Helping kids with empathy

News of the shooting in Newtown, CT. is vibrating through my body.  I can feel the weight of it: the suffering, fear, shock, desperation, anger, and grief.   It shows up in me as real, physical pain:  stomach ache, headache, tension in my neck, jaw, abdomen, crushing chest, and a feeling like boiling blood I know well as anxiety.  I live on the opposite side of the country and yet I am connected to those parents, teachers and kids at Sandy Hook Elementary in a very real way.  When I was a kid, and heard tragic news like this, I didn’t know how to handle my emotions.

Whether the scary stuff on TV was real or imaginary, as a kid, it felt the same.  I was afraid, but I didn’t know what to do with my fear.  It seemed the right thing to do was to “feel bad” for others.  My big, empathic heart couldn’t handle the guilt, grief and fear.  This wasn’t my pain or my problem, but somehow I thought that if I suffered, I could alleviate the suffering of others.  If I joined them in grief, if I carried the burden with them, I could lessen it.  I was wrong.  All this got me was decades of chronic pain, anxiety and a fear of bad things happening. I tried writing notes and donating money, but it never felt like enough.

Tragedy’s, like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School, are opportunities to teach our children healthy ways to deal with their emotions.  It can be hard to notice if your child is reacting in these ways but asking them what they feel, and what they do with that feeling, is a good place to start.  Many kids (and adults) will cope by….

  1. Worrying, pulling-back from life, living small and fearfully, breathing shallowly, just in case a threat shows up.  Constantly staying in fight or flight, when there is no immediate danger, is horrible for your emotional and physical well-being and does nothing for those suffering. You can read more about my results of living this way. This adds more fearful energy to the world, which causes us to do things like horde weapons of mass destruction and maintain the right to bear arms against our neighbors and classmates.
  2. Get Mad – We can be angry at the shooter, the NRA, video games, the president, the lack of care for mentally ill, anyone.  For many people, anger is more comfortable than fear so they stay here, hoping it will lead them to productive action.   This is the “fight” response, in action.  It feels good to use it and get the energy out, but adding more of this angry/fearful/fighting energy to the world is just going to result in more violence.
  3. Get Tough- Many times, big hearted kids (and adults) will grow tough exteriors to mask the really deep feelings and negative thoughts they think about themselves.  They ignore, act cool, like they don’t care, deny their own dark side, and try to act perfectly, sometimes even self-righteous. (The emotion will be looking for a way out so don’t be surprised if they explode at a dead cat in the road or missed soccer goal).
  4. Guilt/Sadness – Somehow we get the idea that if we suffer along, it helps alleviate the burdens of others.  When I feel sad and guilty, that just adds more suffering and depression to the world.  Instead, feel the grief and guilt in your body and transform it into love.  Hug your kids, appreciate your life, but do it from a place of love, not fear.   (You’ll know the difference because love feels expansive, fear feels graspy and scarce).

In order to send love to Newtown, Connecticut, you have to feel it in yourself first.  The first step for all of us is to acknowledge and label their emotion.  When a big, scary, yucky feeling gets named, it diffuses it and makes it easier to manage.  Ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” or “What am I trying NOT to feel?”  Is it anger? sadness? guilt? fear?  Then acknowledge that no one is perfect, nor were we meant to be.  We all have the potential for darkness, given the right brain chemistry and environmental circumstances.  Look for something you have done or said you feel bad about and forgive that part of you.  (Notice where you feel the guilt in your body and what color it is, then breathe into it and relax around it until you can transform it into a color that feels like love, seems weird but it works).  Once you can forgive yourself for your shortcomings, you can fill it with love.  From this place, you can then send gratitude and love out to the world, the victims, the troubled soul of the shooter, everyone.  Pet your dog, sing Christmas Carols, cook something delicious, make a list of things you love about yourself and your kids.  Do whatever you can to shift to the state of gratitude and peace.  The world doesn’t need more suffering.  The world is hungry for love.  Take this opportunity to role model for your kids how much power they have to feel and send LOVE.

Who were you meant to be?

When you were little, you knew EXACTLY who you were and what was right for you.  You were on a mission: you were alert, focused, intent, but your body was relaxed.  If someone tried to keep you from accomplishing your goal, you screamed.  In fact you didn’t let anything or anyone stand in your way.  You worked hard all day, but it felt like play. 

This is exactly what my clients are yearning for:  connection, passion, love, play, belief in their abilities, joy and meaning.  This is what it feels like when you are living your best life and doing what you were meant to do. Whether we call this your essential self, your original genius, or your inner wisdom, it is how we are meant to live.

Not once, while trying to master your block tower did you think to yourself, “I really should be learning to walk.  I see Kylie is walking already.  Sam is talking up a storm and his Mom seems so happy about it.  Maybe I should focus on building my vocabulary?”

You NEVER thought, “What’s wrong with me?  I used to love trains and now I hardly play with them at all.  Why can’t I just stick to one thing?”

You didn’t question your own instincts.  “Everyone else seems to playing on the slide.  I wonder what’s wrong with me?  I just want to tinker with my toys, maybe I should be more like the others?”

You complained loudly when you didn’t get to do what you wanted, but you never thought, “When am I going to get rewarded?  I’ve been working my ass off on this macaroni necklace, why isn’t anyone noticing how great it is and compensating me for my time?”  It never even dawned on you to ask “What’s in it for me?”  You just did the work you knew you were meant to do.

Your Original Genius knows when to rest and when to move on.  It doesn’t wait for people to give you permission to do what you KNOW you want to do.  It’s driven, passionate, and full of purpose. You KNOW what you love, what your purpose is, and it’s still inside, whispering to you all the time.

Where does this passion and certainty go?  Often, it gets left behind at middle school. Adolescence is the time parents see their child’s essence fading into “group think” and “shoulding” (as in, I should be more than I am). It’s normal to want to fit in and be accepted by peers, but as parents, it’s important to help our kids stay connected to the essence of who they are.

Tom went to medical school and was told Primary Care is the wave of the future.  Everyone should go into General Medicine, it’s the most responsible & secure choice.  Being a responsible guy, Tom complied.  Only to find himself miserable wiping noses and diagnosing ear infections all day.  Any interesting case that came through his door, he had to refer out.  Anyone that knew Tom’s essence, knew he was a specialist.  He loved to go an inch wide & a mile deep.  Think of the time and money he could have saved if his parents had steered him towards his essence, instead of what was safe & popular?  After 5 grumpy years, he went back to med school and is now a brilliant pediatric anesthesiologist and thank goodness!  If people are putting my child under the knife I sure as heck want them to living their purpose and doing the job best suited to who they are meant to be.

Imagine a world where EVERYONE is expressing their wisdom, their essence, and their original genius.  Your waitress is thrilled to serve you and help you enjoy your dining experience.  Your babysitter thinks your children are amazing little creatures and joyfully shares every detail of her time.  Your dentist loves inspiring you to take great care of your teeth and creates a relaxing environment you and your children look forward to going to.  This is the world I want to live in.

Want to help your teen make good choices, while helping yourself at the same time?  Join me on my FREE phone class Tuesday, October 30th at 12noon, PST.  Leading Your Teen:  Live Your Best Life So Your Teen Will, Too!

Be A Quitter

Be a quitter

For generations parents have been telling their kids “Don’t be a quitter”.  Quitting gets a bad rap but for today’s busy families, it’s one of the best things you can do.

Gabrielle Douglas, Olympic Gold Medal Champion and all-around awesome cutie pie, had to quit lots of things in order to be successful at gymnastics.  Her decision to quit her school, her hometown, even living with her family, led her to victory.  She was smart enough to notice that trying to make other girls like her, was keeping her from excelling at her sport.  She had to quit her old gym in order to grow into the athlete she was meant to be.  It wasn’t easy but it felt right.

Every time we quit something, we make room for more of who we are meant to be.  This can create a temporary void until we fill it with things that feel more authentically us.  (Ask anyone who has been through divorce or an empty nest about this void, it’s scary!)  But it is a necessary step to lead us closer to our best life.

Ben was a super star soccer player.  He lived and breathed his passion for soccer and it showed.  His family’s life and future plans revolved around Ben’s competitive, traveling soccer team.  When Ben turned 12, he was ready to try something new.  Nine years of intense year-round soccer left little time for him to try new things and he was ready to explore a new identity.  He thought about joining the band or trying out for drama, maybe even a girlfriend?

Ben’s parents had a hard time with this but after a year of seeing their son unhappy, they said goodbye to soccer and hello to band. Gabrielle Douglas’ Mom had a hard time letting her quit her life to pursue her passion but eventually succumbed to Gaby’s relentless persuasion.

Michelle’s daughter wanted to quit basketball her sophmore year but her parents said no.  They encouraged her to stick with the team through high school.  She excelled and got that full basketball scholarship her parents were expecting.  After the first semester at University, burned out, she quit her sport, lost her scholarship, and moved home to attend the local community college.  Thirteen years of playing basketball was enough and she knew it. It was time to explore who she was without it.

Quitting things is about growing into a new identity that is more closely aligned with who we are meant to be.  How do we know when to let our kids quit and when to encourage them to stick it out?

Short answer:  we can’t know.  We have no idea who they are meant to be in this lifetime.  But they will tell us if we learn to listen and watch for these signs:

Time – Do they change their mind from one week to the next or are they consistent with their feelings after a month or two.

Body – When you tell them it’s time to go to _______, does their body collapse?  Do they literally drag their feet out the door?

Voice – My daughter complains and collapses when it’s time to bathe but that doesn’t mean I’m going to let her quit!  The voice used for whining is a different tone than the mature, often quiet whisper of TRUTH.  Listen and see if you can hear the difference.

Tears – When we are preparing to move to our next stage of life by quitting the old and moving to an unknown future, “Truth Tears” show up.   This can be confusing to parents who think “if quitting makes you sad, why quit?”  There is a different quality to these tears that accompany an out loud acknowledgement of “I know I’m meant for more than this and I’m ready to see what it is, but change is scary.”

Quitters try new things.  Quitters are open to new ideas and new experiences without fear.  Quitters know who they are and who they aren’t and they are FUN to be around.  Life is a game of “You’re Getting Warmer”.  Look back on your life and tell me what’s the best thing you’ve ever quit?

Take inspiration from the teens at my summer camp:

“I’m going to quit trying to make everybody like me”

“I going to quit being so hard on myself”

“I’m going to quit a friend who drags me down.”

“I’m going to TRY to quit caring about what other people think.”

How to Create Community

My Wednesday afternoon neighborhood playgroup

I am in a funk.  I just returned from Family Camp in Lake Tahoe (my happy place) and it was fabulous.  No cooking, dishes, driving, whining, or TV.  Just happy kids and happy parents and lots of time in nature. What’s hardest for me when I return home, is the isolation:  The kids and I, at home, all day, with no one else.  No one else to dine with, play with, talk with, reflect with.  I miss it.

Humans are social creatures.  We are meant to live in communities.  But for many of us, we have a stronger relationship with our neighbor’s garage door than with the people living inside.  Two working parents, day care, shared custody, organized sports, TV and video games, driving instead of walking to school, all these make it harder to get to know our neighboring families than it was in the past.  If you are like me and yearn for a strong support system around you and a community feeling, here are some things you can do.

Break out of your box.

I was never the outgoing social organizer so it was easy to come up with excuses like “I’m shy” or “I’m too busy” or “I’ll wait for them to initiate”.  It can be hard to break outside of the roles we put ourselves in, but if you want it, you can create it.  Great neighborhoods are created by people who put themselves out there and, occasionally, get rejected.  Not everyone is going to be your people and that’s okay, but chances are, they are all hoping someone else will take the initiative.  Organize a block party, have an open house, host Friday night happy hour on your front porch.  Be open to experiencing yourself in a new way, you might surprise yourself.

The magic of multiage.

The way our schools are structured makes it easy to assume kids only want to want to play with other kids their same age.  We forget about how wonderful it can be to have a group of kids of all ages, playing with no agenda or structure. The older ones play a little younger (so good for them in a world that encourages growing up so quickly) and the younger ones love the attention of the older kids. Self-organized play is more likely to take place as the older ones take on leadership roles.   This environment of learning to adapt, adjust, create, solve problems, and innovate is such valuable, real world learning and what many kids today aren’t getting.

Leave judgment at the door.

When a new neighbor moved in with a truck full of hunting gear, I assumed I wouldn’t like them.  When another neighbor hung a political sign I disagreed with, I decided not to bother trying to get to know them.  I WAS TOTALLY WRONG.  These are some of my favorite people now, but I judged so quickly I almost missed out.  Be wary of snap judgments.  When you are raising children, it creates a common bond that surpasses other, more minor, differences.  If they live nearby and love their kids, it’s a relationship worth exploring.

When we feel lonely or isolated, it’s easy to believe that we are the only ones who feel this way.   If this were true, I wouldn’t write a blog about it.  Start up a weekly potluck dinner with friends whose partners work late or travel.  Invite every Mom pushing a stroller to meet you at the park on Monday afternoons.  Collect emails and phone numbers of everyone who lives near you.  They are all waiting for YOU to do it.

Parents Feel Peer Pressure, Too

“Don’t forget about the showcase on Friday, it starts at 10am.” I hear every morning as I drop my daughter off at a week long cheerleading camp.  Summer is here and I am pining for “me time” like a love-struck teenager longs to be back at summer camp with her first love.  My 8 yr. old loves cheer camp but the 2.5 hours per day is hardly enough time to do the things I want to do.  I want to write, plan and teach classes without my daughter.  I want to exercise and run the errands she hates but summer is here and things have changed.I really don’t want to go to “the showcase” this Friday.

I’ve watched her do cheers all week, about 6 hours a day.  I feel confident that I won’t  be deprived by not seeing her perform with the other camp cheerleaders.  I have great friends that will send me videos if I want.  I didn’t go last year, and the world did not crumble.  My husband misses this stuff and doesn’t blink an eye.  I really don’t want to give up that extra hour on Friday, when I get so few as it is.

Yet here I sit, on the bleachers, watching “the showcase”.  And apparently, I’m not the only one.

Sometimes we succumb to peer pressure, just like our kids will.  We decide to do things that we may not really want to do.  Breast feeding, work meetings, kid birthday parties, family gatherings or class reunions.  Peer pressure is just as real for adults as it is for kids so as I waited for “the showcase” to begin, I decided to take my own advice.

In my “You Can Talk to Me” class for 9-12 year olds and their parents and my “Getting What You Want” summer camp for girls 12-15, we talk about how to stand up to peer pressure.  Before you take action, you first want to link to your values.  In this case, I value my quiet time, especially during the summer months, but I have decided to go anyway and I don’t want to feel resentful.  I value connecting with other parents.  I value arranging play dates for my daughter with the other Moms (more quiet time!).  I value using life’s everyday challenges to help other parents, live more purposeful lives, ie. write a blog about it.

Anytime you are doing something that’s not your favorite activity but the societal, peer, or family pressure may be too much for you, link to YOUR values!  Maybe you dread spending your meager time off at your spouse’s family reunion?  If so, find a way to link it to one of YOUR values:  spending time in nature, finding a new recipe to try out, talking about a book you loved, mentally plan a trip you’d like to take, sketch something, etc.  Before you’ll know it you’ll be having a good time, on your terms, because you decided to.

Bev felt pressured to put her boys into classes like the other Moms: soccer, music, foreign language, gymnastics. She longed to socialize with these other Moms but her boys just wanted to stay home and play in the dirt. She could either force her boys to cope with classes they hated to make friends and feel a part of the crowd, or listen to her boys and her instincts and let them stay home. She decided to linked to her values, hired a sitter to stay home with her boys, and took classes of her own.  Bev got out of the house to socialize by taking art and exercises classes, something she always wanted to do.

Living deliberately, on purpose, gives you so much power. Notice when you feel peer pressure (and talk about it out loud if your kids are old enough).  Listen to and respect your inner voice, make the choice you want in a way that reflects your values, & then make the most of it.  Acknowledging peer pressure and modeling how to make your own choices is an awesome skill to teach to your kids.

I’m not the only one