Sunday, June 19, 2016

Less Is More: The Perils of Over-Parenting

Have you ever noticed that when things aren’t going right, particularly with your kids, your knee-jerk reaction is to do more of something—not less? If they are not listening to you, you most likely raise your voice, rather than lower it. If they are struggling with something difficult, you jump in with loads of ideas, rather than keeping quiet or offering only one or two ideas.

In truth, however, a softer voice would probably be more effective in getting their attention, while offering fewer of your own ideas would motivate them to devise their own solutions.

In our culture, there is a strong assumption that when our children are struggling it means they need more: more attention, more time, more focus, more love. Johnny seems a bit day-dreamy lately, so perhaps he needs more attention from his parents. Jessie isn’t doing well enough in school this semester, maybe she needs more focus from teachers and parents. Or Emma seems to have low self-esteem, so maybe she needs more love, acknowledgement, and approval.

Stop Over-Giving, Over-Praising, and Over-Sharing
Maybe for some kids and for some parents, this is true some of the time—but most of the time it is not. Often, giving more of those things is a sure way to impair our children. Even though we react this way out of love, we can be causing the very opposite result of what we intend.
From Day 1, we’ve been conditioned to over-function for our kids. By overdoing, over-giving, and over-praising, we are contributing to their ultimate dependence on these things.
As a result, now Jessie believes she can’t manage her schoolwork without lots of help from her parents. Emma can’t feel good about herself unless she gets others’ approval and acknowledgement, while Johnny doesn’t know how to regulate himself without getting others’ time, focus and attention. We have unwittingly encouraged dependence rather than self-reliance. Kids get addicted. And sometimes we parents get our own validation by feeling useful and necessary through over-doing for our children. But in the end, they learn helplessness rather than resilience.

Tolerating Our Kids’ Pain
We hear all the time that in order to be a good parent, partner, or friend it is important to fulfill others' needs and be empathetic to their feelings. Yes, that is important, but only up to a point.

For example, 13-year-old Nicole was very anxious about going on sleepovers at friends’ houses. Her parents empathized with her pain and struggle so much that they ran to pick her up as soon as she texted them with any indication of her discomfort. They would bring her home and hug her and listen to her express her sadness about “failing” again. They would do whatever they could to make her feel better and assure her that she had not failed, she was just not ready.

Is it possible that what Nicole really needed was to become more responsible for herself? Her parents could have encouraged her to challenge her fear, manage her anxiety, and regulate her own emotions.

If Nicole’s parents acknowledged her struggle and pain without rescuing her from it, Nicole could finally have grown up and become a more self-reliant and responsible person. This, of course, requires the parents to tolerate her pain. Although it can be very hard to do, it is only when parents can raise their tolerance level for their child’s pain that their child can be motivated to do the same.

When More IS the Answer
So is more ever better than less? Of course—here are four examples.
  1. Do more for yourself and less for your child. In this case, doing less empathizing, less “meeting her needs,” and less focusing on her is actually a more caring and responsible position for a parent to take.
  2. Think less about fulfilling your kids' needs and more about helping them be responsible for their own. For instance, “I am not running back to school so that you can get the homework books you forgot—you will have to find a way to find out what is due tomorrow or make it up.”
  3. Think less about your children’s feelings and more about helping them function at their best. “You may not feel like saying you are sorry to your cousin, but I am holding you accountable to do the right thing.”
  4. Think less about buying into their whining and complaining and more about helping them manage and regulate themselves. “I know that you hate doing your chores but when I ask you to do them I expect them to get done. You can be unhappy about it, but please find a way not to drag others down when you are unhappy.”

Be there for your kids in the ways they actually need you, but move out of their way otherwise. And learn to know the difference.

Letting Go
When you are told by teachers, in-laws and friends that your kids seem to need more from you—attention, time, focus, acknowledgement, approval—stop and think hard about it. Do they really? Are you actually neglecting them? If so, then of course you should do more of what they need from you.

However, in the more likely scenario, they are getting more than enough from you. So it’s best for them if you cut back and let them struggle to find their own legs. Letting go will leave you feeling wobbly at first, but with practice and time, you will find your own strong legs to stand on.

Less Is More: The Perils of Over-Parenting reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Are You Engaged in a Silent Mommy War?

by Anna Stewart, Family Advocate
Today’s mothers are all too familiar with the so-called “Mommy Wars,” an expression used to stereotype the struggles and challenges faced by stay-at-home mothers versus those of working or career mothers. Like with all stereotypes, the Mommy Wars conflict is far more complicated than that. When we talk about the Mommy Wars, what we’re really talking about is passing judgement. And not just society’s judgement about the choices mothers make, but the judgements that we mothers make about other moms, their choices, and their kids.
It helps to remember that other moms are simply doing the best they can, just like we are.
Why do we do it? Why do we engage in the no-win Mommy Wars, and how can we stop?
She must be a Bad Mother
See if this sounds familiar. In kindergarten, my son got invited to a classmate’s birthday party. Upon arrival at the party, he flipped out on the front porch and refused to enter. I was mortified. I cajoled, bribed, and strong-armed him into the house, sure that Linda, the host mom, was judging me for not being able to control him. Once in the house, he got no better. And so I took him home, feeling like a failure.
Linda never invited my son over again and even avoided me at school functions. I felt like she was judging me. My son was anxious, aggressive and loud. So it had to be my fault.
But, I judged her, too. Instead of sharing my fears that something was really wrong with my son, I labeled Linda as stuck-up, elitist, and rude. I didn’t invite her son over either, and I secretly passed judgement on him, too: he was too short, too loud, too bossy. My response to the situation was to silently wage war on Linda and her son. And this happens all too often: we judge each other as mothers by what we think of their kids.
A Desire to Protect
My reaction to the birthday party also stemmed from a strong desire to protect my son from life’s hurts. I wanted to be his buffer, his safety zone. I love him so much, his pain is my pain. And that probably sounds familiar, too. That deep love, that desire to protect and keep our children safe, can cause us to judge others either in response to criticisms, or (to keep with the war metaphor) so that we can “draw first blood.”
When We Assume…
As the mom of a non-traditional child (one who doesn’t behave within the narrow definition of acceptable), I know that other mothers of non-traditional children particularly feel the weight of judgement. We feel it when our child melts down in the store, pushes a kid at the playground, or throws their dinner all over the table because there are peas in the fried rice. We get used to the glares.
But what about the glares we give? What about the judgement we pass on the mom who won’t look at us as she scuttles past us in the store with her own two kids? We assume she is avoiding us, but what if she is trying to avoid her own kid’s meltdown? What if her daughter is triggered by other kids screeching?
Cultivating Compassion
So, how can we cultivate more compassion and less judgement and put an end to our own silent Mommy Wars? Here are five practices you can try:
  1. Parent groups. As the facilitator of numerous parenting groups, I see many guarded and defensive moms transform quickly to compassionate, friendly and available people. And I see groups of strangers who come to stand together and support each other.

  2. Weekly breaks: Parent groups are a great way to get out of the house without the kids, but it’s still focused on the kids. See if you can also do one thing a week just for you, even if it’s just for 15 minutes.

  3. Reviewing with our partner or friend: Sharing our concerns moves them out of the shadows and into discussion and reflection. Be willing to examine an incident or experience and to see it from all sides. Talk as if the person you are with does not know your child. What questions would they ask? How would you present yourself? Your child?

  4. Journaling: For many, journaling is the next best thing to talking (for some of us, it’s even better). Write out your worries and your what-ifs. Write about your dreams and desires. Write about your first bike, or how you feel about rainy days, or a story about someone who helped you. Write for at least three minutes a day, no matter what.

  5. Breathe: Practice intentional breathing by taking three slow, deep breaths with long exhales. Do this while you are rinsing your hair in the shower, or are waiting for the garage door to open, or lighting a candle at the dinner table. Calm breathing can be done anytime, anyplace.

It also helps to remember that other moms are simply doing the best they can, just like we are. Perhaps we need a universal signal so that we can say without words, “I see you. I feel for you. I have been there and this, too, will pass. You got this.” Wouldn’t that change things?

Are You Engaged in a Silent Mommy War? reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

Anna Stewart is a family advocate, writer, speaker, facilitator and single mother of 3 unique kids. She is passionate about helping families learn to advocate WITH their children and teens and supporting those with AD/HD. Anna is the author of School Support for Students with AD/HD. Visit her website and Facebook page here.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Teen Moodiness: Is It Normal or Is It Depression?

Your teen prefers to sleep till 11:00am, is crabby when she wakes up, would rather talk to the dog than you, and isolates herself for hours at a time in her room, glued to her laptop. Is she depressed? Or just being a normal teenager?

It’s perfectly normal for teens to be moody, irritable, overly sensitive and withdrawn. After all, this is a developmental period where both their mind and body are growing rapidly. But, as a parent witnessing your teenager’s mood rapidly change throughout the week, day, or hour, it’s common to worry that they may be affected by depression.

Below are some clues that can help parents differentiate whether your teenager’s mood and behaviors are “normal,” or if your teen is in need of attention from a professional.
The signs parents need to look out for generally involve changes in mood or behavior, or even physical changes, that suddenly show up and persist in your teen’s life.
Normal Teenage Moods and Behaviors
Popular perception is that the teen years are fraught with continual angst and unhappiness—and this can certainly be true for many teenagers. But, teens who are not clinically depressed are able to rise above moments of feeling fragile, blue, or helpless. They are able to bounce back after a day or so, calling on strengths such as their support network (one or two close friends, family, etc.), an interest in outside activities, an ability to function well at school, or an overall positive sense of self.

What Does Teenage Depression Look Like?
Depression in the teen years generally starts to show up around age 13 and then peaks between the ages of 16 into the early 20s. Identifying depression in young people can be difficult because there is a wide array of symptoms, which can be different from what we see in adults. The signs parents need to look out for generally involve changes in mood or behavior, or even physical changes, that suddenly show up and persist in your teen’s life.
  • Sleeping habits. All of my teens would sleep until noon on the weekends if allowed, mainly because their school week is filled to the brim with homework, sports, and school activities. But if you notice that your child would rather hole up in bed for the day on the weekends, has irregular sleep patterns you haven’t noticed before, or is taking an unusual number of naps, this could signal depression.
  • Using substances to self-medicate. Some teens find that using drugs or alcohol helps to temporarily ease symptoms of depression, and the high they experience can become a strong reinforcement to continue using. Certainly not all teens who use alcohol or drugs are depressed; but if you know your child is using any substances, check in to determine why. Alcohol and drug use has the potential to increase depression in both adults and teenagers alike.
  • Acting-out behaviors. There is a fine line between normal teenage acting out (back talk, challenging or breaking the rules, and being defiant) and the possibility that such behaviors are being caused by depression. Because the teenage brain isn’t yet fully developed, some kids find that when they act out, they get a temporary release from the anxious and depressed feelings that accompany a depressive mood disorder.
  • One thing to keep in mind is not only how often your teen acts out, but how he or she responds when you consistently apply consequences. For example, if your daughter has an emotional outburst with tears, yelling and name calling, but is able to regain her composure after you’ve responded calmly and are able to discuss what is bothering her, she’s most likely exhibiting normal teenage angst (even if she explodes again the following week). However, if she acts out in a threatening manner, cannot calm herself, or you find she continues to act in a hopeless, reckless manner, then she may need to be screened for depression.
  • Physical symptoms. Some teenage depression manifests through physical symptoms such as recurrent stomachaches, headaches, chronic pain, or gastrointestinal distress. If your teen has ongoing medical problems with no apparent physical explanation, seeking professional help to rule out depression may be useful.
  • Social withdrawal. All teens isolate themselves occasionally, and most want time away from parents and siblings, but social withdrawal looks different. For instance, if your son was in the habit of meeting friends at the skateboard park twice a week but now holes up in his room, this is something worth exploring with him. If his change of heart is due to a desire to change peer groups, or because this group of boys is engaging in risky behavior, then he’s making a good choice. But if he’s withdrawing for no apparent reason, this could be a sign of depression.
Annoying Behavior Isn’t Necessarily Depression
As parents of three teenagers, my husband and I find our house is filled with annoying behavior, pretty much on a daily basis. This includes yelling (more them, less us); irritability (sometimes all of us!); mean and even spiteful behavior directed at siblings; anger towards parents; a sense of hopelessness around a sporting event or a school project; and mood swings that can change from zero to sixty, depending on whether someone is getting what they want in the moment.

It’s easy, as a parent, to feel chronically overwhelmed by this rapid shifting of moods; and it’s even easier to wonder if there’s something more serious going on (after all, it all seems so irrational!). If one child tends to stir the pot more than the others, that may cause you to feel even more concerned. Keep in mind, though, that as long as your child is able to “bounce back” most days of the week, then their annoying behaviors don’t signify that they have a depressive disorder.

Whether your child is struggling with clinical depression or experiencing a rough patch in their development, as parents we need to be on alert to support our teen and determine what sort of help is needed. There are options available to help if depression strikes. Calling the pediatrician to see if they have recommendations for mental health workers that specialize in teenage depression is a good place to start.

The important thing to remember about adolescent depression is that this isn’t necessarily a lifelong diagnosis. If your teen is able to get treatment early, the likelihood is high that they will successfully get through this difficult stage in their development.

Teen Moodiness: Is It Normal or Is It Depression? reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Grieving Your Child Who’s “Gone Wrong”

Here at Empowering Parents, we’ve received many messages from parents sharing sadness and disappointment over the way their kids have turned out. It’s a subject we don’t talk about very often, but it’s one that really deserves some attention.

In The Total Transformation Program, James Lehman talks about parenting the child you have rather than the one you wish you had. What he means is that we each carry an image of who our child will be; and we often hold on to that powerful image, attempting to connect with the fantasy of our child rather than trying to relate to our child as they really are.
In order to be effective parents, we need to see our kids as who they are, right now, not who they used to be.
Letting go of that “fantasy child” isn’t easy.  In fact, it can be hard to even admit our disappointment when our kids don’t turn out exactly as we imagined, when they don’t like the things we enjoy, or don’t want the career we’d wish for them. Many parents feel grief at the loss of that fantasy—and that’s normal.

When Your Child Goes Wrong

But what happens when the reality of who your child is goes beyond disappointment? When the reality of who they are is actually incredibly painful? Here’s one parent’s story; maybe you can identify with the grief in her words.

My son was a beautiful little boy. He was smart and kind, and got along with everyone. Right up through his younger years, he was everything I dreamed of. That changed when he started school. He started bullying other kids. He got into fights, refused to follow directions and just argued with everyone. My formerly calm, kind boy became anxious and aggressive and eventually started using drugs. He’s dragging himself through the end of high school now, but there’s nothing left of that sweet child he used to be.

I know I failed him. But, I still look at him and see the boy he used to be. My heart is just so broken. My beautiful boy is gone, and I don’t seem to be able to let him go. How do I accept my son now? How do I let him be the person he’s become when all I see is that sweet little boy he used to be?

It’s difficult enough to see your children become people other than you imagined; it’s deeply painful to see them making mistakes, poor choices, or otherwise not living up to their potential. In this parent’s case, her son has veered far from both her dream of him and from what he used to be, so that “parenting the child she has” is far easier said than done.

Acknowledge the Grief

As parents, it’s easy to fall into the trap of acting the way we think we’re supposed to: we pretend we’re not grieving the loss of our ideal child; we push ourselves to love and accept our kids, no matter what. We shove our grief under the rug and put on a brave face.  The tricky thing is, though, that we don’t lie to ourselves very well. The grief is very real. The more we try to pretend that it isn’t, the more ineffective our parenting becomes. Not only are we still trying to parent a child that doesn’t exist, we also aren’t taking care of our emotional selves. 

But, to be an effective parent, you’ve got to address the feelings, issues and challenges that come up for you as a natural part of parenting. For example, many parents get annoyed with their kids. Children can be annoying at times, so this is a natural response. But if you don’t address these feelings (of annoyance, disappointment, grief, and so on) outside of your relationship with your child, you can find yourself making ineffective parenting choices like losing your temper or giving a consequence in the heat of the moment.

If you’re experiencing deep sadness and grief over what feels like the loss of not only your ideal child, but the child who used-to-be, it’s okay. You feel grief because you lost someone you loved. It makes perfect sense. It’s a valid and real loss, one combined with disappointment and, for most parents, a heavy load of guilt. Denying these feelings only makes things worse, negatively impacting both your ability to make effective parenting choices and to connect with your child.

Speak the Truth
It’s important to find places where you can speak the truth about your grief and your disappointment. While you do not want to share your grief with your child, you might lean on your peer groups, a trusted therapist or ally, or the other adults in your family system. The Empowering Parents community is also a great place to find connection and validation. The important thing is that you find a place where you can share the truth about your grief, so that your heartbreak isn’t undermining the effectiveness of your parenting.

We all love our kids. We love them through all the bad choices, wrong turns, disappointments, and struggles. We try to keep finding the good, even inside all the bad. We want the best life for them, the best life they can build. And sometimes, despite all our love, they choose a different path. In our roles as teachers and guides, we have power, but we do not have complete control. Sometimes, there is deep grief in accepting that.

If your child is no longer who you once knew them to be, you aren’t alone. As James Lehman wrote, in order to be effective parents, we need to see our kids as who they are right now, not who they used to be. We need to come to them with firm boundaries, clear rules and expectations, and an unconditional positive regard. If you’re struggling with this issue, please know that unconditional positive regard for your child can really only come when you’ve had the chance to speak the truth about your grief and your sadness. When we stop fighting our grief over the loss of the child we knew, we can show up to the reality of the child we have with all of our most effective skills.

We’d love to hear from you. Let us know if you can relate to the topic of grief and parenting in the comments below. 

Grieving Your Child Who’s “Gone Wrong” reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

Megan Devine is a licensed clinical therapist, a former Parental Support Line Advisor, a speaker, and writer. She is also the bonus-parent to a successfully launched young man. You can find more of her work at, where she advocates for new ways to live with grief.