Wisdom for families
It’s not the divorce; it’s the conflict ...which victimizes children when parents separate.
Children can manage pretty well during parental separation or divorce IF their parents minimize the conflict to which the children are exposed. In fact, when the pre-divorce conflict subsides and a calmer, post-divorce family routine begins, many anxieties children are suffering begin to disappear. Meaning, the very act of parents separating can reduce the conflict to which a child is exposed.
Children who observe their parents and extended family members conducting themselves in highly conflicted ways, grow up believing this is how you solve problems. Children in homes with ongoing conflict fight at school and can even become bullies. It is no surprise, family conflict patterns are passed down from one generation to the next and between relatives.
As parents and grandparents, it is our job to protect our children, including keeping them safe in their own families. This safety includes freedom from anxiety and stress caused by arguments among their caregivers. When parents do not know how to provide the protection, or are unable for some reason to offer it, the negative outcomes of outbursts and fighting can have long lasting effects. Let’s examine how these behaviors impact youngsters at different ages and stages of their lives.
Children age five and younger: The family is where very young children learn about their world. Infants, toddlers and preschoolers develop attachment to the important adults in their lives – mommy, daddy, grandparents, caregivers. The generic definition of attachment is: the condition of being close to something or someone, in particular. Historically in our culture, females – mommies and grandmas – were considered appropriate caregivers to whom children could attach.
We now know, young children can attach to a LOT of people – those adults who are consistently in their lives offering comfort, reassurance and nurture (food, clothing, a home), no matter what the gender. This is how children learn the world can be a safe or frightening place, depending on how the attachments develop.
It is the responsibility of the adults to whom a small child is connected to consistently provide a peaceful environment where the youngster feels safe and can grow and develop successfully. If that safe environment is nonexistent, the following early childhood difficulties may occur in very young children:
--The inability to attach to significant family members or caregivers.
--Regression from developmental benchmarks (ex: children who are potty trained may start to have toileting accidents).
--Clinging to a caregiver; difficulties with normal separations (ex: when dropped off at daycare or school).
--Regression in language development.
--Demonstrating anxiety when one or both parents is not nearby.
--Hyper-vigilance (heightened sensory awareness anticipating environmental threats).
[i] Use of Facebook is an increasing element leading to divorce and separation.
I was listening to an interview with author, Paul Taylor, yesterday. In his book, The Next America he makes a case that the US is in the throes of a comprehensive demographic change and that Boomers (10,000 of us are retiring every day) are challenged to create a new model for retirement. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) can help us maintain sense of well-being and emotional health while we navigate the largest social changes seen in America in a century.
For review, the first four parts of this series can be found here:
Part 1: Know Yourself
Part 2: Manage Yourself
Part 3: Motivation for Healthy Emotions
Part 4: Understanding Others
The final step towards EQ competency is Managing Relationships. The goal, of course, is to take the accumulation of all the previous steps and apply them to navigating relationships with family, friends, neighbors and others in ways that are peaceful and reflective of a lifetime of experience.
At this point in the EQ journey it is critical to determine how optimism can play a role in your life. EQ and optimism are interconnected. A person who expects the best possible outcome or possesses a hopeful attitude is more appealing to be around than one who has a negative approach to life. Boomers who are challenged with major life adjustments (finances, living circumstances, etc.) could do well to consider a hopeful attitude based on their history of problem solving. Optimism is a learned behavior and can lead to self-fulfilling expectations.
Self-care is a critical element in Managing Relationships. This important detail may upset the balance in families or relationships where the Boomer member has spent a lifetime as a caregiver. Letting family members know this is your time to explore, taste and experience the world within your financial capacity to do so, may feel a little selfish at first. But you will be glad you shifted the focus of your energy from others to yourself. Make a pledge to yourself: In difficult times, I will take good care of myself by_________________.
And finally, I am a huge proponent of Lifelong Learning. I have written several times about the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) – over one hundred of them around the country offering free or inexpensive special interest classes for Boomers. I am currently on the board of the OLLI/UNR and I marvel at the information, activities and personal connections these organizations encourage. The Osher Foundation is creating a new framework for communities to value and support people in a way that is fulfilling and validating. Seek out Lifelong Learning in your community at your local college, senior center or community building. If your community doesn’t have such a program, start one! We are a species that thrives on socialization at every stage of life.
The Boomer generation has been defined by its enthusiastic willingness to change traditions and cause significant societal shifts at each benchmark of life. Forearmed with the tools to maintain our health and well-being, our age group will now prove the ‘afternoon’ of our lives is unlike any other experienced by previous generations. What we do and accomplish will be a tremendous legacy for our children and grandchildren.
One of the major parts of this relocation move has been the necessary (and pleasurable) task of hanging pictures. My husband and I love hanging pictures and as we relived travel memories, family relationships and special mementos, we practically covered the walls in our new house. That was in late April.
And then it occurred to me last week: a picture of my (step)grandmother is nowhere to be found in my house. It’s like she didn’t exist! When in fact, she was the only grandmother I ever knew. How could I have disregarded her memory so significantly as to not even put her picture up? And maybe it means more to me now that I am a (step)grandmother myself.
My mother’s mother died when she was a toddler, leaving behind a widower to raise six children – four boys and two girls. To my grandfather’s credit, he kept the family all together and eventually married Jenny Ellis, a County School Superintendent in rural Nebraska. Her sister was also a County School Superintendent. (I wish I could have known them – they must have been awesome, pioneer women.) Jenny and my grandfather had a son together, raising the total of the number of children in the family to seven.
Jenny was in her eighties by the time I came along. In fact, we even lived with her for a couple of years while my parents were in the process of purchasing a house. To me she was GRANDMA. I helped her braid her hair because her hands were arthritic; she let me help her with the dishes; she took me to church and told me Bible stories; she helped care for me when I was sick; and she let me eat cookies for breakfast.
After we moved into our own home, Jenny lived with us a little while before she moved into a nursing home. I occasionally stayed home from school on those few occasions when it was better for her to not be alone. It was when she died that all this ‘step’business came up and I came to understand she had been a replacement mother to the first six children. I also learned that my mother’s older sister had always resented her – so much so she didn’t even come to her funeral.
I am now a step-grandmother. When our daughter married a father with custody of his two children, I sought out the counsel of a very good friend (and therapist) who advised me that the two young children joining our family were now also our grandchildren. They are, after all, just children and along for the ride with the adults. That was very wise advice and my husband and I have tried to embrace them with our own grandson when we are fortunate enough to spend time with the three of them.
It’s still hard, though. No matter how much one tries, the blood that binds family members together can interfere with our willingness to love and appreciate those who come into our families by choosing to do so. Because of the high divorce rate in our country, most American children will eventually acquire step-parents and step-grandparents, and become stepchildren themselves. In fact, 33% of all Boomers over the age of 65 are now step-grandparents. http://firstthings.org/step-grandparents
Have you noticed? Step relatives always get the bad rap in fairy tales. Stepmothers, stepfathers, stepsisters and stepbrothers – are the cause of the difficulties for our heroes and heroines. The human psyche struggles so much with substitutes, that having difficulty loving replacements for our blood kin has been memorialized for centuries in fables and even in the Bible.
I wish I could include in this Blog some helpful hints on how to make the Step-grandparenting role easier. Instead, I will rely on my dear friend and British Columnist, and Agony Aunt, Suzie Hayman to advise all of us: i've always been so careful to make it clear that I am my stepson's stepmum, not his mother. I say that he is my son but I am not his mother. It's hard sometimes because his mother is dead and his wife considers me to be his parent. but I was overwhelmed when he told me they were expecting a child becasue he said, specifically, that I was to be a grandmum, not a stepgrandmum. and that's the trick - to be aware of the boundaries but give unconditional love.Thank you Suzie. I am now signing off to go hang a picture of Grandma Jenny.
What’s Your Boomer EQ? Part 4
Now that you Know Yourself, can Manage Yourself, and have Motivation for healthy emotions, the next big step in building your Emotional Intelligence toolkit is Understanding Others. I propose this stage is where Boomers, because of their life experience, could exceed where other people struggle.
Understanding others is basic to human interaction, especially when you desire to reduce stress and conflict in your life. The simplest example I can give follows. When I stepped out of my job in 2013, my husband was still working a high stress job in law enforcement. The first hint of possible difficulties occurred to me as he dashed out the door of our condo at 6:30 a.m. to catch his bus while I sipped a leisurely cup of coffee. It was apparent an extended period of my leisure while he continued to work a job he was ready to leave could build resentment and cause serious difficulties for us as a couple. It was absolutely necessary for us to mutually commit to a life blueprint strategizing when he could retire.
As the plan developed, my ‘work’ energy shifted focus to developing and implementing our retirement relocation plan. The driving element for the plan to work was acute attention to financial details. I lived and breathed personal budgets and spreadsheets, much like I had when I was running a nonprofit. My husband, who admittedly has no affinity for numbers, needed the same information I had in order to be empowered about the direction we were headed.
Choosing the right time to review complex financial details so he could internalize them required a delicate wisdom and respect for his work schedule. It’s accurate to say we did not have our budget discussions M-F, after 5 p.m.; rather, Saturday or Sundays over coffee or breakfast were the designated times when we would both be fresh and could garner enthusiasm for our future. Another retired couple I know have a weekly date to review calendars and other activities relevant to them both. This ‘Tuesdays with Tootie’ date to communicate, puts a fun spin on a necessary tool for successful couples – picking a time to talk about delicate subjects reducing the risk of misunderstandings, arguments or fighting.
Here are three necessary skills which, when developed, will enrich your ability to understanding others:
Nonverbal communication. I wrote extensively about the value of non-language communication in an April, 2012 HuffPost blog titled The Power of Silence. The human species developed without the use of verbal language and although we have evolved to become heavily dependent on verbal or written linguistics to express ourselves, we have never lost the aptitude to communicate silently. Nonverbal cues are usually involuntary -- a smile, a shrug, a grimace, a frown, a high five – generally occur without planning. They just happen. Staying tuned in to nonverbal cues when you are having a complex exchange with another human being can help you facilitate the communication. Is their body ‘open’ or ‘closed’ to your ideas? Is the other person nodding in agreement or frowning when you express yourself. Pay attention to nonverbals and shift your expressions accordingly.
Empathy This is a huge communication topic in our current societal discourse. From international relationships to personal ones, finding a way to empathize during conflict with others is absolutely necessary for progress in resolving disagreements. The innate wisdom in ‘standing in another’s shoes’ AND expressing an understanding of how another feels, goes a long way in diffusing struggles. Importantly, empathy results in a ‘zero sum’ outcome. Translation: when empathy is used, no one loses and everybody wins. This idea is foreign in our culture which places a high value on winning. Putting our self-interests aside in order to find a solution agreeable to everyone is both challenging and necessary to facilitate harmony in our relationships.
Listening I have to admit……I have to work at being a good listener. But I’m trying. Listening and acknowledging what another communicates can only help when there is conflict. Listening requires one to be nonjudgmental, reflective and willing to problem solve AFTER someone has expressed his or her point of view. In Tina Fey’s book, Bossypants, she talks at length about her experience in improv. She writes the first rule is improv is to agree with the speaker who precedes you. This hint is valuable on the stage and off. If you want to make a point, start by agreeing with the other person, then proceed with expressing your point of view.
And remember, as you evolve to a fully accomplished master of EQ, you are modeling healthy behavior for your children and grandchildren. What a wonderful family legacy.
Motivation! Part 3 of learning successful Emotional Intelligence (EQ) skills is affirming your motivation for healthy emotions. Motivation is what causes us to act.
Having accomplished Part 1, Know Yourself (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/claire-n-barnes-ma/whats-your-boomer-eq-part_b_5617070.html ) and Part 2, Manage Yourself (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/claire-n-barnes-ma/whats-your-boomer-eq-part_b_5638172.html?utm_hp_ref=retirement ), it’s time to determine if you are motivated to develop better relationships with others.
A nonprofit organization I volunteered for had a Board President who was a retired statistician. He prided himself in his autocratic leadership style, and whenever he would rub people the wrong way (which was quite frequently), he would say, ‘But I’m a statistician.’ Translation – don’t blame me if I can’t relate to others; I work with numbers! Unfortunately, the organization lost volunteers who were turned off by the Board President’s (lack of) leadership style.
Making a case for maintaining behavior which causes difficulties suggests there is a payoff for that behavior. In the case of the statistician, his payoff was never having to expend energy to learn to get along with others AND he ran off volunteers who might disagree with him.
We all know people who are self-sacrificing for their friends and relatives. Often, these individuals sacrifice their resources at the expense of themselves – finances, housing, emotional energy – and then complain about it later. I call this rescuing behavior the ‘martyr of the year’ syndrome. The obvious payoff for this behavior is finding glory in self-sacrifice – even if it causes personal suffering.
Enough already. Let’s examine Motivation for healthy behavior.
When I was facilitating a group of parents who were in the middle of separating from their spouses, I asked them: What is the payoff for healthier behavior in the midst of difficulties? Here are some of their answers:
You eat and sleep better
Your self-esteem improves
You are not distracted from work or from parenting
You model healthier behavior for your children
Your improve your physical health
You maintain your sense of humor
You become adaptable to new situations
You reduce risk for substance abuse.
Remember, items on this list were articulated by adults in the middle of a crisis. Even through the emotional confusion created by divorce or separation, they could identify motivating factors which would stimulate their desire to change unhealthy behaviors.
Every item on the list is applicable to Boomers. Improved health, emotional stability, willingness to risk new experiences, and overall well-being must be priorities for individuals who have spent a lifetime caring for the well-being of others.
Become your own cheerleader. Get Motivated!