Category: Children’s Issues

Thriving in a Blended Family

By Bernie Dunning, retired Marriage and Family Therapist

Bernie Dunning

At one time in our history a family was defined and assumed to be mother, father and children. There were some exceptions. There were rich people who had nannies to take care of the children and became part of the family. During the First and Second World Wars, as a result of the death of fathers killed in action, mothers took full responsibility for the family. Sometimes there were sisters who took responsibility, and at times there was the mother and live-in friends. However, society still thinks about a family as being father, mother, and children.

There is one other factor which needs to be acknowledged, and that is the inclusion of the family of origin. These members of the family unit have an influence in the nuclear family we are discussing. I cannot talk about all the issues surrounding the family of origin since this would take up too much space. For the purpose of this article we will discuss primarily what is called the nuclear family.

As we move into the 20th and especially the 21st century families have become very diverse. The reasons seem to be three-fold: couples divorcing and remarrying, homosexual couples adopting and some having children with a surrogate, and since people are living longer siblings are experiencing one parent dying and the other remarrying. There are   many single women bringing up families as a result of being financially independent, and not wishing to marry. It seems that our image of what is a family is becoming obsolete. However, I feel that the basic issues of family life are the same as they were from the beginning of time: that is creating an environment which allows each person to fulfill their humanity and their full potential. In this article I will focus on families that have multiple parents all trying to parent and help each other with family life issues. In my opinion the challenges today in bringing up a family require people to be more mature today than in the past.

The first challenge is to help children whose parents are divorcing to understand the basic reasons for the divorce. This is important because children are quite ready to blame themselves for the divorce. There needs to be a family meeting with both parents present to make sure the children do not take any responsibility for the divorce. Children may try to prevent the divorce, so parents need to be specific (without going into too much detail) and firm about their decision. This will help the children with their process of accepting reality. Children, especially young children want to know if their life going to change in any way. They want to know things like, will I still be able to have my friends? Will I still be going to my school, and will I still have my own room? You get the idea. For children life is concrete. The big question (usually without asking) is always and always will be “am I loved”? There should be as many meetings as possible, since there may be more questions in the second meeting.

The next issue for the children is who is going to take care of me? Do I get a say in where and with whom I will live? It may be because of lack of resources and limitations that everyone will not get entirely what they want. These issues need to be worked through. After all you may be asking the children to eventually deal with two sets of parents, and possibly have to relate to siblings they inherit. They may have to live in two homes at designated times. This will require both sets of parents to iron out basic parenting issues. Thus, frequent meetings are needed in order to sort through issues about parenting which will arise.

Some behaviours need to be avoided: first, not dealing with issues by sending messages with your child to the other parent (such as, “you will get the money owed to you next week”). Second, try not to get into the middle of issues between parent and child. If you start seeing your child as being persecuted by the other parent, do not get in the middle and be the rescuer of the situation. Stay out of the middle and try to let the two involved solve the issue. The solution they come up with may not be to your liking, but it will be their solution. If you try to rescue the situation, you will become the persecuted person in the triangle. The only time you need to rescue your child is if he/she is being abused or their life is being threatened. Third, try to be as specific as possible if the partner (who is not the biological parent) will have authority and if so, what authority will that be. An example would be, can he/she give out consequences for poor behaviour on the part of the child. Fourth, every adult needs to back up what consequences a parent gives out. Again, if there are issues, the adults need to get together to work through those issues. Fifth, the adult who is coming into the family as a stranger must refrain from trying to bribe the children to gain their love and admiration, and /or compete with the natural parent. This is important, because the child may play one against the other to get what they want. This scenario will lead to poor behaviour on the part of the child. Sixth, if you have feelings of rescuing the natural parent who is having a difficult time with his/her children, resolve those feelings, or do not get involved with this family. You will fail and do more damage than good if you do not resolve your feelings of rescuing.

Remember, all the adults are parents of the children. Even the person who is new to the children, and might not want to be involved as a parent, is being a parent by simply being there. It is impossible to not be a parent. He/she is living there and interacting with their spouse, and responding to life situations. Modeling is always occurring because children are always listening and observing.  The adults of families are always giving messages to their children about life by just being. Therefore the adults in the family need to realize that parenting is an ongoing process. It never ends until children become adults.

Adults need to be open to each other and realize that their children want them to be happy and succeed in life, and to be there for them. They do not want perfect parents, and realize this is impossible. It is parents who have problems with the realization that they are not perfect.

Families are evolving. Regardless of how many parents are involved in raising children their task is to provide an environment that encourages those children’s potential and full expression of humanity.

People Who Do the Right Thing (But Never Feel Rewarded)

Failing to make life Perfect
Failing to make life Perfect

By Bernie Dunning, MA

There are individuals who feel frustrated about their life because despite believing they are always doing the right thing, they keep on failing. They can’t maintain close relationships and/or they fail at their parenting efforts.

Tragically they may tend to pride themselves for being righteous. They are nice people, who work hard, and are usually successful in business terms. There homes are well kept, and they would feel terrible if other people saw their child misbehaving or their house untidy. If this were exposed they would feel so bad they would become extremely self-critical, and come down hard on their child who misbehaved or a spouse who left a mess.

Why? They tend to see everything around them as a reflection of how people see them. Unfortunately the more they work at controlling events and people around them, the more they feel events and people seem out of control! I am sure most of us can identify with this dynamic in our own life to some degree; however I am talking about an extreme: people who Freud would diagnose as operating primarily from their Superego. These are folks about which others would say: “God save us from people who are always right.”

These perfectionists focus on “Rules and Standards.” It is difficult to argue with them as they are mostly right!

These folk are quite rigid, and for the most part do not see “Gray” in human interactions. Ironically they often attract those who love “a good time,” but they end up judging their choice of a mate as “one who is not responsible.” This becomes another disappointment in his or her life, leading to yet even more rigidity.

They have a difficult time softening this outlook on life for obvious reasons. Why should they? They are always holding the moral high ground. They see change as compromising their standards, and thus not being true to themselves. They see behaviours as good or bad, and have difficulty opening to the possibility of having good and bad in the same behaviours.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

For instance they would fail to appreciate that their son came home on time but instead focus on why he went to a place he is not allowed. That son would be questioned: Why did you do this? His struggle to totally obey his parent’s orders would be irrelevant. The focus would instead be on the disobedience.

The opportunity to learn about their son, and what difficulties he is having with his world, are thus lost. So, too, would the opportunity to recognize and affirm his effort of coming home. You can see that any affirmation of his effort is gone.

It is no wonder that this type of personality has difficulty sustaining emotional contact with other people! When a person experiences being alone in their world it is little comfort to them to hold the attitude that they are right about most (if not all) issues.

They confess in therapy that they give their spouse everything (new car, jewelry, and a nice house); yet the spouse still complains and is unhappy. The perfectionist complains that they give their children everything –yet the children are unhappy and always asking for more. They moan: “my children are never happy.”

The problem is they have a difficult time connecting on an emotional level. Being present to what is going on with a person’s internal life of feelings and emotions is extremely hard. I think this is a difficult area because there is no control about what might emerge nor how “these feelings coming at me” can be dealt with.

Here are a few tips on how to get out of this conundrum.

First: They need to understand and accept that they are lovable for who they are as a person, not for what they do. I think this is very difficult for the personality we are talking about. Claiming our own lovability is a process; it takes some a life-time to finally have the sense they are lovable for who they are as a person. This is important in order to stop feeling they have to do something to fix someone or something. Consequently this allows others to take responsibility for their own life. Which brings us to the next point.

Second: They need to begin to let go of taking responsibility for those around them, and to make sure others are always on the straight and narrow. They need to realize they cannot make their children happy, and understand that people choose to be happy. Learning how to play is very helpful in order to overcome the sense that they are being “irresponsible” when taking care of themselves. As they overcome this fear of being irresponsible they will eventually be able to enjoy the experience of play.
In other words, they need to better balance the inner dynamic of responsibility and playfulness. When these two qualities are out of balance we become unhappy people.

I notice that people who are stuck on one of these qualities tends to marry a person who has the other quality; they eventually end up hating each other because the responsible person becomes “super” responsible (and see their partner as being super irresponsible) while the playful person sees the other as being too controlling –and no fun! Therefore each person becomes more ‘married’ to their preferred way of functioning.

These two dynamics are key to a satisfying life: accepting oneself as a lovable person, and thus trusting that others will love us for who we are; and working at keeping a balance in our life between being responsible and playfulness. These are vital to not falling into the trap of being the Law and Order person, the fear that my family and others will be going to ‘hell in a handbasket.’ The other danger of not having this balance is eventually giving up on people, thus becoming a very lonely person.

Bernard Dunning holds an MA in Family Systems Counselling, and is a volunteer Board member with our agency.

Becoming a member could save a life

PosterReally?

On Wednesday of this week I was told by a client that she very much doubts she would be alive today had she not engaged in our services. She was not being dramatic.

Jacqueline Gautier, our Eating Disorders therapist, said that her clients are at an even higher risk of dying from that condition.

You can help us raise funds by simply becoming a member. How so? When you become a member (or rejoin) our agency we have a better chance at receiving the funding we need from the provincial government’s Gaming Fund. With these funds we can reach far more people whose lives or relationships are in crisis, making an even greater positive impact in our community (one that reaches as far away as Port Alberni and Duncan).

Did you know that we are the only agency in the mid-island area to offer eating disorders therapy for adults by a highly experienced Eating Disorders therapist? We have a growing reputation: we are about to take on an Intern who will be learning from Jacqueline, helping us to extend our services for the next few months.

Did you know that we’re the only agency in this region that offers a group that helps women use their anger more helpfully? And that we run a preventative program in a local high school that mentors teens while they learn practical skills? Or that we assist hundreds of clients a year with professional therapy?

We so believe in what we are doing that this year the agency will use at least $20,000 of our savings to keep the doors open and serve the growing number of clients.

We are hard working volunteers and staff. Our overhead costs are extremely small (over 95% of donations go directly to running programs).

We invite you to renew or take out a membership. It is by donation (suggested $5 for low-income to $20). The donation/membership direct link can be found immediately to the right. Any amount $20 or more will receive a tax receipt.

Thank you for helping us help others!

The Illusion of Power and Control

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As humans we seem to be drawn to seek control over our environment and ourselves. When we are infants, we immediately attempt to control our environment by making sure we are fed and changed. Later, we try to get our parents and siblings to do our bidding. Parents often talk about the power struggle with their children –their experience of not succeeding or celebrating the illusion of success.

As adults we talk about being in control of our feelings and our environment, be it work, play, or home life—but are we? People who seem to exhibit control all the time get a lot of praise. They are usually seen as strong people and are rewarded for not crying; or as people say, not “falling apart”. Usually women have been seen as weak for being “too emotional”, and have even been referred to as “hysterical”. They were traditionally hidden from unpleasant things and experiences.

However, this cultural norm seems to be disappearing. At this point, it is important to mention that as we grow up in our families, one of the tasks is to develop enough self-esteem to be able to deal with the eventual feelings of powerlessness or not feeling in control of our lives.

Those who are obsessed with controlling are usually called “control freaks.” They feel very anxious and vulnerable if they give up their attempts to have power and control over people close to them. Control and power gives them a false sense of well-being. However, power and control can be counterproductive, and even dangerous. Being obsessive about power and control can lead to a disorder called Anxiety Disorder, which can be treated with medication and/or talk therapy. One of the reasons control leads to a debilitating Anxiety Disorder is that it is impossible to feel powerful and in control at all times. A vicious cycle can occur: the minute we feel not in control, compromising our sense of power, we want to get our life back into control; yet there are just some times when this is not possible. So, we may become involved in behaviours which are fruitless: such as making sure things are done RIGHT; being authoritarian; and being in control of all situations. The more we may seem to fail, the more desperate we become, and then, we work harder and harder to try and get some order back into our lives. This can happen in all aspects of our life.
Here are some examples involving work and relationships. This article will concentrate on these two areas of our lives.

It happens at our job, when in the process of making things work, we start to feel we are losing control. We can become very authoritarian, ruthless, and unjust. This causes others to revolt, and then we feel we have to become more authoritarian. You can see where this pattern is going. It seems to be difficult for some people to cope with their feelings of not being in control. Instead of working with people, they compensate by being authoritarian and then create a tense work environment.

In relationships, we have the capacity to become violent when we feel unloved, and seem to be losing the ability to make our partner love us. This is the foundation of violent and abusive relationships. It is usually men who are involved in abusing women, looking to power and control to get their needs met. As a result of low self-esteem, we want to feel we have power and control over the person we love. This gives the Illusion we have secured our partner’s love. However, as we know, this sense of control and power can lead to abuse and violence toward the person we love.

Typically we tend to think the abusive person does not really love his partner. How could he love a person he always abuses? The abusive person loves his partner, but behaves in a way which destroys love. Because of his low self-esteem, he is always trying to manipulate the loved one, first through charm and excessive acts of doing for the other. Then, when the first signs of a threat to their love is perceived in his mind, he becomes controlling and authoritarian. The trigger could be his partner talking too long to another man at a party, or supper not being served on time. Women, as a result of their socialization, may over-ride their feeling of being in danger, and may believe that they can get this man to be the “giving person” he was in the beginning of the relationship. This type of thinking on the part of women can lead to disastrous results. For some men, even murder is not out of the realm of behaviors to set the relationship straight. (If I cannot have her, nobody can.)

Our culture warns us about thinking such thoughts, but we witness how some legal authorities and abused women will allow for excuses on the part of the spouse. We hope that the spouse will change based on his saying so. Our seeming inability to live with feelings of loss of control and power will inevitably lead us to the illusion that we can get control.

The above example is an extreme case, but many relationships do become abusive (i.e. being pushed, or being put down) as a result of not being able to respond adequately to the fear of losing a partner, and due to low self-esteem. It is important to recognise our feelings for what they are. This will help us to react in a way which will enhance the relationship –instead of destroying it.

Another situation which is of importance is having control and power over the children we are raising. Here again, this control and power we feel is an Illusion. In reality we do have control over our children, because ¬they allow it and want us to have control. Children and parents want to keep the bond they have with each other. Children want their parents in control, but eventually they look for areas in the relationship where, as they say, “they can be their own person.” This is natural but parents sometimes “dig in” to make sure they keep control. Then children revolt. This situation offers another mile-stone in the parent’s relationship with their children, and it is very important for parents to stay in communication with them.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

However, if children are feeling they are being unjustly treated and feel they can never win, they will start to rebel in a serious way. Justice, like with adults, is very important to children. If at any time they feel they have no power in the relationship, they will show parents they cannot control them. In this situation there is no amount of punishment that will make them obey. The only way into their lives is to re-establish the bond. In some cases this can be quite difficult.

As you can see, no matter what the age, we may voluntarily allow another person to have control over us at any particular moment of a relationship. It is an illusion to think and behave in a way that communicates “you are mine,” and, “I always know what is best.”

Bernard Dunning holds an MA in Family Systems Counselling, and is a volunteer Board member with our agency.

How Do I Tame My Inner Critic?

By Angela Slade

Taming your inner critic is much like taming a wild animal – it must be done with awareness and consistency. It’s a sneaky little beast and will come sliding in the back door, just as you shove it out the front. If you judge it or criticize it, you are feeding the wild beast because you are behaving just like it. Here are some tips to help tame your inner critic. First, identify your inner critic’s top ten places where it likes to hang out. This could be a situation, event, or a place such as the mirror. Second, draw a picture of your inner critic and name it. Place this in a spot where you will see it regularly. Third, get to know your inner critic. Notice what makes it louder; what diminishes its power; what happens if you talk back; what happens when you just look at it calmly in the eyes and reassure it everything will be okay. Experiment with this exercise and notice if there are any shifts in your day/week/month. Once you’ve begun taming your inner critic, you’ll feel lighter and freer than ever before. You may even have the courage and confidence to embark on a new adventure.