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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Using the Holidays to Strengthen the Parent-Child Relationship (By Anshu Basnyat, LCPC)

     We know that during the holidays, children are out of school and more at home.  We also know that holidays can make many go insane with all of the demands that are placed on us. So why not channel that energy into one that matters most to parents? That is, having a good, close relationship with our children. Positive relationships with our children reaps great rewards such as better academic performance, fewer discipline problems, knowledge about how to lead productive and safer lives, and many more.  Holiday time is a perfect opportunity to strengthen the parent-child relationship!

     Spending quality time is key in building a stronger relationship with our children. It is not only about having fun with them, but also taking the time to really express and exemplify what family values are important to us.  Maintaining a strong relationship with your child takes lot of time and effort, but it is also a fun, learning process! Below are five concrete ways to strengthen that bond.

Five Ways to Strengthen the Parent-Child Relationship during the Holidays:

1.    Play with your child. It does not matter what you play, but simply have fun with whatever you are doing with them. This can include a whole host of activities like dancing, singing, playing make believe, board games, card games, peek-a-boo, hide and go seek, etc. There has been tons of research supporting that playing with your child from very early on helps strengthen the bonding process. 

2.    Be flexible with schedules. During the holidays, sticking to a routine can be challenging. Grandparents, aunts and uncles come to visit or you visit them and they want to “spoil” your child with later bedtimes, extra treats, etc. It is important to set limits and structures, but you do not have to be rigid about implementing them during the holidays. Have you noticed that the more you try to impose your rules about these kinds of things, it makes you and your child more stressed, and possibly others around you?  For example, if 8pm is normal bed time, then 10pm is okay, but 2am is not acceptable. Otherwise, the next day will be a nightmare for everyone if your kids have sugar overload and not enough sleep. Being flexible is part of maintaining balance in parenting, especially during the holidays.

3.    Engage in activities that encourage giving to others. In today’s commercialized holiday seasons, it is easy to forget how important it is to give back to the community.  Buying canned goods and other food items to donate to local food banks is an easy thing we can all do with our children. Many schools and churches collect the goods, so this makes the giving process even easier!  When my son was younger, I used to do this on my own. Now that he is 6 years old and can understand the concept of giving, I have included him in the process. This is a great opportunity not only to talk about the importance of giving and taking care of each other in the community, but also to remember how grateful we are for the things we have and do not have to worry about like food, shelter, clothing, families and friends. 

    I am reminded of an episode of 60 Minutes I recently watched where families have become homeless and are living in their cars due to current, hard economic times.  According to the show, America’s homeless children have risen to 25%, which really struck me. With older children, watching programs like these with them, coming up with solutions, and implementing them would be a great way to give back and take care of each other. Encouraging giving to others can be simpler like helping a neighbor with raking their leaves, picking up neighborhood litter, holding the door at a store for someone, etc. Giving to others not only feels good, but helps build communities, our children become productive citizens and our parent-child relationship becomes deeper as a result!

4.    Make time for just listening. Listening is a skill that takes lot of practice! Listening does not mean you have to oblige to your child’s wishes. Listening is about respecting others. Especially if you have teenagers, listening and respecting, become two important ways of connecting with your emerging adult child. When I was going through my clinical training as a therapist at Johns Hopkins, one of my clinical supervisors used to say “just be with the client.” I did not quite understand what he meant by that at the time and might have facetiously thought “of course I am with the client, he is in my office.” Over the years, I have had many opportunities to practice listening and now I completely get it. It goes beyond just physically being there. It involves putting your needs aside and just being with the person both physically and emotionally. Good eye contact. No interruptions. No judgments. No need to top it off with your own stories or other needs. Now I would like to pass on that wisdom by saying “just be with your child.”

5.    Practice the gift of acceptance. This is really about what psychologists refer to as “unconditional positive regard” or unconditional love in laymen’s terms. Every child wants to feel loved no matter how terrible their behaviors may be. Every time a child hears something along these lines: “What is wrong with you?” or “Why can’t you do anything right?” or “What has gotten into you?” takes away from feeling that unconditional love and weakens the parent-child relationship. This can easily happen during the holidays as things get a little crazy and people are in frenzy. Instead, let your child know whichever way you can that you love them no matter what. Feeling accepted means knowing that the love you receive is not dependent on behaving well, getting good grades, obliging to every demand, etc. Just to be clear, accepting our children for who they are does not mean parents should adopt a laissez faire attitude in parenting.  It simply means that when a parent’s love for a child is not dependent on “something” then a stronger parent-child relationship evolves over time. 

        Happy parenting during the holidays!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Managing Holiday Stress (By Anshu Basnyat, LCPC)

     It’s that time of the year. Holidays!  As a Nepali Hindu, my holiday season started at the beginning of October with Dasain and we finished the fifth and final day of Tihar on October 28th.  It is also called Bhai Tika, a day when sisters celebrate brothers for their long life, prosperity, and all things good.  For others, Eid al-adha was on November 6, 2011 and soon to follow will be Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa.  Many cultures celebrate with festivities including great feasts, gift giving, visiting places of worships, holiday parties, and other traditions.  It is a time to celebrate and rejoice with family and friends.  Unfortunately for many, it is also a time to endure lot of stress. As parents, managing our stress levels not only benefits us, but it also benefits our children.  There is this vicious, circular pattern that happens when we experience stress.  If parents are stressed, then our children will be stressed and vice versa.  Getting a good understanding of how our stress develops and perpetuate is crucial in relieving our stress and improving our quality of life.    

     There are two types of stress: the good and the bad. Think of it as similar to good cholesterol and bad cholesterol in our body. The good stress is called eustress, which is minor anxiety that ignites us to perform better, experience feelings of fulfillment and other positive feelings.  For example, your child may be anxious about an upcoming Math test and to prepare for it she studies effectively and the end result is that she earns a good grade on the test. On the other hand, bad stress is called distress, where we become very anxious and do not feel too good. A whole host of things may be negatively affected by distress. Staying with the same example of the Math test, let’s say your child is very anxious about the test and does not feel good, may have stomach aches, thinks of how a bad grade will ruin her life, etc. Due to these uncomfortable side effects, she decides she cannot handle it so ends up either not studying at all or studies too hard to the point that anxiety overwhelms her and she does not perform well on the test. The latter type is the focus here because this is the kind that drives us crazy during the holidays!

     During the holidays, the triggers of stress tend to be finances, physical demands, and relationships.  Understanding these common holiday triggers can help in preventing holiday meltdowns.  If you are someone like me who embraces multicultural holidays, then your stress triggers can be complicated further.  But that is a whole another topic altogether. Taking a closer look at how each of these triggers play out in our holiday routine is imperative in combating holiday stress. 

     Financially, the whole world is suffering more than it has in the recent past.  There is so much economic uncertainty today that people are already feeling anxious. Then you consider high unemployment and inflation impacting our daily lives, the anxiety increases manifold.  And then you consider the added expenses of gifts, travel, food, and entertainment, no wonder people’s stress level skyrocket during the holidays. Evidence can be found when you see people running around like chickens with their heads cut off in the malls, supermarkets, schools, in their homes, and wherever else they may be. 

     As if financial difficulties were not enough, now we consider the physical demands that contribute to stress levels. Even the most uber holiday enthusiast will admit that the extra shopping and socializing can be draining. When we experience exhaustion, our body releases stress hormones that make us more susceptible to illnesses like the common cold and other unwanted medical problems.  There just is not enough time in a day to get all we need to accomplish during the holidays so we start cutting corners.  Ironically, sleep and exercise, which releases hormones that help to reduce stress, are usually compromised to deal with the physical demands. You can see how this perpetuates a vicious cycle. 

     Another interesting dynamic that occurs during the holidays involve our loved ones.  As a child, I had bought into the idea that holidays were created so family and friends can spend more time together and enjoy each other’s company.  As an adult, the sparkles of the holidays fade away as we encounter family conflicts and misunderstandings.  On top of it, we attempt to make everyone happy. Instead, everyone seems to be getting on each other’s nerves and wishing they were somewhere else- “anywhere else besides here!”  It happens to the best of us, doesn’t it? Don’t worry; there are strategies to counteract these dreadful experiences and in the process, set good examples for your children so they learn to regulate their emotions effectively.

10 Tips on Managing Holiday Stress:

1.    Prioritize. Plan ahead and make a list of all the things you want to accomplish this holiday season. Now put them into 3 categories (Very Important, Somewhat Important, Not too important) and allocate your time, resources, and energy accordingly.

2.    Feel comfortable saying “no.” It is completely ok to say no. There is no rule in life that says you have to attend every holiday party you are invited to, buy gifts for everyone you consider friends and/or family, buy gifts that are on your kids’ wish list, etc. 

3.    Set limits.  Limits can be set by creating a budget for gifts (and sticking to it!), on your time, how much food you’ll make, etc. People who genuinely care about you will understand or get over it, including your children.  If they don’t, then you may have to rethink how the relationship can change to reduce your stress.

4.    Cut corners.  “Baked goods” does not have to mean “home baked goods.”  Sure it tastes better and is more meaningful, but if you have hundred other things you have to take care of then it is ok that baking doesn’t make the priority list. Besides, not everyone is a baker. Another way to cut corners is to send holiday cards only to those you have regular contact with. Further cut corners by writing personal notes to few who have been there for you through thick and thin.

5.    Maintain your healthy habits. Eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep are not negotiable. Additionally, attending to medical needs and maintaining a positive attitude are paramount in staying healthy during the holidays.

6.    Take a breather. Schedule it if you have to! Take 15-20 minutes a day to have time to meditate, listen to music, read, or whatever you enjoy doing. Self-care is mandatory to have a stress free holiday season.

7.    Let it go (aka L.I.G.).  This is especially true when we hit bumps in our relationships. Family members get into arguments, which in the big scheme of things, are about things that do not really matter. So learning to forgive and move on is important to maintain positive, healthy relationships.

8.    Seek professional help if necessary. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, it is hard to escape the “blues” and severe anxiety. Some people experience Seasonal Affective Disorder during the holidays or certain time of the year, and if you suspect you are one of these people then please seek help.  Remember that seeking help is a sign of strength rather than weakness.

9.    Keep your kids busy. Boredom leads to trouble. Keeping the kids entertained with board games, books, writing stories, arts and crafts, coloring, outside play, limited tv/computer/video game time, naps, music, dancing, having them help you in cooking, cleaning, etc. is key in maintaining your and the kids’ sanity.  Besides, keeping the kids engaged is good for their brain plasticity, the brain’s ability to learn from experiences and make them smarter!  

10.    Have fun! Enjoy the moments and be grateful for all the wonderful people, things, and experiences you have in your life. Love, live, and laugh this holiday season!