midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “behavior”

The Good Samaritans

Previously I wrote, What’s Wrong with People and why are Cyclists the Targets of Their Stupidity, a jaded look at a trend in society toward disrespect, rudeness, coarseness and in-your-face, bullying behavior, often manifested in belligerence toward cyclists.  Today I experienced the opposite type of behavior, a boost for my faith in humanity (although, maybe not coincidentally, the graciousness came from a fellow cyclist).

I was riding a 6.75-mile trail in my new hometown of Summerville, SC when my back tire went flat more than five miles from the trail’s start and my parked car. I was unprepared BikeFlatTireAnimated– no patch kit, no extra inner tube.  What can I say? I was never a Boy Scout. It was a Flat Tire, Choose moment: Either throw a fit, swear to the gods, kick the back tire and throw the bike into the adjacent creek, or suck it up, accept bad luck and solve the problem.

I began backtracking the five-plus miles I had already cycled on foot, pushing the bike, not wanting to damage the rim by riding on a flat. I was resigned to a walk of at least one hour and 15 minutes to get back to my car. Soon after I began my walk, a woman on a bike passed me going the opposite direction. About 15 minutes later, a mile or so into my trek, I heard a voice from behind me.

“Excuse me, do you need some help?”

I turned around to find the same woman who had passed me earlier, now alongside me, straddling her bike.

“I got a flat and I don’t have what I need to fix it.”

“Where are you heading?”

“To the beginning of the trail.”

“How far is that?”

“About four or five miles.”

“My husband is walking our dog. He’s going to meet me at the parking lot at the bridge. I just have to find him and we could give you a ride in our truck,” she offered.

“You mean the bridge we passed about a half-mile back?”

“Yeah, there’s a path up to the parking lot. You may beat us back there.”

Having watched too many Dateline and 48 Hours episodes, and living with a wife who often warns me of hypothetical criminals who could be lurking around every corner, I momentarily imagined myself naively getting in the couple’s pickup truck, and in short order, being taken hostage, tortured at gunpoint and my lifeless body dumped in a swamp off the road, a vision that conjures up the derelict, sociopathic Brad Pitt character Early in Kalifornia.

I could have been fooled badly, but I detected genuine goodness in my fellow cyclist, and went on faith that her husband would be similarly congenial.

“I’ll meet you at the parking lot,” I said, and turned around to head from whence I just came.

The young couple, likely in their 20s, met me at the parking lot just like she said, helped me load my bike into the pickup along with her bike, gave me the front seat, and drove me five miles out of their way to my car. We engaged in conversation during the drive, with her husband referring to me respectfully as “sir” (not that I expect to be called “sir” by people junior to me in age, but I have experienced that a lot in the South so far).

I thanked them multiple times for their graciousness. I wanted to bottle the moment to revisit every time I feel myself becoming cynical about mankind. They were the type of people I would like to corral as new friends, if not for our generation gap.

We parted. I may never see them again, unless I run into them on the trail. No life was at stake; the situation was not desperate. Nevertheless, I likely will never forget their act of pure kindness for a complete stranger. Thank you Angela and Chris, Good Samaritans both.

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Choose It or Lose It

…[E]verything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision…

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

…[F]or all practical purposes, we choose everything we do, including the misery we feel. Other people can neither make us miserable nor make us happy…[W]e choose all our actions and thoughts and, indirectly, almost all our feelings and much of our physiology. As bad as you may feel, much of what goes on in your body when you are in pain or sick is the indirect result of the actions and thoughts you choose or have chosen every day of your life…[W]e are much more in control of our lives than we realize. Unfortunately, much of that control is not effective…Taking more effective control means making better choices…

William Glasser, MD, A New Psychology of Personal Freedom

In the 1990s, I attended the Landmark Forum, a three-day workshop designed to bring about transformative changes in the quality of one’s life through an examination of, and shifts in one’s beliefs, thoughts, behaviors, patterns, commitments and actions.

A Forum anecdote that I remember 20 years later is “Flat tire. Choose.” The premise is simple: Your car gets a flat tire on an inconvenient stretch of road. The choices are more complicated: bash the steering wheel; kick the tire; Frisbee the hubcap; bang the hood; yell and scream; drop some F-bombs; curse the gods and your perpetual bad luck; cry; sit on the side of the road in misery or bewilderment. Or, choose to accept reality and make decisions to address the problem. It’s your choice: Choose…

I have no choice. How many times have you heard that grievance? Is it ever really true?

We all have choices, all the time. Even when it seems like we don’t have any. Even when it seems we have no good choices, when choices are constrained, we still have choices,Choices_Sartre the free will to choose. We can choose our attitude, our perspective, our response, our outlook, our meaning. We can choose not to choose, and still make a choice.

We can even choose our feelings, contends the founder of reality therapy and choice theory, William Glasser, MD, who would say that an individual is “depressing,” or “saddening,” indicating that they are consciously choosing their mood state and have the power to make a different choice.

According to Glasser’s choice theory, all human behavior is intentional, not aimless, and choices are based on “here-and-now” motivations. Choices are made to generate feedback from the outer world and satisfy what Glasser defined as the five basic human needs: survival, love/belonging, power, freedom/independence and fun. Choices also are made to send a message to the outer world, and to specific individuals with whom one has a relationship; for example, that one is confident or  self-doubting, happy or angry, trusting or distrustful, constructive or self-destructive, hungry for success or resigned to failure.

Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a World War II Holocaust survivor who spent years in a Nazi concentration camp, described the realization that he had choices – his belief in his own self-dignity, and what he could think, envision and hope, for example — despite the brutal and horrific conditions he endured as a captive as a main reason for his survival. Recognizing the freedom to choose was a prime factor that separated those who maintained a sense of meaning in their lives and hope for the future, and those who became deadened to life, devoid of faith and more likely to succumb to death, Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning.

I have observed as a mental health counselor that the execution of choice in people’s lives – the willingness to use it proactively and the effectiveness with which it is used – is perhaps the greatest determiner of an individual’s mental and emotional health, the condition of their relationships and their ability to create meaning and purpose in their lives.

Husbands and wives decline to choose to change behaviors or actions that affect their relationships, or to choose to change their relationship status though they confess to being dissatisfied and unhappy. They are making choices nonetheless, and in so doing, locking patterns in place and cementing bonds that contribute to distress. I’ve seen other couples willing to examine behaviors, accept individual responsibility and choose to make changes, who report an increase in satisfaction and happiness almost immediately.

I have heard individuals describe that they choose not to pursue things they want by creating reasons why their desires may not be practical or possible; choose not to make certain changes because they believe they’re just trapped in circumstances; choose to continue ineffective or destructive beliefs, behaviors and actions, despite evidence of poor results, simply because they’ve always chosen that path; choose to deny reality; choose to be taken advantage of or victimized; choose to rationalize addictions; and choose to blame others for how they feel and what they do.

I have also witnessed individuals, even as young as middle schoolers, choose to battle heroically against the hand they were dealt in life, including horrendous abuse, to reclaim their true selves and create their own futures; choose to make meaning out of devastating circumstances, including incurable illness; and choose to take full responsibility for the direction of their lives and their own happiness.

During the upheaval of midlife, I’ve considered and made many choices that have had major consequences in my life – whether and how to commit to furthering my education; pursue a career change; empower my kids; fight back against an unfair employer; rebound from divorce; enter new romantic relationships; re-evaluate and restructure current relationships; live on less; relocate to a new area;  start over; and deal with loneliness among them.

Many of the choices have been stressful and excruciatingly difficult; however, I appreciate my ability and freedom to make choices. Usually I have chosen to do something instead of nothing, chosen to take an action rather than punt. I also have had opportunities to choose my feelings, which can range broadly along a spectrum: optimism vs. pessimism; hopefulness vs. sadness; confidence vs. fearfulness; contentedness vs. dissatisfaction; trust vs. doubt; vitality vs. loneliness. Those choices affect my emotions and happiness with my life every day, and thus my effectiveness, productivity and image I present to the world.

Choice is a muscle; without effective and contemplative use, it atrophies, becoming a mechanism to promote misery rather than a tool to amplify freedom. Choose it or lose it: The choice is yours, always and forever.

Speaking of choice, here’s a quote about choice from a favorite movie, The Family Man, in which Jack continually faces choices involving love vs. detachment; family vs. career; personal ego gratification vs. egoless contribution; hedonism vs. temperance; taking vs. giving:

Kate: When you got on that plane, I was sure it was over. I left the airport afraid I’d never see you again. And then you showed up the very next day. That was a good surprise. You know, I think about the decision you made… maybe I was being naive, but I believed that we would grow old together in this house. That we’d spend holidays here and have our grandchildren come visit us here. I had this image of us, all grey and wrinkly, and me working in the garden and you re-painting the deck. But things change. If you need this, Jack, if you really need this, I will take these kids from a life they love and I’ll take myself from the only home we’ve ever shared together and I’ll move wherever you need to go. I’ll do that because I love you. I love you, and that’s more important to me than our address. I choose us.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0ZGibTDo9A

 

 

 

 

The Bailout

In my short time as a counselor, I’ve encountered parents who profess virtual powerlessness in the face of the behavior and choices of their young adult and mature adult children, from their late teens to late 20s.

The child rules the roost, while the parents, frayed, demoralized and depressed, submit to the child’s willful and controlling ways. I feel for the parents and their conundrum. It must be a weighty burden to worry ceaselessly about your child, indulge the illusion BailoutStampthat one can control their child’s fate, bail out the child at every turn, and feel eternally responsible for the child’s life choices and outcomes.

At the core of this feeling of parental helplessness is confusion over protecting a child – from danger, failure, mistakes, homelessness or even projected death – versus enabling behavior that avoids individual responsibility and experiencing consequences. Intentions may be good; results are not. Such smothering and shielding behavior on the part of parents contributes to the arresting of the child’s growth and development. Twenty-five-year-olds essentially are frozen at 15, having learned how to game one or both parents to their advantage and escape accountability. The longer the pattern continues and the parent remains the bailer, the less motivation the child has to change.

Sometimes, one parent contends, their spouse is to blame for their own helplessness, because the spouse is over-protective and unable to let go. One parent claims to try endlessly to set their stunted child free, but the other parent overrules them, shuts them down and continues down the same corrosive path, as the spurned parent becomes relegated to anemic bystander, tilting at windmills. But this is just an excuse to forgive the method the child uses to manipulate the parents to get what they want, just like the child learned as a little kid. While the parents will blame the child – “He just refuses to get a job, what can you do?!” “I can’t believe how she talks to her mother! She has no respect!” – the parents are the ones who fail to unite themselves and stick to any set of boundaries, rules or principles that would render their child’s behavior ineffective and counterproductive.

Fear, guilt and a desire to control immobilize the parent from allowing their child to make their own choices, accept responsibility, experience consequences, learn from mistakes and live their own lives. The result is a pattern of co-dependency that is difficult to break. The child never breaks away from at least one parent, while the other parent may become a spare part, suffering in self-imposed silence or virtual exile. The child depends on the parent to coddle and protect, providing safe haven from having to grow up and contend with an uncertain and uncaring world, from taking a risk, from self-determination. The parent depends on the child’s feigned incompetence and irresponsibility to feel needed, helpful and good about himself/herself, to validate their duty as a parent by doing “anything” for their child, to fulfill the role of protector and savior.

Adults in their 20s who are capable of living independently are essentially rewarded for their “failure to launch.” They don’t need a job because their basic financial needs – shelter, food, electricity, water, health care – are provided, as are wants such as cable TV and a car. So they don’t bother to seek one; holding a job would require taking individual responsibility. They don’t attend school because they have no motivation to set goals. They live at their parents’ home because it’s a safer bet – all the accountability is heaped on the parents — and easier. The unavoidable hassles and conflicts with the parents and turmoil in the household are just part of the bargain. They bum money as needed, claiming it is for one purpose while in some cases the parents providing the money know all along it is for drugs or alcohol, and resent giving in, but give in they ultimately do to maintain the dependent relationship.

Young adults living with their parents is a prevalent U.S. social trend: The U.S. Census Bureau found that more than one-third of people aged 18 to 34 lived under their parents’ roof in 2015; 10 years earlier, the percentage was about one-fourth. Nearly 9 of 10 who had lived with their parents in 2014 still did a year later. Indicating a rise in parental bailouts, the survey ominously found that 1 in 4 young adults aged 25 to 34 living in their parents’ home neither attended school nor worked.

I am grateful and proud that my kids are heading toward independent lives, on schedule. My 22-year-old daughter graduated college and is teaching in France. My 19-year-old son is attending college, majoring in computer science, and working part-time for UPS in logistics. If one of them holed up in my basement and refused to crawl out into their own life, I can’t be sure what I would do. I would hope I wouldn’t cave in and cater to dysfunction, irresponsibility and manipulation, but until you walk in someone else’s shoes…Thankfully, I don’t think my kids will give me the chance to wear those shoes.

One school of therapy posits that all human motivation is intentional, that all behavior is purposeful. Human behavior seeks to shape the world to satisfy at least one human need. For adults who have failed to launch, that need often is self-preservation. The anxiety and doubt of relying on oneself breeds dependence and escape from responsibility. Their behavior sends the message that the world is a scary place that expects something from us; the goal is to remain safe and preserve ego. If you don’t attempt, you can’t fail. Parents who are too willing to satisfy the need become the enablers, the practitioners of the bailout, who perpetuate their adult children’s prolonged adolescence.

Man in the Mirror: ‘Compare In, Not Out’

In the substance abuse therapy group I co-led as an intern, the group leader would tell members to “compare in, not out” when he detected a member analyzing whose addiction was worse than another’s, assessing who among members engaged in more risky or reckless behaviors or seeking salacious details about others’ misfortunes and misadventures.

The leader’s message to the addicts was as clear as the typical pre-school teacher’s emphasizing individual responsibility and self-control to easily distracted and influenced children focused on others: “Worry about yourself.”

It’s a simple message, but one that takes discipline and introspection to implement, whether for the purpose of changing addictive behaviors or many other goals or pursuits in life in which the temptation is to compare ourselves to the status, abilities, fortune and accomplishments of others. The era of social media has compounded the phenomenon of “comparing out” through the instantaneous access we have into the windows of others’ lives – their new jobs, kids’ achievements, lively social gatherings, adventurous vacations and other things of which to be envious.

We would be more satisfied with our lives if we would “compare in, not out.” To me, “comparing in” means evaluating myself according to my assessment of my own Man in Mirror 2potential, my ability to strive for and attain goals I believe are worth pursuing, being happy with what I have at any given time rather than desiring what I don’t, and living life in a way that makes me feel positive about my actions, conduct and treatment of others, even though it will be far from perfect.

Still, living life without “comparing out” is a challenge for me, as I imagine it is for nearly everyone who hasn’t mastered some form of meditation or inner peace.

Right now, I am struggling against “comparing out” as I begin my second summer as a seasonal tennis instructor at a large beach resort tennis club, a “gig economy” interlude as I make a career transition to counseling.

Among the instructors, several of whom are year-round employees, it is apparent that I am ranked lower in the pecking order, understandably and justifiably as a seasonal staff member, similar to last summer. I know what I have to do to be successful is to conduct each clinic and private lesson to the best of my ability, stay upbeat and high-energy, engage clients in a friendly, interested and courteous manner, and work cooperatively with the staff as part of a team. But I still find it hard to resist comparing the assignments and the number of on-court teaching hours I get – which determines income — to others. Such “comparing out,” and the ruminations it causes, only makes me feel worse; on the other hand, “comparing in” when I give my all for a lesson or clinic, or assist a fellow instructor when needed, makes me feel positive.

My career transition from public relations to counseling is another area where I have to fight the lure of “comparing out” and instead “compare in,” basing my assessment on what I deem is fulfilling and achieves a sense of purpose. Though there is potential for income growth with the establishment of an independent counseling practice in the future, my first job in the profession likely will pay about half of what I was making in the public relations position I left. Eyeing the reality of my pending job search, it is challenging to avoid “comparing out” to other professionals in my age group who may be at the height of their earning potential and aren’t worried about scraping by. That’s when it’s important to “compare in” and realize I chose this path for a reason and I am fully responsible for my decision and the outcome.

“Comparing in” is difficult because it puts the onus squarely on us for our own successes and failures, our current condition in life, our decisions and behaviors, and, perhaps most importantly, the way we feel about ourselves and our own satisfaction and happiness. When we compare ourselves only to our own standards, goals, morals, ethics and beliefs, we strip away self-delusions and rationalizations and are forced to see only the “Man in the Mirror,” our only true compass.

‘Play the Whole Tape:’ The Struggle of Addiction

Alcoholic_AAMtgThe lanky young man with the tattoos took a break from his intricately-detailed pencil-sketching to look up from his art and turned to face me after I introduced myself to the group.

“Have you ever been addicted to drugs?” he asked.

“No,” I responded.

“Ever been addicted to alcohol?”

“No,” I said again.

“What can you know?” he mumbled with disgust and turned back to focus on his artwork.

It was my first day as a co-leader of a substance abuse therapy group, an internship for my clinical mental health counseling master’s degree as I make a career transition from public relations to counseling. The group leader smoothed the edges by telling the group members they can learn different things from counselors who had addiction problems and those who haven’t. The leaders with whom I have worked had substance abuse histories and can talk the language of the streets and drug culture; I can’t.

When a member glorifies the days of using, as those in substance abuse recovery are wont to do, one leader admonishes: “Play the whole tape,” meaning remember the misery that accompanied the action, the “ripping and running.”

Later in the session, the young man apologized to me and the group for his abrasiveness, saying he had discovered just before the session that a good friend from childhood had died by drug overdose. That type of emotional volatility and chaotic, unpredictable life is common among members.

In my two months co-leading and leading this three-hour-long group session, I have learned from members and have become more comfortable guiding and interacting with them. The members provide a fascinating window on life’s struggles and many life themes: redemption, commitment, determination, acceptance, grace, hope, resilience, courage, meaning, generosity, self-centeredness, self-destruction, temptation and despair.

Group members represent a microcosm of society: male and female; fathers and mothers; black, white and Hispanic; teenagers to seniors; those from childhoods of abuse, neglect and deprivation and others from relatively stable, caring families; workers and jobless; people doggedly seeking change and others going through the motions.

Some have been homeless, shunned by family members. Many have been imprisoned, and some still are dealing with charges that could result in jail time with any transgression. Some have risked their lives to get drugs, running dangerous streets at all hours, banging on doors of drug dealers. They have lost children, jobs, health, relationships, dignity, trust and respect over their addictions. Many have been through rehab before, but reverted to previous habits, some as soon as they exited. Their emotional lives have been engulfed with fear, shame, guilt, resentment, anger and damaged self-worth.

I don’t have any particular unique or profound insight into the scourge of addictive behavior and those who come under the influence of alcohol and drugs. I only have impressions as a person and professional new and fairly oblivious to this world. My biggest takeaway is that these individuals are not addicts, but people with addictions. In our society, we tend to apply labels to people that come with proscribed traits and characteristics, effectively straight-jacketing people into circumscribed boxes.

The experience has reinforced for me that addiction does not define the group members, a lesson I also learned first-hand when a roommate suffered a relapse. In fact, addiction is not at the core of their being at all. They are so much more than “addicts.” I appreciate the regular group members I have gotten to know for their sense of humor, loyalty, caring, openness, friendliness, raw honesty, suffering and commitment.

One woman exemplified the power of passion, hope and resilience – and the difference between those who truly accept and want to beat addiction and others who may be biding time – in an activity I led challenging the members to identify their strengths. Some struggled to come up with more than two; a few others declined to offer even one when called upon to share. But this woman, for whom the phrase “to hell and back” would apply, rattled off about a dozen assets. She appears to want recovery bad; her emotional pain is palpable. She has a medical condition that might keep others away, but she refuses to miss or give up. She’s a good person who got some raw deals in life and made some regrettable choices that sent her into a downward spiral, like many of the members, and she’s developing the courage to own it all. She is recognizing her worth as a human. She expresses faith.

I’m pulling and praying for her and the others to beat their addictions and find serenity and contentment, and hope I can be a positive influence, however small, on their recovery.

 

Drunken Debacles

Ed’s Chicken & Crabs, referred to by my family as Ed’s Chicken Shack, a landmark in laid-back, party-hard Dewey Beach, DE for nearly 40 years where you could order consummate beach dinners of crabs, chicken, fried clams, hush puppies and corn on the cob from the take-out window and eat on picnic benches outside as the sun set, was reduced to a pile of charred wood and scorched, twisted metal in a fire this summer.

edschickenshackburned

Ed’s Chicken & Crabs, a Dewey Beach institution burned to the ground by a drunken driver.

 

The fire wasn’t caused by a kitchen or grease mishap. Neither was it caused by an arsonist, a careless smoker or an electrical misfiring. Unbelievably, it was caused by a drunken motorist at 2 a.m. who crossed the raised road median on Dewey’s main drag and four lanes of traffic and slammed into a propane line in the eatery, igniting the blaze.

Luckily, the 36-year-old woman’s life was saved by first responders. The owner of Ed’s and its devoted Dewey Beach patrons weren’t as lucky. Ed is 83 years old and said he doesn’t plan to rebuild. A drunken woman put him out of business and left an eyesore of rubble in the middle of the classically honky-tonk beach town.

A beach institution is destroyed and a man’s livelihood and surely a piece of his soul wrecked by a brazen act of drunkenness committed by someone of an age where one would hope maturity and individual responsibility would triumph over atrociously bad judgment and decision-making. But that is not always the case when alcohol is involved, as Baltimoreans witnessed in the death of cyclist Tom Palermo, run over on a sunny afternoon by a drunken, high-ranking clergy member.

Speaking of drunken debacles, I experienced first-hand observation of a rapid descent into the throes of alcoholism during my summer in Bethany Beach, DE. An adverse life event pushed someone I was close to into a multi-week, nonstop bender. I had never seen alcoholism so up-close and devastatingly real before.

The fall was incredibly rapid and far by someone who said he had been sober for three years. In the course of a few days of drinking, I could barely recognize this person from the one I knew previously, sober. It was a stunning and sad transformation, and no one could do anything about it but the drinker.

A recovering alcoholic who knew both of us counseled me about what I could expect from my friend. Don’t believe everything my friend said and expect the friend to do things in secrecy out of shame, the sober recovering alcoholic told me. Expect the plunge to go deeper and deeper until my friend ends up in the hospital or in jail, he said. That nearly did happen – my friend hurt himself physically on several occasions, got kicked out of a bar/restaurant, and had to be picked up from the roadside.

Finally, the recovering alcoholic advised, don’t expect my friend to be able to pull out of drunkenness by sheer force of willpower. That display of personal strength against the pull of alcohol rarely happens, he counseled.

He knew from experience, that of himself and many friends and acquaintances he had met through his own journey to recovery. The first step, he said, is the alcoholic realizing he needs help, wanting help, and being ready to seek help. Detox, professional help and support is necessary for recovery. And that can’t happen until the lies to self and others stop, he said.

I tried to offer my friend help as much as I could. But, as the recovering alcoholic advised, you can’t force an alcoholic to accept help, you can only offer, and often my friend did not take me up on my offer to seek the help he needed.

Sometimes I sought to help, but in the wrong way. Like the time when my friend, who did not have a car, wrecked his bike and messed up the chain. My friend was unsuccessfully trying to fix the chain at 11 p.m. and called for my assistance. Why the obsession to fix the chain so late at night? The bike was his only source of transportation and a necessary component for refueling the binge.

Eventually, both of us went our separate ways. We were each there only for the summer, like so many people who are employed in a beach town. My friend got his act together enough to leave town for his next stop. But like many alcoholics, he was overwhelmed by  logistics and decisions.

I don’t know yet if he was able to pull himself up from his fall through sheer force of will – against the odds, as the recovering alcoholic explained to me – and get back on a good track. I truly hope so, or if not, that he got the help he needs. He will always be my friend for the experiences we shared together, good and bad, and I will always remember him for those same reasons, whether our paths cross again or not. I learned a lot from him – not just about alcoholism, which is important knowledge in the line of work I’m entering, counseling, but many other things of positive value.

I wish my friend safety, health, sobriety and Godspeed – freedom from the devastating effects and ruined relationships caused by alcohol. He will always be my friend – a good, well-meaning and caring person at heart who also happens to have an alcohol problem over which he must be constantly vigilant.

5 Basic and Valuable Lessons I’ve Learned about Parenting

As the younger of my two children closes in on his 18th birthday, I offer five basic parenting principles that I view as important in raising well-adjusted, self-sufficient, industrious and confident children.

I didn’t invent them, and by no means was I always exemplary in following these practices — I had to learn, and still am learning, from my own mistakes and bad habits — nor are Parentsmy 20-year-old daughter and high school graduate son perfect or devoid of flaws or insecurities. Neither are your classic All-Americans or stereotypical overachievers. But they are on good tracks in their lives, have done quite well for themselves, and, importantly for me, rarely caused me any worry, grief or stress that more troubled children can cause parents.

I also have realized these aspects of positive parenting in my counseling masters’ program and associated internship, where I saw the havoc wreaked by destructive or neglectful parenting.

  1. Express caring, love and pride often. Parental expression of the positive emotions toward their children can have a lifelong impact on their self-esteem, self-image, confidence, security, well-being and overall feelings about themselves. As long as these expressions of positive emotions are genuine and backed up by actions, I don’t think you can overdo it. On the flip side, parents who frequently express destructive emotions and feelings, such as anger and disappointment, or who excessively criticize children through mocking, condescension, belittlement or other abusive behaviors, cause their children great damage that they invariably will carry into adulthood and will have tremendous difficulty in undoing.
  2. Promote independence; let children make their own choices within reason and accept responsibility and consequences. A relatively new phenomenon in parenting is the “helicopter parent” – those parents who hover over their children and try to protect them from any wrong move or negative consequence and cushion or fix any disappointment, failure or mistake. Kids aren’t fragile; they’re resilient. But when you hover too much, they don’t use their resiliency muscles and they atrophy. As a result, it seems there’s a trend toward a large generation of young adults that has trouble breaking away from the safe cocoon of over-protective or over-indulgent parents. The sooner kids are given responsibility for their decisions, the more they will take ownership over their own lives and the less they will blame others or external forces for whatever doesn’t go their way.
  3. Show up…and be present. There is no better way to let kids know you care about them, and to help them feel attached, secure and loved, than to show up all the time, every day, unless circumstances absolutely prevent it. Show up to elementary school concerts, dance recitals, athletic events, birthdays, sleepovers (not to stay overnight, but when pickup is needed), and all other activities important to your kids. When you show up, provide encouragement and positive feedback, even if you find fault with their “performance” or “effort.” Separate the child from the action. In other words, don’t let a child feel unworthy because he didn’t perform well. You can offer constructive criticism or advice after the positive words, lending your wisdom and experience to aid learning, but not to tear down or damage confidence. And when you do show up, do your best to be truly “present,” not distracted or off in your own distant world. Kids will know when you’re paying attention.
  4. Model good behavior and caring, respectful relationships. Kids will model what they observe in the most important relationships in their life – those with their parents. Their behavior, manners, work ethic, diligence, emotional regulation and respect for others likely will pattern after their parents’. If they see their parents treating each other and other family members poorly or disrespectfully, they likely will display aspects of that behavior themselves within the family and with others.
  5. Live a disciplined life. As psychiatrist and well-known author Scott Peck wrote in The Road Less Traveled, undisciplined parents breed undisciplined children who carry bad habits and behaviors learned in childhood into adulthood. These problems stemming from a lack of discipline that are hard-wired during childhood often are extremely challenging to break and can dog individuals for a lifetime, causing dysfunction that can damage individuals’ self-functioning and ruin relationships. Undisciplined, out-of-control parents usually live chaotic lives in unstructured environments that rarely produce disciplined children.

The Rewarding Work of Helping People Change Their Lives

Until you work in a mental health setting, you never realize the prevalence of depression, anxiety, mood and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders, trauma, substance abuse, paranoia, anger issues, family dysfunction and other mental health problems in our society.

In the midst of a career transition from public relations to counseling, I just completed the first year of my internship at an outpatient mental health clinic that served Medicaid recipients for my counseling degree program. I counseled people with all those issues. All took medications as part of their treatment. Therapy was the other half of their recovery and managing their symptoms.

Gaining better awareness of ourselves and understanding our current behaviors and how the past may have affected them can be a lifelong and complex process. At the risk of oversimplification, recovery and a more healthy and satisfying life for people suffering from mental health issues (excluding those without severe mental illness or psychosis) comes down to several key factors:

  • Desire and readiness to change

  • Commitment to take actions

  • Ability to implement new ideas or behaviors

  • Willingness to accept reality

  • Fortitude to replace negative or destructive thoughts with more positive ones

I found clients were able to change their thinking and behaviors, and as a result, their feelings and emotions, to varying degrees and on different timetables. One client reported she had consciously changed a negative pattern of thinking to a more positive one within a few weeks, and as a result had significantly reduced stress and anxiety and slept better. Her entire presentation changed from forlorn and dragging to bright and eager. That told me clients had the ability to make rapid and meaningful changes. When you observe someone change like that, it’s a beautiful thing.

Others struggled with the same issues of anxiety, anger or dependency for months with small improvements and back slides. They had walls that were harder to penetrate, built over lifetimes of learned behaviors, ingrained messages and adaptations to survive circumstances.

Overall, the internship provided a fascinating window into the human experience and human behavior through my adult and child clients and their families. It was a privilege to get to know them, and difficult to tell them I had to leave when my internship ended.

The internship also taught me how little I know about mental health disorders and strategies to help people who suffer from them. There’s so much to learn about the science and art of mental health and therapy. And about how to be comfortable just being with people, showing authentic caring, developing a connection and earning their trust. But I’m learning, and excited about expanding my knowledge, getting better at being helpful and more courageous about challenging people to dive deeper below the surface to confront the roots of their problems. All signs indicate it will be a rewarding new career. I’m glad I took that gamble.

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