are feeling very upset, shocked or enraged – wait until you’re calm enough to provide truly helpful guidance. This is a powerful way of showing love and one that your grownup child will recall forever with affection and appreciation.

Show Encouragement
Take an interest in what your child is doing: hobbies, talents, even weaknesses and problem areas. Helping a kid develop skills, address problems and experience success, are all signs of loving and caring. We’ve all read those biographies of outstanding persons in which they write, “my mother always believed in me, ” or “my father taught me everything I know” and so on. Whether it means hiring a tutor, signing up for classes, bringing books home from the library, or helping your child personally, every act of parental involvement is an act of love.

Work On Yourself and Your Marriage
Parents show love to their children by becoming the best they can be. When a child sees that a parent has an anger problem, drinking problem, weight problem, depression problem or any other personal challenge, AND sees that the parent works hard to overcome and heal the problem, the child experiences this as a form of caring. The opposite situation, in which a parent has an addiction issue, anger issue etc., and DOESN’T work hard to overcome it, is experienced as a form of neglect by the child. The child feels as if the parent doesn’t care enough about him or her in order to address serious challenges. The same dynamic is true of the parent’s marriage. When parents have a troubled marriage and DON’T go to marriage counseling or otherwise take steps to improve the situation, the child feels like the parents don’t care enough to make the home a better place. On the other hand, when parents work hard to overcome their relationship difficulties, children experience their effort as an act of love for the family.

Rules and Rituals in Blended Families

Living in a blended family can be tricky. After all, stepparents are not just juggling their own children’s affairs (which in itself is challenging), they’re also juggling their spouse’s children’s affairs, and those of the family unit as a whole. Throw in the ex’s and you’ve got a mountain of complex responsibilities and issues to be dealt  with. Without clear order and structure in the new household, a blended family can feel chaotic.

Fortunately  there are two things that can help: rules and rituals.

Rules refer to standards of behavior – guidelines that outline that which is  allowed and that which is prohibited in a household. A family with rules is a more stable family, because there are clear boundaries and expectations. A curfew is an example of a rule. “No sweets before dinner,” is another example. The trick with rules is to limit them so that the household can maintain appropriate levels of flexibility and comfort. However, a few good rules can reduce conflict and enhance the harmonious functioning of a home.

Rituals are repetitive routines or ceremonies. Rituals need not be grand; eating together as a family every Sunday evening is an example of a ritual, as is having a small birthday party for each family member’s birthday. Rituals can provide stability to a blended family because they usually communicate a deeper value, such as togetherness, respect and acceptance. Rituals have been shown to have a positive effect on a person’s life, whether that person is a child or an adult. The soothing, uplifting and stabilizing effects of rituals are especially important in blended families. The new rituals of the family can actually help make the family a reality.

The following are some rules and rituals that are helpful when raising a blended family:

Do A “Welcome Everyone” Ritual
This may seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many parents neglect to have some form of welcoming ceremony when kids from different households first come together as one family. If you’re a part of a couple about to begin a blended family, you can make up a “Welcome All” ritual for your family. This can be something as simple as going out to lunch and dinner together before you transfer to a new home. A round of formal introductions — even if you all know each other by then — can be helpful, especially when each person is encouraged to tell the group something about themselves. For instance, “I’m Daryl. My favorite hobby is building train sets. I have a huge collection in my basement – and no one better ever touch it!” “Hi, I’m Carol. I was married to Doug for 12 years before he died last year. I love homemade cookies and you can often find me up late at night baking up a batch. Don’t worry – I share!” Perhaps each set of children can create a welcome gift or present for their new siblings and step-parents.

Create An “Express Differences Respectfully” Rule
Sooner or later, one of the children is going to notice something different in his or her step family and will say “hey, that’s not how we do things in our home.” This situation can’t be helped; after all, a blended family is the merging of two different families with their own history, way of doing things, values and traditions. What parents can do is to encourage discussion of these differences, instead of pushing them aside. One rule that can help is the agreement that all feedback must be stated respectfully, with no attempt to belittle the other family’s opinions, or force them to comply with what you believe is correct.

New parents can create a structure where kids can air the differences that concern them. A weekly meeting can be a venue to raise issues and address them. Sometimes, the result will be “let’s agree to differ”, sometimes one family will agree to adopt the other family’s way, and sometimes the the two families can create a new way of doing things.

Treat Everyone the Same — But Don’t Force People to Respond to You in the Way You Prefer
Jealousy and coalitions can easily thrive in a blended family. A dad who buys his biological kids an expensive toy, but fails to get his step-children the same, can lead kids to adapt an “us vs. them” mentality in the household. Similarly, hugging blood siblings, but not being affectionate with a step-brother or a step-sister can cause resentment to build up.

Keeping your eye on “equality” can help reduce the pain and jealousy of inequality. Parents are never exactly the same with each of their kids, so they’re certainly not going to be the same with each of their kids and each of their step-kids. Still, just be aware of how many treats, privileges, reprimands and punishments you are handing out to whom. It should not be obvious that a particular youngster or side of the family is favored or rejected.

Reducing Chaos
Routines are important to every child. However, they are even more important in helping to stabilize blended families. Parents need to be organized, responsible and consistent. Children get picked up and dropped off at regular times. They go to bed at the same time during the week and the pre-arranged time on weekends. In other words, there is no “free for all” just because a child is not always home. If the child has homework to be done, he is assigned a time in which he needs to do it. Dinnertime should be at a set time – not 4p.m. one night, 8p.m. the next night and 6p.m. the night after that. Eating at home is important and home-cooked food should be a big part of the menu. In other words, parents are doing everything to maintain the flavor of a stable, normal home environment as opposed to a vacation spot where everything goes. If you are finding it hard to establish consistent routines within your blended family, meet once or twice with a mental health professional or family counsellor who can help you put things in place. The enduring benefits of establishing healthy routines will be worth whatever investment you make.

In order for a child  to feel that he is in a home – his home – and he is not just a visitor to a hotel, he needs to have some regular responsibilities and accountability. A curfew, a task (take out garbage, clean the yard or whatever) and other normal family routines will help him feel that he is actually IN a family when he is staying with each parent.

Establish a Family Dinner Hour
If there is any day or days in which all the children from both previous marriages are in the house at the same time, try to establish a family dinner hour. For instance, let’s say that all the kids are together in your home every Monday night and Tuesday night. In that case, try to limit after-school activities for at least one of those nights (or both nights, if possible) and make a standard routine of having dinner together as a family. Mother and Father will try to arrange their schedules to be present and as many of the kids as possible should be present.  In our culture where everyone is busy with work-related, school-related and personal development activities, it is not easy to arrange a weekly family dinner. However, if you can find a way to do it, your family will definitely feel more like a family. Moreover, family dinners have been found to be valuable to the development of kids (even from non-blended families!) for many reasons. Emotional stability, family cohesion, a chance to get to know each other and strengthen bonds – these are only some of the benefits derived from the ritual of family dinners.

New Spouse Lacks Experience with Children

You’ve remarried after a death, divorce or a separation. But what if your new spouse is not a parent? Can you still rely on him or her to help you take care of your children from a previous marriage?

Of course! In fact, your new spouse’s lack of experience may help bring in a fresh and unbiased perspective to your daily child-rearing tasks. Keep in mind that many excellent school teachers don’t yet have kids of their own. What they have, however, is a love of children. If your new partner is the nurturing type, looking forward to developing a relationship with your kids, he or she can be very successful in the parenting role. However, there are challenges in being an experienced parent living with an inexperienced, non-biological parent. A biological parent is often more “forgiving” than an outsider, tending to overlook certain obnoxious behaviors of one’s own kids. Outsiders see these behaviors more clearly and often have less tolerance for them. A biogical parent may be more protective of his or her kids as well, worrying about hurting their fragile egos. Outsiders may be tougher on kids, expecting them to be able to withstand more. Biological parents may put up with more disrespect, accepting it in the give and take of a loving relationship. Outsiders can be shocked and dismayed at the rude behavior of children, refusing to tolerate even a fraction of it. All of these common issues can lead to conflict between new spouses in the reconstituted family.

To avoid parenting problems with your non-parent partner, consider the following:

Everyone Has a Nurturing Side
The fact that your spouse hasn’t been a parent doesn’t mean that he or she lacks parenting skills. As a son or a daughter, your spouse has opinions and values regarding family life. He or she may also have had practicum training in child-rearing as an aunt, uncle, babysitter, tutor or cousin or perhaps in a career working with kids.  Don’t discount what your new spouse can bring to the table. Remember, you were a newbie once too and you did alright!

Just be Patient — Cut some Slack!
Don’t underestimate your new spouse’s skills, but also accept that an adjustment period is expected. Making the transition from single to parent is hard on anyone. If your kids are little people already (older than a year or two), the task of becoming a parent is all the more challenging. There is no time to grow slowly into the role as natural parents do. It’s a crash course – with lots of expected crashes.

Sit down and share with your spouse all you know. Give them a copy of the book Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice as well as other resources. Employ the services of a professional counselor or parent educator to guide the two of you through parenting issues (it’s usually easier on your partner than having YOU be the “expert”). Support him or her as he finds his way around discipline issues, love and affection, and perhaps even being a breadwinner. Schedule quality family time, so that your spouse can get to know your children better. Let your kids know that, despite being a new parent, their new step-mom or dad is eager to learn — and cares for them very much. In no time a new system will form, and your spouse will feel more at home with his new role in your family.

Negotiate Your Spouse’s New Role
A step parent is a special kind of parent, and understandably has a non-traditional parenting role to play. If your ex-spouse is still alive, and still plays an active role in your children’s life, your new spouse need not assume all parenting duties in your home. He or she is not a replacement for your children’s real parent, and may in fact play an important but primarily supportive role.

Perhaps he or she can be more like a loving aunt or uncle. There’s nothing wrong with taking a backseat in a blended family structure. It’s certainly helpful if you,  your new spouse and your ex are all on the same page regarding the kind of family you want to raise, and the kind of parenting style you want to employ.

Your Child’s Experience of Divorce

With the prevalence of divorce and separation, as well as re-marriage, it’s possible that a child will experience more than one set of parent figures. There’s their biological parents, their mom’s new spouse, their dad’s new spouse, and if their biological parents have re-married more than once, there’s also their parent’s ex-spouses. It is also possible that the child has been in the care of other parent-figures and care-givers as well (especially during times of marital instability and transition) such as grandparents, aunts and uncles and others. Sometimes the child is looked after by a variety of people all at once. What should be done to help minimize confusion for the child?

Consider the following:

Decide Who is Going to Take the Primary Parenting Role
A parent or a couple must take a bigger parenting role compared to others. Think of a family as an organization: how do you think it will fare if it’s an absolute democracy? Who will coordinate everyone’s efforts? How will tasks get delegated? Similarly, in a family, there needs to be a “headquarters” where decisions are made. The decision-making process between divorced parents is a matter that is decided in court. Once the legalities are settled, the process for making major decisions regarding the children should be straightforward. However, when a child lives in two or more households, there are daily smaller decisions that will be made by individual caretakers. For instance, in one household bedtime might be anytime while in the other household bedtime might be 9 p.m. sharp. When the child stays at Grandma’s for the weekend, bedtime may be 10 p.m. give or take twenty minutes. How does a child negotiate all these various rules and routines?

Communicate that Different Households May have Different Rules
When dealing with many parents — and many households — it’s helpful if an attitude of “let’s agree to differ” is in place. What is most harmful for the child is conflict between caregivers – not different routines. Therefore, each household will live according to its own values and priorities without attempting to impose their standards in the other homes. Moreover, the child should be told that each parent has his and her way of doing things and the child needs to comply with the rules of each household, just as a child in high school must comply with the various rules of each of 10 teachers that he might have.

Encourage Time with Everyone
Having many caring parents can be a blessing to a child. Helping the child access support and love from each caregiver is a gift. Therefore, unless there is some strong reason for the child to NOT have generous access to all parents, the ideal is to foster freeflowing communication. For instance, a child at house A should ideally be allowed to phone a parent in house B if he or she wants to. The child should never be made to feel that there is something wrong with a caregiver. If the law has established that visitation and communication is safe with an individual parent, then such visitation and communication should be encouraged and supported. Making a child feel that a caregiver is dangerous can cause mental disturbance to the child who must be in that person’s care. Putting the child’s emotional needs above all other considerations can guide a parent’s behavior in the right direction.

Financial Matters
Children’s mental health is at greatest risk after divorce when their parents are in conflict. Hopefully legal processes establish reasonable and safe procedures for the financial support of a child. However, some people behave badly after divorce and do not fulfill their legal responsibilities. In such cases, parents may fight their battles in court. Parents may also have to make alternate arrangements for financial support. Whatever has to happen is, in all cases, an adult matter. Children cannot solve these difficulties and therefore they shouldn’t be dragged into them. The adults will have to work these things out between themselves. The more children can be sheltered from the bad behavior of their parents, the better. A child is a product of both his mother and father. When he learns that one parent is irresponsible or disgusting, his own self-concept is harmed, The general rule is, “the less said, the better.” Going on and on about how there isn’t any money because a parent is too selfish to give it has the potential to seriously harm the emotional well-being of a child. Even though everything is true, and even though a parent is being badly hurt, there can be no justification for hurting the child. Again, putting the child’s emotional needs above all other considerations can guide a parent’s behavior in the right direction.

Effective Family Meetings

Utilizing meetings for planning, negotiating and problem-solving is a well-established corporate practice. These days, however, the practice is also being touted as a critical tool for family life. And because family members are busy people — occupied with work, school, personal, social and communal activities — deliberately setting a time and date to discuss important family matters can be a practical way to ensure that regular communication does take place.

Here are some simple tips on how to run effective family meetings:

Include Everyone
Although everyone doesn’t have to attend the entire family meeting, everyone should have the opportunity to be present at different points. For instance, if dinner meals are being discussed, the whole family should be invited in order to give their input on a matter that will affect each of them. However, when that matter is resolved, some of the younger kids might be excused from the meeting while parents discuss curfew with a couple teenagers. Then, the teenagers may be excused, while husband and wife discuss some issues concerning the family budget. The concept of the meeting is to offer a regular forum in which any issue can be discussed and dealt with. Not all family members have to be present at the entire meeting, but anyone who is directly affected by an issue is invited to be part of that particular discussion.

Discuss Problems, but Share the Good Stuff Too!
Family meetings are excellent venues to discuss issues (“Let’s plan our outing for the long weekend”), air grievances (“I can never find a clean glass in the cupboard”), and resolve difficulties (“He always wakes me up in the night with his crying”). They can also be a forum for progress reports and celebrations (“I just want to bring to everyone’s attention that Jason has been doing a wonderful job of organizing the recycle materials every week”) as well a venue for encouragement and emotional support (“It’s frustrating when you have to spend so much time on homework and there seems to be so little time for relaxation.”) Maintaining a balance of pleasant and difficult topics can help family members look forward to meetings. On the other hand, using the time to discuss only problems and difficult issues usually leads to a reluctance to show up after awhile.

Give Everyone a Chance to Speak
It’s a family meeting, not a state-of-the-nation address, so don’t let one person hog the spotlight. Give each child time to share what he or she feels like sharing by asking each one individually “is there anything that you’d like to talk about today?” Remember: no matter how simple a disclosure may be, the opportunity to communicate openly with loved ones is a priceless thing. Once your child is talking, try to sit back and listen. A helpful rule at family meetings is that a person is allowed to present an issue in a certain time period (i.e. 5 minutes maximum) and during that time period, no one is allowed to talk, interrupt, ask questions or do anything other than sit back and listen. After the person is finished presenting their issue, they can take questions for a few more minutes and then the discussion begins.

Follow Rules of Communication
Follow some simple rules to help keep the meeting productive and emotionally safe. For instance, you might stipulate: no swearing, no bad language, no raised voices, no name-calling (in other words, no hurting people’s feelings); be brief, say the problem only one time; give practical ideas (not ideas that can’t be implemented).

Follow a Process for Problem Resolution
After an issue is raised, ask each member of the family, one at a time, to make a comment or suggestion. The person with the problem can also be invited to make suggestions about how it can be solved. After all suggestions have been brought forward, the person with the problem can ask for time to think about the ideas or can pick the idea that is most pleasing right now. If no one can think of solutions to a problem, you can have a list of helpful resources (family doctor, grandparent, trusted family friend or relative, therapist, spiritual advisor) to whom the problem can be described in order to get further input and ideas as to how it might be solved.

Never Let a Meeting End without Some Form of Resolution
This is the family meeting equivalent of “never let the sun set on an argument.” The last thing that you want is to create tension in the family because a meeting was used for bashing, but not healing. If an issue has been raised but it can’t be completely resolved within the time period of the meeting, then at least outline the next steps that the family will take. You may even set another family meeting to discuss the issue, to give it the proper attention and focus.

Lastly, Don’t Have Too Many Meetings!
Have you ever heard of the term “meeting paralysis”? In companies, this is the situation when nothing gets done because people would rather discuss things than fix them! Family meetings are invaluable, but don’t get stuck with just talking and rehashing issues. Solve problems and support each other. It’s living the closeness that comes after the discussion that makes family meetings so worthwhile.

Tips for Dealing with Separation or Divorce

When parents separate, adiposity children can experience many different emotions. If separation means the end to a violent or intensely conflicted home-life, children may experience relief. In most cases, they experience sadness – especially when they are strongly attached to both parents. Often they feel confused, lost, upset. It’s not unusual for kids to feel tremendous anger as well; they are losing their home, their stability, their security. Sometimes they are resentful, feeling that they shouldn’t have to shuffle back and forth between homes or move out of their old home or otherwise deal with difficult conditions. Other common emotions include feelings of abandonment, fear, worry, depression and even trauma. Sometimes children will benefit from professional help to sort out all their feelings, but in many cases the parents themselves can provide the necessary emotional support.

If your family is going through marital separation, consider the following tips:

Welcome Your Child’s Feelings with Emotional Coaching
If your child expresses worry, anger, depression, abandonment or any other emotion as a result of the divorce or separation, try using emotional coaching. Emotional coaching is the naming of feelings. In this scenario, you may say things to your child such as “I know you’re sad that we won’t all be living together in the same house anymore.” or “I know you’re upset about having to sleep in two different beds,” or “I know you miss Daddy so much.”  You can talk about whatever feeling your child has about any aspect of the separation or divorce.  . Through acknowledging and accepting your child’s feelings about what is going on, you can help him release those feelings a little. If your child believes that his situation after the divorce is terrible, don’t try to downplay his feelings (i.e. by saying “it’s not really so bad – there’s lots of advantages to having two homes”). Accept and acknowledge your child’s feelings the way he feels them, not the way you want him to feel them.

Continue to Provide Appropriate Limits for Unacceptable Behaviors
Just because kids are hurting doesn’t mean it’s O.K. for them to become rude, aggressive, disobedient or otherwise badly behaved.  Your continued use of boundary-setting tools, rules and expectations will actually help increase their sense of security and emotional equilibrium. Be loving and respectful but firm. Follow the Relationship Rule as explained in the book Raise Your Kids Without Raising Your Voice. The Relationship Rule states “I do not give, nor do I accept, any form of disrespectful communication. I only give, and I only accept, respectful communication.”  This means that you don’t yell at or insult your child and you do not allow the child to yell at or insult you! Do not accept the excuse that your child is frustrated or traumatized by the break up of the family. While it is understandable that children will feel hurt, confused, overwhelmed, angry and grief stricken, it is NOT O.K. for them to act out these feelings with rudeness to their parents.

Offer Professional Support
If your kids are hurting, they may benefit from extra time with the school guidance counsellor or a mental health professional. There are also support groups for children experiencing divorce (which may be offered by local family service agencies). Your child may need someone to talk to who won’t be hurt by his anger or sadness. Allow him or her to talk to a therapist – or even a neighbor or relative – without asking him or her to tell you about the conversation. Privacy can give the child the opportunity to really clear out troubling emotions.

Consider Bach Flower Remedies
Bach Flower Therapy is a harmless water-based naturopathic treatment that can ease emotional distress and even prevent it from occurring in the future. The flower remedy Walnut can help your child adjust to the many changes that may occur in his life after the divorce. Honeysuckle can help him not dwell on his former life, painfully longing for a return to the past. The flower remedy Willow can help ease any resentment the youngster might be experiencing as a result of the divorce. Star of Bethlehem can reduce feelings of shock, trauma and grief. If depression manifests as a result of the divorce, the flower remedy Gorse can help. When your child worries about his future and new life, Mimulus is the flower remedy to turn to. You can mix several remedies together in one treatment bottle. To do so, you fill a one-ounce Bach Mixing Bottle with water (a mixing bottle is an empty bottle with a glass dropper, sold in health food stores along with Bach Flower Remedies). Next, add two drops of each remedy that you want to use. Finally, add one teaspoon of brandy. The bottle is now ready to use. Give your child 4 drops of the mixture in any liquid (juice, water, milk, tea, etc.) four times a day (morning, mid-day, afternoon and evening). Remedies can be taken with or without food. Continue this treatment until the emotional distress dissipates. Start treatment again, if it returns. Bach Flower Therapy cannot erase the pain of divorce, but it can sometimes help reduce the duration or intensity of initial distress that the child suffers.  Bach Flower Therapy is just one tool that adults or children can employ to help cope with stress. Using it may help reduce side-effects of stress such as sleeplessness, illness, behavioral problems and other stress-related conditions.

Be Aware of the Impact of Your Own Mood
Going through separation and/or divorce is really hard on parents. You may be distracted, traumatized, grieving, upset and overwhelmed. It’s hard to parent in this state. If possible, get professional support and/or join a support group (even if it’s just on-line) for divorcing parents. Make sure you have time to yourself each day. Single parenting is exhausting and difficult – if you don’t take good care of yourself, you’ll soon have insufficient patience for your child or children. Exercise and feed yourself well. Try to sleep. Learn mindfulness meditation and research stress reduction techniques. Be aware that your children are watching you carefully; they need you to be healthy for them.

Minimize Conflict with Your Ex
On-going conflict between separating and divorcing spouses is the factor that causes the most maladjustment in children from broken homes. Your children have the best chance of developing in a normal and healthy way when you have a friendly, cooperative and respectful relationship with their other parent. If the other parent is impossible to deal with, try to never speak about this fact when the kids can hear you. Bad-mouthing their parent (even when everything you say is the absolute truth) severely harms the children. You might hate your own mother, but you don’t want other people insulting her nonetheless. Insulting your child’s parent is an insult to the child him or herself. Moreover, the conflict itself is traumatizing. Children often end up in decades of psychotherapy to recover from the effects of witness their parents’ post-divorce conflict. Save your children from this fate by being determined to act respectfully toward your ex-spouse and never speaking badly about him or her.

Keep Routines Normal
Resist the temptation to sleep with your children once your spouse has moved out. You don’t want to have to kick them out of your bed when you decide to remarry. Normal routines increase stability, so keep life as normal as possible and the same way it was before the divorce.

Kids Need Laughter
Even if it’s a stressful time in your life, remember that kids are kids – they need lightness and laughter. You can bring this into their life with funny bedtime stories, silly games, outings, movies or other amusing activities.

New Baby – Interfering In-laws

Parents-in-law can be wonderful assets in one’s family life but sometimes they can present tremendous challenge. Often,  it’s a little of both! And when one’s in-laws become the grandparents of one’s new baby, one’s relationship with them often takes on a new curve. Focus is diverted away from the adult children, to the new baby instead. But what does one do when in-laws are a bit too helpful or too opinionated, too needy or too intrusive?

If you have an interfering in-law, consider the following:

Start with Understanding
Babies are exciting! And if this is the first grandchild, you can especially understand the enthusiasm of your in-laws. In fact, you’d probably be disappointed if they showed no interest whatsoever in your new child. Moreover, if this is a first grandchild, keep in mind that your in-laws don’t yet know where to put themselves, don’t know the boundaries, don’t yet know the place of the grandparent. Even if this is not the first grandchild, your in-laws may not, for some reason, know how to behave appropriately. (In many cases, there are obvious reasons why they don’t know). You can, in a gentle and respectful way, begin to set boundaries in a way that your in-laws might be able to benefit from. For instance, you can say “Oh, thanks Mom – but we prefer to give the baby her bath ourselves.” Even if Mom-in-law is upset by this, you’ve done nothing wrong. You’re not responsible for her upset, unless you’ve abused her by being insulting, loud or harsh. Being quietly persistent with your wishes can set the boundaries over time.

Be One With Your Spouse in Planning How to Draw the Line
What if your in-laws are the stubborn type? They contradict your guidance, make major decisions without consulting you, and usurps what you feel is your role in child-rearing? Your spouse may be able to help. In some cases, your spouse is actually your best ally in negotiating boundaries. MAKE SURE YOU TREAT HIM OR HER LIKE AN ALLY rather than someone who is on the enemy team. Let your spouse know that you want to enjoy his or her parents  and have them actively in your family’s life. Ask for your spouse’s help in making the relationship workable and positive.

Your spouse knows your in-laws a lot more than you do. He or she will know how to approach them without creating further complications. Let your spouse deliver strong messages if he or she is willing to, so that you can stay out of it and maintain a good relationship with your in-laws. However, sometimes spouses cannot stand up to their parents or do not know how to properly support their partner. If your spouse will not draw the line, don’t despair: draw it yourself. Again, remaining respectful is the key. However, in the case of “difficult” in-laws, expect a more negative response. They will have to comply (because, after all, your baby is YOUR baby and YOUR kids are YOUR kids and YOUR home is YOUR home), but they might put up a big fuss. They can go ahead and do that if they want to and you can’t stop them. Again, their reaction is not your responsibility. Only YOUR behavior is your responsibility. As long as you have remained respectful, you have done nothing wrong. Be careful to NEVER raise your voice to them, never swear or use harsh language, never insult them. Suppose, for instance, that they want to feed your 4 month-old baby some solid food while you want the baby to be at least 8 months-old before starting solids. You see your father-in-law putting a spoonful of mashed food into your baby’s mouth! You go up to the man and say, quietly but firmly, “Dad. I believe I told you that I don’t want to give Jason food yet.  Doctor’ s orders!” You then remove the baby and resolve to yourself to stay in the same room with the baby and the father-in-law until the child reaches the ready-to-eat food stage.

Use the Parent Card
It’s possible that the reason why your in-laws are extremely hands-on with their child is because they feel they are the more experienced ones when it comes to parenting — and they are! Communicate with them that, while you appreciate their presence and their help, you also want to learn the thrills and frustrations of parenting first hand.

Their advice is welcome, but this is your family; you may do things differently than they did. Ask them to give you and your spouse a chance, and assure them that you both will do the best that you can because you love your child and your family.

Assure Them That You’re not Taking their Rights as Grandparents
If your in-laws express concern that you are preventing them from developing a relationship with their grandchild, explain to them that they are always welcome to bond with their grandkids. But when it comes to particular issues, you and your spouse will be the in the lead role, and them in the supporting role. Clarify that this doesn’t mean they are not needed, and that they their role is not critical. In fact, let them know just how loved, important and needed they really are.

Compliment your In-laws
Let your in-laws know how much you appreciate them. Be generous with praise (“You’re so great with the children. No wonder they love you so much!”). Express gratitude freely (“Thank you SO MUCH for babysitting. You are the BEST!”). Buy the occasional gift (“I picked up some of your favorite chocolate for you.”) Let them overhear you speaking well of them (“Grandma & Grandpa are very hands-on – we’re so lucky.”). Do whatever you can to make them feel loved and valued – this is usually the easiest and surest way to gain their cooperation and reduce conflict.

Don’t Blame your Spouse
Hopefully your spouse loves his or her parents. If you have complaints about your in-laws, try to share them with your friends or therapist rather than your spouse. Your spouse can’t help who his parents are. It’s hard enough having difficult in-laws – don’t make your life even more miserable by fighting with your partner about them. Keep your marriage strong by keeping your complaints as rare as possible. If necessary, arrange for a couple’s session with a professional therapist in order to address difficult in-law issues without hurting your relationship.

Surprising Benefits of Family Meals

Family meals nourish more than the bodies of those who consume them. In fact, ask according to new research, family meals offer surprising benefits.

For instance, it has been found that children who eat meals with their parents on a regular basis are at lower risk for developing addictive behaviors such as smoking and drug and alcohol use. Family meals also appear to help prevent the development of eating disorders in teenagers. Interestingly, eating family meals also is correlated with an improvement in children’s eating habits: children who have regular meals with their parents tend to eat more fruits and vegetables and less junk food. This improvement may be a result of the parental model at the table or it might be or that family meals tend to be more nutritious than meals eaten alone.

A fascinating study indicates that the power of a family meal is so strong, that the positive benefits continue to exist even when family mealtime consists of sitting in front of the TV together. Since numerous studies have previously linked television viewing to unhealthy eating habits, researchers at the University of Minnesota were surprised to find that families who watched TV during dinner continued to benefit from eating together.

Of course, the ideal family meal is one in which parents and children interact with each other. Especially in today’s rushed and hectic environment, it can be difficult for parents and children to have meaningful communication. Family meals are a great opportunity for catching up, having stimulating conversation, exploring ideas and values, passing down family stories, and dealing with family issues. It is also a time when parents can observe changes in their children and track development and growth.

So if family meals are so wonderful, why do many families fail to eat together? Late work hours and busy extracurricular schedules can make getting all family members together at the same time very challenging. But dinner isn’t the only opportunity for a shared meal. Some families may find that breakfast is a better option. For exceptionally busy families, having one or two family meals a week might be better than nothing at all.

The important thing to remember is that being together as a family has benefits that can last far beyond childhood. The sense of stability and connectedness that shared meals create, give children an emotional advantage they’ll take with them into adulthood.  And that is something probably worth making time for.