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An Ode To My Cellphone: How Can I Miss You If You Were Never Really Gone

By Diana Garber JD, LCSW

Cellphones!! Is it always glued to your hand? Whether you are scrolling, texting or tweeting, when you are on your phone,  you are not engaging with other people.  This month, my blog post is about the struggle I personally faced regarding leaving my phone out-of-sight. When I am at home with my family, I want to be present and yet my “to-do list” keeps my phone in my hand.  The people in my life deserve more.

Although this article focuses on the impact my phone has on my young baby, so many people face their issue.  Teenagers texting at the dinner table, friends out to dinner with their phone with their phone by their fork or couples who rarely look up during date nights— these are all examples of times people ignore the person across from them for virtual connections of others.  This blog posts talks about the importance of face-to-face interactions:


Before my baby was born, my husband and I did not really discuss parenting styles. We knew that all of our best-laid plans would be thrown out the window once we were in the thick of it. We also wanted to enjoy getting to know our daughter and not always be thinking about what we “should” do. There was one big exception which was our (mostly my) use of cellphones.  My husband was adamant that cellphones would distract us from spending time with our daughter. I told him I agreed.

Then the bullets started flying. In those early days of late night feeds, backwards circadian clocks and 3 a.m. glider parties, my cellphone became my lifeline. I was able to order food, diapers, research how much spit up is too much and update my photostream all while balancing the phone on my boppy and holding my newborn.  On many days, my phone became my only portal to the outside world. I was lucky to have friends in other cities and time zones who had infants the same age and we sent encouragements, funny pictures and emojis in the dead of the night.  Those one-handed texts from the other side of the country went along way to keeping me sane.

But still I knew my phone had to go even without my husband’s constant reminders.  As those early nights stretched into the first weeks and months, we often revisited this topic.  My husband and I would talk about being present.  Not only had my daughter begun to notice my phone, she also knew when my attention was diverted elsewhere.  Sometimes she was curious as to what I was doing and other times cried. I was convinced this was her way of getting me to put the phone down (no mommy guilt there).

As I head back to my therapy practice this month and my time with my daughter is more limited, I am revisiting the cellphone conundrum. I have so few available minutes that to have my phone at arms reach allows me to get things done. And yet, I have so few available minutes that being present for them is vital. My professional life is built on helping people learn, analyze and strengthen their bonds with those around them and so shouldn’t this be a no brainer? No bond is more important that an infant with a parent. And yet, my phone is sitting next to me as I write this (she’s napping, I promise!)

And so, what are the benefits of leaving your phone in your purse during quality family time?

Multitasking is the socially correct way of saying we aren’t 100 percent focused on what we are doing.

Being on our phones means we are half-listening to those around us. When we are half-paying attention, we often miss cues that our children need us.  In response, our kids will cry louder, bang toys harder, act out more to get our attention. In the long run, children can learn that they have to be bigger and better in order to compete with our devices for time. When we put our phones away, we are more able to be 100 percent invested in our children.  This shows our children that they are important and what they say matters, which ultimately leads to a positive self image.

Eye Contact is SO important.  

Eye contact between baby and parents is crucial from the get-go and allows us to be clued in to what our children need. When we are half-paying attention and half-texting, we can miss our children’s cues. I don’t know if any other parent has had the experience where you turn your head while still feeding your infant only to look back and see they are completely covered in milk. Although we can’t be focused all the time, having our phone out means that this situation happens more frequently.

Kids observe their parents and their behaviors constantly.  

When my neighbor’s son gets cranky, he is best soothed by looking at pics on her iPhone, similar to adults around her who need to “zone out”.  When he was two, he liked to show everyone how he could “swipe like daddy.”  When our heads are constantly looking at a screen, our children see us. These interventions work and preschoolers are incredibly computer-savvy, but are these the traits we want them to emulate?

When I was growing up, my parents did not allow a television in the kitchen.  This created an environment where we would talk to each other and we typically had lively family meals.  Smart Phone usage is the next-generation, high-tech iteration of that same principle.  In the end, we have the opportunity to cultivate an environment that doesn’t allow technology to detract from real “facetime” with our families.

 

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How to Silence the Shoulds

By Diana Garber JD, LCSW

As a mental heath therapist, I have many clients that are pulled by obligations and cannot silence the “shoulds” in their lives.  Many report that they often feel eclipsed by expectations and never get to focus on what they want or their own needs.  In my recent article for the San Francisco Mom’s Blog, I talk about this conflict and give a few ideas on how to notice the “shoulds” and re-prioritize your to-do list.


I can be very goal-driven and often find myself ignoring my own self-care to pursue whatever my current project is. Whether that be skipping yoga, quiet mornings, or naps, I have noticed that at times I don’t build in downtime, if it comes at the expense of an assigned task, whether it’s self-imposed or something I feel obligated to complete. However, when the last paper is submitted or business development project is complete, the satisfaction I expected to feel is often mixed with frustration. Did I ignore my personal needs in order to meet others’ expectations?

As a psychotherapist, I notice that many of my clients feel conflicted with the same topic: how do I take care of myself when I feel I should be taking care of other people or other obligations? It is hard to focus on taking care of yourself when it feels at odds with propelling yourself further professionally and personally.

I know this is a topic that young professionals, married couples and especially young mothers struggle with, as I often find clients grappling with similar themes. Do I stay home from work when sick? How do I make it to a big meeting when I was up all night with my feverish child? Should I stick to dinner plans when all I want to do is eat take out and lay on the couch? How do I continue to achieve when I really feel that I am running ‘on empty’?

Often people focus on the specifics of the event in front of them — a costume needed for a child’s recital, a work trip, a commitment that was agreed to months before — without focusing on the larger pattern: taking care of myself often is the last priority on my list. However, if I could take care of myself, I would actually be much better at helping everyone else.

We are reminded every time we fly: put on our own oxygen mask before those around us. Many argue that this feels counterintuitive, but it’s not. Taking care of yourself allows you to have mental and physical energy to take care of others. The next time you find yourself faced with this conflict, here are some points to consider:

  1. Count the “shoulds.”  Try to count how often your sentences or thoughts start with “I should do” something. Many people are shocked by how often they actually are not doing what they want to be doing, but, instead, what they feel obligated to do. All of the “shoulds” take mental energy and don’t allow us to focus on ourselves or what we need.
  2. Follow the thought through. If you “should” do something, take that thought a step further.  What would happen if you didn’t? Often people say, “Well, I cannot miss that meeting.” Ask yourself, “What would really happen if I wasn’t there?” Is there a negative consequence to the “should” activity? More often than we realize, the answer is probably not. Yes, there might be some phone calls to return or meetings to reschedule. However, most of the time, there are not dire consequences to slowing down. In fact, removing the “should” might allow us to accomplish more when we return.
  3. Model the behavior you want your children to follow. When children enter the school-age years they watch their parents every move. When they assess your actions and values, they begin to set their own. If children see parents over-worked and over-stressed, they will internalize those messages and can begin to operate in similar ways. Children learn themes from their parents such as focusing on others’ needs instead of their own. As our children get older, we want them to learn to listen to their gut and not override messages of stress or fatigue because others expect them to accomplish or achieve.

A good way to build this skill is to model good boundaries related to self-care. If you are stressed and then spend the weekend fulfilling obligations for others, children can take in that message. Instead, say to your children, “This was a hard week at work. I am excited to spend the weekend recharging with you at the park. As you spend downtime together, your children will see the importance of it and how it positively benefits you (and them!).

 http://sanfrancisco.citymomsblog.com/mom/taking-care-of-others-starts-with-taking-care-of-ourselves/

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How to Fight: What Productive Disagreements Can Teach Your Child

By Diana Garber

This month I was quoted in an article on Parent.co written by Rebecca Perez Lang.  The article talks about what happens when children witness their parents arguing.  I provide information about what happens when children are exposed to disagreements between their parents where there is a “rupture” and “repair” in the argument and what that could teach young kids.   I also talk about what arguments could feel unsafe for children.

You can check out the article here:

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The Other Side of the Holidays: How December can be the Loneliest Month.

By Diana Garber JD, LCSW

I recently wrote about how many people feel that December is the loneliest month.  In the post below which ran in the San Francisco Mom’s Blog, I discuss unwanted feelings that can creep up as the year ends.  I also discuss ways to manage feeling irritable and down as well as discuss ways to feel more connected to others.

You can read the blog post here: http://sanfrancisco.citymomsblog.com/mom/the-other-side-of-the-holidays/ or below:

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loneliness-1879453_960_720It is halfway through December and somehow, without even noticing, Christmas tunes have taken over the airwaves, presents have started to pile up underneath the tree (or menorah) and twinkling lights are never far from view. Although this is typically a magical time, many Americans actually report increased negative emotions during the holidays.  According to the American Psychology Association, 44 percent of women report feelings of sadness and 33 percent experience increased feelings of loneliness often or very often during this season.When people talk about loneliness around the holidays, young families are usually not the first group that comes to mind.  The Bay Area, however, is filled with so many transplanted parents whose extended families are thousands of miles away.  Many people are facing expensive airfare, travel limitations due to pregnancy or inability to take enough time off work to make traveling with young kids feasible.

There is also so much social pressure, especially on new mothers, to be connected, involved and joyous during the holiday season.  This is typically seen by multiple events like a preschool holiday play or cookie decorating with friends.  Combined with missing families and childhood traditions, these activities can actually have the reverse effect and lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Some might notice feeling increasingly irritable, especially as the holidays creep up.  Others might recognize feeling glum or sad for periods throughout the weeks nearing the end of the year.  If you have been noticing yourself feeling this way, here are a few things to consider:

  1. Schedule some meaningful time with someone you are close to. This can be hard during the holiday season—people are pulled in so many directions and kids require a lot of shuffling.  But, if you can, when your children go to sleep, try to schedule a long phone call with an old friend, or have a Tuesday night indoor date with your husband with spiked hot chocolate and marshmallows—something that allows you to actually feel connected to someone—instead of just being around many people all the time.
  2. Big parties and crowds aren’t always the answer.  I know this is similar to the point above, but it bears repeating.  Sometimes you can feel the most isolated surrounded by the most people.  It might be hard to skip all social obligations, but if it feels too much, it is ok to opt out of a few.  Instead, try to plan activities in smaller groups where you are more likely to experience feeling connected to one or two people.
  3. Decide if you really want to FaceTime with your family during your Big Family Holiday Party.  Camera phones can be a great way for families to connect on the holiday and actually see each other’s trees and ugly sweaters.  However, while it can feel great in the moment, often many can hang up and feel further away than before.  This is not to say don’t do it, just think about how you are going to feel after the call—maybe it would be better to catch up the day before or day after.
  4. Donate to others and bring your kids.  Giving back has been proven to increase positive feelings in those who donate.  Pick a charity or organization that you want to support.  Involve your children by taking them to a local toy store and have them pick out a present they want a child in need to enjoy.  Then, all go together to drop it off at Toys for Tots or another donation center.
  5. Try to start a new tradition with those who are local.  You might be far away from your childhood stomping ground, but that can give you the opportunity to start a new tradition.  Begin small with your family like ice skating Christmas week, trying new holiday cookie recipes. Then you can incorporate this tradition next year—wherever you get to celebrate.  One day, I promise, your children will be able to tell your grandchildren about the (new) holiday traditions they always enjoyed with their parents.
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Election Depression Is Real: How to deal with your feelings and talk to your kids

By Diana Garber, JD MSWdepression following 2016 election results

 

This article was going to be about sibling rivalry.  Last week, I sketched out my thoughts and multiple times, I sat down at a blank screen trying to write the words.  It didn’t happen.  Frankly, I just wasn’t there emotionally.  And, I can imagine that many of you feel the same way.

I know many are dealing with intense feelings, struggling to manage them while also being a parent.  I know many parents are wrestling with what to say to their children.  Here are my thoughts on how to do both:

  1. Your emotions are real. Many of my clients this week have shared feelings of loss akin to losing a loved one or being laid off.  Many have felt unheard, despondent and helpless.  Living in San Francisco, I have noticed these pervasive feelings among neighbors, colleagues and family.  Try to acknowledge these feelings.  Many people are afraid that when they admit a feeling, it will intensify it.  The opposite is actually true.  Giving words to your emotions can lead to a sense of relief because you aren’t ignoring that gnawing feeling and pushing sadness away.
  1. Laundry can wait. Many people who experience intense feelings try to jump right back into routine and push the feelings aside.  It is ok to have a quiet weekend–or two.  Grief and depression are a little like a hole in a dam.  If you acknowledge that the feelings are there and deal with the problem, the dam will be just as strong as before.  However, if you ignore the hole, at times, a crack or another hole can form, creating a bigger problem down the road.I know many feel that there is a lot to “do.”  Feeling your emotions and even slowing down your pace for a few days is not contrary to that.  I believe acknowledging feelings allows many to be more connected and eventually make more thoughtful and productive decisions.  So when you do act, it’s thought out and not reactive.
  1. Don’t neglect all aspects of your life. Many people struggle with acknowledging negative feelings because they are afraid those feelings will overtake them.  Remember, feeling a certain way is not being a certain way.  Most of the time, acknowledging and leaning into negative feelings for a short while will allow you to re-calibrate to your normal state more quickly.If you notice that you are neglecting your daily life for an extended period and continually feel overwhelmed, please reach out for additional support from friends, family or mental health professionals.
  1. Seek out small things that bring you happiness. This weekend my husband and I are pouring hot apple cider into giant mugs and carving pumpkins with our neighbors.  We knew that while we did not want to take on too much this weekend, we needed some event to let go of the heaviness of the week, if just for an hour or so.
  1. Focus on family and friends. Seek out people who you feel understand you, who can validate your feelings.  We generally feel stronger when we connect with others.  Spend quiet and quality time with the important people in your life.  The upcoming holidays can be a perfect time to recharge.

Understanding and processing personal emotions can allow parents to clearly express themselves to their children.  Here are some points to consider during those conversations:

  1. Explain your feelings to your children. Children from a young age are very perceptive.  They hear snippets of conversation whether it be from the news, other kids or adults.  Most importantly, children are attuned to their parents’ emotional states and can sense feelings of sadness or uncertainty.For that reason, it is important to acknowledge your feelings to your children.  Tell them a little of why you are having this reaction.  Acknowledging that you are having an emotional time teaches children that emotions are real, it is ok for you, and ergo them to have such reactions.
  1. Remind your children that they are safe.  Remind them that our basic liberties are secure.  Remind them that your job as a parent is to protect them.
  1. This can be a great opportunity to talk about your family values.  Many children, especially school age, have some awareness that the country has chosen a person who has said negative things about certain people or groups.  Their confusion is totally understandable.  Talk to them about what you believe in.  Reiterate that these core values haven’t changed.
  2. After the hard conversations, lighten the mood.  Take your children to the park, on a hike, out for ice cream.  Try to help them put this week’s events in context, especially after talking to them about safety and values.

And next month, I’ll share my thoughts on sibling rivalry.

 

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A Difference of Opinion: Supporting Individuation

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By Diana Garber, JD, MSW

This month, I wrote about individuation of toddlers and teenagers for the San Francisco Mom’s Blog.  This theory was first developed by Margaret Mahler and called Object Relations theory of Separation-Individuation. Individuation is the process of becoming aware of oneself.  While individuation occurs throughout most of childhood, it is most noticeable with toddlers and teenagers.  Both stages highlight children thinking for themselves, focusing on what they want and at times, rejecting their parent’s wishes.

For a parent, as much as you want to see your child blossom into her own person, new parenting obstacles arise.  Check out my blog post below to learn about things to keep in mind:

As infants become toddlers, children begin the process of individuating or separating from their parents.  This process, which starts around 15 months, continues through the teenage years and is critical for a child to eventually develop her own identity, will and individuality.   Individuation is the process of becoming aware of oneself, leading to an understanding of the difference between oneself and others. Since a toddler’s first “other” is you, her parent, basically, individuation is the development of a child’s understanding that her needs and wants are separate from yours.

As a therapist, I think one of the main tenants of parenting is to give children tools to ultimately develop their own identity.  Individuation as a toddler is the first step on this long journey and ultimately allows a child to recognize that not only can she separate from her parents but that her parents will love her unconditionally, no matter if parents agree with her decision to draw a purple sky not a pink one.

As parents, how to we support individuation?  As children begin to exert their will (read: temper tantrums) and state specific preferences, parents often struggle with how to set appropriate limits.  Since this process can strain a parents’ patience, it is easy to forget that the process of individuation is one of the greatest emotional developments children go through. When a child wades through this process, she is learning to have a strong sense-of-self.  As children gain more independence from their parents regarding decision making, children are learning about their likes and dislikes.  Learning to recognize these personal preferences allows a child to develop the beginnings of self-confidence.

How can we help?

  • It can be confusing to a child to recognize she feels differently from her parents but you can support her in the individuation process.  For example, if on a Sunday morning you plan an outing to the park but she balks, lying like spaghetti on the floor and screaming, “No, I want to stay here and color”, identify this, allow her to assert her preference and praise that decision. “Olivia, it looks like you want to color.  Last week, you drew me so many pictures of the sky—you have really loved coloring recently. When you are finished, I will hang this picture on the fridge.”  (Of course, if the temper tantrum comes before a planned event like a visit to grandparents, you can’t always be flexible and you can explain that to your child as well). This teaches your child in even the smallest way that you recognize her preferences and are supporting her, even if you can’t reroute your entire day.  When a child feels that, she is able to make more and more personal choices.
  • If a parent is critical of her child’s playtime choices (and later bigger ones), the child begins to rely on her parents to determine what is right for her. If you notice yourself constantly steering your child’s small choices (the swings not the sandbox) more than feels comfortable for you, stop for a minute and think about what it would feel like to be less directive. Allowing a child to make even these small decisions for herself can lead to a vast difference in a child’s belief that she can make the right decision!
  • Emotional developments in young children are sometimes far less celebrated by parents than first steps or first words.  The first little fit that turns into a hysterical tantrum is likely to leave both child and parent exhausted and overwhelmed.  As inopportune as your no-longer-a-baby’s tantrum is (sitting in a restaurant you swear typically only had other crying kids until today), this fiery protest is the beginning of the process of individuation.
  • Children who individuate from their parents have less anxiety about making life choices as teenagers and young adults.  Children who can recognize their desires at a young age (like the crayons example above) develop self-confidence.  It might not seem that these decisions are crucial, but choosing playtime activities is akin to a teenager choosing a college or a college freshman choosing a major.  All of these decisions are building blocks that create a foundation for a child to trust her choices as an adult.
  • Individuation is important for teenagers as well! The process actually looks similar — just on a much larger scale.   It can be hard for parents when teenagers begin expressing preferences that may be quite different from what a parent pictured for them (artist over business school, a gap year), but those individual choices are critical for them to become healthy, functional adults.
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How to Promote Emotional Development in Toddlers

 

Promoting Emotional Development in Toddlers

By Diana Garber JD, MSW

My recent blog post for San Francisco Mom’s Blog talks about how important emotional growth is for toddlers. However, emotional development often gets overlooked as children learn physical and verbal skills.  It is easy for parents to overlook how important it is for toddlers to try to solve and manage problems are important as children gain independence.  Learning how to regulate emotions and develop a sense of self starts at a young age.  My article talks about how parents can promote emotionally skills along with more traditional toddler growth:

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Last month I was lucky enough to spend a whole week with my 16-month-old niece. Besides taking credit for teaching Mallory the words “Di-Di” (a variation of my name that I pushed HARD) and “yes” (you can thank me later), I loved seeing how much she had grown since the winter.  Mallory had become much more mobile since I last saw her and was eager to show me how much she could do on her own.  For much of one afternoon, Mallory buoyantly pushed her shiny “Frozen” car from one side of the house to the other.  She was unstoppable—until she hit a literal and then figurative wall.

With the car wedged against the door, Mallory looked up at me with hope in her eyes and gestured for me to turn the car around.  Instead, I sat next to her and said, “this is so hard, isn’t it?  It seems that the car is stuck.”  And then I encouraged her to try to move the car.  My little niece looked annoyed (at the car, the wall and definitely me).  My response didn’t change and Mallory’s frustration became re-purposed into energy to experiment with different angles between the animate and inanimate object.  I saw the pure joy in her eyes when she realized the car could move backwards and she could continue driving without any physical help from me.

I was very tempted to relieve Mallory of her temporary distress and turn the car around myself.  However, as a therapist, I know how important it is for everybody, even toddlers, to learn to tolerate distress and soothe themselves when they feel sad or frustrated.  Many people who enter therapy as a teenager or young adult struggle to do so independently and (sometimes unwittingly) come to therapy to develop these emotional muscles.  There are many theories on parenting and how to nurture children from birth to college (and beyond) and those choices are personal decisions that all parents make for themselves.  However, from a therapeutic standpoint, allowing your child to experience small frustration can be a positive growth experience.  Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. It is ok to be frustrated.  Toddlers and little children are learning new skills every day.  It won’t all come easily and this would discourage anyone at any age.  When a child falls down trying to walk independently, she will inevitably be upset and cry out.  She might feel sad, frustrated or angry.  These feelings will pass and when a child is able to stand back up and try again, she begins to learn these feelings don’t last forever.
  2. Learning to tolerate emotions is just as important as learning how to crawl, walk or talk!  Emotions are new and can feel overwhelming to children.  When a child doesn’t get a new skill right away, she will unsurprisingly get upset just like my niece.  When that child tries again, she has grown emotionally.  She has learned that she can have negative emotions and that she can tolerate the distress they caused.  Negative emotions are a part of life. A child who gets the opportunity to practice emotional skills at a young age is well on her way to knowing she can handle bigger more frustrating events as she gets older, such as, not getting an A on a math test or getting the chorus instead of the lead in a school play.
  3.  If your child seems to be in real distress, be there for her.  Exploration is fun and teaches problem solving.  But knowing that you are there if she really struggles enforces the message to your child that she is safe and you can support her if she hit a literal or proverbial wall.