Tuesday, September 8, 2015

"Mom, can we talk?"

Sometimes listening, sometimes doing the talking.
School has started up again which means after school conversations are starting up again. Don’t get me wrong; I talk to my girls all year, not just after school. Our after school chats, however, are extra important and why I’m glad I have a schedule that allows me to take that time with them.

You know in the movie Tinkerbell when she is going through the various talents to find hers? (If you don’t know what I am talking about, ask a preschooler or click here.) Well, if I were a fairy the talent that would have lit up and sent a shock wave around would be the talking talent. I’m a talker-fairy which is good because that was my job for years as a retreat leader. I got paid to talk to people – lots of people – and listen to their stories. It was perfect and great prep for being a mom now.

The fact is talk saves lives. That isn’t being hyperbolic. It is true. We must talk and connect. We must be aware of what is happening in the lives and minds of the people around us. We must talk with our children to help them understand their lives and minds. We must talk through problems to find realistic solutions and create actions plans. And we must talk with our children to affirm and reaffirm and reaffirm again their value as intelligent, amazing human beings. It’s important stuff.

I know from watching others come in and struggle with leading small groups that this isn’t a skill that everyone comes to naturally. I also know from listening to the teens that this isn’t something that all parents seem to be doing, or at least aren’t doing well. I wonder if it is because parents, like adults thrown into leading small groups of teens without any training, aren’t sure where to begin or how to do it. So here are my top tips for starting those conversations, keeping them going, and getting the most out of them so more and more adults can build meaningful connections with the kids and teens (and other adults) in their lives.

  1. Turn off the tv, computer, whatever screen is near you, and keep your phone put away. Have you ever tried having a conversation with someone who was looking at a screen instead of you? Did you really think you had their full attention? When we look at screens instead of the people we are with, we are nonverbally saying, “yeah, you’re important, but not interesting enough to drag me away from this more interesting thing.” Don’t think kids and teens pick up on that? They do. Just ask them.
  2. Stop multitasking all together. Again, this is about showing the person you are talking to that that person is the most important thing in your life at that moment. Chatting while doing dishes or driving or vacuuming (if you can even hear each other) is fine for light conversations, but for real, deep connecting conversations stop everything else. Let your kid know he or she is the single most important thing in your life and give him or her your full, total, complete, nondistracted attention. The dishes can wait.
    Giving the girls our full attention. listening to how life's going.
  3. Be genuine and 100% honest. Kids can smell a phony a mile away, and teens hate hypocrites and fakers. Once they think you are lying or putting on an act, you will have to work VERY hard to regain their trust. You want them to be honest with you? Be honest with them. Does this mean confessing all your sins in graphic detail or disclosing information about their emotional processing level? Of course not. What you do say, say truthfully. You don’t like broccoli? Say that! “I don’t really like broccoli, but I eat it because I know it is important for me to get vitamins and minerals from multiple food sources. It isn’t enjoyable, but the result of being healthy I do like.” If they pick up you are being honest, your words will carry more weight.
  4. Be open. One thing I discovered quickly as a retreat leader was that for every ounce of my story I shared, I got a pound of the teens’ stories in return. Once I showed that I was open enough to tell them things about me, they felt more comfortable sharing their stories with me. I usually had to go first, as an ice breaker. This means I need to be comfortable with my story, and I am very selective about what parts I tell and limit details as needed, but usually the details are less important than the act of sharing at all. An example would be telling about your experience with your fifth grade teacher. Then wait and see if they share their experience. If they don’t, gently prompt. To listen, first we have to talk sometimes.
  5. Open ended questions are the best prompts. Ask more specific things and follow them up with more questions. Follow up questions are key to getting to the heart of the matter. It’s unlikely I’ll ever get the full story from one question. I keep digging and never lose eye contact. Show them you really are interested and care about their stories. Keep digging! The simplest follow up is “why?” Just be sure to be clear with your questions. “Why do you think your teacher called on you less than the other kids?” “Why did you choose to play with those kids today instead of your usual crowd?” “Why do you think the principal made that a rule?”
  6. Acknowledge – without judgment – their feelings. Whether or not you think their feelings are rational or the feelings you would have, if they voice those as the emotions they are experiencing, those are the feelings they have. Repeat them back to let them know you heard them. “You’re feeling angry and frustrated because your whole class was punished for a few kids talking in the hall.” When our feelings are acknowledged, we feel empowered to express more which just leads to better mental health. It also helps us feel closer to the person we are talking to. Once those emotions are disregarded, the kid or teen who expressed them will shut down and not feel comfortable sharing more. That leads to a dark place of bottling up feelings which is not healthy for anyone of any age or gender.
  7. Finally, work TOGETHER to create an action plan if one is needed. Sometimes chat sessions are more about touching base or venting. Sometimes, though, change is needed. Rather than lecture (another way to shut down communication), say, “let’s find a solution together.” Listen to their thoughts about different options. If they say something is impossible, question further. Are they just overwhelmed? Can the problem be broken down in smaller parts that are more manageable and less overwhelming? They may have already tried to solve the problem on their own and know through trial and error that some things really don’t work. By working together, you not only tighten your bond and understanding, you also add a level of accountability. They have some ownership of the solution, and you know what steps to keep an eye out for progress on.
If in these chats you ever suspect your child or teen needs more help than you can give, never hesitate to seek the help. If you suspect they are battling depression or other mental health issues, get them connected to a professional to talk to. Because talk saves lives.

Blissful bonding - chatting, listening, sharing stories, touching base, etc.

Friday, September 4, 2015

“I can survive today.”

My younger daughter was having a rough morning, wanting to just go back to bed, but then she sat up and said, “I can survive today.” YES! That is the attitude that wins battles. We weren’t talking about lifetimes or years or months or even a whole week. Just one day at a time. That is how we get through life sometimes. One day at a time. It is a slogan for AA and it is a slogan that fits the fight against mental illness, too.
The fight is real and often feels like this - being the one face down while everyone else is smiling.

The fight is something I know very well. I have fought depression my whole life. I was hospitalized for the first time when I was just eleven years old. I have fought, and I am still alive. I have also been to funerals for people who have died by suicide and have had many friends reach that point of suicidal ideation, too. Mental illness seems to surround me. It is a very real illness, but it doesn’t have to be a fatal one.

First let me state unequivocally that depression is real. It has real, measurable effects on people’s bodies. Studies have shown that there are changes in the brains of depressed people. So let’s just stop saying it is an imaginary problem or people simply being weak. There is nothing simple about it and nothing imagined about it. It is a real, physical problem, and it is a real, complex problem. Don’t believe me? Check out a few of these studies about suicide, mental illness, and treatments.

That being said, like any other problem, it can and MUST be addressed. Just like kitty litter boxes, if ignored the crap just builds up. Is treating depression hard? YES. But hard is not the same as impossible. It does require time and commitment and struggles that often feel impossible, but that doesn’t mean that staying in bed is a better option. Doing what is hard is what is required. Just as people with cancer must go through treatments which feel impossible and are dreadful (my mother said she felt worse after her surgery to remove her cancer than she did before), but ignoring the cancer will just ensure it grows and spreads and eventually kills. My mother went through the hard part – the surgery and treatments – and survived. I went through the hard part – being separated from my family for hospitalization, facing many tough conversations with my family about life, accepting responsibility for my role in my depression and my treatment, and making significant life changes which often mean doing the opposite of what my brain/depression tell me to do – and I am not just surviving; I'm thriving. (It is also true that just as some people do everything to fight their cancer and still are killed by it, some people who do everything to fight their mental illness in the end still die by suicide. However, that doesn’t mean fighting shouldn’t be attempted or that suicide is inevitable.)

So how do we balance acknowledging depression is real and pushing the need for treatment? Advising people about their need to change their lives to ensure survival often sounds like the harsh criticism people ignorantly give (becoming internet cartoons). Get up. Do something about it. Shift your thinking. Open the curtains. Go to work or school. It is hard to sound sympathetic and compassionate while trying to help someone who is deep in depression. Do we simply let them stay in bed or on the couch stewing in their depressed thoughts? Do we hug them and leave them alone? That isn’t helpful.

The best, number one thing to do is to first and foremost get the person to a professional. They need someone to talk to. Talk saves lives. They need someone who will be able to offer them unbiased solutions and possibly medication to help adjust chemical levels in the brain (and then to monitor how those medications are used and how effective they are because not every medicine works for every patient and misuse can cause problems just like any other medicine). This cannot be stressed enough. Get them to help.

If the person is you, you also need to fight on your own. Fight for your life. Don’t be ashamed or fearful or throw in the towel thinking the fight is too big. Fight. Don’t wait for someone else to fix you or to fix your life for you. Kick yourself in the butt and get up and survive. This means, as I’ve said, doing the opposite of what your depression says. This means going through really, really uncomfortable situations. This means battling demons and spending time in what feels like a dark, horrible place for eternity. But fight. And make the lifestyle changes. This website has the best advice for that. NowMattersNow.org was made with the input of people like me, people who survived their own suicidal ideations. The advice is compassionate, acknowledging this is a real and difficult battle, but also provides a kick in the butt and some real direction. I recommend it for everyone I talk to about depression. Getting to professional help can be a challenge, but while going through that challenge (remember hard does not equal impossible, so don’t give up on finding professional help) check out nowmattersnow.org for things to start doing. Depression doesn’t just go away by napping through it like a cold. It takes active participation in treating it (and above all getting OUT of bed and out of the house).

These research studies and projects like NowMattersNow plus many other educational programs are funded by the American Foundation forSuicide Prevention. Their mission is to reduce the number of suicides 20% by 2025. This is possible. I am happy to volunteer with them because they really do put their money into valuable programs, and every person there truly is dedicated to intelligently fighting suicide and providing support to the people affected by it. If you would like to help, too, a good place to start is with one of their walks. The walks happen all across the US plus there are virtual walker options – participate without physically walking at the location.My family has a team participating October 10th in D.C., and my older daughter has set a personal goal of raising $1,000. She has seen how depression and suicide affect families and wants to help. You can help her reach her goal by making a donation here. Or join our team by clicking here. Walk with other families touched by suicide loss, learn more about the education, research, advocacy, and support programs offered by AFSP. This is a fight worth fighting and a fight that can be won.