Blink—And They're Grown

Parents, Families and Child Care

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True Courage Shining Forth


It was a dreary Saturday morning. As I pulled into the drive of Camp Joy I was struck by the sense of dampness and the mist that encompassed the greenery and the scattered wooden buildings. What a shame, I thought, the weather was not cooperating for the families and children that had come from across the country to participate in Camp Courag“EOS”.

Camp Courag“EOS” is an annual event for families that have a child diagnosed with Eosinophilic Esophagitis (or EoE). Several years ago, 4C was invited to conduct the opening exercise for the parents and caregivers that attend this camp. I had arrived on this particular Saturday to once again kick-off their weekend by offering a Parent Café. Parent Cafés provide parents with an opportunity to share their parenting experiences, wisdom and challenges with other parents. I felt confident as I entered the building. Certain that what we had planned would be successful—yet I must admit I was not prepared to be swept away by this incredible group of parents.

The meeting room was packed. Thirty-three parents and caregivers filled the six round tables. Most of the parents did not know each other, however they certainly shared a common bond:their children were diagnosed with an illness that many doctors still do not fully understand. Yet here in Cincinnati, the doctors at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital developed an expertise in managing this illness—an expertise that many of these families travel thousands of miles to tap.

As the Parent Café unfolded, I found myself in total awe. The Camp Courag“EOS” parents were amazing and completely inspiring. One after the other I heard stories of how they knew in their hearts that there was something not right with their children. Yet most of them experienced disbelief and misdiagnosis from doctors who did not understand this illness. One parent said it’s like others think “You’re coo-coo.” Yet he was not. In fact his child’s gastric system was inflamed due to EoE and his child was experiencing incredible pain every time he ate.

And the stories continued—parents talked about struggles getting the medical treatment needed for their children. They talked about school personnel often isolating their children, and extended family members confronting the very practices that were keeping their children alive and pain free. Time after time these parents found themselves educating others and advocating for their child’s medically needed interventions. One parent reported, “The problem is our kids look okay on the outside and therefore others do not take the illness seriously.”

Wow—there it was! Though these children clearly had a severe and disabling illness, others doubted its very existence. The tenacity exhibited by these parents to hold to their beliefs and insist on medical interventions is a lesson to us all. Parents tend to know their children best and as experts are called to ensure their children are getting all that they need and deserve. And these Camp Courag“EOS” parents are doing this day after day.

As I pulled out of the driveway, the mist seemed less overwhelming, instead I was overwhelmed by the courageousness of unwavering parents.

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What Tragedy Teaches Us

Cute girl resting her head on her mother's shoulder

“Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.”  — Robert Kennedy

It is our nature to try to make sense out of tragic situations—especially when the tragedy harms those that are helpless. Certainly there is wisdom that can be gained in the aftermath of most tragedies. We can dissect the event, identify who was harmed and figure out new precautions that can be put in place. Yet we cannot go backwards. We cannot undo what was done—and it is this helpless that causes us such woe.

The times in my life when I have experienced loss or tragedy, I have anxiously sought answers. Why did this happen or what could I have done? I begin creating the long list of everything I should’ve or could’ve done differently. Because obviously in replaying the past I can come up with everything that would’ve been different. But at some point I have to ask—to what end? How does blaming myself or others alleviate the helplessness or sadness I feel? It doesn’t.

I wonder what the outcome would be if, when tragedy strikes, we let our hearts take the lead? If instead of thinking and blaming we allow our sadness and compassion to come forth. And if we did that, what would the tragedy teach us and teach our children?

I think the answer to this question is simple. If we express our sadness and compassion then the lesson of the tragedy becomes one of unity. By honoring what was lost and responding with genuine kindness, then the tragedy teaches that we can comfort each other, that we are not helpless and that each of us can make a difference. And if we can show compassion and sadness following a tragedy, then our children also learn how powerful compassion can be.

I think of compassion as engaging with another, acknowledging their feelings and reacting from a place of genuine kindness. When being compassionate I am present in the moment. I am listening to the needs of the other person and putting aside my own desires. Children learn to act compassionately by observing the actions of adults—especially their parents. Teach compassion by tending to the needs of others. When you encounter a person who needs help, stop what you are doing and show that they come first. When frustrated, use words that show respect and empathy.  As a family seek opportunities to make a difference and give back to those that are there for you.

It is certain that we will all experience loss. Though a tragic event may teach us about what went wrong—I believe the deeper wisdom comes from the power of our compassion. Compassion that our children learn from us.

Apples Don’t Fall Far From Trees

parent-child-playingI recently traveled to Hilton Head, South Carolina to enjoy spring break with my sister and her family. Throughout this journey I encountered many families—some with older children and others with younger ones. But regardless of their shape or size it was clear when observing their behavior that the old saying “apples don’t fall far from trees” still holds true today. Here are three examples:

I’ve often heard it said that our personalities are part natural and part learned—meaning some of our personality traits we are born with and others we acquire along the way. As I watched two twin boys in the airport I was mesmerized by their symmetry. Not only did they look alike (from the same hat on their heads to the same shoes on their feet) but their actions and mannerisms were identical. As I watched them play on their ipads I noted that they almost seemed to be involved in a synchronized dance. From the smirks on their faces, to the movement of their eyes, arms and feet—they seemed to be in perfect harmony. I can’t be sure which traits were genetic or learned, but one thing was for sure: these 10-year-old twins had come from the same family tree!

During the flight to Hilton Head, I sat close to a mother and her young precocious child. He—being about five years old—had a lot of questions about the flight and what would happen on the trip. At one point the child stated that he wanted to move to another seat. His mother responded with a, “No,” and he responded by echoing his request to “move.” The two bantered back and forth for quite a while until the exhausted mother finally responded, “Go ahead and move; I don’t want to sit by you and probably nobody else does either.” To which the child retorted, “You’re mean.” I have no idea if what I observed was typical for this parent-child relationship. However, children do imitate their parents and this child appeared to be learning to use hurtful words—an example of an apple not falling far from its tree.

My nephew is a major sports fan. He loves to watch most professional sporting events and retains a ton of knowledge regarding teams and their players. He also enjoys playing sports, especially golf, which he has gotten quite good at. His father is equally a fan and the two of them debate and discuss sports until long after the sun has set. In playing a round of golf with the two of them I noted quite a few similarities. They both hit the ground with their golf club when not pleased with their shot, they both took numerous practice swings before actually hitting the ball, and they both “strutted” off the green when scoring a par or birdie. Again watching the two of them I couldn’t help but see how their mannerisms were identical—another apple not falling far from the tree.

It is certainly hard to know what personality or temperament traits are inherited or learned, but what is known is that children mimic us—the significant adults in their lives. The environment we create and the example we provide influences the young apples on our family tree.

Another shooting in another school—and this time it’s close to home.

worriedWatching the news coverage of the shooting at Madison Junior Senior High School I am struck by the re-occurrence of similar themes and images—parents racing to the school to find and hug their children, students and teachers in disbelief that a shooting has happened and a child pulled the trigger. And I can’t help but wonder why this continues to happen? What has caused some of our children to take such violent and irreversible actions? Do they not understand the possible consequences of their behavior? Do they not care?

I am a firm believer that children’s actions are feelings to be understood. Meaning in order to understand a child’s behavior it is helpful to look at the feelings that triggered the action. A child who strikes out at another child may be feeling sad, frustrated or rejected. By helping the child express and cope with these feelings, the actions of aggression will lessen. I also believe that children use behaviors that work for them. So that if a temper tantrum results in a child getting a piece of candy, the child will continue to use temper tantrums to get more candy.

These beliefs have always helped me better understand children’s actions—yet I have to admit I have a hard time wrapping my head around the feelings that lead to a child shooting another child. And an even harder time comprehending how such an act of violence can be perceived as a solution. And isn’t this what we all do—we seek to understand how and why these tragic events occur? We believe, if we understand the cause, we can prevent these tragedies from occurring in the future. Yet we seldom get an answer that makes sense which results in us looking for who or what to blame.

In my previous work as a family therapist, I came to understand that the painful depression experienced by individuals who commit suicide is unimaginable to those who have never experienced that intense emotional pain. And maybe I need to look at these school shootings in the same way—to assume that the emotional pain being experienced by a child who pulls the trigger is beyond what I or anyone else can comprehend.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not looking to excuse any act of violence. I’m simply acknowledging that these incidents may never make sense and I have to believe the child that pulls the trigger is experiencing emotional turmoil that is beyond what I can imagine. However, just because these incidents don’t make sense, we cannot ignore that school shootings are on the rise. We have to continue to seek reasonable solutions. We have to pay attention to any possible warning signs. And we have to figure out how to keep guns out of our children’s hands. I fear that ideas to put more guns in schools or the judicial system treating these children as adults are short-sighted reactions. I believe we have to move beyond the blame and recognize this as a social issue that requires a unified and thoughtful response.    

My thoughts go out to the families in Butler County that have been impacted by this most recent shooting. May those of us who have not experienced this type of tragedy never have to experience it in the future.

Healthy New Year!

healthy-new-yearFor many of us the New Year represents a chance to live a healthier life— eat well, exercise, rest and find that perfect work-life balance. And I am definitely hoping that this will be the year that it all comes true for me!

I have had periods of time when I have been able to achieve the “healthy life” that so many of us crave. However, maintaining these good habits has presented quite a challenge. A shift in priorities, a busy work week or the fun of the holidays can result in a resurgence of those not-so-healthy habits. And what I find so frustrating is that getting back on track can be such a battle.

Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Habits are formed when behaviors provide a reward that the brain likes. As soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of the brain shuts down and relies on what has worked in the past. No wonder getting back on track can be such a battle— not only do I have to resist my desire to sit on the couch and eat comfort foods, I have to jump-start the decision-making part of my brain!

Realizing what it takes for me to stick to my healthy habits causes me to think differently about what it takes for children to do the same. We as parents try to instill good habits in our children, and become frustrated when our children fail to practice these habits. However, children would face the same challenges as we do. So how do we help our children keep those healthy habits?

Motivation and routine have been the two factors that have helped me maintain healthy habits. Setting a goal or committing to a future activity (like signing up to run a half marathon) and sticking to a schedule (like always running on Saturday mornings) have helped me “stick-to-it.” In addition, building in rewards (like breakfast with friends after the morning run) provides the fill-up I need to make it worthwhile.

And maybe these same factors would work for our children. As parents we can definitely establish routines in the home that can reinforce the development of healthy habits. Drinking water, eating good foods and getting enough sleep can all be reinforced through routines. Finding the motivation or reward for our children may be a little trickier—but not impossible. Connecting exercise with fun and time with friends and family could provide a type of reward for children. Expecting children to play outside alone may not provide any motivation—but joining your child in a snow ball fight could be just the motivation your child needs!

Bad Things Come in Threes

Bad things come in threes“Bad things come in threes” was often the phrase offered up from my mom when “bad things” happened. This saying served as both a source of comfort and anxiety. If three bad things already happened, then the saying provided me some comfort as it meant that at least for the moment no other bad things would happen. If, however, only two things had taken place, then the anxiety would surface as I waited for another “bad thing” to happen.

The concept of things occurring in waves is very common. Most of us have experienced episodes when we have faced very similar dilemmas during a very short period of time. For example three things in the house needing to be repaired at the same time, three unexpected expenses within a few months or three physical ailments all happening in the same year—these are examples of times when I was getting hit with one similar wave after another.

Over the past few weeks my running community has been rocked by the death of two fellow runners. These deaths were both quick and tragic. My knee jerk response was to think, “Oh my, what’s going to happen next?” Because don’t forget—bad things happen in threes. I am finding that it is more productive to reflect on the message of these losses instead of worrying about whatever possible tragedy may lie ahead. As parents, I think this is especially important; children mirror what we do and say. So how we respond or the messages we give to children can help them feel at ease and reassured.

I certainly (as you have all experienced in your own lives) cannot explain tragedy. It is overwhelming and sad and no words are enough. Sharing our feelings with our children can benefit them. By identifying how we feel children may be better able to name their own feelings. And perhaps simply reminding them that there are times when bad things happen that we cannot control…but that it’s a lot easier to get through the tough times when we do it together.

As I reflect on my recent losses I feel I am getting a clear message which I want to share with anyone who will listen: value the time you have, hold dear those who are important to you and take the time to conquer the hills in your life. My two fellow runners lived vibrantly in the short amount of time they had. May you find the same vibrancy in your own life.

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The Power of a Whisper

power-of-a-whisperDuring a recent women’s leadership conference, I had the honor of hearing a very successful leader share her story. Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice is the current president of Morehouse School of Medicine. As the school’s first female president, and the first African-American female to serve as president of a medical school, Valerie shared her journey to success.

In listening to Valerie’s story I was struck by the brave choices she made along the way. More than once she changed the course of her life to follow what she instinctively knew was right for her. Also more than once people in her life questioned her choices and encouraged her to continue what she had started. For example during her senior year in college, Valerie made a decision to not complete her engineering degree and pursue medicine. Her family and school advisors encouraged her to complete her degree. And yet, she confidently moved forward, overcame obstacles, was accepted to Harvard Medical School and is now a part of history.

As she talked about her courage to pursue her dreams, Valerie attributed much of her success to her mother. One of several things her mother did—which left an impression on me—was that her mother nightly whispered in her ear, “Anything is possible.” And in listening to Valerie talk, it seemed clear to me that she embodied the mantra—that anything is possible! Wow, what an incredible example of how powerful messages can be!

Children receive messages from adults—especially their parents—that are intended to teach them how to act, how not to act, what to believe and what not to believe. These repeated messages impact the self-talk that children use to better understand themselves and their world. Self-talk is the inner voice that is heard in our heads, and for most of us this voice began in childhood. An example of this is from my own childhood. Whenever I faced a challenge or disappointment, my father always stated, “We’ll figure it out.” Not only did this message comfort me, it taught me that there was always a solution. Still today when faced with a challenge I hear my father’s message and truly believe “I’ll figure it out.”

My father continually reminding me that solutions were possible contributed to my everlasting resilience. The image of Valerie’s mother gently whispering a message in her daughter’s ear is beautiful; she took a loving approach to raise a girl into a courageous woman. The messages you choose to give to your children are life-changing—what will be the impact of your whispers?