Finding comfort and joy, moment by moment.

During this season we hear a lot about comfort and joy but many people feel only pain and loss. Comfort and joy are the perfect antidotes to this suffering. It is what a broken world needs most. It may be that we can’t find comfort and joy because we believe that when we do we will stop feeling hurt. This is not always true. Our heart is to create more space not to eliminate hurt. That would be a nice result but isn’t reality. We strive to allow comfort and joy to coexist with our pain and loss. This inner act expands our heart of compassion. We now have a greater capacity for feeling both comfort and pain, joy and loss. It is a spiritual paradox but it is a direction for our own healing. 

Science confirms this idea. Our hearts literally do expand when we entertain compassion and allow more space for comfort and joy. Choosing compassion releases neurotransmitters in the brain and hormones in the body and calm down the hyperaroused nervous system, reducing fear, anger, anxiety, and depression. 

Studies on the practice of compassion reveal improved autoimmune functioning, decreased inflammation, improved digestion, increase mental focus, motivation, and even sleep. Dr. Caroline Leaf, a noted cognitive neuroscientist, and researcher on the mind-body connection report that compassion increases the grey matter in the brain, allowing improved thinking and sensory processing. 

So how does compassion start? How do we allow comfort and joy into our lives when we feel stuck emotionally? The answer is where we put our focus. 

Right now, at this moment, you have a choice. Whoops, there it went but don’t worry, here comes another. Missed that one. Just wait…

We have thousands of opportunities to choose comfort and joy. Every moment is a chance to change the directions of our lives. It will not remove pain and suffering but it will allow us to build a mindset that allows comfort and joy too. Take a deep breath and make one statement of comfort and joy. Maybe it is gratitude for that cup of coffee or tea in front of you. Is it warm and comforting however brief? Maybe you heard someone laugh and it made you smile? Perhaps, someone opened the door for you when your hands were full? Life is constantly presenting micro-moments of comfort and joy. You just have to notice them. 

The problem is that we allow suffering to be our filter for living. We get angry expecting things to be different than they are. We resent people for not treating us the way we deserve. Just allow those challenges to exist alongside the next moment of gratitude and pleasure. Build those moments up, one after the other, and live a day full of tiny, joyful experiences. Tip the emotional scale in your direction. 

The brain likes to automate our life. It will take any repeated experience, good or bad, and make it a habit. This is how we can do so many tasks and face so many diverse problems. It makes us efficient and skilled. It can also make us miserable if we stop being aware of what is going on around us. A lack of moment to moment awareness makes us a machine, driven to self-protect and insulate from anything that smells dangerous or out of the norm. We don’t want the norm. The norm is hurt. We want the new which is comfort and joy. This will cost you some mental energy until the new norm becomes a happy habit. 

Test these ideas out today. Stop three times today to recognize a moment of comfort or joy. Write them down on a post-it note. Remember, in as much detail as you can muster, throughout the day, what it felt like. Do this for a week and see if your pain, your suffering, starts to lessen and a life of greater compassion takes over. 

Let Ron Huxley, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, assist you in finding more comfort and joy. Schedule a session today – Click here!

sensorycalm:

(via Weighted Blankets for Anxiety Autism Insomnia Soothing Comforting by Mosaic Weighted Blankets in Austin Texas|Seen on NBC Parenthood Show)

Mosaic Weighted Blankets for sensory processing disorders in Autims, ADHD, Trauma and more. 

The Benefits of Mosaic Weighted Blankets® for Anxiety, Stress, and Insomnia

Adults, teens, and children can benefit from weighted blanket therapy. Mosaic Weighted Blankets are a safe and effective non-drug therapy for anyone seeking a solution for loss of sleep and relaxation.

“In psychiatric care, weighted blankets are one of our most powerful tools for helping people who are anxious, upset, and possibly on the verge of losing control,” says Karen Moore, OTR/L, an occupational therapist in Franconia, N.H.

“These blankets work by providing input to the deep pressure touch receptors throughout the body,” Moore says. “Deep pressure touch helps the body relax. Like a firm hug, weighted blankets help us feel secure, grounded, and safe.” Moore says this is the reason many people like to sleep under a comforter even in summer. (Source: Psychology Today)

Children who no longer live with their birth parents must go through their own version of grief…

by Ron Huxley, LMFT

In 2014, Child Welfare Services checked up on 3.2 million children reported as abused or neglected, in the United States of America*. Many of these children are removed from their birth parents and enter foster care. Some return to their parents while others are adopted by loving families. The goal is always permanency for children but the issues of grief must be addressed regardless of the child’s placement.

What is Grief?

Grief is the state that individuals experience when a significant loss occurs in their life. The loss might occur as a result of death, divorce, and/or abandonment by a family member. It might be said that nontraditional families, like foster and adoptive families, are born out of grief as they are formed as a result of a loss. This is confusing due to this is a time for both celebration and sadness.

Grief is a profound loss for children that is not always recognized by parents and professionals. One reason is that children do not grief in the same way that adults do. Young children often act like nothing happened at all and adults wrongly assume they are not grieving. Later, when they erupt in anger and aggression towards others, adults are surprised by their behavior. Misunderstanding the behavior will lead to incorrectly managing it and parents miss an opportunity to address the loss and create a healing bond.

Stages of Grief

Despite the confusion, grief has predictable stages of development. This is beneficial to the nontraditional parent as they attempt to make sense of their child’s grief experiences. Most importantly they know that the most negative feelings of grief and loss will not last forever, at least not in the same intensity as when it first started.

Perhaps the best known framework for grief and loss are the stages listed in the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who wrote the book On Death and Dying (1969). Her stages of grief include:

Denial
Anger
Bargaining
Depression
Acceptance

These stages can manifest differently depending on the child’s developmental stage. As a child matures, their ability to understand themselves and their world changes, allowing for deeper levels of grieving. This is why young children can act like they don’t grief or care about their past. They may not want to talk about their past or have any questions for adults. When they are older, however, they may “suddenly” have questions and this can be perplexing to adults.

Another way grief can affect children is creating a division between “age and stage.” A child may be 16 years of age chronologically but act emotionally and socially like a 6 year old. Would a parent allow a 6 year old to take care of his or her younger siblings? Of course not! A 16 should be responsible to watch their younger siblings for a short time. A 6 year old would not have the cognitive ability. A 10 year discrepancy between age and stage can cause grieving children to look like they are on an emotional roller coaster ride. One minute they are responsible and calm. Then next they are reactive and impulsive. Parents can easily make the mistake of dealing with the child’s age and not their stage.

Close the gap between the child’s emotional and chronological stage by creating a space for them to grief past losses.

Waves of the Ocean

A useful metaphor for understanding grief are the waves of an ocean. When you are way out in the ocean, the waves are large and frightening. They pull you under and twist you about, creating a sense of hopelessness or fear of your future. This is similar to the stage of Denial or shock at the reality of the loss. When the waves pass and the ocean feels momentarily calm, this is called the stage of anger or bargaining. The shore represents the stage of acceptance. As nontraditional parents and children swim for the stage of acceptance, waves continue to crash over them, sometimes threatening to pull them under in denial and shock and at other times settling down and letting anger and bargaining propel them forward to the shore. The closer you come to the shore the less intense the waves. But even small waves, when standing on the edge of the ocean can unsettle and cause you to lose your balance.

Parents can use this metaphor to help themselves and their children find emotional balance. Because they are in the ocean and not on the shore they cannot compare their children’s action to others. In addition, rather than live up to society’s expectation of what an ideal family should look like, parents need to concentrate their energy on helping their child swim for the shore, in their own timeframe, even if it must be developmental stages.

Art and the Heart

Expressive arts can open the heart of the child who is grieving by allowing them to freely process thoughts and feelings that have been trapped in her heart and possibly . Parents have to set an atmosphere of acceptance to help the child “swim to shore”. Parents who avoid talking about sad or angry feelings communicate that it is unsafe or unwise to share. You don’t have to be an art therapist. Just get out the crayons and paper. Pull out paints and use your fingers. Play with legos and dolls. Make believe and role play. As adults we can interject healing ideas and allow grief and loss to work naturally. 

Talking about Birth Parents

It can feel rejecting for foster or adoptive parents to talk to their children about birth parents. Ironically, opening up conversation and allowing children to grieve will create a closer, more intimate attachment. Not talking about them will reinforce shame in the child and idealizing birth parents creating a vicious cycle or hurt between parent and child. The loss has already occurred. Avoid it doesn’t make it go away. It stays buried until it comes out in more painful ways. 

If parents need help in this area, consult with a child therapy and spend some time working through the age and stage of grief. 

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Sources: 

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/07/in-a-year-child-protective-services-conducted-32-million-investigations/374809/

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying (1969).

Ron Huxley, Love and Limits: Achieving a Balance in Parenting (1998).

Parenting and the Serenity Prayer: Acceptance and the Peaceful Home

By Ron Huxley, LMFT

If parenting could be summed up in a prayer, that prayer might be the “Serenity Prayer”:

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

This is part two of a 5 part series exploring the essential points of this prayer and how it can help parents find grace and peace in their family relationships.

Acceptance and the Peaceful Home:

Finding serenity in our lives is a matter of achieving balance. This balance can be precarious at times as parents deal with the many stressors of work and family life. Parents might look to outside sources for this place of peace. They might even hold others responsible for upsetting that peace, blaming them for the hurts and rejections they might have caused in themselves and their home. The cause of this imbalance might include drugs, alcohol, affairs, gambling and many other vices. It can also come from non-malicious sources that we don’t have control over, including job loss, divorce, death, illness, etc.

In order to create lasting peace in the home, we have to look inward to our values and beliefs. Parents can identify a “value system” that keeps them focused and motivated despite all the outside trials and tribulations. These beliefs will guide parents behaviors, help them make choices, and keep them intentional in their efforts to support one another.

The deepest beliefs come from our identity about what it means to be a good or bad parent. It is hard to create peace if we feel like a bad parent. We will try to avoid doing what we feel a “bad parent” would do and work to do what we belief a “good parent” should be doing. Of course, this isn’t always as easy as it sounds. This often occurs because parents belief that being good is the same as perfect. They hold themselves and their family members to a standard that is impossible to maintain. When they fail and fail they will, they think they are now a bad parent.

The reality is that there is no such things as a perfect parent or a perfect child. It is important to have the courage to be an imperfect parent who raise imperfect children and can still love one another through our mistakes. This road of unconditional love and imperfect relationships will require a constant review of our values and a lot of forgiveness, of ourselves and our family members.

In Defense of “Broken Families”

By Ron Huxley, LMFT

I have been noticing this term “broken families” pop up a lot recently in various professional writings and parent blogs. Each time I read it, I shudder. The underlying connotation is that a family that has undergone a divorce, death, adoption, abuse, etc. is somehow broken and unrepairable. It is a fatal diagnosis that leaves families without hope. I know, I know, it’s just language but words do have power. They percolate in the brain and become belief systems and self identifying references. The more we hear the word, the more we start to belive them and then we start to give up.

When someone witnesses a teenager with substance abuse issues, for example, people will comment: “You know they come from a broken family”. Everyone who goes through foster care, adoption, or experiences a divorce is going to have mental issues, right? Wrong. Many families deal with teenage substance abuse, not just nontraditional families. While it is possible that children of divorce may act out in antisocial ways, this doesn’t mean that all children of divorce will have issues in life that impair them. The same is true for adopted children or someone in a foster home or raised by a grandparent.

I am not denying that families do suffer from going through experiences like divorce or death or adoption. Loss is central to each of these things but that should not be a life-sentence resulting in mental and relational problems. Life is full of suffering. The focus here needs to be on how to help others cope. How can we learn from those who survive and thrive and teach it to everyone. I take affront at these comments and attitudes because they assume a dark, gloomy fate just because they have undergone a loss. That is just one path.

A recent national study on foster care and adoption in the child welfare system listed that 48% of children, in the system, have significant behavior problems. At first glance, that feels devastating but what about the other 52% that don’t? Who studies them? What makes them more of a survivor, better able to cope, more reselient? Let’s see those studies. Perhaps we could learn some useful tools to help us build strong families.

My challenge is too guard our language. This means we have to closely guard the thoughts that produce them too. We have to start looking at loss for what it is, a painful experience and not as destiny. To counter these negative connotations, try identifying the strengths of families and individuals in them. What have they done well that we can build upon? What new words can we use to describe them and assume their inevitable success in life?

Grieving and the Nontraditional Family

While grief is fresh, every attempt to divert only irritates. You must wait till it be digested, and then amusement will dissipate it.

– Samuel Johnson

It has been said that the nontraditional family of yesterday is the traditional family of today! These means that the nontraditional family is fast becoming the norm in today’s society. But that also means that society is not prepared to help nontraditional parents and children cope with that reality. In particular, society has few, if any, means to help nontraditonal families cope with grief and loss, out of which they are born.

Nontraditional families include single, divorced, step or blended, adoptive, foster parents, and grandparents raising grandchildren. They are quickly becoming the majority in today’s society. Whether society/people consider them defective or less than “ideal” they are a reality and need special information and support. Most of the parenting programs available to nontraditional parents forget this reality. Consequently, the parenting programs apply only to traditional, two-parent, biologically based parents. Part of the problem is that nontraditional families have unique needs not usually experienced by traditional parents. One example of this is grief.

Grief is the state that individuals experience when a significant loss occurs in their life. The loss might occur as a result of death, divorce, and/or abandonement by a familiy member. It might be said that nontraditional families are born out of grief as they are formed as a result of a loss. This is not to say the traditional families do not experience grief but that nontraditional families have this experience, to one degree or another, in common.

Grief has predictable stages of development. This is beneficial to the nontraditional parent as they attempt to make sense of their grief experience. Most importantly they know that it will not last forever, at least not in the same intensity as when it started. Perhaps the best know framework for grief and loss are the stages listed in the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who wrote the book On Death and Dying (1969). Her stages of grief include:

Denial
Anger
Bargaining
Depression
Acceptance

A useful metaphor for understanding grief are the waves of an ocean. When you are way out in the ocean, the waves are large and frightening. They pull you under and twist you about, creating a sense of hopelessness or fear of your future. This is similar to the stage of Denial or shock at the reality of the loss. When the waves pass and the ocean feels momentarily calm, this is called the stage of anger or bargaining. The shore represents the stage of acceptance. As nontraditional parents and children swim for the stage of acceptance, waves continue to crash over them, sometimes threatening to pull them under in denial and shock and at other times settling down and letting anger and bargaining propel them forward to the shore. The closer you come to the shore the less intense the waves. But even small waves, when standing on the edge of the ocean can unsettle and cause you to lose your balance.

Nontraditional parents can use this metaphor to help them balance love and limits with their children. Because they are in the ocean and not on the shore they cannot compare themselves to traditional parents. Rather than live up to society’s expectation of what an ideal family should look like, nontraditional parents need to concentrate their energy on swimming for the shore.

Adopted and Angry

Q and A with Ron Huxley, LMFT

Dear Ron,

How do we discipline our 8-year old (adopted) son? He is extremely angry, at times violent and aggressive and has been since about 4 years old. We have seen therapists, psychiatrists, medical doctors, etc. We have tried it all, from medicine to discipline (time out, spanking, withdraw privileges, positive reinforcement, redirection, isolation (in his room), writing sentences, physical activities) and none of it makes any difference to him.

Up until recently, all his anger has been directed only at us, his parents. However, this week he hit a boy with his hat, on the school bus. The consequence is a warning from the principal. Next time he’ll be removed from the bus and no longer allowed to ride it. He is extremely smart, socially immature, and very much likes to be in control – of everything, even us. We need help.

Signed,

Adopted and angry

Ron replies:

Dear Adopted and Angry,

I find that it is helpful to break things down into manageable chunks when overwhelmed by parenting problems. You have very complex case here that involves multiple issues, some of which are workable and others that may not be. Here are the various issues I read in your question: Adoption, child development, aggressive behavior, professional help, behavioral modification, parenting hurts, peer relationships, control issues, and desperation.

I threw that last one in there as semi-jest, semi-truth. You are obviously very frustrated and at the end of your proverbial rope. This permeates everything else you have said and everything you will try to do with your son. This frustration may sabotage your efforts and shorten your ability to fully modify his behavior. You are using some great behavior modification techniques (time out, withdraw privileges, reinforcement, etc.) and I would urge you to continue to use them. But, behavior modification has limitations, especially if you are already experiencing your limitations with your son. In fact, it is possible you are reinforcing him negatively to continue.

The biggest issue you have listed, in my opinion, is adoption. Adopted children come into our families wounded on a spiritual or deeply psychological level. Some people call this the “Mother Wound.” The feeling of being “given up” for adoption, even in the best of circumstances, to the best of families, is a difficult issue for children to cope with. This can be even more difficult if there are other biological children in the home and if there is a dramatic physical difference between children. It is also affected by how adoptive parents handle the whole adoption issue with their adoptive children.

Another related issue with adoptive children is genetics. Parents often don’t know a lot about an adoptive child’s family history and genetic make-up. Mental illness in your child’s family tree may be a big, unknown factor here, and this may not be about behavior, per se, but a genetic problem. If you haven’t already investigated this, I would encourage you to do so. It will help you and the professionals you are working with you to deal with this problem.

Given that you already have a host of professional helpers on your side and you have a good knowledge of behavioral techniques, I would suggest that you focus more on helping your child heal from the spiritual or psychological wounds of adoption. Anger is rarely the real issue in children. What’s under all that rage? What fuels his aggression? How can you answer the main issue of hurt and loss that makes him resistant to change?

What we are really talking about is love. True, unconditional love. The fact that he targets you, his parents, with his rage demonstrates his sense of safety. I know this is confusing but angry/aggressive children usually vent at those they know will not abandon them. And adoptive children are highly sensitive to abandonment. You must reassure, love, and embrace him every time he attacks. This is the only way you can answer his violent test (“Will you give me up, too, or will you keep me no matter how ‘unlovable’ I am?”). Let your behavior modification set the limits on his behavior and let the embrace of your arms be the limits on his spirit).

Blessings,

Ron Huxley, LMFT

diyparent:

Grieving All The Way: 12 Ways to Cope with Grief during the 12 Days of Christmas.

by Ron Huxley, LMFT

“Grieving boys,
Grieving girls,
Grieving in the home.
Oh what terrible pain it is 
when you lose someone you love.”

(Loosely sung to the tune of Jingle Bells).

This song is not meant to be disrespectful. It is meant to demonstrate how disrespectful society can be to children who are grieving the loss of a loved one. Christmas, according to our stories, is supposed to be a magical time of the year. Children, who have lost someone they love to death or divorce, shouldn’t have the wintertime blues, should they? They should be dreaming of a white Christmas, not having their dreams shattered, right? The true story of Christmas is that many children are grieving the loss of loved ones during this season, causing Christmas morning to turn into Christmas mourning. Parents can help their children by giving them twelve gifts, for the twelve days of Christmas, to help them cope during this painful time:

Gift # 1: Educate yourself about grief. Parents can unwittingly pass on their anxieties and fears to their children. Even the best actors will give themselves away. Children are tuned into adult’s nonverbal signals. Trying to hide painful feelings or awkward emotions will only increase children’s anxieties. They will assume they are “bad” or “responsible” for the absence of the loved one. Instead of hiding your emotions, learn about the stages of grief by reading books on the subject, attending support groups for families of loss, or working with a qualified family therapist. The better you care for yourself, the better you can care for your child.

Gift # 2: Let children teach you about grief. Children respond to loss in different ways. No way is the right way. Let children teach you how they think, feel, and respond to the loss. Walk along side the child in his or her personal journey. Notice the path and scenery as well as the direction you are headed. If children are taking a destructive route (suicide or self-harm) steer them in a different direction. Don’t wait till you are stepping over the edge. Be on the look out early in the journey for upcoming dangers. Talk to qualified educators and therapists about the warning signs of suicide, chronic depression, unrealistic fears, and other self-destructive behaviors if you are concerned.

Gift # 3: Wrap your child in relationship. Just as you would wrap a Christmas present in beautiful wrapping, with string and ribbons, you can wrap your child in relationship. Healing comes in connection with healthy people. It doesn’t make up for the loss, but it does provide children with a safe environment to heal. This requires that parents spend quality time with children and permit free expression of thoughts and feelings about the loss. If a child doesn’t want to spend time with a parent or healthy adult, give him or her some space but remain available to them. Occasionally ask them how they are feeling about the loss and stay involved, physically and emotionally. 

Gift # 4: Talk openly and honestly about the loss. Many cultures avoid the topic of grief. Because the person is gone, we want the painful feelings to be gone too. But this isn’t how grief works. Grief has its own time and space to do the work of healing in children’s lives. Children need to be able to talk openly and honestly about the loss. They may have questions that can’t be answered easily. Don’t avoid them. If you don’t know the answer to the question, be honest and say so. Never tell children silly stories or lies, by saying, “Grandpa went away on a trip.” 

Gift # 5: Don’t wait for the big talk. Use little, everyday experiences to talk to children about loss. If you find a bird has died in your yard or the gold fish dies in the fish tank, use that time to talk about your child’s thoughts and feelings around their loss. When your child’s friends move away and go to another school, talk about how that feels in relation to mom and dad’s divorce. Treat loss as a “serious curiosity.” Children are naturally curious and talking about your thoughts, feelings, and ideas about loss can be an equally natural experience.

Gift # 6: Respect children’s responses, however negative they may be. Some of children’s responses to loss might be unpleasant (grumpy, rude, oppositional), unattractive (poor hygiene, messy room, poor grades) or even frightening (inconsolable crying, insomnia, and refusal to eat). Take the necessary steps to respond to their responses. Don’t judge them or shame them. Respect their responses as one of many ways to cope with a difficult, overwhelming situation. Of course, not all responses are constructive. Stop destructive ones, but do it in a sensitive manner. In addition, children should not be allowed to set their own limits by avoiding responsibilities and rules. Continue to set limits while being flexible and understanding.

Gift # 7: Expect and understand that your child may have bodily reactions to loss. When children’s hearts hurt, so do their bodies. They may experience some somatic problems, such as, stomach aches or headaches. This can be perfectly normal and if not due to a physical problem, will go away with time and support. Always check these bodily reactions out with a physician to be sure. If conditions persist, and have not physical cause, consult with a child or family therapist.

Gift # 8: If someone has died, allow the child to attend the funeral. Although children are young they need to participate in a ceremony designed to say goodbye to a loved one and find some emotional closure. Although you should never force a child to go to a funeral, don’t exclude them either. Let them set the pace for each part of the ceremony. At each step of the way, ask them if they wish to participate. They may be comfortable attending a service but not viewing an open casket. Respect their wishes. Have someone who can take them home or wait outside with them if you wish to continue and they do not. 

Gift # 9: If the lose does not involve a death or a funeral, create a ceremony to perform with the child. Rituals, traditions, and ceremonies are important physical markers of our emotional territory. They create a solid boundary for starting and stopping an activity or relationship. In the case of a divorce, no ceremony exists for a child to gain closure. Make a special dinner and eat it in memory of the person who has left. Find rituals to mark the goings and coming of children from mom’s house to dad’s house. During the Christmas holiday, find special ways to celebrate that are uniquely different from the past, such as, caroling, doing volunteer work, baking breads, hanging a special ornament, reciting the advent message, etc.

Gift # 10: Give children permission to feel relief without it being interpreted as a lack of love. In some circumstances the loss of a loved one may bring relief. For example, a family member may have suffered from a chronic illness that produced great physically pain for the victim as well as emotional pain for the family. A divorce may result in the reduction of abuse (verbal, emotional, or physical) that occurred in the home prior to one parent leaving. Children may interpret this relief as a lack of love for the loved one. Explain the differences and give them permission to feel relief that the pain has stopped, not their love.

Gift # 11: Focus on the spiritual. Use times of loss as motivations to learn more about your religious beliefs and culture. Great comfort can be found in this neglected aspect of us. Turn to your religious and cultural leaders for support. Read age appropriate materials, with your child, on religious and cultural thoughts. Attend religious and cultural functions. Don’t worry that you won’t have all the spiritual answers to loss. That really isn’t the point. Although you will find some answers, the greatest benefit is recapturing or nurturing your spiritual self. 

Gift # 12: Prepare for hard work. Grieving is complicated. Fortunately, it is also natural. If you trust the process, the work will not be as hard as if you resist it. If you or your child have not been comfortable expressing your feelings, in the past, grieving may be harder. But it will not be impossible. In fact, grieving is inevitable. Let it do its work in you, to heal you and your child, so that you and your child can do the work of grieving. And in so doing, have a merrier Christmas!