“Defensive Driving’ as a Cure for Troubled Relationships

Published on October 2, 2018 by

Several winters ago while driving through Sardine Canyon just south of Logan, Utah I was passed by a twenty-something year-old man, who, my wife informed me, was giving me The One-Finger Gesture.  Sure enough, as I glanced to my left, I saw him saluting me with all the honor he felt I deserved.

In retrospect, I figure I must’ve done something to get him fuming . . . perhaps I had inadvertently “slushed” him when I passed him a few miles back, or maybe I stayed in the left lane too long while he was waiting to pass me.  Let’s face it, though: at the time I was not in much of an “in retrospect” mood . . . I had his finger on my mind.

My initial shock quickly morphed into anger, which in turn triggered my modus operandi for these types of situations.  My first impulse was to mock the man by waving or honking, but I refrained, glaring at him instead.  As I began to compliment myself on having taken this “higher road of self-restraint”, I slowly sense a familiar pattern of self-righteousness settling in.

Time and distance gave me a chance to sort through the incident, and I finally came to what I felt was a more honest conclusion: I surely did something (and therefore bore some responsibility) to provoke his angry response.  Such accidental behavior, though, was nothing more than a mistake.  Far more indefensible was my choice to join with him in his hostility and glare at him.  The road of life is littered with plenty of drivers who crowd out other drivers without me adding to the mayhem.  My offensive “driving” only provoked more animosity and only served to highlight weaknesses in my character.

The “meat” of life is relationships, be it with a stranger on the road or with more intimate acquaintances.  In the latter case, fingers are commonly used in equally accusatory ways: to point blame at others.  Hostile words exchanged between parent and child . . . chronic discord with a spouse . . . feeling offended by a neighbor . . . a bitter grudge held towards a supervisor . . . all involve an attitude of finger-pointing.

While troubled relationships are fairly easy to come by, lasting solutions to them are harder to apply, let alone find.  Daily life provides us with many opportunities to take offense (showcase weaknesses in our character) and work ourselves into a lather, to the point where we get all turned around and forget that lasting solutions begin with me.

Could it be that part of the solution to a troubled teenager’s problems is found in how his parents view him?  Stephen Covey shares just such a story concerning him and one of his sons.  Could it be that my attitude towards a concern my wife expresses to me triggers the frustration I’m seeing?  This has often been my experience, at least the times when I’ve been willing to be honest with myself.

The primary problem I see in relationships is that you and I spend far too much time and energy rationalizing, justifying, accusing others, and making excuses for our behavior and attitudes.  Our actions suggest that we are prone to getting caught up in “the thick of thin things.”

In biblical terms, I’m referring to the mote-beam analogy.  In modern terms, the same idea is captured in this phrase: Seeing Others as the Problem IS the Problem.  Our field of vision of possible solutions becomes blocked by our insistence that it is others, not us, who need to change.  As long as we insist on seeing others as the problem, any solution we choose will be, at best, a temporary fix.  Worse, we’re likely to remain stuck, consigned to repeating the same abrasive behavior over and over again.

If the way we view others is the problem, then the solution must involve changing our perspective.  We can begin by searching within ourselves and being open to making changes.  This attitude requires that we give up all the fussing and fretting about what others need to do to shape up.  I’m not saying others don’t need to change . . . they very well may.  I’m just saying that they’ll have to make that decision for themselves, and that regardless of their decision we will be better off if we choose to live by principles of personal decency, responsibility, and openness.  Besides, consider the alternative: How will being hostile benefit you with others?  Turn it around:  How successful have others been in motivating you to change by accusing, demeaning, and otherwise maltreating you?

This “alternative” is, of course, a well-traveled highway that many of us are all too familiar with.  The futility seen in our refusal to take responsibility for our own feelings and behavior is surpassed only by our illusion that our continued bitterness or complaining or self-righteousness will somehow inspire others to treat us better.  Someone put it more simply: “Bitterness is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.”

Put simply, we cannot force change; we can merely invite and encourage, persuading others by driving responsibility.  We must be courteous in remembering others don’t have as much confidence in our driving as we do, be willing to let our fellow drivers pass us or enter our lane of traffic instead of speeding up to cut them off (did I hit a nerve there?), and be less critical of others weaknesses and mistakes “We should be lenient in our judgment, for often the mistakes of others would have been ours to make given the same opportunity.”

I view this change in attitude as a radical “paradigm shift” from many popular theories advanced by contemporary society, and it’s a shift involving more than mere lip service.  Phrasing things in just the “right” way or changing behavior alone won’t produce the change I’m speaking of.

It’s a change of heart that’s needed.

Having a single middle finger raised in my honor is not an experience I would wish for anyone.  Still, the feedback has made me more aware of how my driving affects others.  More importantly, it has served as yet another reminder that I must continually practice defensive driving . . . of the heart.

Steven M. Gentry, PhD. is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

Attraction, Dating, and Related Disorders of Adolescence

Published on July 24, 2018 by

I recently walked in on my 13½ -year old daughter doing the dishes to the tune of, “I am 13 going on 14, Fellows will fall in line . . .”  Fathers everywhere understand this to be the first symptom of Attraction, a contagious disease which can lead to a more serious disorder, Dating.

So we begin talking about Ryan and how his shy but humorous nature makes him so irresistible.  And, oh dad, have you seen how cute he is when he blushes?  He’s a doll, all right, I reply.  And so the conversation goes, me talking from my brain and Lexi talking from her hormones.  Soon we move to the topic of dating.

As many fathers do, I have strong feelings about dating.  And while she’s not currently ready to date, Lexi needs to begin preparing for the fun that awaits her.  Here are a few of the bits of information and advice I shared with Lexi.

Liking can start at 13 but dating must wait until 16.  I realize this idea isn’t a popular idea with a lot of kids, but it has many benefits.  It gives them a chance to be a master of rather than a slave to their hormones.  The natural progression of attraction dictates that smaller acts of intimacy lead to greater ones.  It just makes intuitive sense that the earlier a child starts dating, the earlier (s)he is likely to be enticed to become sexually active.

When dating begins, I suggest dating around rather than settling on a “one and only” right out of the gates.  I realize that “going steady” is in vogue, but as my dad used to tell me, “there are a lot of fish in the sea”.  I suggest dating a bunch of different boys and avoid getting cornered by one specific boy, no matter how much he looks like one of the guys in ‘N Sync.  Group dating is also a good idea, as it supports the idea of getting to know people and avoiding premature intimacy.

Speaking of intimacy, I find the ideas of two fellow psychologists persuasive.  Harvard-trained Dr. Mary Beth Clark suggests five standards as a guide to intimacy with the opposite sex:

  1. Dress modestly.  Dressing immodestly is like leaving your car door open and your car running on a busy street in a big city.
  2. Kiss sparingly.  Don’t cheapen yourself by handing out kisses like they were casual Hello’s.  Be selective . . . and keep your tongue to yourself.
  3. Touch carefully.  Avoid touching or being touched in areas usually covered by clothing.  Innocent touching leads to less innocent touching . . . fondling leads to intercourse.  Your sexual appetite, once whetted, typically wants more, not the same or less.
  4. Avoid becoming involved horizontally.  Besides avoiding sexual positions, also avoid situations in which you would lay next to someone of the opposite sex.  Sit rather than lay down to watch a movie, or if you do lay, watch the movie while laying on your stomach.
  5. Decide previously.  Determine your dating standards before you begin dating and expect them to be respected by the boys who ask you out.

Another psychologist, Dr. Richard Heaps, adds a simple triad as a guideline for avoiding premature intimacy.  He advocates that those who date should “avoid being alone together, for long periods of time, in stationary positions.  That is, . . . avoid all three conditions at the same time.”

He asserts that any dating couple – no matter their age – can avoid becoming sexually involved if only one or two of the above conditions occur in tandem.

Naturally, my advice to Lexi is based upon the principle of sexual abstinence before marriage, and it makes much less sense for those who don’t share my traditionally conservative views.

Still, any father who begins hearing distant “Sound of Music” echoes from the not too distant future is, like me, liable to begin dusting off his shotgun.  You see, I want to make Ryan more than just blush.

Steven M. Gentry, Ph.D., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah also serving Lehi, Eagle Mountain, Saratoga Springs, Pleasant Grove, Alpine, & Highland

 

NOTHING CURES ADOLESCENCE LIKE A BOWL OF BUBBLE GUM ICE CREAM

Published on September 20, 2017 by

While on a ‘date’ with me recently, my 12-year old daughter began schooling me on what it’s like to be starting adolescence.  We discussed physical changes as well as cognitive and psychosocial growth.  We covered adolescents’ need for independence as well as their quest for identity.  I noted a healthy tendency to try on new roles and behaviors (within limits) and an occasional tendency towards moodiness and sassiness (to which my daughter gave me a knowing smile).  She in turn noted that parents of adolescents are prone to ‘boring lectures’ (this temporarily quieted me down).

We talked about “The Power of the Pimple” (e.g., how one blemish on an adolescent’s face can lead to a week-long absence from school) and covered issues of exaggeration, self-centeredness, and rebellion.  As our conversation progressed, the reality of my daughter’s impending adolescence began to hit me.  Then, suddenly, she ordered a double scoop of Bubble Gum ice cream for us, and I felt reassured that there remains a good deal of little girl in her.

Contrary to popular perception, research shows that most families navigate the waters of adolescence with few serious problems.  In other words, while adolescence can be a period of occasional confusion and choppy waters, most adolescents are not in trouble with the law or failing school or running away from home or otherwise wreaking havoc in their families.

But some are.  Parenting the difficult adolescent – who, by the way, is often described as having been a ‘high maintenance’ child all along – is no easy task.  These adolescents defy at every turn, refuse to accept responsibility for their actions, and are often found manipulating situations to their advantage.

While being flexible is crucial for parents of adolescents, flexibility with the difficult adolescent can often lead to an almost total loss of parental control.  Such an adolescent fails to see the value in any parental authority, and seems to want to live his/her life in a world devoid of limits.

Parents’ responses to the trying circumstances of adolescence will largely be a reflection of their parenting philosophy.  In other words, all parents have implicit values upon which their interaction with their children is based, and these values tend to come to the fore during adolescence.

Some parents value the physical safety of their children above all else, which often expresses itself in a laissez-faire approach; others place a priority on respect of authority, which can lead to physical confrontations between parent and child; some value responsibility, leading them to employ techniques often referred to as ‘touch love;’ still others operate primarily on confusion and fear, which often underlies permissive parenting.

Effective navigation of adolescent waters requires that both parents and children accept responsibility for their actions.  Parents must accept the fact that the adolescent needs increased space and freedom; the adolescent needs to accept that there is a difference between rights and privileges, meaning there are limits to his/her freedom.

Mark Twain once said: “When I was a boy of fourteen , my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand it.  But when I got to be 21, I was astonished he had learned so much in seven years.”  Adolescents often feel their parents are ‘out of touch’ (but then again, parenting isn’t exactly a popularity contest), only to later see the wisdom in their parents’ efforts.

Parents and adolescents who learn to employ the twin techniques of negotiation and compromise tend to work the best together.  Parents do well to ‘choose their battles’ – to let some issues slide.  Adolescents do well to ‘score points’ with their parents via responsible behavior, because this tends to buy them more of the freedom they crave.

I should here state that there are no guarantees in parenting; you can make all the right moves and end up with less than you hoped for with your child.  The same holds true for the adolescent; you can do all you can to ‘score points’ with your parents, but this doesn’t guarantee they’ll give you the love, attention, freedom, etc. you seek.  Life just isn’t that perfect.

But doing your best to be a flexible parent and a responsible adolescent will create the greatest likelihood for success and peace in the home.  A good place to start is over a bowl of Bubble Gum ice cream – it helps chase the sassiness and lecturing away.

Steven M. Gentry, Ph.D., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah also serving Lehi, Eagle Mountain, Saratoga Springs, Pleasant Grove, Alpine, & Highland

Feelings Teach Children Powerful Lessons

Published on July 14, 2017 by

Returning home after an evening out together, my wife and I recently found our children putting the finishing touches on the house.  Not in a messy sort of way, you understand, but in a surprisingly tidy manner.  It was the kind of deed parents dream of, something undertaken out of a desire to please and surprise us.  Afterwards the children unanimously spoke of their excitement and satisfaction in helping out without being asked.

Engulfed by fatherly pride, my first impulse was to immediately load the children into the car and make a beeline for Disneyland.  Several deep breaths later, I decided a Slurpee at 7-11 might suffice.  Then all my years studying psychology paid off, and I spent time discussing their positive feelings with my kids instead.

I remembered some research on “Attribution Theory,” a theory which tries to explain how we view our own and others’ behavior.  While I couldn’t recall all the details of the research, I remembered that one study found children who were given, say, money for performing a task to be less inclined to continue performing the task than children who didn’t receive money.  These results suggest that the ‘paid’ children attributed their performance to external factors whereas the ‘unpaid’ children saw their behavior resulting from a genuine internal desire to perform the task.

So I decided that the positive feelings my children felt would, on this occasion, be their own reward (although we did make it to 7-11 several nights later).  No

or are considerate of others.  Such feelings become the child’s guiding compass, long after the praise and allowance and Slurpees vanish.

w I’m not saying that rewarding children (via praise, time spent with parents, money [e.g., an allowance], etc.) is inappropriate; to the contrary, I feel such external rewards can and should be used on a consistent basis.  My point is that parents should go beyond the mere reward and help their children focus on the feelings they receive when they follow through on a commitment…or obey the first time asked…

 

An eight-year old client of mine recently confided that he stumbled upon his birthday presents, hidden away by his mother as to surprise him on his special day.  He confessed that he had peeked at them on several occasions, and said he felt horrible about it.  He concluded that he wasn’t sure what to do about his problem, but realized that he didn’t like the guilt he felt.

 

Emotions, like physiological sensations, are adaptive.  That is, they signal a need to change course.  Like a hand that responds to the heat of a hot stove by pulling away, so too my eight-year old client responded to his wrongdoing with a sense that he should make a correction.

Just as hands have a built-in sensitivity to heat, children can learn to use their ‘built-in’ feelings as sensors of good and bad.  For example, the positive feeling they have when befriending a lonely peer cue them to continue reaching out to others.  In contrast, anxious or rageful feelings can help them know they need to escape compromising or aggravating situations.  While the child may not always understand his feelings in the moment, experience will teach him the value of using them as diagnostic tools.

A man I greatly admire has a unique ability to make each person he meets feel like the most important person in the world.  Even his children – who are now grown – talk of his knack as a father of finding way to make them feel extra special.  His interpersonal style seems to be patterned after the adage, “People may not remember much of what you say, but they will remember how you made them feel.”

Because I tend to be task-oriented, I often struggle to remain focused on “the weightier matters” (e.g., my children’s feelings).  In contrast, people like my friend are able to, for instance, make their child’s positive experience during a family activity more important than the activity itself.  A good example is the parent who can relax requirements of behavior in church (“I want you sitting up straighter than a starched shirt!), focusing instead on creating a positive experience for the child by (heaven forbid!) scratching his back.  Or the parent who allows the child to “bend the rules” in a game of Checkers, laughing about it rather than adamantly demanding fair play.  The payoff of this more flexible and lenient approach is often an increase in compliant behavior.

 

Feelings are powerful teachers that educate both adults and children in daily decisions and behavior.  Such emotions are an invaluable tool to parents willing to take the time to school their children in their usage.  Naturally, our effectiveness in this endeavor increases to the degree we are able to put ourselves in our children’s shoes, giving us a view of life from, say, 48 inches off the floor.  Just one pointer, though, in choosing your Slurpee:  the Peach-Lime combination may not give you the euphoric feeling it once did.

 

 

Steven M. Gentry, Ph.D., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

Building Strong Children Begins at Birth

Published on May 18, 2016 by

The depth and breadth of human suffering occasioned by the recent earthquake in Turkey is, in a word, staggering.  Media reports have blamed much of the resulting devastation and loss of life on buildings and homes that weren’t properly constructed.  The shortsightedness and ignorance of a few builders produced an exponential loss of nightmarish proportions.

When I heard of the shoddy workmanship, I was reminded of someone who once compared a child’s development to a skyscraper: if the foundation isn’t properly aligned, no one really notices at first.  The untrained eye can neither appreciate the slight imperfection nor fully anticipate the consequences of an ever so slightly tipped foundation.  Yet without correction, the once minuscule flaw will produce a structure that leans precariously in one direction.

Far too many of the structures in Turkey did not have firm foundations.  Far too many children are victims of early childhood neglect or abuse.  While early signs of neglect are only apparent to a few, it’s not long before the resulting symptoms become apparent to most.

While there are clearly genetic, biological, and physiological antecedents that affect development, much of an infant’s firm foundation is provided by his caregivers, usually his parents.

Physical development is undoubtedly the first area we take note of.  Indeed, from the womb doctors are able to determine healthy versus unhealthy development, and what parent doesn’t do a quick count of fingers and toes once Junior exits his bedwomb?  From then on, motor skills are a primary focus, evidenced by many a proud parent throwing a neighborhood party when the little fella can hold his own bottle.

Cognitive abilities are evident early on as well.  Healthy development in the cognitive domain involves both attending to one’s environment as well as establishing relationships between two or more objects/actions (e.g., when I look at Mommy, she smiles; I learn about a shoe by putting it in my mouth; etc.).  Receptive and expressive language abilities virtually explode during toddlerhood, and written language and metacognition (i.e., realizing that you can think) aren’t far behind.

We need look no further than the “Terrible Two’s” to see early vestiges of emotional development.  In actuality, the foundation for emotional development is laid much earlier, when a child learns about emotional regulation from his parents.  Emotional regulation is essentially the ability to manage one’s emotions – to express or subdue one’s feelings, to please or soothe oneself, etc.  Children, it should be noted, are far from perfect when it comes to emotional regulation, and they profit from consistent limits and loads of patience as they learn self-control.

Moral development grows out of a child’s need to identify with the values and beliefs of his parents.  Most children adopt views similar to those of their parents, and their conscience is in part a reflection of those of their parents.  A solid parent-child relationship contributes to a child’s ability to take perspectives other than their own, leading to the mature human quality of empathy.  One of the most serious sequelae of childhood neglect is retarded moral development, which is often manifest in out-of-control lying, stealing, and worst of all, sadistic behavior.

One of the last domains to blossom, social development gains preeminence for school-age children and reaches a crescendo in adolescence.  The seed for healthy social skills, such as taking turns, sharing, learning the right time for humor, balancing talking with listening, and respecting others’ property are sown early on.  The child’s ability to “fit in” is both a cause and a result of their developing self-esteem.  Due to deficits in, for one, self-regulation (i.e., the ability to regulate one’s emotions, behavior, and attention), children with Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) often struggle in the area of social development.

The area of child development is both wide and deep, and I have but touched on a few of the most salient aspects.  A multitude of other factors relate to child development, including attachment, temperament, personality, and the plethora of genetic, biological, and physiological effects previously alluded to.

Suffice it to say that, like an edifice that is meant to withstand an earthquake, the building blocks of a healthy child begin with a firm foundation.  The difference between the two, of course, is that we can rebuild a building.

Don’t cut corners . . . “build” your child strong and straight, beginning today.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and

the Executive Director of  Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

The Best Recruits Keep Your Season Ticket Holders Happy

Published on March 3, 2015 by

College coaches live and die by it.  The Armed Forces do it through a relentless barrage of energetic commercials.  Major corporations use it to Young Boys In Baseball Team With Coachvie for top candidates.  And parents (you sometimes weary souls in the trenches) ought to get in on the act as well.

I’m talking about recruiting.  Not children, of course, since they’re granted God-sanctioned reserved seating in your family.  Season ticket holders for life, that’s what they are.

What parents must recruit are voices, voices to coach children along life’s path.  Raising kids is too hard for any parent to do alone, and we all need a hand or ten along the way.

So we have grandparents and uncles, teachers, neighbors, church leaders, soccer coaches, police officers, and even other kids.  We count on them to teach our kids solid principles of human decency and to be living examples of responsible citizens.

To get the most out of raising kids, parents must be active recruiters; passive recruiting is an oxymoron of the worst sort, tantamount to neglect.

As a parent, I pursue voices that will reinforce the principles and ideals I’m trying to teach my children.  I actively seek out those who will encourage my children to be honest and responsible.  I want my children to rub shoulders with kids who respect authority (and their parents’ authority in particular).  I do my best to expose my children to voices that teach that kindness to the underprivileged is expected, that compromise and cooperation are desirable, and that temperance and self-restraint are normal.

Am I always successful in recruiting the best voices for my children?  Not a chance.  They’re exposed to tons of countervailing forces that I can’t control, but I can live with that.  Like your kids, my kids are strong, they’re resilient, and love will see them through.  And even if they choose to go a different direction with their lives that I’d want, I can live with that, too.  All I can do is all I can do.

I often have parents tell me, “Dr. Gentry, many of the things you tell our 16-year old daughter in counseling are the same things we’ve told her a hundred times.”  I explain that, given their emotional history with her, their voices are easily drowned out by the din of their repetition and her defensiveness.  My voice is new, albeit strangely familiar.

And so I encourage them to begin aggressively recruiting.  I suggest they (for instance) contact the aunt their daughter has always adored, her dance coach, a couple of church leaders, and a stable peer who might befriend her.  I also urge them to tap into voices that have been around the longest: the elderly.

Perhaps the most underutilized voices of all, the elderly have tremendous wisdom and experience to share.  I try to make a point of involving my children with an elderly person or elderly couple for an evening once every couple of months.  Additionally, my wife and I seek out families that personify a way of living we advocate to our children.  We recently shared an inspiring evening with a Tongan couple and their two teenage boys.  Our children were moved to tears as the older boy, a high school senior and muscular football star, cried as he voiced his feelings regarding the evening’s topic: The importance of showing respect to your mother.

Old time values.  Active recruiting of voices that matter.  Striving, enduring, never giving up . . . if for no other reason than because the alternative’s no good.

I, like you, am the best parent at times and the worst at others.  Truth is, I’m never as good as I believe nor as bad as I fear.  I’m there along with you, somewhere in the middle.

And because my voice isn’t as strong as I would have it be, because my kids have selective hearing just like yours, there’s always more recruiting to be done.  Like you, I’ve got to do all I can to keep my season ticket holders in their seats.

  Steven M.  Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

Parenting: The Ultimate in Relaxation

Published on December 18, 2014 by

Mother with baby in kitchen.During a recent conversation with my two oldest children, my 11-year old daughter asked, “Do you need a degree from the university to do what mom does?”

“No,” I smiled. “A housewife or homemaker doesn’t have to have a college degree.”

Wanting to put in his two cents worth, my 10-year old son quickly asserted, “I don’t want my wife to have to go to college or work…I’m going to let her stay home with the kids so she can relax.”

While being a father may have its relaxing moments, I’m not sure many mothers know the feeling.  In raising children, most mothers and fathers can relate to the following feelings a couple recently shared with me:

“My life is a roller coaster:  one minute I’m running my son to piano lessons, the next I’m trying to mediate a fight between my other son and a neighbor boy, and the next I’m washing my daughter’s coat (for the third time in two weeks).”  The mother of three seemed eager to be heard.

“I can be giggling with my four-year old one minute, then be in a major power struggle with him the next.  When I step back and look at all the things I could do better, I just feel like giving up.  I see things that I could do better on, yet see myself making the same mistakes over and over.  It all wears on me, and the guilt is the worst part.”

“I agree – the guilt’s the worst,” the woman’s husband interrupted.  “Sometimes I feel like I’m on top of things with my children, but then I get caught up in work or some hobby and I forget about the kids.  Or I’ll yell at one of them, even while I’m remembering my vow (made just two days earlier) to work through problems with them rather than scream at them and banish them to their bedroom.”

“There’s just no feeling like looking in on your sleeping child at the end of the day, and realizing that they’re growing up without you spending the time you should with them.  I’m suddenly flooded with promises I have made to help Timmy fix his racetrack, or to talk with Jessica about an argument we’ve had.  Sometimes the feeling’s so strong that I’m tempted to awaken the kids right then and there and make up for my inattentiveness as a father.  I hate the regret.”

Poignant comments like these are the common experience of conscientious parents everywhere.  Like this couple, most mothers and fathers are aware of a number of their shortcomings as parents.  For most of us, the guilt we feel motivates us to take action, to do better as parents.

Most parents recognize that their children get a lot of mileage out of parental attention and effort (of which, by the way, few parents have an endless supply).  Quite simply, nothing seems to be more critical to effective parenting than time and patience, yet with life whirling all about us, nothing seems as challenging for us to give.

So we must make the time.  And we must manufacture the patience.  As parents we are continually beckoned by growing minds and bodies, and if we are honest, we must admit that we find ourselves falling short at times.

For some, “falling short” produces a momentary discomfort that nudges at their conscience and prompts them to make necessary adjustments.  Others have become dulled to “falling short,” and thus fail to give their children more than a meager dose of emotional sustenance.  Then there are those who live under the oppressive tyranny of guilt, a guilt that once motivated but has become so constant that it creates feelings of helplessness, frustration, and despair.

The fact is, most parents do a whale of a job with their kids.  Most parents are intent on giving their children the best they have…and this means their very best time, and their most undivided attention.  Parents simply need to balance out their self-criticisms with a recognition that they do many good things, and with a commitment to continue to strive to do better.  As long as feelings of guilt do not become overwhelming and smothering, they serve a productive function.

When we heed the promptings of conscience to take the time to reach and train our children, or to apologize to them, or to play or interact with them, we become more effective parents.

While good parenting doesn’t require a college degree, it does require the equivalent in time, dedication, and (according to some juvenile sources) the willingness to put up with considerable relaxation.

 

Steven M. Gentry, Ph.D., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

Concerning the Assessment & Treatment of Grown-up Grumps

Published on April 3, 2014 by

            An 11-year old boy was in my office recently, talking about the sources of some of his frustrations.  Lamenting that his dad promises to take him fishing and camping, but ‘just never does it,” this boy finally let loose with the ultimate in name-calling: he called his father a “big grump.”

             I admit I was somewhat taken back by his harsh choice of words, for there’s not many things worse than being called a grump by your own kid. (I should know; I was accused of being a grump by one of my kids just last summer, and I didn’t like it one bit.)

             I told the boy aboutSenior woman in a red shirt and straw hat my invention of the “Grumpometer” (pronounced like thermometer), and asked him to rate his father on it.  He claimed his dad is always at the high end of the scale, that “He doesn’t know how not to be a grump.”

             While all parents have their moments of grumpiness, most of us don’t loiter around at the high end of the scale.  Still, in my estimation there are far too many parents who are inflexible, unjustifiably restrictive, or simply all too frequently critical of their children.  It is in honor of these parents that the Grumpometer scale was developed.

             I want to reiterate that I’m not talking about parents who occasionally have a bad day, or who get stressed out from time to time.  I’m talking about those parents who make a living at saying “No” to their children, those who seem to be on the lookout for something to correct in people of the little variety.  I’m talking about the parents who can hardly muster a smile or a pleasant word for their children, even when in a ‘good’ mood.

             To those in this camp I would say “Please stop being a grump. You’re giving parents everywhere a bad name.”

             Naturally, grumps aren’t the only ones who need to work on their parenting; even we non-grumps need to
spend more time saying ‘yes’ to our children and less time saying ‘no,’ more time holding them than scolding them, and more time praising them than berating them.  We all need to invest more time with our children playing Twister, helping them out with story problems, sticking love notes in their shoes while they sleep, asking for impromptu piano recitals, or (perish the thought!) playing a game or two of Nintendo.

             This whole business of loosening up and being playful with our kids came up just the other day while I was talking with a 14-year old and his 17-year old sister.  “I wish my dad would loosen up,” he said.  “I just wish he’s joke around with us kids.”

             “Yeah,” his sister added.  “Dad doesn’t know how to play with us.” 

             The idea may sound somewhat silly to some, but I see this as an all too common problem; the “play-challenged” parent.  Perhaps such parents never learned to run in the rain with their kids, or have forgotten just how fun Freeze Tag can be (especially if you have to crawl through a little person’s legs to ‘unfreeze’ them), but if they want to get behind the well-defended wall that many kids erect to protect themselves, if they want to get to the bottom of why a child is so angry, or if they simply want to enjoy some time with little folks, joining children in play is a good starting point.

             I suppose it’s little coincidence that many grumps are also play-challenged.  But being playful and spontaneous with children can help ward off the rigor mortis so many worn down parents begin to exhibit.

             I’ll never forget a particular overnight visit from my 60-year old father-in-law several years ago.  My wife and I were awakened Saturday morning by a ruckus upstairs.  When we went to investigate, we found Grandpa in our three and four-year old’s bedroom, jumping on the bed with them as they sang “No more monkeys jumping on the bed!” Naturally, my wife and I had to ground Grandpa for making us look like grumps, but he wiggled out of it by taking us out to brunch, which we later regretted because, as you can imagine, he became quite a handful at the park.

            Speaking of parks, they’re a great training ground for the play-challenged…or for every grump, from the Head Grump to the Occasional Grump.  The fact is, we can all do a little more to loosen up, to be more flexible, to put a smile on our face and do something spontaneous with our kids.  We can all be a little more playful. Tag…you’re it!

 Steven M. Gentry, PhD, is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

How’s Your Grattitude Attitude?

Published on April 15, 2013 by

Portrait of happy mother and daughter“My life stinks. Nobody deserves the life I’ve got.”  My teenage client sat there on the couch, eyes downcast, his face curled up in a scowl, and there was enough negativity in the room to drown us both.  He was, if nothing else, direct and to the point.

I asked him to explain himself, and he quickly pointed to academic frustrations, conflict with peers, and uncaring parents.  The further we proceeded the gloomier the picture became to him:  the canvas of life was etched in blacks and grays.  The further we proceeded, the clearer the picture became to me:  he funneled everything through a negative filter.

So I suggested we change the filter.  If, as he described it, his life was really so awful, I wanted to know how he’d like it to be different.  I wanted to know what made him happy.

We began our list slowly; my young client was having a hard time shifting out of his gloomy mode.  However, when I informed him that the record for the longest ‘happy list” was 47 items, he picked up momentum, stopping only after generating 63 items.  Among these were: “Having mom scratch my back…getting a compliment from Dad…12 noon on Sunday – that’s when church gets out…and when a cute girls says ‘hi’ to me.”  By now the boy was exerting considerable positive energy and he was (gasp!) smiling.

I pointed out that we had but scratched the surface, that there were many things he takes for granted that make him happy.  I pointed out his good health, his ability to speak and read, a warm coat on a cold day, and Mom’s rice crispy treats; he added that he also liked the first day of summer vacation, his parents getting along with each other, and surprises (like when you reach in your jacket and find a piece of candy you’d forgotten about).  Soon we had 100 items…we absolutely trashed the old record by a mile!

As we gazed at the board full of scribbling, I erased “What makes you happy” and replaced it with “Counting my blessings.”  I noted that, were anyone to walk in the room at that moment and see the list of good things in his life, they’d probably say, “I’ll take one of those lives, please.”

Looking on the bright side of life isn’t always easy, but then neither is living your life in a rut of negativity.  There are those of us who insist on painting life with a broad brush of complaining, self-pity, excuses, and accusations.  Sometimes the root of this is depression; other times it stems from difficult circumstances; some people’s negativity has become a way of life, borne out of years of habit; others use it to avoid intimacy and closeness with others.  Some people are negative simply because it provides justification for the way they live their lives.  It seems easier to them than taking responsibility and changing.

Each individual’s mental health is based largely on his perspective; perception is, as they say, reality.  While we cannot change our past, we can change our perception of it; though we can’t control all aspects of our present, we can control how we view it; granted, we don’t know our future, but we can anticipate and expect that things will go well.  Our own prophecies (expectations), no matter how small, do seem to fulfill themselves, for good or bad.

So count your many blessings.  Cultivate an attitude of gratitude.  Look on the bright side of life.  Sustain positive emotion by acknowledging the bounty you have rather than lamenting that everything isn’t perfect.  If offered a doughnut, resist complaining that someone has removed the middle.  Remember the Arabian proverb:  “I had no shoes and complained – until I met a man who had no feet.”

The fact is, my teenage client is probably right:  “Nobody deserves the life I’ve got.”  We’ve all got it much too good.  Consider living (or dying) in Honduras; consider starving in Africa; consider that in a worldwide context, our lifestyle is the exception rather than the rule.

            You have the power to write your own story, to produce a robust view of the good life…or a debilitating, gloomy picture.  Contemplate your own “happy list” and cultivate an attitude of gratitude.  Your mental health depends on it.

 

 

Steven M. Gentry, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

 

Peace on Earth Starts With Peace in Your Heart

Published on December 5, 2012 by

Lucky family during christmasPeace . . . this month’s column is brought to you by the word Peace.

Peace was what this Christmas idea was all about in the first place.  Ironically, the simplicity and joy of a child’s birth has evolved into a feeding frenzy of commercialized pinball, with shoppers hustling and bustling from one end of town to the other, all in search of the Perfect Gift.

Store shelves have long since sold out of Peace . . . it’s the “Cabbage Patch Kids – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle – Tickle Me Elmo” problem that surfaces every year about this time.

The Good News is that the season does provide us all a chance to trot out our stress management skills and give them a good workout.  Moreover, there’s a lot of joy and excitement to be found in family parties, in surprising others, and in seeing, smelling, and hearing the nostalgic magic that defines modern-day Christmas.

The bad news, though, is that the emotional currency of Christmas has become counterfeited, and peace in one’s heart (let alone on earth) is much harder to come by.  For many the refrain is more accurately intoned:  ♪Stress on earth, Good luck in staying out of debt. ♬

Now I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade . . . I’m as ardent a supporter of the wonders and magic of Christmas as the next Santa.  What concern me are the myriad expectations – and ensuing stress – attached to this holiday of holidays.

It can be hard to find joy in the faces of many holiday shoppers . . . with stores staying open till all hours there’s seldom a Silent Night to be found, “God bless you every one” is certainly not uppermost in my mind as I creep through the herd of holiday traffic, and you’ll be hard pressed to find Good Tidings on the Barbie isle on any Saturday afternoon in December.  It’s not that we intend to be rude or overly driven, but dadgumit, we’ve got a job to do!

Where’s the Peace, though?

Peace can be equally elusive on the homefront.  We all love the sweet smells of mom’s cooking at Christmastime, and it’s certainly evidence of a giving heart.  But sacrifice to excess becomes slavery, and mounting tension can easily chase away peace in a home when it’s get-the-product-out-at-all-costs time.  In this case, I’m not sure the delivery of homemade gifts provides as much a sense of peace as it does one of relief.

And Relief on Earth isn’t quite what we’re after.

I don’t know if a gift of love justifies sacrificing peace to make it – especially if the peace you’re sacrificing affects those you love most (still, I’m sure there are many who glide about their kitchens stress-free).  When your giving list includes10, 20, or 30 people, and the project involves endless time at the stove or kitchen table, it’s easy to get caught up in the making and backing and forget about the giving of living.

There’s a lot to be said for spending time playing in the snow with your nine-year old.  Or shoveling the walks of an elderly neighbor.  Or visiting someone who you sense has few friends (Christmastime is often the loneliest time of the year, even for some who outwardly appear to have things together).  These gifts of the heart will last much longer than the plate of divinity or cookies.

Put simply, expressions of love and friendship are what the season is all about, but you don’t have to be everything to everyone.  Tireless toiling often breeds more stress than peace.  Striking a balance in giving to others is the key.

I’m all in favor of little gifts for neighbors and loved ones, but not at the expense of peace.  Not if it creates undue pressure and stress.  Some of the best gifts my family and I’ve received from friends over the years involve ideas that seem time-efficient: a bunch of hangers or a roll of toilet paper with a creative little note attached, Christmas stories printed out on decorative stationery, or simply a brief visit from caring neighbors.

It seems the peace of the season is found heart-to-heart and not in a store, nor bent over at a 90-degree angle, in worshipful pose to the oven.  It’s found in development and nurturance of relationships, worldly and otherwise.

I must admit I’m as apt to get lost on the Aisle 14 of life as the next guy, but I’m feeling a more frequent longing for the real gift of Christmas: peace.  If the saying “Wise Men Still Worship Him” is true, I’d say it’s time we return to a simpler celebration of the season.  There’s simply no better way to reduce stress than to be at peace.

 

Steven M. Gentry, PhD is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of

Psychological Assessment and Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah.