Love is a dance of connection and disconnection. Some of us need more connection, others need independence. What if I told you there were only two roads to making a toxic relationship healthier?
Road One is breaking up and finding a more secure partner.
Road Two means viewing the problems in the relationship as a slingshot for growth.
Even if you fall on opposite ends of the spectrum, the relationship can work!
But the only way it can work is if you both see problems as a catalyst to understanding and respecting each other’s differences.
If you don’t, holding hands quickly turns to pointing fingers.
If your partner’s idea of closeness makes you feel like you’re suffocating, or if you feel like your partner intentionally ignores you, the best thing you can do for your relationship is to talk about it.
By examining moments of disconnection, both partners will gain profound insight so they can begin learning how to give each other what they need.
I’ve put together these four exercises to help turn your toxic relationship into a healthy one.
Exercise 1: Talk about it.
If one of you is feeling ignored or overwhelmed by your partner’s needs, use the exercise below to understand each other better.
Instructions: Think of the last argument you had. Rate the following feelings on a scale from 1 (100% felt that way) to 5 (0% felt that way).
During our fight I felt:
Like my opinions don’t matter
Now explore what triggered those feelings.
Rate what triggered those feelings on a scale from 1 (100% felt that way) to 5 (0% felt that way)
I felt unimportant to my partner
I felt cold toward my partner
I felt rejected
I felt overwhelmed by demands
I felt excluded
I didn’t feel attraction
I didn’t feel affection
My sense of dignity was compromised
I couldn’t get my partner’s attention
My partner was dominating
Answers: There are no right or wrong answers here.
Each answer depends on your reality.
The goal of the exercise is for both partners to understand each other. The only way to do that is to recognize one vital element that makes relationships last.
That vital element is…
Both points of view are valid.
When partners believe there is only one truth, they fight for their own position. That belief is a dead-end.
There is only one assumption that will make the conversation about disconnection or too much closeness beneficial: that in every fight, there are always two points of view, and both are valid.
Once you and your partner accept that idea, it’s no longer necessary to argue for your own position.
Now you can focus on understanding your partner’s position, and work together to find a mutual solution thereby creating a less toxic relationship.
There are always two sides to every conflict.
Once you understand and acknowledge this, you’ll quickly find that reconnecting comes naturally.
Exercise 2: Revisit the past.
Now that we’ve identified your emotional reaction, it’s time to get in a time machine and revisit your past.
See if you can find a relationship between earlier traumas or behavior and your current reaction.
Note: If you’ve been sexually harassed, raped, or experienced any other trauma your partner is unaware of, now is the time to bring it up. In my work with others, I’ve found that sharing our deepest pain with our partners truly helps them understand us. It also gives them the ability to gently work with us on traumas so we can begin to heal together.
This list will help guide you.
When I (or my partner) turned away, it reminded me of:
An earlier relationship.
Past traumas or hard times I’ve had.
The way my family treated me growing up.
My deepest fears and insecurities.
Unaccomplished dreams I have.
Events I have not emotionally dealt with yet.
Ways other people have treated me.
Things I always believed about myself.
Nightmares that keep me up at night.
Take time to discuss each other’s answers.
Ask open-ended questions so you can understand each other better.
This isn’t about who feels worse or who is more right. It’s about taking the time to truly understand each other’s insecurities and deepest fears.
When your partner tells you something that shocks or surprises you, say, “tell me more about that.”
When it comes to screen time, every family will have different amounts of time that they think is “enough.” What’s important is giving it some thought, creating age-appropriate limits (with built-in flexibility for special circumstances), making media choices you’re comfortable with, and modeling responsible screen limits for your kids. Try these age-based guidelines to create screen rules that stick.
Preschoolers. There are lots of great TV shows, apps, games, and websites geared for this age. But too much time spent in front of a screen can interfere with activities that are essential for growing brains and bodies.
Go for quality and age-appropriateness. Not everything for preschoolers needs to be a so-called “brain-builder,” but there’s a difference between mindless and mindfulentertainment. Our reviews can steer you toward titles that help preschoolers work on developmental skills like sharing, cooperation, and emotional intelligence.
Sit with them, and enjoy the discovery process. There will always be moments when you need to rely on the TV or an app to distract your preschooler while you get something done. But as much as you can, enjoy media together. Little hands and developing brains really benefit from your company (and guidance!).
Begin setting limits when kids are little. Habits get ingrained early, so try to establish clear screen-time rules when your kids are young. For games, apps, and websites, you may need to set a timer. For TV, just say “one show.”
Elementary and Middle Schoolers. At this age, kids love TV shows, games, movies, and online videos. They begin to explore more and hear about new shows and games from friends. Because they can access these things by themselves, it’s crucial to continue to supervise their activities and help them stick to your rules.
Start with an endpoint. Use whatever tools you have — your DVR, Netflix, OnDemand — to pre-record shows, cue them up, or plan ahead to watch at a specific time. That way, one show won’t flow into the other, and you can avoid commercials. If your kids are into YouTube, search for age-appropriate videos, and add them to a playlist to watch later. Because most games don’t have built-in endings (and are, in fact, designed to make kids play as long as possible), set a timer or some other cue that says “time to stop.”
Help them balance their day. Kids this age need guidance from you on a daily plan that includes a little bit of time for everything. And staying involved works: Kids whose parents make an effort to limit media use spend less time with media than their peers do, according to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study. Use the American Academy of Pediatrics’ worksheets to create a family media plan.
Practice what you preach. It’s tempting to keep reaching for your phone to check email, texts, Facebook, or the news. But your kids will be the first to call you out for not “walking the talk.” Plus, they’ll pick up habits from you. Model the media behavior that you want your kids to emulate.
Help them make quality choices. You still have a say in what they see, hear, and play. Put in your two cents about the importance of quality shows, games, and movies.
Crack down on multitasking. High school kids who’ve discovered texting, IM, Facebook, and music tend to do them all at once — especially when they’re supposed to be doing mundane tasks like homework. But a University of Michigan study found that humans are terrible multitaskers and that the practice actually reduces the ability to concentrate and focus.
Find ways to say “yes.” Look for movies they can watch. Find games you’re OK with. If your teens ask to see something you don’t approve of, help them find alternatives.
THE 6 TYPES OF RELATIONSHIP-STRENGTHENING CONVERSATIONS INTENTIONAL COUPLES HAVE
“Few dating couples would get married if they had as little focused conversation as most married couples do.” – Dr. Bill Doughty, The Intentional Family
How couples talk to one another and what they discuss determines the way partners stay emotionally connected within their relationship.
For example, dual-income couples with kids, as observed by researchers, focused on mostly talking about household chores, daycare, and groceries.
I don’t know about you, but talking about picking up celery at the grocery store doesn’t make me feel loved.
The key to intentionally creating an intimate relationship is having a variety of conversations, almost like adding different spices to the meals you cook. Each spice offers a new flavor of deliciousness.
Some spices are rather dull but necessary to build baseline substance; some are bitter and are an acquired taste; and others create an indulgent sensation of pleasure.
Type 1: Routine Conversations
Routine conversations include discussions about chores, who’s taking the kids to what, what’s for dinner, and scheduling events, including date night.
These conversations are essential to accomplish practical things and to prevent items from falling through the cracks.
However, most often these conversations do not create a felt sense of emotional connection and intimacy. When Stacy asks Dave to vacuum, it’s unlikely Dave will gaze into her eyes and in a loving voice say, “I am going to vacuum this entire house!”
When couples end up unintentionally devoting the majority of their time and energy to routine conversations, their emotional intimacy will begin to fade, since they end up having nothing left over to energize their relationship.
It’s important to remember to be mindful of your tone of voice and to be conversational, rather than demanding or critical when having these types of conversations. Sometimes the routine conversation about plans can quickly lead to an escalated conflict based on how partners say things.
Couples often fall in love by getting to know each other. And then they often fall out of love because they forget to continue to get to know each other over the years. They stop asking questions and stop learning about each other and themselves.
Being known by and knowing your partner is what builds a strong friendship in your relationship. In secure, happy, and long-lasting relationships, partners are each other’s best friends.1
They share funny stories about the kids or work and listen to each other. Each one knows their partner’s frustrations, as well as their joys, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams.
Couples heading for trouble allow conflicts to consume friendship conversations—so much so that they stop asking intimate questions.
The good news is the research on relationship workshops 2 indicate that couples cherish the idea of becoming close friends and can do so instantly. Being a friend is less about learning skills and more about shifting your attitude.
Friendship talk is the number one way to make sure that you and your partner remain connected and in-tune with one another. The goal of friendship conversations is to have uninterrupted time to just be together and continue to learn about each other.
If you don’t prioritize having friendship talk, and you eventually stop having them completely, both partners will forget why they fell in love with one another (or even why they like each other) in the first place.
“Enhancing friendship in your marriage is an investment that will pay off over time in happiness and relationship satisfaction.” – Fighting For Your Marriage
Type 3: Support Conversations: “I Have Your Back”
When your partner is hurting what do you do? How do you offer support that your partner needs?
“When you’re hurting, the world stops, and I listen.” – Dr. John Gottman
Research has shown that emotional and physical support from a lover enhances personal well-being, especially under stress. 4 Researchers also discovered that feeling confident you can get the support you need and want from your partner is just as important as receiving that support.
“Although there is some mystery about whom we fall in love with, there is less mystery in what makes for a successful, rewarding relationship…Two of the key elements…are a safe haven and a secure base.” – Wyndol Furman
Dr. Furman 5 advises dating partners not to commit to a relationship unless they have been through a difficult time and each found their partner was supportive in a way that was helpful.
Essentially, relationship security is having faith that your partner will be there for you when you need them. This is the essence of a secure attachment bond.
In attachment world, we evaluate how well partners offer each other a safe haven—a place of emotional and physical refuge—when one of them is hurt, and a secure base from which they can go explore the world with curiosity knowing that they have a person who is cheering them on and will be there if needed.
Making time to give and ask for support is a key way in which you can show your partner that you care for them, understand what they’re going through, and have their back. How we provide that support and what we say is crucial. As much as it might be second nature to offer advice to your partner during their trials, support talk involves listening, validating, and just being there for your partner.
Not only does this help them feel secure in the relationship, but also helps put negative assumptions (“she doesn’t care about me”) at ease, so that feelings of not feeling cared for during small events aren’t triggered during more serious events.
Types of support:
Being there physically (in-person, on the phone, via text, etc.).
Doing things you may not normally do that make life easier for your partner when they are going through a stressful time.
Offering encouragement if your partner is going through something stressful, such as a job interview or something scary to them.
Offer emotional support when your partner is going through a difficult time.
Support goals and dreams. “In a successful relationship, your partner encourages you to develop your interest and talents…[Y]our partner is your number-one fan” – Wyndol Furman
Offer physical touch and support, such as a long hug, cuddling, and hand-holding. This offers your partner a felt sense that you are there for them even without saying a word.
It’s important that partners not only offer support but also talk openly about the types of support they need and how they offer support.
Like love languages, some forms of support are more meaningful to your partner, even ones that you may not find meaningful. Learning to offer support in the way that is most meaningful for your partner can drastically improve how supported your partner feels and vice versa.
Type 4: Conversations Centered on Affection and Appreciation
To build a strong relationship, it’s vital to create a culture of love, respect, and care. You can do this in small ways that can create lasting changes over time.
“I appreciate that you took the garbage out today. I love how I can count on you to help out around the house.”
“I love how you listen to what’s going on in my life. It makes me feel important and I appreciate that I can share that with you.”
“I cherish how much you care for our kids. It’s amazing to watch you parent and I truly admire how great of a person you are.”
Can you imagine what your relationship would be like if you and your partner regularly made statements and gestures like this to each other?
Take time to ask your partner what makes them feel most loved:
What makes you feel most loved by me?
What forms of affection, physical or verbal, help you feel important and loved?
Just as there are two experiences in every relationship, there are at least two different ways of feeling loved. Understanding and loving each other in the way each unique partner feels loved keeps the relationship strong.
Type 5: Relationship Enhancement Conversations (Conflict)
As much as we may hate conflict talk, it is necessary to make sure challenges, disagreements, and conflicts are dealt with constructively.
All relationships have conflict, but how lovers talk to each other about challenges determines how well the couple manages the problems to create win-win solutions.
“Within your conflicts, lies the greatest opportunity for intimacy.” – Dr. John Gottman
For couples, I recommend scheduling a weekly State of the Union meeting because the most effective intervention is prevention.
Here is the State of the Union meeting structure:
Set aside 30 minutes to an hour and find a place where both partners can be fully present and engaged. This means no distractions. Finally, check in with yourself to make sure you are ready to talk emotionally and are open to your partner’s experience and perspective.
Share five things you love, cherish, and/or appreciate about your partner. This reminds you that you love each other and are allies.
Pick a speaker and listener. As the listener, ask the speaker the following: “What went well in our relationship this week?” Listen, summarize what you heard, and validate your partner’s experience. Then switch.
Once you both feel like you’ve shared all the positives, then have the listener ask, “What occurred this week that we can improve on?” The goal is just to make a list (if necessary), not to actually start discussing the events or issue. Then switch roles.
After you have your improvement items, pick one key topic and choose a speaker and a listener. Switch roles throughout the conversation and focus only on understanding each other completely.
After both of you can say, “I feel completely understood,” then work together to find an agreeable win-win solution. Even if it is just something temporary you are trying out for the next week. Sometimes you won’t even need this. Just discussing it may be enough because feeling heard and validated is all partners need.
Finish by acknowledging each other for staying engaged and by saying one thing you love about each other. Then ask, “What is one thing I can do to help you feel more loved this week?”
Imagine how much your relationship would improve if you were proactive about what went well and what areas need some adjusting in the relationship?
For those conflict avoiders, doing this actually leads to less “out of nowhere” conflict in the relationship. I know you hate that kind of conflict. Not to mention you might learn a thing or two about what you do well and what your partner cherishes about you.
Do you also notice all the positivity embedded in the conflict conversation?
Trying to guess what turns your partner on by the sounds they make in the bedroom is kind of like pinning the tail on the donkey blindfolded. You’re guessing. This is why openly talking about it can be helpful. 6
Furthermore, research has estimated that 85% of sexual challenges can be resolved by giving partners permission to explore their sexuality and having accurate information about desire, arousal, and sex. 7
In long-term relationships, the tendency is to skip the sensual aspects of lovemaking and get to the mechanics of the peak act.
The lack of time and energy spent playfully and curiously exploring each other’s bodies and minds can lead to partners feeling like they are growing apart or that they are used as an object, rather than being relished in as a sexual being.
“There needs to be a place for romance and for sexual talking and touching your relationship – both in and outside the context of making love.” – Fighting for Your Marriage.
Create a body map of your partner and while touching all parts of their body they are comfortable with you touching, make a mental note of the areas they find sensitive and pleasurable.
Passionately kiss your partner at random times without getting intimate.
Take your time exploring each other’s genitals and exploring your own. They’re all beautiful. (Hint: Read Come As You Are to learn more about your body)
Try novel places, positions, and ways of touching or being intimate with each other.
Ask each other questions to learn about each other’s turn-ons and -offs. (Hint: The Gottman Card App has questions about sex).
Make sure your relationship is strong, too. Often it is not having a strong friendship, lacking commitment, feelings of insecurity, or nasty conflict that cause sexual desire to die in a relationship.
Read some books and watch videos from certified sex educators, who embody sex positivity, to learn more about yourself and your partner.
How many of these types of conversations do you have in your relationship? What types of conversations would you like to have more of?
It is my belief that lovers should be each other’s best friends. Research from Gottman, Prep, and other approaches. I think this can also be taken too far if romantic partners expect and sometimes demand their partners to be everything for them. Esther Perel talks more about this in her Ted Talk. ↩
(a)Babcock, J. C., Gottman, J. M., Kimberly, D. R., & Gottman, J. S. (2013). A component analysis of a brief psycho-educational couples’ workshop: one-year follow-up results. Journal of Family Therapy, 35, 252–280. doi: 10.1111/1467-6427.12017. (b)Hawkins, A. J., Blanchard, V. L., Baldwin, S. A., & Fawcett, E. B. (2008). Does marriage and relationship education work? A meta-analytic study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76, 723–734. ↩
(a)Bodenmann, G., & Shantinath, S.D. (2004). The Couples Coping Enhancement Training (CCET): A new approach to prevention of marital distress based upon stress and coping. Family Relations, 53, 477–484 (b)Johnson S.M., Moser M.B., Beckes L., Smith A., Dalgleish T., et al. (2014) Correction: Soothing the Threatened Brain: Leveraging Contact Comfort with Emotionally Focused Therapy. PLOS ONE, 9(8): 1054-1089. ↩
Furmen, W. (2001). What should fools find in love? In J. R. Levine & H. J. Markman (Eds.), Why do fools fall in love? San Francisco: Jossey Bass. 67-71 ↩
This can be difficult depending on family, religious, and cultural messaging. If you are open, I would challenge exploring this so you can have a more positive relationship with your sexuality. ↩
This comes from research on the PLISSIT model of sexual education and therapy. For example, John was sexually frustrated with Jane because she never initiated sex. John’s sex-ed courses never taught him that men, typically, tend to have more spontaneous sexual desire than women. And women typically have a more responsive sexual desire that is context-dependent. By strengthening the romantic relationship and creating an environment for responsive desire in the relationship the sexual frustration was no longer an issue. ↩
WHY GETTING MY 11-YEAR-OLD A PHONE WAS ONE OF THE BEST PARENTING DECISIONS I’VE EVER MADE
There was never any question in my mind that when our daughter started middle school, we would get her a smartphone. My husband and I work in technology-related fields and knew the benefits and drawbacks to getting her a phone at age 11. Instead of pledging to Wait Until 8th — delaying the introduction of a smartphone — we’ve spent the middle school years actively discussing and navigating the perceived dangers of the device while enjoying the unexpected advantages of it as a communication tool to strengthen our relationship. And you know what? It’s been one of the best parenting decisions we’ve ever made.
On any given day, I can usually count on at least one type of communication from my now 14-year-old daughter, who will start high school next year. This morning I sat down in my home office to get started with my work for the day and noticed that my daughter had updated her Instagram Story while waiting for the bus. She sent friends good-luck wishes for the week’s tests and a series of funny memes as a stress reducer. Her InstaStory was thoughtful and sweet and let me know that this week is going to be rough — even though she didn’t say it on her way out the door.
During the middle of the day, I noticed she posted during lunch when she was allowed to have her phone out at school. She breathed a sigh of relief that testing was over for the day and sent me a private message, responding to my InstaStory laughing at the day’s antics of our backyard chickens. On the bus home, she sent me a photo of a cat whose head was stuck through an entire pizza, followed by laugh emojis.
“Cat pizza? Really?” I asked as she walked in the door after school.
“Cat pizza!” she exclaimed, erupting in a fit of laughter. We talked about how ridiculous the meme was as she made her way to the fridge. She grabbed a stick of string cheese, and, holding it with one hand, she thrust the phone in my face with the other, scrolling through a series of memes that were just as hilarious. We were both laughing when her sixth-grade brother walked in the door a couple minutes later. Soon she was sharing what she had just showed me minutes before, and he was sitting there, shaking his head and smiling. Later the whole scenario was recounted for my husband at the dinner table. He had trouble understanding why this whole thing was funny until he was subjected to the meme thread, too. I guess you could say that social media has the power to bring us together as a family, even if we’re bonding over cat pizza.
While the decision about when to get your child a smartphone differs for every family, my husband and I don’t have any regrets about putting devices in our kids’ hands earlier rather than later. Sure, there have been downsides. We’ve learned exactly how quickly 2GB of data evaporates when kids are watching YouTube videos on the bus, witnessed the explosion of text messages in a group chat upon leaving the house to play a soccer game, and talked through some tough things before we meant to in the high school years. Text and private messages have been scrutinized together during conversations about how hard it is to convey tone through a screen. We’ve seen friendships wax and wane. But many of those ups and downs are as much hallmarks of adolescence as fallout from smartphone and social media use. And at every step of the way, parental involvement has been key.
If you’re looking to use social media as a positive way of communicating with your teen, here are three takeaways from our experience:
Realize the importance of learning together. While you may feel that you have a grasp on today’s social media tools, new ones are popping up every day. I remember when my daughter asked if she could download Sarahah. She said that some of her friends were using it, explained what it was used for, and asked if she could join, too. Before saying yes, I did my homework. I read the Common Sense Media review, polled fellow parent friends on Facebook, and did a quick Google search to get up to speed on the general parent sentiment. It’s not easy to parent in the digital age when new apps, social media platforms, and devices are coming out, but it’s important for families to work toward teaching responsibility and creating conversations, rather than just saying no.
Use the same social media tools as your kids. Not only does this familiarize you with the platforms, but having an account facilitates communication and conversations about the things that are important to your teens. My daughter and I communicate regularly through Instagram, and even though we don’t have a Snap streak going, I can still keep an eye on the content she posts.
Be respectful about what you post and the way you interact with your teen on social media platforms. While social media tools are great methods of communication, be aware of what is and isn’t OK. As my daughter has gotten older and her friends have become more social media savvy, I’m even more careful about what content I post. I’ve always checked with my kids to ensure the photos I’m sharing get their stamp of approval, partly because I know their friends can see what I post. Have a conversation with your teen about what is and isn’t OK, and know that what they may deem appropriate now might not be in the near future.
The talk. The birds and the bees. The awkward conversation with your parents you dreaded as a child. It probably went something like this: “Well, when two people love each other very much…” followed by a vague description of the physical act of sex, contraceptives, pregnancy, and STIs.
But were you ever taught about consent? What about affirmative consent? Did your parents and the adults in your life practice consent with each other, and with you? The #MeToo stories about non-consensual interactions, specifically ones that live in the grey area or ones that happen in childhood, are something we should all strive to eliminate from the next generation by educating our kids today.
If we can teach our kids about consent and show them how to practice it through our actions, through those little teaching moments, then maybe, these stories can be less common.
Here are seven ways to teach your kids, and the kids in your lives, about consent.
Practice consent by example Before children even learn to speak, they learn by observing and mimicking the world around them. It’s called observational learning. By practicing consent with our partners, friends, and other children, we can begin to model what consent should look like to those ever-watchful eyes.
This also extends to how we practice consent in our relationships with our children. By giving children choices in expressing consent in how they would like to be touched, we teach them how to express it when we’re not around. For example, If you want to kiss your child goodnight, ask them, “May I give you a kiss goodnight?” and respect their answer.
Give them bodily autonomy Giving children choice is a gateway to giving them the tools to express their consent. You can ask your child “Do you want to wear your blue shoes or your yellow shoes today?” In the same way, it is important to give children options when it comes to their body. For example, if they have a rash and they need ointment you can say, “You need ointment for your rash, do you want to put it on, or can I help you?”
Giving children simple choices every day shows them that they have bodily autonomy so that they can carry that into other interactions. In the same way, it is important to not take that bodily autonomy away from your children. A common way children lose their bodily autonomy is through adults coercing them to hug and/or kiss relatives and friends. It’s important to show children that they have a choice. If they say no, you can give them alternatives, like “How about a fist bump?” but the key is to respect a “no” that may follow.
Teach them to listen to their bodies Consent isn’t just a verbal interaction, so it’s important that we teach children to listen to their bodies. What feels good and what doesn’t feel good to them? Teaching them what it feels like to be present in their physical self, and what it feels like to have their physical needs honored and met, is key to them being able to appropriately express their needs later.
Teaching children about their physical pleasure is something that Sue Jaye Johnson, a journalist and filmmaker, talks about working through with her daughters. In an interview for the Future of Sex Podcast, she talks about how her daughter will ask her to rub her back and how she then asks “Well, how would you like me to rub your back?” giving her daughter the space to think about her pleasure and express her physical wants in a productive way. In the same way, we also need to teach our children to listen to their gut feelings and instincts. Our bodies are a powerful tool in telling us that something doesn’t feel right. By encouraging children to give credence to these feelings and voice them, we encourage an understanding of their own pleasure and needs and how they might express that to future partners.
Give them the tools to express their physical wants and needs Once a child has language at their disposal, we can begin to help them express their wants and needs though their words. We can teach them polite ways to decline affection like “No, thank you. I don’t want to hug right now.” But we should also be teaching them that they can just say “no” and that that’s ok, too.
Rather than teaching our girls the narrative that if a boy teases you, he likes you, we should be teaching our kids that if they don’t like something and ask someone to stop, they need to stop. If their words aren’t heeded, that may be the appropriate time to involve an adult or remove themselves from interaction with the offending kid. In the same way, it is important to teach kids to ask permission, with words and gestures. They can offer a hand to hold or hold out their hands for a hug, but they also need to ask, use their words, and know that someone may say no.
Teach them how to handle physical rejection While we need to teach our kids how to say no, we also need to teach our kids to recognize and accept the rejection of affection. It’s important to encourage them to stop when someone says no, and to step in as adults when we recognize our kids being affection aggressors, holding other kids a little too long or a little too hard.
We can teach kids to accept rejection and redirect them. We can tell them that just because a friend doesn’t want a hug, that that doesn’t mean they don’t love them and we can direct them to show affection in other ways. You can tell your child to use words of affirmation, acts of service, or gifts to express affection. While channeling affection is important, it’s also important to just teach that it’s ok that someone doesn’t want something, in the same way that they may not want things at times. They are in control of their bodies, just as someone else is in control of theirs.
Turn awkward moments into teaching opportunities Something I’ve talked a lot about with peers is how their parents handled sex scenes in movies and television growing up. As a millennial, the general binary in my generation is parents who fast-forwarded through sex scenes and parents who made you endure the sex scenes in a tense silence. In addition to this binary, there are a lot of movies and shows from my childhood, and from generations prior, that display non-consensual interactions in a way that makes them seem okay.
What if we didn’t let that slide? What if we took media and created a dialogue, especially with older children and teens? If you’re watching a movie with your kid that has a sex scene, use the time that could be spent being awkward to talk about what’s being done right and what the characters should be doing regarding consent in the interaction.
Believe them and advocate for them Finally, and most importantly, it is essential to believe children and advocate for them. If your child expresses discomfort or unease, ask them about their feelings and validate them. This is a crucial step of Emotion Coaching. When you believe them, it creates an open channel for communication between you. It teaches them them to trust you and trust their own instincts. So in turn, they might also believe the story of someone else.
Ask them if they want or need intervention. It’s then your responsibility to advocate for them with whomever is making them uncomfortable. That might mean talking to a parent, teacher, coach, or other adult. Sometimes we’re the ones that need to step in and have those tough conversations until our children are old enough to have them on their own.
Rather than having “the talk” with your kids, think of teaching consent as an ongoing dialogue—a million little conversations and day-to-day actions that can help them feel comfortable and safe in their own bodies, and respect the sanctity of someone else’s.
HOW TO TALK TO KIDS ABOUT VIOLENCE, CRIME, AND WAR
Exposure to graphic images, distressing information, and horrific
headlines can affect kids’ overall well-being.
shootings. Nuclear weapons. A robbery at your local corner store. Where do you
start when you have to explain this stuff to your kids? Today, issues involving
violence, crime, and war — whether they’re in popular shows, video games,
books, or news coverage — reach even the youngest kids. And with wall-to-wall
TV coverage, constant social media updates, streaming services that broadcast
age-inappropriate content any time of day, plus the internet itself, you have
to have a plan for discussing even the worst of the worst in a way that’s
age-appropriate, that helps kids understand, and that doesn’t cause more harm.
Don’t bring it up —
unless you think they know something. There’s no reason
to bring up school shootings, terrorist attacks, threats of war, or the like
with young kids. If you suspect they do know something — for example, you hear
them talking about it during their play — you can ask them about it and see if
it’s something that needs further discussion.
Affirm that your
family’s safe. In the case of scary news, such as wilderness fires
— even if you’re a little rattled — it’s important for young children to know
they’re safe, their family is OK, and someone is taking care of the problem.
Hugs and snuggles do wonders, too.
Simplify complex ideas
— and move on. Abstract ideas can complicate matters and may even
scare young kids. Use concrete terms and familiar references your kid will
understand, and try not to overexplain. About a mass shooting, say, “A man
who was very, very confused and angry took a gun and shot people. The police
are working to make sure people are safe.”
“real” and “pretend.” Young kids have rich
fantasy lives and mix up make-believe and reality. They may ask you if a scary
story is really true. Be honest, but don’t belabor a point.
Wait and see. Unless they
ask, you know they were exposed, or you think they know something, don’t feel
you have to discuss horrific news or explain heinous crimes such as rape,
beheadings, dismemberment, and drug-fueled rampages (especially to kids in the
younger end of this age range or who are sensitive). If kids show signs of
distress by acting anxious, regressing, or exhibiting some other tip-off that
something’s amiss — for example, they’re reluctant to go to school after the
latest school shooting — approach them and invite them to talk.
Talk … and listen. Older tweens hear about
issues related to violence, crime, and war on social media, YouTube, TV, and movies —
not always reliable sources for facts. Try to get a sense of what your kids
know before launching into an explanation, since you don’t want to distress
them further or open up a whole new can of worms. Feel them out by asking,
“What did you hear?,” “Where did you hear that?,”
“What do you know about it?,” and “What do you think about
Be honest and direct. Tweens can find out what
they want to know from different sources, and you want the truth to come from you. It’s
not necessary to go into extreme detail. About a family who held their kids
hostage, you can say, “The kids suffered many different kinds of abuse.
But they were rescued, and their parents were arrested. Often in cases of child
abuse, the parents are very sick with mental illness or other issues.”
in news and media. Talk to kids about how media outlets — including news agencies,
TV shows, movie companies, and game developers — use extreme subjects to get attention, whether it’s in
the form of clicks, viewership, or ticket sales. Share the old
newsroom adage, “If it bleeds, it leads,” and talk about why we may
be drawn to outrageous human behavior. This helps kids think critically about
the relative importance of issues, the words and images used to attract an
audience, and their own media choices.
Explain context and
offer perspective. With your life experience, knowledge, and wisdom, you can
explain the various circumstances around certain issues. This is the process
that gives things meaning and clarity — and it’s important for kids to be able
to make sense of negative and unpleasant things, too. To work through the
powerful emotions that images of beatings, blood, and human suffering can bring
up, kids have to learn to distance themselves from horrific events, understand
the underlying causes, and perhaps get involved in meaningful ways to make things
better, such as diplomacy and education.
Get them talking. High school years can be
tough, as teens start rejecting their parents’ ideas, becoming concerned with
what friends think, and developing their own voice. This separation can be
especially difficult when traumatic events occur or when you know they’re
interacting with mature media. To continue the kinds of conversations you had
when they were younger — and stay connected and relevant — resist the urge to
lecture and instead ask their opinions about things. Encourage them to support
their ideas with legitimate news sources, not just repeat what others have said. Say,
“We may not always agree, but I’m curious to hear what you have to
Accept their sources,
but expand their horizons. Trending topics capture the headlines, but teens
are just as likely to run across provocative subjects, stories, and characters
on TV and in movies — such as the meth-making chemistry teacher of Breaking
Bad — that get users clicking, viewing, and sharing. Give teens the tools to view information critically,
whether they’re scrolling through Snapchat, Netflix or a free-speech site for
extremists such as 4chan and 8chan. Teach them to question what they see by
asking themselves, “Who made this?,” “Why did they make
it?,” “What’s its point of view?,” “What information isn’t
included?,” and “What would my friends think of this?” These
media-literacy questions help teens evaluate information, think beyond the clickbait headline or funny meme, and
look more deeply into a topic.
My older daughter was less than a week old when the
Sandy Hook school shooting happened. I remember clutching her body to my chest
and watching cable news, horrified by the world I had brought her into. For
days after, I worried about taking her outside our home and into crowded
places. I had a pungent, spiky fear that felt very real in the moment. If
someone could gun down a bunch of 6-year-olds, I thought at the time, the
notion of safety was ephemeral.
Parenting is an ongoing process of learning to
tolerate the idea “that you cannot entirely keep your children safe,” said Dr.
Alexandra Sacks, M.D., a reproductive psychiatrist based in New York City, who
called this struggle the “existential paradox” of parenthood.
I spoke to two psychiatrists and two pediatricians about
how parents — and their children — can deal with increased anxiety and fear in
the aftermath of these shootings.
Understand that a few days of
increased anxiety is normal. “It’s an appropriate response
to a really traumatic event,” said Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, M.D., a clinical
assistant professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University School of
Medicine. If you need more downtime at home in the few days after such
upsetting violence, you should feel empowered to take that space, Dr. Lakshmin
said. And acknowledging your feelings is key — avoiding or pushing them down
won’t make them go away.
Reach out to parent friends. Connecting with your community to talk through fears can help, Dr.
Lakshmin said. That’s particularly true for parents of color or those from
religious minorities, who may feel especially acute anxiety in this moment
because of the white extremist ideology of
many recent mass shooters.
Try to stick to your routine. “Every time a shooting happens, our sense of reality falls apart,”
Dr. Lakshmin said. “The world you thought you were living in is not the world
you’re actually in.” So trying to maintain your routine keeps you tethered to
your day-to-day life. Overcoming your fears by taking your kids to the park, to
the store or to camp as planned can help to keep the anxiety from overwhelming
Channel anxiety into action. Finding a way to contribute in the aftermath of a tragedy, whether
by volunteering with organizations that work to prevent mass shootings or by
helping a community affected, can help redirect your fears, Dr. Sacks
said. The El Paso Times published
recommendations for its community, as did the Dayton Daily News.
Step away from the news. If you find that reading or viewing the details of violent events
is triggering your anxiety, try to edit your media diet, Dr. Sacks said. “I do
hear from parents that they can be drawn to catastrophic things that happen
with children in the news,” she said. “It’s incredibly painful to them, but
they feel a pull toward these stories in their empathy and identification.”
It’s helpful to minimize kids’ exposure to news as well,
said Dr. Jackie Douge, M.D., a pediatrician based in Maryland and a fellow at
the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Don’t dodge the hard
conversations. If you suspect your kids know about
an incidence of mass violence, you should ask them what they have heard, said
Dr. Nia Heard-Garris, M.D., an attending physician at the Ann and Robert H.
Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “You don’t want to give so much
information that you’re introducing trauma yourself,” Dr. Heard-Garris said.
But “you also want them to trust you,” that you’re not hiding difficult things
from them. If you start with what they know, you “can try to address any
misconceptions, or rumors, any anxieties right then and there,” she said.
While “it’s affecting all children” negatively to hear about particular communities singled out for violence, Dr. Heard-Garris said, parents of kids who hear about their religious or racial communities being targeted can send them the following message: “I know there’s a lot of bad stuff happening in the world, but it’s my job as a parent to try to keep you safe.”
Know when to get help. If you find that you’re anxious for more than a week, or if your
sleep, eating or other routines are disrupted, it may be time to talk to a
therapist. “If you’re finding these intrusive thoughts are not controllable and
they become so loud that you’re taking a circuitous route to get to work, or
not letting your kids go to soccer practice, that’s when I would say it’s time
to see a therapist and have a more structured space to unpack these fears,” Dr.
The same goes for your kids — a little additional fear
or anxiety is normal after traumatic events, but if their anxiety is affecting
their relationships, sleep or their behavior at school, talk to your primary
care provider, Dr. Douge said.
Your child’s fears may be triggered again by school
lockdown drills, which millions of children
experience each year, and which may leave kids traumatized. All
you can do with the recurrence of fear is to reassure kids that these tragic
events are still rare, overall, and that their home is a safe place for them to
unpack their worries. Tell them: “Your teachers, your doctor, your pastor or
rabbi, we love and care about you,” Dr. Heard-Garris said, and that home is
“where they have this refuge from this crazy world.”
Can we really achieve world peace? Using findings from studies on love and diplomacy, Julie Schwartz Gottman explores how to create peace in the world by dissecting human communication in her TEDx Talk, World Peace Starts at Home.
She explains that no matter the argument, both diplomats and couples are most successful when they postpone persuasion until they understand each other’s position.
As she creates more peace in the home through the work of The Gottman Institute, Julie hopes to also create more peace in the world.
This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.
Emotional abuse is real. In my line of work, I’ve watched women of all different backgrounds live through the pain it can cause, and I’ve seen it haunt them. I’ve seen them suffer the trauma of someone dominating, berating, criticizing, and chastising them.
It brings unanswered questions. Questions like whether the very act of breathing is allowed. I’ve witnessed their agony of hoping that someone, anyone, will finally notice their torment.
Although emotional abuse has many forms, it’s still wildly taboo and often considered something people should just get over or simply live through. It can leave victims completely unaware that they’re even being oppressed.
They feel that it’s not as nearly as “bad” as physical violence or that they aren’t in the same situation. And in some cases, they feel they simply aren’t worthy enough to call themselves violated.
Whether pain from abuse stems psychologically, verbally, physically, emotionally, or sexually—abuse is abuse. And it needs to be stopped before another person has to suffer in silence.
I’m reminded of the old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But in all truth, words do hurt.
How emotional abuse feels
I stop short of the door and hold my hand against the frame. I just want to leave so bad. I know somewhere inside that I don’t have to take this. I am free to simply walk out of the door. But I am frozen. Transfixed by the threshold, unsure of how to cross while keenly aware of how many steps there are toward freedom. Gripped by courage, I take a step forward.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I freeze again, feeling the hairs stand up on my neck.
Hearing his voice so close, I want to scream. Subliminally I bolt, not physically but emotionally, running freely. I watch my imaginary self run away, stationary. I stare ahead, watching, oh how I envy her.
Psychologically, I can feel my overwhelming desire to just get away—to run and find a way to completely disappear. He speaks again and the echo of his hate hangs in the air, unsettled, like a rancid stench. I feel smothered by the scent and I grapple with the meaning of words that he speaks at me. The ruthless force of his weapon of words, aimed at my jugular, he wields indifferently. It is dehumanizing.
I wonder how many times I would let the effects of such an attack be a part of my life. How long would I stay put and continue to just endure? How long would I allow the steady stream of vulgarities and disparities to fill space in the vulnerable recesses of my self-esteem, or what was left of it? I can’t explain away why this hurts so badly, why the memories stay etched in the fibers of my muscles as if I were being physically struck every single time he opens his mouth.
I bruise in the form of a blush as my cheeks fill with heat from the harassment and embarrassment of the steady barrage of animosity that spews from his mouth when he directs his anger at me. I flinch and attempt to speak up. Raising my voice, I pretend to find courage.
Every time he is triggered, I fleetingly try to defend myself. I imagine standing my ground while weakly defending my principles as I am annihilated by the sheer brute force of his words. He speaks and his power shuts off my reasoning and takes seize of my oration. In stunned silence, his assault leaves me inundated with fear and has literally forced my words to recoil back into my throat, extinguishing the very air from my chest.
Defenseless and silent, I again attempt to summon my deserted courage, finding none. So many times, tears spill from once dry places, saturating my hot cheeks. And I take it. All of it. The full force of his revulsion, saying nothing in return.
How often I just take every verbal blow, every strike against the temple of my ego. I find myself listening hungrily, gobbling up every detail of what is wrong with my person. My sullied thoughts can no longer comprehend my ability to try and defend myself. I recognize that I don’t have any of the ammunition needed for this battle.
I wait, pitiful and exhausted, as his abusive tirade doesn’t show signs of ending. My attacker screams poison and I’m paralyzed as his vitriol intensifies, relentlessly pointing out fallacy after fallacy. I find that I cannot stand, so I finally sit down.
This only seems to reinforce my vulnerability and inferiority. Now he is standing over me, conquering me. His spittle flies from the hate-filled spaces in his mouth as he covers me in his blatant and unforgiving verbal attack. His speech never falters. He’s dramatic and animated, as if giving an audition to an unseen crowd. Forced to listen to his words, as he calls me a “slut and a whore,” I try to drive the unyielding impressions from my mind. Nevertheless, I can feel myself recording him, pervasively, into the deep and unprotected crevices of my hearing, defining me.
He waits only for silent applause from his own spirit. Enjoying his speech, he smiles at my deprivation as he goes for the kill. “Your stupidity knows no bounds,” he yells, “your incompetence is at an all-time high.” He screams more hate, “You’re fat, ugly, and useless. No one wants you, you’re unlovable, undeserving, undesirable,” and he ends with the booming, “You’re nothing.”
Again, I take it all in, memorizing every detail from the jarring baritone of his voice to the sadistic way he crafts his words. Every time I survive this experience, I still die, just a little, on the inside. I can’t help but seek the sweet and silent solace of death, feeling like this has to be the only way out.
Emotional abuse is just as damaging
This is just one example of how emotional abuse is experienced. It makes the recipient think there’s no way out, and no way to overcome all that they have gone through. The unhealthy tethers to their abuser are simply a coping mechanism and make it so much easier to believe the lies—like verbal abuse isn’t “real” abuse.
Most people don’t recognize that emotional abuse is just as damaging and traumatizing as physical abuse, sometimes even more so. While physical bruises will fade over time, emotional bruising leaves an invisible disfigurement that materializes as soon as the wound is reopened.
So many people suffer in an unacceptable silence, dealing with the emotional scars as if they were never there. No amount of makeup can cover the unseen evidence and as a result, many women try to pretend it never happened.
The heartless onslaught of pain that is created by verbal manipulation and abuse takes the battered to a place of hopelessness and introduces them to a type of emotional suicide. They never know how to accept what they are surviving. People around them tend to admonish them or minimalize their trauma.
“All he does is yell at you. You got it easy.”
These statements make abused women feel like they shouldn’t even try to escape. That they should be accepting and even appreciative that their abuser doesn’t physically assault them. No one sees the patterns of self-defeat and destruction that come from these types of assault.
I want women, and men, to recognize their worthiness. Everyone is worthy of being treated with respect. Your opinions and your desire to have autonomy over your life does not give someone the right to hurt you or your feelings. You deserve to find someone who truly loves you for who you are. Someone who understands what you need and doesn’t feel threatened by you offering your opinion.
Real freedom means “free at heart and free in mind.” You have to begin to realize that you are worthy and to remind yourself of this every day. You have to rebuild the positive levels of self-preservation that your self-esteem needs to heal.
You can do this. You deserve this and you have to see it first for yourself. You have to un-believe the lies and trust that there is hope for you.
It’s this way of thinking that will lead you towards the path of healing, and in the process, you’ll recognize that you don’t have to pretend not to hurt, you can recognize that your pain is real and that your voice deserves to be heard.
HOW TO CHANGE THE WAY YOU FEEL (WITHOUT CHANGING ANYTHING ELSE)
Happiness does not start with a relationship, a degree, a job, or money. It starts with your thinking and what you tell yourself today.
“I had a date scheduled for last night with this guy I started talking to on a dating app. I waited outside the diner where we agreed to meet for 30 minutes past the time we were supposed to meet. He never showed up. All sorts of negative thoughts were running through my head. I thought maybe he saw me from a distance, didn’t like what he saw, and then bailed.
Just as I was about to leave, one of my old college friends, Jared, who I haven’t seen in nearly a decade, walked up to me with a huge smile on his face and said, ‘Carly! It’s great to see you! You look fantastic!’ I almost blew him off because of how I felt inside at the moment. But luckily I pulled myself together to engage in a conversation.
After we talked in that same spot for awhile, he said, ‘What are you doing for dinner?’ We ended up going into the diner I was supposed to eat at with the no-show date and having an amazing conversation filled with laughter. After dinner he walked me to my car, we exchanged numbers, and he asked me out on a formal date for this Friday night.”
Our Stories Make or Break Us
The story above comes from Carly, one of our recent Think Better, Live Better 2019 attendees (and of course, we’re sharing her story with permission).
Think about how her initial reaction was rooted so heavily in negativity. Her date didn’t show up and she immediately crumbled inside. Now think about the amazing opportunity she would have missed if she had let that negativity endure. And think about how often your negativity gets the best of you.
How often do let your insecurities stop you?
Or, how often do you judge others for their imperfections?
What you need to realize right now is that you have a story about yourself and others (or perhaps a series of stories) that you recite to yourself daily. This is your mental movie, and it’s a feature film that plays on repeat in your mind. Your movie is about who you are and how the world is supposed to be: your tummy is too flabby, your skin is too dark or too pale, you aren’t smart, you aren’t lovable… you aren’t good enough. And of course, you catch yourself picking out all sorts of imperfections in others, and the world at large, too.
Start to pay attention when your movie plays—when you feel anxiety about being who you are or facing the realities of life—because it affects everything you do. Realize that this movie isn’t real, it isn’t true, and it isn’t you. It’s just a train of thought that can be stopped—a script that can be rewritten.
Ready to rewrite the script?
Let’s start by being honest… Sometimes negativity absolutely dominates our better judgment!
So, how do we outsmart our own negative tendencies so we can feel better, behave better, and ultimately live better? There are many ways, but Angel and I often recommend two simple (but not easy) practices:
1. Practice questioning your stories.
You know what they say, don’t believe everything you hear nor everything you read. Don’t believe the gossip columns in every magazine, the doom and gloom predictions from your co-workers, or the “shocking news” that you hear on TV… until you have verified it.
Well, the same concept applies to your inside world—your thoughts.
We all have stories about ourselves and others even if we don’t think of them as stories. Case in point: How often do you pause to logically contemplate what you really think about your relationships, your habits, or your challenges? How often, on the other hand, do you just blurt out whatever fleeting emotion comes to mind—i.e., the pre-recorded movie script you’ve been holding on to—without even thinking straight?
Stories can be short, such as “I’m not a good writer,” “I’m not good at yoga,” or “I have intrinsic relationship problems.” And if we were to dig deeper into your own personal version of these stories, I bet you’d be happy to go on and try to explain why the stories you’ve been holding onto are real. Even though the aren’t. They’re just stories.
So the key practice here is to question your stories. For instance, let’s take the writer example. Ask yourself: Why do I think I am not a good writer? What would it look like to be a good writer? Can I describe my current writing in a way that serves me better?
You will be surprised by how often the questioning process helps you emerge with a clearer and more accurate version of your story. Give it a try!
2. Practice running your thoughts through three key filters.
Sometimes you are in a hurry, and not having a great day to boot. On days like this, there’s a mental conditioning exercise I recommend that’s super quick and can help keep your attitude in check…
I’ve been in arguments with my my wife, Angel, in the past and one of the things I certainly regretted was not filtering my words before saying them. At the time of these arguments, I did not have the right tools, except for thinking “Be nice!”, which does nothing for you when you’re feeling the opposite of nice. Some years later I found this simple tool that helped me shift my behavior. Here’s how it works:
Before you utter anything, run your thoughts through three key filters and don’t speak unless you get three resounding “YES” responses:
Is it true?
Is it kind?
Is it helpful?
For example, let’s say a running thought in your head says that your partner doesn’t care about you, and you are about to shout those words out because he or she didn’t do the last chore you requested. Question that thought first: Is it true that my partner doesn’t care about me? Is it kind for me to say or think this? Is it helpful for me to say or think this?
Remember you can’t take your words back. What’s more, you will never regret behaving in a true, kind and helpful way down the road. So make it a ritual in your life in the days and weeks ahead.
Now, it’s your turn…
Leverage the two practices above to gradually rewrite the script of your mental movie. Learn to recognize the worn-out flicker of your old movie starting up, and then stop it. Seriously! Whenever you catch yourself reciting lines from your old script (“My arms are flabby…” or “My spouse deserves the silent treatment…”), flip the script and replace those lines with truer, kinder and more helpful ones. This takes some practice, but it’s worth it. Just keep practicing, and forgiving yourself for making mistakes along the way.
And keep in mind that various kinds of external negativity will attempt to distract you from your new script and your better judgment—comments from family, news anchors, social media posts… lots of things other people say and do. When you sense negativity coming at you, learn to deflect it. Give it a small push back with a thought like, “That remark is not really about me, it’s about you.” Remember that all people have emotional issues they’re dealing with (just like you), and it makes them difficult and thoughtless sometimes. They are doing the best they can, or they’re not even aware of their issues. In any case, you can learn not to interpret their behaviors as personal attacks, and instead see them as non-personal encounters (like an obnoxious little dog barking in the distance) that you can either respond to gracefully, or not respond to at all.
So, what was your biggest takeaway from this short article?