Family Addiction Recovery: A Blog
For what matters most… Live in the now… Make the most of the moments that matter.
I received a steady diet of these inspiring messages in movie theater ads preceding the coming attractions during Christmas. They were being used to sell…Tylenol.
Words are indeed cheap, and many of the words used to promote mindfulness are the same words used to sell lots of stuff these days. For good reason: We crave these things. As cheesy as it sounds, we do want “moments that matter” and we do want to “live in the now.”
But it’s also false advertising. There is no supercool place called “the now,” where everything is ever bright and beautiful. It doesn’t work that way. Being present is an ordinary thing. It doesn’t come with brass bands and balloons, unless the present moment happens to be celebrating a grand opening.
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Nearly every parent I’ve ever consulted to or coached has told me about having at least one child who’s not so great. I’ve come to think of it as an almost inevitable part of the parent’s professional landscape: there’s generally that one (or more) child who doesn’t perform well, or is difficult to deal with, or has a hard time getting along with others, or means well but just doesn’t ever quite do what’s expected, or….
And the unfortunate thing is, most parents get held hostage to these folks, spending a disproportionate amount of time, thought and emotional energy on them. Often hovering on the verge of letting them go for years, but never quite being able (for a variety of reasons) to pull the trigger.
Here, then, are nine things that excellent parents do when confronted with a difficult child – things that keep them from getting sucked into an endless vortex of ineffectiveness and frustration:
It’s not selfish to prioritize yourself.
You can’t be all things — or do all things — for all people.
A life without limits means rarely saying “no” and considering everyone else’s feelings before your own. Not only are these people-pleasing habits wholly exhausting, they put you on the direct road to burnout, a major health hazard in its own right. They disregard how much work or effort you can handle on a regular basis.
That’s where boundaries come into play, according to researcher and public speaker Brené Brown. In a video posted on the subject last month that’s continuing to go viral online, Brown explains how establishing your own personal fences can do wonders for your wellbeing.
“I’d rather be loving and generous but very straightforward with what’s okay and what’s not okay,” she said.
In other words, boundaries aren’t a way to keep people out. They make life as enjoyable as possible for you and for your loved ones as a result.
We consulted boundaries expert Chad Buck, a clinical psychologist at Vanderbilt University’s Work/Life Employee Assistance Program, on the life-changing power of establishing a clear-cut view of what you’re willing to tolerate. Below are a few great things that happen when you learn to set your own limits:
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When I was a young teenager, my mother would watch tales of addiction on her nightly TV programs. “Love the addict, hate the addiction,” she would say as she sipped her diet sodas. Little did she know that I would become just like the characters in the stories that played out on her screen.
While other parents would boast of children graduating from college or having grandchildren, my mother had no photos of me to hang in her cubicle at work. All she had was my high school senior photograph in a dusty frame.
That senior picture gave no indication of the turmoil that was coming. Just a few short months after it was taken, I got my first taste of prescription opioids in the late ‘80s. They had been casually prescribed for me after the extraction of my wisdom teeth. The event was unremarkable, but those pills changed the trajectory of my life. An instant feeling of warmth came over me. It not only helped me forget my pain, it helped me forget my problems.
I bookmarked that feeling, coming back to it a few years later, just after I extracted myself from the abuse of my first serious boyfriend. I craved the warmth. A friend of mine got pills from someone’s medicine cabinet, and I wanted the relief they promised. I got it when I swallowed them. It wasn’t long before my college classes and work were replaced by the search for more pills, which eventually led to my heroin addiction.
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As parents, no matter how devoted and nurturing we may be, our children often struggle with low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and a host of other challenges. Some of these disturbances are simply life experiences that they may regrettably have to experience. Our goal is to feel confident that they will overcome these obstacles and that our kids will even grow stronger for that success. To achieve that end, we need to provide them with the skills to be resilient, to bounce back from these assaults on their wellbeing and ultimately to thrive in their lives. We can provide them with the foundation to do so if we rethink our relationship with them. If our best intentions are not producing the expected results, we need to examine our operating beliefs. We may be playing from the wrong game plan.
We’re typically comfortable sharing our strengths, values, and ideals with our offspring. We assume that doing so will enable them to follow our guidance and propel them in the right direction. But the tendency for many parents is to openly share their positive attributes but withhold the personal history of their life’s struggles and upsets. We may say that they don’t want to burden our children with our problems – past or present. Or we simply don’t want to present ourselves in a way that is inconsistent with what we try to model. Ironically, when we share only the good with our children, we deprive them of a realistic expectation and preparation for what likely lies ahead.
When we divulge our challenges, we are actually sharing a valuable life lesson: life is difficult at times and struggle is normal. By not conveying our personal travails with our children, we actually set them up for personalizing their difficulties. When they encounter hardship and struggle – as they undoubtedly will – they may personalize their own weakness or failure, believing there’s something wrong with them. If they knew that we went or are going through these difficulties as well, we’d be providing them with anchoring reference points.
Normalizing Life’s Challenges
I have worked with many adolescents and young adults who have battled low self-esteem or anxiety. Having also assisted one or both of their parents, I came to appreciate that they too had confronted similar challenges. But they typically didn’t share this with their kids. So when the child feels down or anxious, they have no reference point. They can’t reflect that mom or dad battled with this and perhaps overcame it. Or, even if their parents didn’t get past their problem, the child may better understand the source of their own difficulty.
Withholding these matters from our kids leaves them with the inevitable conclusion that there’s something wrong with them. This isolates them and exacerbates their struggle. Imagine if mom or dad shared that they too went through this and came out on the other side? It’s also beneficial to communicate even if their parents still confront these matters but are working on them and have confidence that they’ll overcome them.
When our young ones encounter anxiety, insecurity, or distress, it would actually be helpful for us to not simply be supportive, but to normalize their upset by sharing our own similar experiences. Actually, this sharing should occur as part of the normal repartee of child rearing. In other words, life is difficult and even mom or dad have had their encounter with difficulties. Life’s stressors are bad enough; we don’t need our kids thinking that it means there’s something wrong with them.
Acting Strong is Acting
I have come to appreciate that many people think that others are better off emotionally than they themselves are. They believe their difficulties are unique to them and other people are happier or better off. This is an excruciatingly damaging myth. We can help break this myth by sharing more honestly and fully. A proper preparation for life is to honestly address all that life brings forth. Acting strong is not strong; it is acting. Expressing and embracing your vulnerabilities is powerful and reveals genuine self-esteem. The paradox here is that our being vulnerable is actually strong, for it demonstrates that you have nothing to hide. Doing so, in turn, models for our children an intrinsic self-worth, as it removes a feeling of shame about their struggles.
Many times, as recently separated or divorced parents begin to date, they wonder whether to share that with their children. It is, of course, essential that we be sensitive to the trauma of divorce. Focusing on a healthy transition for the children should be paramount. But the time comes when you may choose to move forward with your life. Why hide this natural process from your children? I have often heard divorced parents state, “I wouldn’t expose my kids to my dating.” Making a life transition and eventually meeting other people for social circumstances is not akin to the West Nile Virus. More to the point, it might be helpful to children to understand that dating is a process and that your next partner doesn’t ordinarily just turn up magically on your doorstep. If that is what they are led to believe, they will likely internalize some negative self-esteem when they don’t fall in love with the first people that they date. We need to set realistic expectations for our offspring.
Sharing the fuller richness of our lives with our children rather than simply modeling the “proper” parent is of inestimable value to them. I had the great fortune of having a father who communicated with me the full measure of his life. Not just his successes and rewards, but his hopes, his struggles, his fears, and his disappointments. This degree of mentoring provided me with a resilience that I’m most thankful to have. I have in turn passed that on to my sons. We can provide our kids with this healthy foundation from which to engage life.
There is naturally a fine balance between appropriate sharing and not turning your children into your emotional partners. We never want to unduly burden them, but we do want to prepare them for life. Fine tuning that balance is the goal. The greatest gift we can give our children is to fully participate in their lives by opening up our own to them. Their resilience is in large part informed by sharing more of our own life with them.
Timothy Harrington is passionate about helping family members of the addicted loved one awaken to their own power and purpose.