Families and Parenting

 Building a healthy family is one of life’s most rewarding challenges.

Yet the self-healing revolution has overlooked the most significant issue: how to cope with the relentless stresses of raising young children in the twenty-first century. Parents today juggle more tasks, work longer hours, and sleep less than their own parents did.

Children and partnerships are also impacted by the intensity of modern life, and by the grand and historically unprecedented experiment our society is undertaking with its most precious resource: the next generation.

There are ways not just to cope, but to grow a healthy family. We can build stronger, more resilient relationships that turn family life from a struggle into a healthy place for all members to thrive.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Psychologist and Author Dr. Rick Hanson answers questions about

Families and Parenting

What advice would you give to parents whose teenage child is experiencing relationship issues in school: being bullied because of physical appearance?

I think it’s really important for the adults to find out quite concretely what is going on, and then for the school authorities to make it very very clear to the kids involved, and usually also to their parents, that bullying won’t be tolerated at all, full stop. Kids do not “work it out.” Bullying is cowardly oppressive behavior by people with more power against people with less power, and it can leave scars for a lifetime. Teachers and other school authorities typically don’t like to get involved with this – it’s messy – but, too bad, they have to. Justice requires the exercise of authority, in any setting.

Meanwhile, you can help the teenager develop inner resources to reduce the impact of the bullying, like a strong sense of being cared about by others, of personal worth, and of recognizing that the bullies are frankly full of shit and talking out of their own feelings of inadequacy and meanness.

How does one more forward, and not cling to the attachments of sentimental things? (I was asked if it was ok to paint over the height markings from our children on a door jam from many years. Although I was trying to ignore my feelings and be tough, when asked a second time, I broke down in tears.)

A beautiful, dear, and touching question.

Maybe in the upper reaches of enlightenment people get so equanimous that painting over their children’s growth chart is just a big “whatever, dude.” But, I think it is perfectly fine to cherish and take joy in and value certain things.

If we lose any of these things, sure, we should try to not over-react, and try to take them in stride. Sometimes there are ways to hold onto things we love in other forms.

But to imagine that we should not value some things is utterly unnatural. At all levels in the physical architecture of the body or the information-processing architecture of the mind, there are goals and their pursuit. These are values, built into the body and mind. Trying not to have values is itself a value. The only question is whether our values are good ones, and pursued in good ways.

And to me, sentimental objects from raising our children are pretty darn valuable.

What can I do to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped or can’t accept what is offered?

I suggest you get a good therapist and work through these issues. You describe what sounds like “body dysmorphic disorder,” a catch-all term for irrational beliefs that some or all of one’s body is ugly, broken, tainted, etc.

Also, under their exterior, many young men have the same self-doubts as you do, including about intimate parts of their body. I know I did.

I also suggest, with respect, that you think in terms of connecting with young women as a kind of ladder, let’s say twelve steps, with a happy marriage at the twelfth step and casual conversation as the first step. Take it one step at a time. Get comfortable at one step, and then gradually open to moving just one step higher. Don’t focus on steps way above you.

In this context, notice and allow young women to have a positive response to you at the step you’re on. Take in this positive response and the good feelings it creates in you. Use this ‘taking in’ (see my book, Buddha’s Brain, for more on this practice) to fill you up gradually, bringing confidence and slowly healing your old pain and insecurity.

In my model of the ladder, here are the steps (don’t take this too seriously, I don’t):

  1. casual conversation
  2. friendly encounter, like having a real good talk and sense of connection
  3. specific get together, like going to get a cup of coffee after class to keep talking and hanging out together [note that up through this step, things can still be totally platonic, though maybe there is a brewing sense that some chemistry, some warmth for each other, maybe some attraction, could be possible]
  4. clearly warm vibes or event that goes beyond platonic connecting: could be a depth in conversation, or doing something together that goes beyond casual friends like having dinner together or going to hear a band together [note that so far there has been no physical contact other than maybe a casual touch on a shoulder or arm for emphasis while talking, or a casual friend hug]
  5. basic affectionate touch: could be holding hands in a movie or while walking around campus at night, or cuddling on a couch at a party, or a quick kiss
  6. extended kissing
  7. foreplay
  8. sex
  9. being a couple
  10. living together
  11. engagement
  12. marriage

This is about wise view, seeing reality clearly and not being deluded by the legacy of beliefs from childhood. And it’s about being receptive, receiving the gift of women being drawn to you. And they are drawn to you already even if you don’t see it.

How do I handle an adult child who's continually making bad decisions, has drug and alcohol issues and ends up back in jail?

These are just about the hardest sort of situations I know. I’ve never had to live through anything like this myself, so whatever I say is tentative and respectful; there is so much I don’t know here. You may already know everything I say below.

  • I’ve seen parents draw boundaries as needed around certain behaviors – e.g., call 911 if an adult child gets physically threatening, not letting the child live with them, not having long phone calls with someone who is drunk – while finding a core of love inside for the person no matter what. Sometimes the boundary takes the form of “we can do X for you (e.g., buy you a basic used car, keep you on our health insurance) but not Y (e.g., bail you out of jail, lie to the police for you).
  • It’s super important that both parents be aligned with each other. Otherwise the adult child splits them.
  • Stay as unreactive as possible. (Yep, very hard). It only pours gasoline on the fire, and can be used to discredit you.
  • Be skillful about the drug/alcohol issues. They seem central.
  • Give him as little to resist as possible (e.g., unwanted advice he won’t take anyway).
  • Taking care of your own well-being (both parents) helps you sustain efforts for your child. Get support from others: minister, friends, relatives, therapist, Al-Anon. Take a breath and focus on your own life, like going for walks, spending time with your own friends, having fun, reading a book, meditation/prayer, going fishing, knitting, etc.
  • Take the long view. Also realize that so much here is just out of your hands.
  • One thing to add is that if parents do set a boundary, unless on reflection it was just not a good boundary (like a rule laid down in the heat of anger), then it is important to keep it, and to back each other up, otherwise it is worse than no boundary at all since it undermines the parents’ credibility.
  • If you and your partner have not sat down with a sensible neutral third party – e.g., lawyer, minister, therapist – to make clear agreements with each other about your child (or at least know for sure what you are in conflict about) – you should do that, unless you can quickly make agreements that stick on your own.
How can I simplify the holidays so I actually enjoy myself and my loved ones?

Commit to less. Do as much as possible in advance. Ask others to pick up their fair share of the additional tasks. Don’t get too attached to fixed ideas of how things need to be. Focus on the essentials, the point of the holidays: time off, relaxing, being with loved ones, generosity and gratitude – and if this is meaningful to you, honoring the original spiritual purposes of this time of year.

What’s it like at your family gatherings?

I try not to play psychologist at the dinner table! Still, learning about how the brain evolved has made me really appreciate how vulnerable we are to feeling stressed and anxious; the brain is tilted in these directions. So I’ll deliberately relax my body if I start to feel stressed, or remind myself about the protections and resources in my life if I start to feel unnecessarily worried about something.

My dilemma is wanting to love my parents but being scared of them. What to do?

What I might offer is that one approach is to experience your own lovingness (compassion, kindness, benevolence) as a kind of field radiating from you that includes all beings independently of who they are or what they do. Then your lovingness can also become more individualized depending on the person – leading to more or less closeness with them. But your lovingness itself can be unconditional. Besides the benefits to others, this approach can feel very self-nurturing and uplifting.

Are there therapies that specialize in helping patients access baby memories or very young memories (before hippocampus development)?

There are hypnotherapists and others who use “regression” methods to ostensibly and possibly get in touch with what I’ll call “material” rather than “memories” from the first year or two of life, sometimes even prenatally. 

But be careful. There are risks of these methods producing images, sensations, etc. that seem true but are actually imagined rather than recalled. Be careful of practitioners who are trying to convince you of anything; there are definite cases of “false memories” being “implanted.” On the other hand, sometimes imagined material can have psychological value, if understood as a kind of metaphor but not literally true.
Personally, I’ve gotten value from plausibly imagining childhood experiences that – who knows – might have associations to actual somatic and emotional material from the first year of my life. These have had for me the ring of emotional truth. But I hold them with a certain “don’t know” perspective. 
In sum, my view is: “maybe . . . . . . . . but be careful.”

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