Feeling anxious? Try Mindfulness

It’s been a wild month. We are all learning so many new things. What it’s like to be together 24/7 with no end in sight. What adding ‘working from home’ and ‘schooling at home’ does to family life. Exactly how many steps it takes to walk around the block, which we’ve counted as these walks are now happening multiple times a day.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had many moments when I haven’t handled it well. I’m worried and stressed, frustrated and depressed. I have been delighting in the Zoom visits I’ve had with family and friends. But when the ‘meeting’ comes to an end, the weight of our social distancing crushes me. After one family call, I lost it and cried for nearly an hour. This is all so, so hard.

I was telling a friend about my rough week and she pointed me to an article that identified what I was feeling: grief. Says David Kessler, co-founder of grief.com, “We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.” 

It helped to have a name for the weight I am bearing. But what helped more was his advice for dealing with these feelings. 

Presence and mindfulness

“To calm yourself, you want to come into the present. There’s a computer, a chair, a picture of the dog, an old rug, and a coffee mug. It’s that simple. Breathe. Realize that in the present moment, nothing you’ve anticipated has happened. At this moment, you’re okay. You have food. You are not sick. Use your senses and think about what they feel. The desk is hard. The blanket is soft. I can feel the breath coming into my nose. This really will work to dampen some of that pain,” says Kessler.

“Presence” is the practice of being present in the current moment, focusing thoughts on what is happening today, instead of thinking anxious thoughts about the future or dwelling on regrets about the past.

Focusing on the present – this immediate moment I am living – helped reduce my anxiety. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that right now we are all ok. We are healthy, the sun is shining, and the kids aren’t bickering. In this moment I am ‘ok’.

Being deliberate about noticing our present circumstances is often referred to as mindfulness. 

Mindfulness is the practice of being intentional – aware of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Focus thoughts on that awareness, without judgment. Turning our thoughts to what we feel at the present moment, helps us turn away from thoughts about the past and anxiety about the future.

On my bleakest day so far, choosing to focus on just that day helped me move forward. I spent the rest of that day focused just on ‘today’. The next day I felt much better and the day after that, even better.

I know I’ll have hard days again on this roller coaster we are all riding. But remembering to come into the present moment and mindfully accept all the feelings – good and bad – will help on the rough days.

Let it go

When it gets hard, Kessler has one other bit of helpful advice: Think about how to let go of what you can’t control. “What your neighbor is doing is out of your control. What is in your control is staying six feet away from them and washing your hands. Focus on that.”

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own. You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

Self-Care and Better Parenting

Finding Your Passion

Happy New Year!  Happy New Decade!  What better time to do a little bit of self-reflection and check in on how we are doing with self-care?  Parents often feel guilty about pursuing interests that have nothing to do with raising their children. Honestly, when you have little ones it’s hard to find the time – or the energy – to enjoy time doing things that aren’t related to raising children.  

But hard as it is, time taken pursuing your interests – doing things just for yourself – makes parenting easier and helps you be the best parent you can be.

Parenting is hard work. It is a 24/7 job that demands mental and physical energy nonstop.  Never taking a break can lead to short tempers, exhaustion, and discord.

“When the daily stress of parenting becomes chronic it can turn into parental burnout and intense exhaustion that leads parents to feel detached from their children and unsure of their parenting abilities,” according to new research. This type of burnout can have serious consequences for both parent and child.” – Science Daily

Says researcher Moïra Mikolajczak, “In the current cultural context, there is a lot of pressure on parents. But being a perfect parent is impossible and attempting to be one can lead to exhaustion. Our research suggests that whatever allows parents to recharge their batteries, to avoid exhaustion, is good for children.”

“Being on and at the ready for your children at all times can cause burnout and make things that could be everyday treasures feel like everyday chores. That’s why it’s important that all parents start taking real, regular days off,” says Lindsey Roberts on finding time for yourself in an article written for the Washington Post.

“This could mean asking a spouse to take the day off from an office job and be with the kids, or asking a family member to cover you for a day. Maybe it involves hiring a sitter. One friend of mine and her husband take days off from work together to go golfing while their son is in school. Whatever you need to do, make it happen.”

So where do we start? 

First, maximize your health.  Are you fueling your body with a balanced diet of healthy vegetables and sufficient proteins? (Are your kids eating better than you do?)  Are you getting enough sleep? Are you exercising? (Is finding time to exercise one of your goals for me-time?)

Next, check your emotional/relationship health.  Are there relationship issues that might be dragging you down?  Would seeing a counselor to help resolve these might be a good thing to put on your me-time list?

Finally, find your passion – and pursue it.  Have you been in the parenting trenches so long you have no idea what you might be interested in? 

Be curious, try lots of different things

What did you enjoy before children? As a teenager, I square danced.  It didn’t score me popularity points back in high school, but I loved it and the friends I made there.  When I saw a square dancing class in the LBCC community class catalog, I decided I’d make some space for me-time and signed up. Once a week I escaped the parenting routine with dancing – which turned out to be both just like it was way back when and yet different.

You can also try something new and see how it feels.  Try it again and see how you respond. Does it continue to excite and energize you?  If so, you can make a longer-term commitment. If not, find a new new thing to try.

Another way to find your passion is to tag along with friends who enjoy activities you are curious about. 

Most importantly, schedule your me-time just like you schedule routine doctor’s appointments.  It’s a commitment to better mental health and can help you be a better parent.

Ready to devote some time to you? 

Check out LBCC’s Adult Ed catalog. What piques your interest?  Classes are often low-cost and short-lived.  If you don’t love it, you can move on to something different. If you join an activity that you find you love, you’ll have tapped into a group of people who are also interested and can point you to clubs or groups that meet on an ongoing basis.

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

Take a break – you’ll get more done!

Hold on, I’ll be right back….

I’m going to go take a quick break, ‘cause you know, it’s just plain good for you.  

I love a ‘To Do’ list.  I will add things I have just finished to my list, just so I can cross them off. At home or at work, there’s not much better than the sense of accomplishment when things come off the ‘To Do’ list. I feel productive and happy to be getting things done and making progress. 

The problem is that when I am not working through a list of projects, I get anxious about ‘wasting time.’  When I take a break, I fret about all the things I could be finishing, if only I were working on the list. It is a struggle to relax.  

But neuroscience tells us that breaks and rest are a big Something for our health and mental well-being – and for being more productive.  Says Alex Pang, author of Rest: Why you get more done when you work less, “We need to rethink the relationship between work and rest, acknowledge their intimate connection, and rediscover the role that rest can play in helping us be creative and productive.”

His book describes the research that has been done on the relationship between rest,  productivity, and creativity. Much of this research examines how our conscious and subconscious work together during periods of effort and of rest.

Different kinds of rest open pathways in different parts of our brain.  Building these pathways between the subconscious and conscious thought strengthens our ability to solve problems and get things done. 

In his book, Pang identifies four key concepts of productive rest:

  1. Rest and Work are partners, not adversaries
  2. Rest includes active behaviors, like hobbies and exercise, and is not simply passive activities
  3. Rest is a skill that can be learned and improved
  4. Deliberate rest stimulates and sustains creativity and problem solving

Pang also describes three primary types of rest: 

  • Passive rest – lying on the couch, watching television, waiting inline
  • Physical activity – walking, enjoying a hobby, participating in a sport
  • Mental rest – napping, sleeping, meditating, day-dreaming

Rest benefits everyone – people in high-pressure jobs, artists and writers who are paid to be creative, and parents, who, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are spending an average of 7 hours every workday taking care of children.  Anyone who “works” at anything can benefit from incorporating deliberate periods of rest into their day. Says Pang, “[Rest] allows them to recover the mental and physical energy that they expend in those intensive [work] periods, but is also allowing their creative minds, their creative subconscious, to take up these problems and work on them more effectively.”

Pang asserts, “If you recognize that work and rest are two sides of the same coin, that you can get more from rest by getting better at it and that by giving it a place in your life you’ll stand a better chance of living the life you want, you’ll be able to do your job, and your life’s work, better.”

So how do we get the benefits that rest offers in lives that are overwhelmed with activity, with technology that keeps us tethered to our jobs 24/7, in a culture that values busyness and sees inactivity as laziness?  

Awareness

The first step is awareness.  We can start by recognizing the benefits of rest and trusting the promise that periods of rest can help us be more productive during our working hours.  Awareness helps counter the cultural negativity around resting.

Routine

Pang recommends that we organize our day so we have time for rest.  Create a routine that incorporates periods of effort and work, and periods of rest.  These rest periods can be passive (laying on the couch, reading a book) or active (taking a brisk walk, participating in a team sport, taking a yoga class).

Practice

And finally, practice.  Make sure there are periods of rest each and every day.  Some creative people work with a timer on their desk, setting the timer so that for 10 minutes of every hour they are up from their desk, away from the work.  They find that upon their return to the task, they are more productive than they would be had they slogged through the next hour without that period of time for their subconscious mind to mull over the task at hand.

Organize your day so you have time for both scheduled hours for focused intensive work and hours for rest – time for yourself for walks, naps, or hobbies which give your creative mind time to work.  

For rest to be most effective, says Pang, “You have to take it.”  

Most people are able to work at a high level of productivity for about 90 minutes to two hours at a time, and in fact for a total of 4-5 hours a day.  Says Pang, “If you can get a high level of work for that period, that’s actually a really good [productive] day.” 

So, about the pressure to keep working at that ‘To Do’ list?  Oh! Wait, I just had a great idea while I was taking a break! I’m going to add “take a break” to the To-Do list.

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori toddler teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

Be a Better Parent: Step Away

Taking time away from parenting can make you a better parent.  Sounds ironic, but it’s true. Taking a step away from parenting responsibilities gives the body and mind a chance to recharge.  And that time spent focusing on your own needs can improve your parenting.

So much changes when you become a parent.  You still need to eat, sleep, and most likely earn a living.  But when that fragile newborn is placed in your arms they are suddenly the center of your universe.

In those early weeks, our life is on hold as we cocoon with our newborn.  We are wired to attend to their needs. In the middle of the night, they need to eat and so we give up our own need for sleep to meet those needs.   We juggle learning to parent while trying to resume all the other aspects of our life before baby. As we meet their needs for food, sleep, and dry diapers, it is easy to forget to take care of ourselves.

But prioritizing self-care can make you a better parent.  The same sleep, exercise, nutrition, and healthy relationships kids need are just as important for adults.  When we attend to our needs – physical needs for exercise and mental needs for healthy social engagement – we improve our state of mind.

And being healthy and happy has a direct effect on our parenting.  When we are well-rested and know we have taken care of ourselves, we have the energy and enthusiasm to be our best for our children.

Taking care of ourselves also models well-being for our children.   When our children see that we also do things for ourselves – and with other adults – we teach what taking care of ourselves looks like.   We can help them recognize their needs for quiet or rest, if they see us recognizing and meeting our own needs for those same things. And we help them learn patience, gratitude,  and grace.

If you’ve neglected yourself while caring for your children, you can begin to make a change in your self-care by carving out some time each day just for you.  It doesn’t need to be a lot of time. Some days, it may be minutes you capture between scheduled activities. Other days, a whole afternoon can be scheduled “me” time.

When my big kids were young, I belonged to a babysitting co-op that allowed me and other young mothers to share childcare.  I would earn hours by watching someone else’s children, which could be redeemed by having someone else watch mine. It was a beautiful barter system that allowed us all time for self-care, without incurring the expense of hiring a babysitter.  It gave me an entire afternoon to pursue a hobby, or just sit with a book uninterrupted.

Mindfulness

Taking care of ourselves begins with being aware of how we are feeling, both physically and emotionally. Mindfulness helps us see how different stressors affect us.  It helps us identify those things that help us cope most effectively. Mindfulness can be as simple as pausing for a deep breath. These few seconds can create space for stress hormone regulators to slow the ‘fight or flight’ response caused by triggers in our environment.

Carve out time for yourself

Find moments of time in your day to focus on your own well-being.  In the early weeks of a newborn’s life, new moms are encouraged to sleep when the baby sleeps.  As children grow, we are tempted to do that ‘one more thing’ that needs to be done before we take time for ourselves.  Make it a habit to find time for yourself. Take turns with your partner so that each of you has one night a week to go out and enjoy a class, engage in a hobby, or just be alone or with friends at the library or coffee shop.

Take up (or resume) a hobby – something you do just for you

Having an activity or two that you do just for you gives you space to be you. Doing something you love, that satisfies and excites, gives you something outside of family life.  If that something is a group activity, it has the added benefit of enlarging your circle of support – friends and acquaintances who are there for you. Self-care directed toward group activities can expand your circle of connection and support life-long learning and growing.

 

Growth Mind-what?

All this research going on in neuroscience is pretty, ahem, mind-blowing.

Some of the latest studies on student achievement are focused on what is called a child’s “mindset:” their beliefs around how their mind works and whether it can grow and change. According to research by Dr. Carol Dweck, a person can have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. And the mindset we have depends largely on what we were raised to believe about ourselves and our abilities.

Writer Sarah McKay explains, “Kids with a fixed mindset believe they’re ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’, talented at something: painting, music or football, or not. They may believe the world is made of some gifted people, whom the rest admire from the sidelines. Conversely, kids with a growth mindset appreciate anyone can build themselves into anything they want to be. They recognise [sic] that people aren’t ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’, that there are no talented geniuses; only hard-working people who have chosen to take their abilities to the next level.”

As you can see, clearly it is more useful for a child to work from a growth mindset, with the belief that practice and hard work will allow them to develop. What came to mind for me was the state of music in the mid-70s.* On the one hand, virtuoso rock bands like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and major-label powerhouses like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin gave fans the impression that there were two kinds of people: rock stars and everyone else. For fans, no amount of virtuosity, charisma, or sheer woodshedding would bridge the gap between the audience and the demigods onstage.

On the other hand, the punk explosion (and if I may, the much more interesting long tail of post-punk and new wave) exposed the radical principle that anyone could make music. The number of bands whose members admitted they couldn’t play their instruments when they joined bears this out. Not only did it underline the power of confidence combined with practice, but it also engendered a great deal of experimentation, as artists played “incorrectly” either through naivety or by design (or both). This resulted in a lot of great music.

*I’ve been reading a lot of books about music in the mid-70s. If I had been reading about the history of fisheries, then mindset studies would probably remind me of salmon.

Let us encourage a growth mindset in our children by taking it on ourselves. Start by setting aside the cliche of “I can’t draw” or “I can’t cook” or “I can’t sing.” Instead, just start doing it alongside your kids. What you’re doing may not work at first, but as far as they know, this is all just healthy and normal.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

 

Giving in to Self-Care

Are you taking care of yourself?

This question, along with the equally earnest “So what do you do for fun,” never fails to elicit a guffaw of disbelief from parents when I ask it.

Of course, we’re not taking care of ourselves. If we’re doing our job then we are putting the needs of the children before our own, every time. This is our lot, our destiny, and admit it, kind of a badge of honor, right? The more we have to suffer for our work the more points we get against other moms and dads. Also, and this is crucial, the more we can justify the poor decisions we make about our self-care.

By the end of the day, we might be incapable of anything other than one more Chocodile, one more Marlboro, and one more level on Plants vs. Zombies. I was not compensated by the makers of any of those products. Just tellin’ it like it is.

The thing about that is, it’s a vicious circle that tightens right quick. If we don’t devote some energy to replenishing ourselves, we won’t have what we need to do the parenting in the first place. We can’t pour from an empty cup. And if we fly without fuel we crash, hard.

I work in a helping profession, so I count myself among the worst offenders on the self-care front. We even have workshops on the topic, and the very words “self-care workshop” make me shudder. Those paper bags full of pipe cleaners and lavender-scented erasers and a balloon “for funny.” I would rather do paperwork.

Why? How come it’s so hard for us to make the right decision?

There’s the guilt, for one. Taking time out for ourselves can feel like we’re snatching food directly out of kids’ mouths. Sorry for that image. Plus, you might not be able to relax and leave the work (and the control) to your spouse while you take a break.

More than that, though, there’s just the fact that being healthy is hard. Late-stage consumer capitalism got pretty good at putting the fast, easy-empty thing, in whatever form that might take, at our fingertips. Self-care is slow. It is quiet. Unassuming. In other words, the direct opposite of what we’re immersed in all day.

Walking away and taking some deep breaths? That takes getting up and walking. Drinking a glass of water? Finding a faucet. Going to bed early instead of letting the next episode unspool on Netflix? You’d have to — well, close the cover of the laptop. You could strain a muscle.

I’m being facetious (the kind way of putting it) because I’m largely addressing myself. It does take effort, and it doesn’t immediately shoot endorphins into your eyeball. Self-care is a hard sell.

A bath, on the other hand. That sounds alright.

How to Have a Marriage Meeting

Being married is hard.

That’s one of those statements whose truthiness gets lost in the repetition, like “they grow up so fast” and “even bad pizza is pretty good.” I may have made one of those up. But really, dude, it’s hard. So much so that 1/3 of married couples decide not to do it anymore.

As with any endeavor that comes with a lot of challenges and a lot of questions (parenting, for example), there is more advice out there than anyone could possibly absorb, much less put into practice. Leave it to The Art of Manliness, home of tutorials on hand-to-hand fighting techniques and beard care, to cut through the deluge of marriage advice and land a blow for good relationship sense. Their solution, via marriage therapist Marcia Berger: the weekly marriage meeting.

Most of us are used to meetings and what they entail (we even had ’em at Taco Bell), yet for many, myself included, the idea of sitting down for a structured chat with my spouse seemed — I don’t know — unnecessary, if not unnatural. After all, if we couldn’t share basic information through the course of a regular week, how would this help?

Turns out, though, that apparently I’m not the only one who will not make a request or pass on a reminder or timely fact, just because it always seems awkward, or there’s not enough time to give it context, or it seems like it might just land wrong. And before I know it, that lack of communication or engagement is causing problems of its own, which is why marriage meetings, as laid out in this article, are so helpful.

We have started to hold these meetings in my home, and we are running on three weeks now. I can say with no reservations that this was an excellent idea.

Berger proposes a specific structure to the meetings, which can be flexible and serve the needs of each couple or situation. But they really should happen in this order. Briefly, it goes like this:

  1. Appreciation: bring up things about your spouse you’re grateful for. Something they did, some quality they possess, the way they looked in that thing that one day. This is a good way to start off any meeting, as it puts everyone in a positive and thankful frame of mind.
  2. Chores: this gets you right into the nitty-gritty. It’s for scheduling, to-dos, financial thingies, reminders and deadlines. It’s the stuff that we usually manage to talk about eventually, in bits and pieces, if we’re lucky; but having scheduled time and space to talk about it is just terribly helpful.
  3. Plan for Good Times: this is not something we would always necessarily bring up on our own, but it’s important. This is the time to talk about dates, but also self-care, and fun activities with the family. What, are more fun things going to kill you?
  4. Problems and Challenges: this is where the skills come in. We all have things we’d like to talk about that are just difficult, especially in the setting of a long-term intimate relationship. Berger recommends approaching this time with a positive, supportive and humble attitude. Topics in this area may cover difficulties in the relationship, but also in parenting, with extended family, work, spirituality, etc. The structure of the meeting gives a safe space to bring up the things that are bugging us.

I can’t recommend it highly enough. We’ve found ourselves taking 30 minutes from start to end. And that it’s good to have snacks.

 

 

Transitions

A couple of recent changes have come to our house. One is that my wife, in addition to her full-time homeschooling duties, has been leaving town every other weekend to help her sister. The other is that I have rearranged my schedule in order to have an extra day off. The upshot, for purposes of our family, is that I have been parenting solo quite a bit. Now that this is a more or less regular thing, I find that it is…complicated.

I have written on several occasions that being the dad in our particular household means that I figure out what the routines are and carry them out. In other words, their mother writes the script (and revises, stages, and restages it) and I simply try to follow it.

So, I’m pretty good at making bedtime happen, and I have enough of a repertoire built up to make food for all three meals (and mostly different food, at that! Or at least, in different combinations). I carry out the housekeeping and repairs for which there is no time in the course of a homeschooling day. And as long as I don’t have to improvise too much, it’s fine. As long as nothing unexpected or unusual happens. Nothing different. No worries, right?

One way I know that this is the new normal is that, for my daughters, it has lost all novelty. This weekend I have been told numerous times that I’m not doing things right, and that “they wouldn’t behave like that if Mom was home.” I can only agree.

This experience has brought home the different ways that men and women nurture. And simply how different people do it. Try as I might, I can’t duplicate what their mother does that works. I’m lenient in some areas and strikingly uptight in others. Surely it has always been this way, but for some reason, the repetition brings it out. “Wait, I have, like, a thing that I do?”

I’m not feeling terribly successful these days, as the transition continues apace. But I’m trying to be comfortable with that. It’s the nature of transitions.

Now if you’ll excuse us, we’re going to watch an old Popeye cartoon before dinner. Don’t tell Mom.

 

Climbing Streaked Mountain

This week’s post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope you enjoy it and, as always, we look forward to future posts by Esther. 

I had a bit of a panic attack this summer. I was hiking with relatives in Maine up a steep trail when the path disappeared into a bare expanse of rock, dotted occasionally by shrubs, boulders, pine needles, and lichen. It wasn’t clear what was the best route up and it was a long way down. To fully understand my emotional state, you need to know that: 1. I don’t like heights, 2. I have slipped on rocks and hurt myself several times while hiking, 3. My knees were still recovering from my having tripped over a suitcase while entering the airport at the beginning of this trip.

Now the reason I have slipped and tripped numerous times is that I get distracted (I had a full bladder and was looking for the restroom sign in the airport incident). I get distracted by other things as well—sights, sounds, my own thoughts– just about anything. It’s part of my temperament.

Temperament refers to traits that are present in us from birth on. While they may be more pronounced at certain developmental stages, they persist throughout our lives. They aren’t the result of experience or training. They aren’t good or bad. Raising Your Spirited Child author Mary Sheedy Kurcinka renamed “Distractibility” as “Perceptiveness” to emphasize that this trait has positive as well as negative aspects.

Being able to let my mind wander brings me great joy. It’s a source of creativity. Allowing myself to be distracted and perceptive helps me to define and solve problems in my life. I particularly like to let my mind wander when I’m hiking. But up on that mountain, I couldn’t do that. (Just so you don’t get the wrong impression– it wasn’t much of a mountain: about half the height of Marys Peak).

Being born with a temperamental trait doesn’t mean I can’t increase my ability to act in a different way. I can’t do that by force of will—any more than I can increase my arm muscles by saying “my arms are strong!” It also doesn’t help to insult myself ,“I’m a total space cadet!” Instead, by accepting that this trait is part of my nature, I’ve been able to come up with some strategies that enable me to manage situations when I need to focus.

On Streaked Mountain, I had to concentrate on where I put my feet to avoid potentially slippery spots. But just looking down frequently led me to dead ends—places where I couldn’t figure out where would be the best place to go next. (Remember that the path was no longer visible and we were trying to ascend by zigzagging gradually up.)

My in-laws were ahead of me, but it wasn’t always apparent which way they had gone. Sometimes they had taken routes I didn’t think I could manage. I had to figure out what would work for me. And I had to keep myself from panicking. So, for a while I progressed like this: breathe, tell myself I can do this, look up and ahead to see where I want to go, look down to locate a stable spot to put my foot, take a step. Repeat.

I had to keep focused on each piece of this process: breathe, tell myself I can do this, look up and ahead to see where I want to go, look down to locate a stable spot to put my foot, and take a step. It took time. It took a lot of energy.

The crucial thing to remember about temperamental traits is that when people act differently from their natural inclinations, it takes more energy. A helpful comparison is writing with one’s non-dominant hand. Unless you are ambidextrous, writing with your other hand takes more energy and effort than writing with the hand you usually use.  When we use energy for something we may not be able to do it for very long. Using a lot of energy for one thing means we will have less energy available to do other things.

When we ask or encourage anyone (child or adult or ourselves) to do something that is energy-draining it helps to:

  •  Acknowledge that it is hard
  • If needed, point out the advantages (or the necessity) of doing that hard thing
  •  Encourage the person to think of strategies they might use. Remind them of past successes. Offer suggestions tentatively “what would you think about trying ____?”
  •  Be patient. If possible, allow more time or take breaks. Often the time needed is less than we expect. Notice and praise each step along the way
  •  Congratulate successes. It helps to acknowledge again the difficulty, mention the strategies used, and celebrate the accomplishment.
  • Avoid making too many demands at once

It helped me on the hike that my husband was supportive and understanding. He acknowledged that it was hard for me; offered me some suggestions but respected my choices; and congratulated me when I reached the top. I did make it and was able to relax and enjoy the fabulous view. And made it back down!

The next steep rocky climb (different set of relatives, but similar tastes in recreation) was easier. Whew.

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to three boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

A Few Words on Empathy

If nurturing means watering the plants you want to grow, what is at the root of those plants?

Okay, I’ll tell you. It’s empathy.

In our Nurturing Parenting programs, empathy is the cornerstone, the trigger, the fuel, the baking mix. See? I could have used a lot of different metaphors. But the root sounds good so we’ll go with it.

What is empathy?

It sounds like “sympathy,” but should not be confused with it. Sympathy is the act of feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is the act of feeling what that someone is feeling.

It’s walking in their shoes.

Even if we can’t understand another person’s exact experience (and we probably can’t, most of the time), we can understand the feeling they have. Maybe we have been through something, good, bad, or more complicated, that put us in the same state. And the ability to go there with someone else is empathy.

Empathy is learned.

Some things are determined by our genetics and our family history. Things like whether you will cheer for the Beavers or the Ducks. Empathy is a skill that must be learned. It gets stronger with practice, and more powerful with intention.

This is not to say that we start out with nothing to work with. When a baby sees and hears another baby crying, they will begin to cry too. Is this empathy?

In any case, it can certainly be unlearned. And that’s where Nature passes the ball to Nurture.

So how do we learn it? And how do we teach it?

Like a lot of learned behaviors and skills, we pick it up from the people around us. Or, and this is important, not. As children, we need to see it modeled by other people, particularly adults.

As adults, we can give kids opportunities to act with empathy. We can discuss with them what another person must be feeling. This person can be real or fictional (how does Sleeping Beauty feel when she pricks herself on the spindle? How does Maleficent feel when she is excluded from the birth celebration?).

More importantly, we can approach them empathetically. We do this by helping them to identify their feelings (“Your words sound angry.” “You must be very disappointed.” “That’s scary.”). And,  — and I like how the Nurturing Parenting curriculum puts it — to honor those feelings.

When children know that what they are feeling is acceptable, and normal (even if they don’t know why), it helps them to respond empathetically to others.

Telling this to ourselves doesn’t hurt, either.