Tag Archives: Child

Stressed Out Kids: Who’s to Blame?

For this 100th blog post, I’ve decided to write about a topic that is killing us.

Literally.

I can’t think of a more important issue for the health of our children and our families than stress. Think your kid isn’t stressed? Think again. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), 91 percent of children in the United States report feeling stressed—even though many of their parents reported those same kids were not anxious. It really shouldn’t be that surprising to us parents—as stress permeates every facet, age-group and demographic of our over-stretched, frenetic American lifestyle. Of course it has to affect our children too.

As I’ve reported for multiple magazines and news outlets, stress is a killer. Well, not stress exactly—but how we deal with it. When there are chronic excess levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in our bloodstream, we put ourselves at risk for heart attack, stroke, diabetes and multiple autoimmune disorders. Pregnant women, especially, need to watch stress levels as cortisol crosses the blood-stream barrier and is linked to potential attention deficit disorder and memory impairment later in life—as well as being a precursor to pre-term birth. (See my FitPregnancy magazine article Beat the Four Biggest Pregnancy Stressors ).

We are just starting to uncover the truth about how stressed our children really are and what this means for their futures and their health. The APA’s latest Stress in America survey  shows that while a majority of parents didn’t think their children were feeling stress, 91 percent of children interviewed reported they were. And what do you think caused children, ages 8 – 17, the most anxiety? Watching their parents. This information from the survey really struck a cord:

“Nearly three-quarters (69 percent) of parents say that their stress has only a slight or no impact on their children, yet 91 percent of children report they know their parent is stressed because they observe a multitude of behaviors, such as yelling, arguing and complaining.”

Think about it, our young children watch us, worry, and later mimic us. In the meantime, their stress-filled bodies often become over-weight. Another article I’m writing this month for a health care magazine shows that Type-2 diabetes rates among children are rising at a staggering pace—even in fitness-oriented cities such as Los Angeles. The typical reasoning is our changing American lifestyle that hampers children from riding their bikes freely or walking to school. One diabetic physician in Los Angeles told me that children are staying home alone and playing video games more and more—then eating fast food for dinner. But that’s for another story…

Stress has other potential side-effects for our kids. For instance, one recent study linked extreme stress (such as children living with a chronically ill parent or sibling, or those who have experienced or witnessed violence crimes) with poor school performance, exacerbated health issues and a likelihood to abuse drugs and alcohol. And a University of Wisconsin-Madison study concluded that intense and lasting stress actually alters children’s brain functioning: reducing short-term memory and cognitive abilities.

Helping Our Children Starts at Home

Clearly, it’s critical that we help our children lower their stress levels. But how can we expect our kids to manage their stress well—if we, as parents, aren’t doing a good job ourselves? It’s a bit hypercritical and impractical as the bad reactions and habits we have actually triggers their anxiety!

We are our children’s teachers. They watch our every move. If we are snapping at them and rushing in all directions at a scattered pace to get to work, school and a myriad of activities—how can we expect them to roll with the punches? How can we expect them to be relaxed, if we aren’t? Yesterday I overheard a mom at the grocery store yell at her whining toddler: “STOP it or I’ll pop you in the mouth!”

Clearly, that didn’t work—or make her more relaxed. But who hasn’t felt that way? (Obviously, I’ve had my moments too! See this post.) Who hasn’t been triggered by over-load from work and life demands that suddenly leave you breathless and reacting instantly instead of calmly and patiently?

I know I can be guilty of this. If I don’t slow down or limit the number of obligations I have on my plate, I’m less mindful.

Think of what other habits you may be forming that aren’t the best for you or your kiddos. Do you often complain about work demands or money? Do you find yourself racing around, not listening, and then ordering pizza, putting a kids show on the tube and pouring yourself a glass of vino to veg out? Do you and the hubby argue in front of the kids?

They’re watching, or listening, even if you think they aren’t. I’m not trying to lay on the guilt…like we all need one more thing to feel bad about! But, I’ve come to the conclusion that if I expect my children to make healthier choices—I have to as well. It starts at home. It starts with me.

I recently wrote an article about kids and stress for Pulse, a Los Angeles-based healthcare magazine for Torrance Memorial Medical Center. (Soon to be published.) I reported about an elementary school principal in Palos Verdes, Calif. who hired a stress-reduction and mindfulness expert to come into her school last year to teach young children techniques to lower their stress levels. The health expert, who has a Master’s Degree in clinical holistic health education, showed the children relaxation techniques, including how to “find a safe place” through guided imagery and meditation.

This program was introduced before the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, and surprisingly, even in the wealthy enclave of Palos Verdes—many children reported feeling stressed and anxious on a weekly basis. Most anxiety was reported as stemming from wanting to fit in or pressure to excel (yes, even in elementary school!) and worrying about their parents. So you see, even if you think your children aren’t feeling the strain that other kids are, you’re likely wrong.

Wouldn’t it be great if more schools in America introduced yoga, meditation and other mindfulness workshops to their children? In a time with multiple school budget cuts, it’s not likely. And, to be more on topic, unless parents attend these workshops with their children—I wonder if stress levels would lower very much within the family dynamic?

I know in this family, it’s time for mom to make a concerted and consistent effort to lower anxiety levels for my boys.  And that starts, well, with me.

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My Heart Breaks for Syrian Children

War_Is_Not_Healthy

Another Mother For Peace logo

Children should NOT be targeted in war. End of story.

Tonight I weeped as I watched an unbearably graphic video on CNN. I had just tucked my little guys in for the night, crept upstairs to drink a cup of coco, turned on the TV (thinking it was on a different channel) and there was a little girl screaming directly into the camera. I sunk onto the coffee table—frozen by the terror unfolding in front of me. A little girl is shouting for help, with only a photographer in her face and no one to protect her. I’m not going to provide a link to this video. It literally showed children screaming and somehow the person taking the picture was apparently terrifying them more—a baby in the arms of his big sister was shaking uncontrollably and screaming hysterically while his sister tried desperately to find a place to run.

I instantly thought of my good friend in London, a Syrian doctor with two young children. Her son was my oldest son’s best friend in Kindergarten. I adore her two children. She has family near the Lebanese border and I recall how brave she was when she flew back with supplies (diapers, medicines, etc.) to aid those who had been affected by an Israeli bombing in the region six years ago. How does she sleep at night knowing that her country’s leader is literally targeting children? How will she explain this terror to her kids, now 10 and 6 years old?

A quick search online reveals how many horrors Syrian children have witnessed in the past year. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has killed thousands of children in the past year: bombing them in playgrounds, killing them indiscriminately, and purposely. They have bombed hospitals and targeted neighborhoods with civilians. In May, more than 32 children, many infants, were “mutilated” and killed in another attack. The last estimate by UNICEF, (which was in February), reported 500 Syrian children had been killed. Well, we know the number is clearly three or four times that amount 10 months later.

And now, al-Assad may use chemical bombs or gas in a desperate attempt to not lose control—or take everyone with him if he does. He could wipe out thousands of innocent children and families in one swoop.

Even without the threat of chemical gas…how will the hundreds of thousands of refugees living in camps at border towns—at least a third of which are children—survive the winter? How will the families whose homes are now bombed survive the winter? It’s getting bitterly cold and aid can’t be supplied.

Again, my heart aches for these children. It’s time for the world to say ENOUGH.

Mom in the Picture

My sister Sarah and her son Elijah

I took a hard week off to visit my family in North Carolina. My mother, who is most likely in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease, probably didn’t even know who I was. But, it felt important to see her, to hold her hand, to smile at her. Plus, I was able to visit my sisters and brother and their children who I haven’t seen in over a year. While I was gone, I read Lisa Belkin’s HuffPost column: Moms Explain Why They’re Getting Back In the Picture.  Take a moment to read this column. I was touched by it. The column inspires moms to get back in the picture with their families and children. I know that my own mom never liked to “be in the picture” and my two sisters, who are wonderful moms, also shy from the camera.

It’s clear that their sons adore them and could care less if stress and health issues have added pounds or grey hair. Our children adore us just the way we are. Single moms out there—I know so many of you can relate to this. Perhaps the financial stress, emotional stress and the exhaustion of working long hours makes you feel less attractive than you’d like. But your children love you and want photos with you in the picture to remember wonderful moments. If they love you unconditionally—it’s time to start loving yourself the same way.

With that in mind, I’m posting two pictures in this post. The first is of my sister Sarah and her 6-year-old son Elijah. Sarah is a wonderful mother who struggles with auto-immune disorders and migraines, while working full-time as a social worker. She has fought hard to find the right therapies and programs for her son who is thriving, although living with Autism. This past weekend, I loved watching Elijah build ingenious towers and rockets with angry bird dolls peaking out of windows. Both his creativity and love seem boundless—and much of that is because of her dedication.

The second picture is of my other big sister Elizabeth and her son CJ.

Elizabeth has always shied away from the camera since I’ve known her—but especially during the past 18 years that she’s been fighting Lupus and arthritis. An amazingly giving teacher who focusses 100% of her energy on her family—I know her son CJ could care less that steroids and painful, aching hips (which she’s having replaced soon) make her feel tired and less attractive. Yet she still works every day at her school and takes most of the family pictures. There aren’t two less beautiful mothers, than my two sisters. (So, if you two get mad at me after this post…bear with me!) After spending four days visiting my sweet mother whose mind is ravaged by Alzheimer’s, I wish I had more pictures of she and I together, but it’s too late.

I strongly urge you to read Lisa Belkin’s column—one of my favorite parenting bloggers and columnists—as you’ll be surrounded by voices of other mothers who are bravely stepping in front of the camera for their children and families. It’s such a wonderful idea and a step in the right direction of easing up on ourselves and our frailties.

Juggling Sports as a Single Parent

When you’re a single mom, juggling your children’s activities can seem overwhelming. In fact, I find myself not letting my oldest sign up for all the sports he’d like—especially not club teams—as I can’t always manage to go to all the games or pick him up late at night. It’s getting a bit easier to ask other moms to drive him home now that I’ve officially been in California four years. But in the early days, when I was first separated and taking care of a baby and a 7-year-old,  it was tremendously hard to ask strangers to take my older son home from a game. Some coaches were supportive, but others not. I guess it’s hard to imagine not having another parent or family nearby to help. But that’s the way it is for some of us, and we don’t want to punish our older children and not let them participate in the group sports that they used to, just because of a divorce or a baby sibling who needs to nap or gets sick often. Juggling activities and sports really can seem overwhelming sometimes, and I’m so thankful that it’s getting easier. When I wrote this post, I was clearly still in the trenches.

Last year, I couldn’t always cheer my oldest on at the soccer matches, for instance, as his baby brother was tantruming, or running wild and I had to monitor him. Then, occasionally, I’d have to leave mid-way through since the game times always happened at naptime. With all the other kids’ dads screaming from the sidelines, I really wanted to make sure that at least one parent was always present to cheer my son on—but it doesn’t always work that way when you’re a single parent. I know some divorced parents co-parent well, but for me, my ex lives abroad, so he’s just not here often. It was a depressing time for my oldest. I could never get him excited on game day and yet, he loves soccer.

As we move toward the school year, I’m coming up with a strategy so that game days and late practices will start to get easier for us. If you are a single parent, perhaps this list will help you as well:

  • The minute you find out  who your child’s coach is, email him and explain your situation—especially if you are juggling activities for more than one child solo. Let him/her know that you’ll make sure your child doesn’t miss any games (barring illness) but that you may need help occasionally with a lift home if your other child is playing a game elsewhere or another child is sick. Would he mind?
  • Suggest to the coach that all parents bring their own snack and water. And if he still wants each parent to volunteer to do a group snack one week, don’t feel obligated, just say you’ll bring your child’s snack and water each week. Carrying all the gear and another child up to the field and a tray of muffins is ridiculous. If you can’t get out of it, just bring a box of granola bars.
  • Get to know the parents on the team and exchange cell phone numbers as soon as possible. That way, if an emergency happens with another child, you can call a parent on the team to help.
  • Do some networking to find a great coach. Sometimes it just isn’t possible to sign up your child with a particular coach—like with AYSO, you find out who your coach is a few weeks before the season starts. But if you can, network with parents at your child’s school and find a supportive, enthusiastic coach who can help mentor your child. It’s especially important to find good role models for your kids when you’re going through a divorce.
  • Don’t do multiple sports each season. There is only one of you. Tell your children to pick one sport per season, so you’re not going out of your mind trying to make multiple games each weekend.
  • Don’t pressure your child too much about performance. This likely goes without saying, but make sure your son or daughter know that the game is about having fun. Sit him or her down at the beginning of the season and explain that you may not be able to stay for the entire game every time because of the other games of brothers and sisters or due to a baby brother’s or sister’s needs, but that you’re happy that they get to play, do their best and have FUN.
  • Show gratitude at the end of the season. This is especially important if a coach and other parents have been particularly helpful. Hire a sitter for the last game and go solo, bringing goodies for everyone if you can. It lets your child on the field, and the team, know how much you appreciate them.

Shut Your Mouth!

How many of you out there are still fighting daily or weekly with your exes? How many of you are insanely frustrated over late or missing child support payments, or looming court dates, or missed visitations—among the myriad of abusive scenarios that some divorced parents face when one parent puts ego and/or selfish agendas above children’s needs? I’m sure many of you may be nodding your heads about now. But, sadly, even if your ex is a convict or a sociopath who deserted you and your children and doesn’t visit with the kids or pay child support—YOU (yes, even you my devoted single mommy friends)—may be accidentally causing more emotional harm to your children, say experts.

What?? (Insert record rip sound now.)

As hard as it is to believe, single parents are guilty of consistently doing one thing wrong. There are plenty of things divorced parents stumble on and I interviewed a UCLA expert earlier this year who helped define “The Top 5 Mistakes Divorcing Parents Make”. Going through a divorce is insanely painful and no one is expected to handle it perfectly. But experts say if there is one thing you need to remember for your children’s sake, it’s this: SHUT  YOUR MOUTH.

Think about it. We are ALL guilty of saying disagreeable things about our exes at some point (even if it’s just reporting the truth). Some single parents have certainly lived through their share of horror stories. And even if you think you are vigilant about not talking about your ex in front of the children—be honest—it slips sometimes doesn’t it? And these slips usually happen during the most stressful times and can be reactions that we later regret. For example, imagine this scenario:

You are at home with your children waiting for the ex to pick them up for a scheduled weekend visit. You did laundry, you packed their bags, you got them hair cuts the day before and you even carefully picked out their favorite books and toys and DVDs for the visit. The kids are excited and you’re hiding your fears about the weekend—especially if your ex drinks too much or has a new girlfriend or if he takes them to inappropriate venues, like bars. You keep yourself busy in the kitchen while the clock ticks. One hour after he is supposed to arrive, the kids get anxious and keep asking, “Where IS he?” in exasperated tones. You text the ex. He doesn’t reply. Finally, two hours after he is supposed to pick them up, he calls.

“Sorry! I got held up at the office and my boss wants me to fly out tomorrow on business. Can’t get them this weekend.” You are infuriated and before you can stop yourself you scream in response: “What the hell? You’re doing this again?You haven’t seen them in three months! This is NOT OK!”

Your heart is thumping so loud in your chest you can barely hear anything else, until a sob, from the corner of the room stills you. You look up and your six-year-old has a tear sliding down her little face.

Yes, this is your ex’s fault. No, you shouldn’t cover for him. But you don’t want to have fights in front of the kids either, explains Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., an award-winning author and family and marriage therapist.

Coleman, who I interviewed this month, says parents need to remember that they are pouring salt on their children’s wounds when they fight in front of the children or talk poorly about the ex in front of them. The better way to handle the outlined scenario is to hold in your anger and respond calmly to your ex: ‘That’s too bad. The kids were really looking forward to it. I’m handing the phone to them so you can explain, ok?’ Allowing him to talk with the kids, and likely promise to make it up to them later, is a better solution than yelling and putting their father down in front of the kids.

If the children cry after they hang up, Coleman warns against adding more drama and hurt to the situation.

“You then don’t want to say something like, ‘Your father always does this kind of thing at the last minute! It’s unforgivable!’ Instead, you want to just give them comfort, by saying something like, ‘You’re really sad aren’t you? I’m so sorry that you’re hurt.’ This lets your children know that you are there for them without adding more pain,” Coleman explains.

If you’ve experienced a similar situation to this, than I don’t need to tell you about the flash of anger that sparks and the mixed feelings that emerge about wanting to protect your kids, but also being angry about your own inconvenience. It may have been months since you’ve had a proper break or a morning to sleep in. With that said, experts say it’s critical to try to hide your disappointment and anger as your children will be highly sensitive and bruised after their father stands them up. They don’t need to feel like a bourdon to you, as well. It’s so tempting to call a friend the minute the kids settle down after such an experience. How many of us are guilty of calling a girlfriend to vent after such a scenario? What if you made plans for that evening and now they are blown? You’re still better off texting your friend to cancel. The last thing you want to do is grab a glass of wine and call a girlfriend lamenting about how you now can’t go out, and what a jerk your ex is. Your children, even if planted in front of a TV show, have amazing listening abilities. They want to know what is going on and they likely will hear your conversation, or the tone of your conversation at the very least.

I know it isn’t fair. I know that if your ex repeatedly lets you and your children down, you need to vent. But this is our test in life. (I’m right there with you.) In times like this, try to take a deep breath, and dig deep for grace. Remember that you can email or call a friend once the children are asleep—or that you can go online and chat with other single moms in support groups, such as AloneTogether. It’s so important to have the support you need—but there is a time and a place for everything. I don’t know why we’re in the situation we are in. But I’ve decided that I no longer care about figuring out why. It’s hard to let go of that, but it serves very little purpose. If you can remember anything from this story, I hope it’s this:

“Children learn to love themselves by being able to love their parents,” Coleman says.

They can’t feel free to love their father (or mother) if either parent consistently puts the other down. Sure, your ex may not be the parent you want him (or her) to be. But you can be the parent your children can model. You can be the example for them. And they can learn to love themselves by watching you.

Top 5 Mistakes Divorcing Parents Make

Experts say most couples—across all socio-economic, educational and racial backgrounds—tend to make the same mistakes when going through a divorce. These blunders wreak emotional havoc on your children, leaving psychological scars that can take years to heal. This week I interviewed Rebecca E. Eberlin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, family coach and staff member at the UCLA Family Commons in Los Angeles. Eberlin, who also runs “Navigating Divorce For Children” and other parenting workshops, has identified the top mistakes divorcing parents make and ways to avoid them:

1. Reacting emotionally—instead of rationally—in front of the kids.
Parents often react emotionally because they are in so much pain or when they are in situations that are highly charged,” says Eberlin. (Examples include: slamming doors, yelling, throwing things, slamming down phones, etc.)

What to do?: Take 10 seconds to think before you speak or react—especially when you are responding to a spouse’s verbal attack or offending comment.

2. Holding serious discussions in front of the children. This can even be calm conversations about moving, finances, schooling, dating, etc. Think about the impact of insecurity and fear these conversations may have on your child listening to this.

What to do?: Stop the conversation. Figure out a way to discuss these issues away from the kids. If this means you and your Ex meet at a coffee shop, with a mediator or therapist, or on the phone after the kids are sleep: make a plan to talk away from little ears. (And if one parent refuses to play by the rules and consistently brings up upsetting topics in front of the children, Eberlin says walk away calmly or hang up the phone or skype and send a note later explaining that you need to find a better time to talk.)

3. Focusing 100% of your energy on yourself.

What to do?: Simply shift the focus on the children. Even if only one parent does this, it will help the kids tremendously, says Eberlin. “People become consumed by themselves during a divorce. They lose sight of the fact that children need to be the focus at all times. Kids need to be considered in all decisions such as where they move, how they move, when to bring in another partner, serial dating, even marrying another partner.”

4. Forgetting to help your kids better transition back and forth between homes.

What to do?: Prep your children ahead of time. Every time your child has to transition to or from dad’s or mom’s house, the parent with the child needs to prep him ahead of time. For example, if the child is going to daddy’s house after school on Friday, (after a week or two with mommy) mom needs to remind the child, at the very latest, on Thursday afternoon that daddy is picking her up at school. She should also ask what she would like to pack or bring? “The more dialogue you have about the transition, the more secure the child will be,” advises Eberlin.

5. Bad-mouthing the other parent in front of the children.

What to do?: Hold your tongue. Even if one parent refuses to behave, you can be the example by not engaging in the negativity. “I remind them (divorcing parents) your child is 50% that other person,” Eberlin says. Remember: even young children start internalizing and begin to think they will be just like the father or mother you are saying nasty things about.

Resources: 

Books to Read With your Children:

Books for Parents:

Guest Post: A Single Mom’s Letter to Rick Santorum

“Although I am certain that by now Mr. Santorum realizes (which is not the same as giving a hoot) that he has incensed an incredible amount of people regarding his comments and rants about single moms, I’m wondering if he is willing to come forward and share where he obtained his information.
As a mom who was married for 13 years and is blessed with an incredible daughter who is now 11 years old, I chose to leave the marriage because my daughter deserved a better environment to serve as a model for a healthy relationship between her parents as opposed to thinking emotional abuse is absolutely acceptable treatment. (I was fortunate enough not to be physically abused like so many single moms who have mustered the strength to leave for the sake of their child/ren.)

In August of 2008, I founded and have since run a group called “Alone Together: Single Moms’ Online Support Group.” Although the group started on Meetup.com, we recently shifted to using Facebook in order to help as many single moms as possible and have members spanning the globe. Alone Together is based on the principle of “teach a man to fish.” We believe in a hand up NOT a hand out. We in no way give people money, nor in the the past three years have we received a request for the same; rather we all support each other by offering advice, sharing experiences, and providing links to resources so members may attain their greatest wish—learning skills to become the best parent possible. (Sorry to burst your bubble, Mr. Santorum, but, no, their wish is NOT to drain the system—it is actually to make sure that the most important commodity this country has is nurtured. In case you do not know what that commodity is, it is our children, a/k/a the future of this country.)

Oh goodness, pass the smelling salts! I think Mr. Santorum may have just fainted in disbelief. What a shock to learn that I am just one of countless single moms who went to college and maintains a good-paying full-time job as a legal secretary while also volunteering for many charities. I apologize for shocking you without warning: “You’re kidding? A single mom who actually contributes to the betterment of society? Eeegads! IMPOSSIBLE!!!”)

As someone who has been an avid writer since age 7, brevity is not my strong point but I will do my best to get to the point of this post. I would very much appreciate the chance to speak with you and allow you an opportunity to back up your opinion. (I’ll even reimburse any phone charges you may incur.) A great start would be letting people know where you obtained your information and statistics regarding single moms. I feel strongly that the public deserves to hear from an actual single mother—the proverbial two sides to every story, so to speak—in order to allow them to make an informed decision based on more than just the spoutings of a political hopeful. I feel compelled to do whatever damage control I can and I have worked hard at reducing the stigma attached to single moms.

Brace yourself, Mr. Santorum, but our members consist of women with MULTIPLE Master’s Degrees, published authors, family law attorneys, and many others who work in high profile careers. They put themselves through college without any governmental aid or hand-outs. The single moms I have been fortunate to meet are very proud and humble and many have been raising their child/ren WITHOUT ANY FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE WHATSOEVER. In fact, the laws are so ridiculous that, at least in Minnesota, even if the Court awards child support, if a mom is not receiving it, she has to use HER OWN MONEY to go back to Court to plead her case that the Court ENFORCE AN ORDER IT ISSUED! And even then, her child/ren never see a dime in support. Oh sure, you can revoke his license and/or have him serve jail time, but what is the sense in ASSURING any chance of a stream of income allowing him to fulfill his obligation to his CHILDREN (this is NOT spousal support – it is used to feed and clothe those he helped bring into this world). Man, that is so hard to wrap my head around.

We did not get married or enter into relationships with the goal of having children just so we could quit work and hop on the welfare bus. While I absolutely agree there are women (not in our group or any of the other many single mom groups, simply because no one like that has asked to be a member) who do indeed have child after child as a means to continue to collect government support (which I am sure you know launches them into the lap of luxury—pardon the dripping sarcasm) that is NOT the portrait of a single mother and, I for one, am incredibly insulted by what I can only assume is your naivete.

Would you be willing to engage in an interview with me so that the public can hear another perspective? By the way, that’s another wonderful trait single moms have: sticktuitiveness and resourcefulness. We truly are a force to be reckoned with because we will do whatever is necessary to take care of our child/ren. If you aren’t willing to come forward, I apologize in advance for chalking that up to deciding to hide behind your supporters and let them do your dirty work for you. Afterall, if you really are convinced that single moms are the cause of the countries’ problems, then I would think you would jump at a chance to stand up for your extremly vocalized beliefs and opinions. Surely you aren’t scared by a simpleton like me who has no idea how to care for herself without draining the system. (Sorry, I can’t seem to control my sarcasm as I find what you state to be absolutely ABSURD—but everyone deserves a chance to “prove” their point.) As I stated above, when it comes to our children we will fight to the end, so rest assured that if you choose to ignore me, I will use my media connections and all other resources to make sure the country knows that you are nothing more than the little man behind the big green curtain.”

Sincerely,

Monique Swanson
(A founder of Alone Together Single Moms Online Support Group)

(Editor’s note: Ms. Swanson’s letter was posted March 12 on Rick Santorum‘s Facebook and campaign sites. It is reprinted with permission and with the hope that it resonates with you, too. For more Santorum news on this matter, see: Mother Jones article Santorum: “Single Moms Are Breeding More Criminals”.)

Striking a Balance

It’s a delicate balancing act, especially as a single mom, to simultaneously take care of yourself and also be present and focused on your children. The two goals constantly come in conflict with one another—and yet experts often advise us to do one, or the other, or both, with little instructions on how to do so. For instance, earlier in the week, when working on a Lifechangers article for Dr. Drew’s Lifechangers show, I interviewed Rebecca E. Eberlin, Ph.D., a family psychologist who runs “Navigating Divorce For Your Children” workshops at the UCLA Commons in Santa Monica, Calif. She insisted, and I tend to agree, that when parents are in the process of getting a divorce, they need to focus 100% of their choices on how they will affect their kids. In fact, she listed focusing on yourself and not on your children as one of the top 5 mistakes that most divorcing parents make. After speaking with her for an hour, I could see her point completely.

Taking Care of Yourself

Photo by Jennifer Suarez

On the flip side, are you (like me) sometimes frustrated when someone says: “you need to take care of yourself”?

If you’re a single mom—especially those of us with small children, full-time care of those children, and little family support—the idea of taking a spa day seems nearly impossible. But taking care of yourself means very different things to different people. One of my favorite bloggers, Tracie Louise, eloquently explained some of the ways she takes care of herself in her latest post “Being Selfish”.

I know that I can’t always afford to get manicures, facials, massages, or go on shopping sprees, for instance. I do know, however, that it’s possible to squeeze in time during the week to go on a run (even if it requires a three-year-old in the stroller); take a bath (hopefully without a baby, but trust me, he’s snuck in before!); meditate; write; or take a community yoga class. Another selfish thing for me is to ignore the dinner mess and mounds of laundry and snuggle with my boys while watching a favorite show.

I think the biggest goal for me, and perhaps for some of you too, is to strike that delicate balance—when the pendulum finally rests at the center—between focussing on my children and their needs and exploring my own and having a bit of fun. During the first year of my separation I may have used the excuse of focussing on my kids to hibernate. Granted, my youngest was still a baby, but the only time I spent out was either pushing the stroller while he slept; cheering on the oldest on the soccer field; volunteering in the classroom; or writing an article at a coffee shop. It was quite hard for me to reach out to others, take exercise classes, or even sleep well—as I slept with the baby each night. I put on a good face, but I was literally getting by, moment by moment. Almost two years later, I try to ensure that I continue to cheer my oldest on at concerts or at soccer games; volunteer once a week at school; work; exercise; meditate; and find time for fun with the special person in my life. The effort is well worth it.

If you are where I was in my first year of separation—where you can barely muster up energy to do anything for yourself—I dare you to write down five things you’d like to incorporate into your life with a roadmap to make them happen. Even if it’s just sleeping in once a month. If this is too easy, I dare you to go even further: write down one thing you can do every day just for you. You’d be surprised how you can sneak some “me-time” in—even when you don’t have sitters or you have too much work piling on. Yesterday, with the baby sick at home, I thought it would be impossible to exercise or meditate. Well, a snuffly nose makes sleeping sitting up easier, so I put the little guy in the stroller and took off for an hour run while he slept soundly. In the evening, as the boys were watching a show after dinner, I snuck to my room and meditated for five minutes. I let myself focus on gratitude and putting a negative person’s actions and judgmental words out of my life. When the boys came down to find me, I was able to be present with them and even laughed when the youngest spilled juice on the floor. So, what I’m trying to say—in my characteristically verbose way—taking time out for yourself helps you spend more quality time with your kiddos. It’s hard to snap at the little ones after you mediate isn’t it?

(And, since I know how very different clinical depression is from mere exhaustion or sadness, please know that it’s not always possible to take care of yourself or pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Some of your friends and family members may not understand and can be creating more pressure for you. Read this information from the Mayo Clinic for information. If you think you are slipping into a clinical depression, please call your doctor. Here’s another article with online resources to help. )

For the rest of us…there are no more excuses. I’m adding one more item to my weekly for-me wish list. How about you?

Helping Your Kids Open Up

When’s the last time one of your children came to you for a real heart-to-heart chat? Has it been over a year since you’ve held your sides with giggles while doing something silly together? Do you feel like you are constantly battling video games, cell phones and the Internet in order to get a one-sentence response—let alone a conversation—with your kids? In this fast-paced, over-scheduled world, months can go by without real conversation and that’s too much for my liking. I’ve thought about the times when I’ve really connected with my kids to recall what triggered our closeness. And since no two kids are a like, I’ve reached out to experts as well for more ideas. Here are the top tactics that may help you bridge the communication gap and get your kids talking.

  • Get Active:
    Experts agree kids chat more with you while busy doing a physical activity together. I learned this when I was a camp counselor one summer break from college. Campers between the ages of six and 17 stayed the entire summer at this camp in the Pocono’s that catered to Manhattanites.  My job was to take each child out in a canoe, teach them the basic strokes, and later take small groups on trips. I was amazed at how the children, from the youngest to the oldest, would open up after 10 minutes or so of hard work in the canoe—especially the boys. The repetitive motions in the sun and fresh air, seemed to get even the shy kids babbling about friends, parents, school, pets, etc. I was overwhelmed with the sadness of some of the stories: a daughter raised by a slew of nannies; a son whose dad left when he was a baby; an eleven-year-old girl terrified her mom wouldn’t visit unless she landed the leading role of the camp play. …It goes on and on. I would listen and correct their J and C strokes. By the end of the summer, I was convinced that the best therapy in the world occurred while canoeing, hiking, running, or just walking with someone you trust. Even if you have a demanding work schedule, mini hikes on weekends or even walking into town for an ice cream, can inspire meaningful conversation or simple fun.
  • Family Dinner:
    Doing research for my article “How the Family Dinner Can Help Your Teen”, I discovered a survey conducted by Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse that found teenagers who eat with their families at least five times a week are more likely to get better grades in school and less likely to have substance abuse problems.Today, only about half of American teenagers say they have regular family dinners and the survey suggests that family time may be more important to children than many parents realize—even more important than a host of extra-curricular activities.Will Courtenay, Ph.D, psychotherapist in Oakland, Calif., father of two, and author of Dying to Be Men agrees family dinners work—but only if limits are imposed. “Family dinner is great—and research shows they’re beneficial for kids—but these benefits are lost if your daughter or son is texting at the table or engrossed in tunes streaming through their earbuds. It’s important for kids to learn that dinner time is a time to communicate with others at the table and to share stories of the day.” (I’d add that some parents are just as bad. Make sure the television is turned off before sitting down at the table!)
  • Family Game Night: (And, YES, this is possible for us single parents, too!)
    This may seem corny for some, especially teens, but give it a go anyway. Experts say it works if you incorporate your kids’ interests. So if your children hate scrabble or charades, don’t impose that on them.“It’s all about finding out what they like to do. What are their interests? And what is their temperament?,” points out Rona Renner, R.N., a parent educator, mom of four, and founder and host of Childhood Matters Radio Show. As an example, Renner says she purchased a ping pong table when one of her sons was 13-years-old and put it in the living room.“We just needed something to do together that we both enjoyed. When he turned 13 and entered junior high, it felt like overnight we just had nothing in common,” she reflects. The times playing ping pong were “precious” as it helped them reconnect and just have some fun.
  • Volunteer at School:
    I know this is a hard one for some. It may not be feasible to volunteer often at your children’s schools. But, if possible, find out all the different events and activities with parent involvement and sign up for one. Even if you’re only able to take off one day of work and spend one day being a chaperone on a school trip, you’ll get a chance to see your child’s friends and meet more parents. Dipping into your kids’ worlds at school opens up a host of things to talk about.
  • Sleep Talk Therapy:
    Can’t squeeze in quality time during the day? Try it at night! That’s right. Sleep talk therapy is becoming recognized by experts as a way to reinforce your love and encouragement to your children. Believe it or not, it works! A child hears differently in a sleep state and once you introduce yourself as his/her parent, your child rises into an alpha state of sleep where he can hear you, but doesn’t wake up. Please read my article “Connect With Your Children While They Sleep” to see how it works in detail.
  • Limiting “Kids’ Exit Strategies”:
    I call these the zone-out toys. For my oldest son it’s video games—but for others it can be online chat, Facebook, texting, Nintendo, TVs and computers in bedrooms or other solitary activities that keep kids away, silent and in their own worlds. Put limits on these and offer up fun activities to do together when possible and see what happens.
  • Family Pet:
    If you have the space and finances, a family pet, like a dog who needs to be walked every day, is a great way to bring unconditional love, silliness (and activity) into the family. Courtenay said one of his clients tried this strategy with great results: “A mom who was struggling with getting her adolescent son to open up, recently told me she decided to get a puppy—which she knew her son would like. The two have since been able to connect more deeply with each other, as they both care for their new addition to the family.”
  • Stay Present and Patient:
    It’s hard to connect to a parent who has his laptop on his knees at all times. So try to leave your work behind when you’re home and hanging out with your family. Experts say carving out family time—even if just for an hour in the evening—sends the message to kids that they are important. And if your teens (especially boys) barely notice, Courtenay says to have patience.
    “Patience is also important. A man I work with just today talked about how grateful he was to his mother for giving him time to “warm up.” Driving home from school, he’d be silent for what seemed like an endless amount of time—which she wouldn’t interrupt—and then finally, he’d be ready to open up to her.” The morale to that story is not to nag or push. Sometimes becoming a friend (even to your children) takes being a friend. Lighten up, listen and take the time to get to know one another.

Another article for inspiration: Stay Connected: Family Fun That Doesn’t Cost a Fortune.