How To Provide An Emotionally Safe Environment For Your Kids
This post is the first in our new “How-To’s and Tips” blog series. It’s inspired by two recent news stories.
First, actress Sandra Bullock announced in People Magazine that she has adopted a second child – a three-and-a-half-year-old girl – to be sister to the son she adopted several years ago. Her choice was to adopt through the foster care system, in part to bring attention to the thousands of children in need of a stable, ‘forever’ home.
In the People interview she stated that she knows it will take special awareness and effort to assure that her daughter and son feel safe and secure, given their adoptive backgrounds.
The second inspiration for this post is far different than the sweet story about Bullock and her generous choices for building a family. At the same time this article was on newsstands, airwaves were broadcasting another story: The mass shootings in San Bernardino. It’s become unfortunately routine that in these situations news media begin running stories on how we explain these kinds of events to our children.
It seemed to me that it would be a good time to offer some tips on creating an emotionally safe environment for kids. Do you have any tips and techniques that have made your children safe and happy? Please share them in the comments. Your questions are also welcome.
1. Really listen. Make sure that what you think is going on is accurate, and that what you think you heard is actually what they’re trying to communicate. Without checking that out you risk reacting to something that you perceived, but not what they were trying to tell you!
2. Be consistent. Think about it. What if every day you went to work you never knew how your boss would behave or react. How productive and positive would you be if you were always looking over your shoulder or walking on eggshells to avoid unexpected negative reactions? Kids feel safe when they know what to expect from you.
3. Model loving behavior. If your home is built on an emotional foundation of generosity, respect and responsibility, your children will feel lovable and worthy of respect. They will also understand that we must all take responsibility for our own actions and behavior. This foundation will allow them to explore the world with confidence. It will also enable them to recognize the negative – and evil – things that some humans do without feeling that their very world is being threatened.
4. Manage your own anxiety. Children are sensitive creatures. If you exhibit anxiety or other negative emotions as you deal with life, they will definitely take this in. No child feels safe with a parent or parents who exhibit anger, aggression and fear. If you can’t manage your own negative emotions in the moment, get some professional help and stop the generational dysfunction you probably carried from your own childhood so that your children can be emotional free and safe.
5. Face reality. If you see troubling behavior in your children and your loving reassurance doesn’t get them through it, reach out for help. It’s there in abundance if you seek it.
Introducing a New Feature on My Blog: “How To’s and Tips”
While thinking about topics I might address, several possibilities came to mind before I realized all of them had one thing in common – the desire to provide information that you can put to use immediately. Why? When people are struggling with certain common emotional issues they want relief – answers that help them get unstuck.
This post is to announce a new series of short How To’s and Tips that will provide basic steps to help you to begin addressing problems that many people deal with. The idea is to give you basic information that can alleviate confusion, provide a bit of clarity, offer some direction — and possibly reduce your level of stress.
In each new post in this series, I will address one basic problem. The post will provide clear, easy-to-digest suggestions for your consideration and steps you might take toward a solution. Please apply the information with a healthy, respectful attitude and accept responsibility for your choices.
The series is intended to provide general, practical advice on everyday situations, not as a substitute for psychotherapy. Addressing complex emotional struggles requires in-depth exploration. Resolving deeply rooted and long standing problems should be handled in a solid therapeutic relationship.
To make these posts as useful as possible, if there’s a specific problem you’d like me to address, please e-mail me your request. If it’s about a common enough problem, I’ll write about it – keeping your identity private, of course.
The first How To’s and Tips post is in the works and will go out in the next mailing. The topic is How To Provide an Emotionally Safe Environment for Your Kids. It’s inspired by one happy piece of news – that actress Sandra Bullock has adopted a little girl through the foster care system – and one tragic piece of news – that once again a mass shooting happened in San Bernardino.
Thank you for your continued interest in the Levine Counseling Blog. Your comments on this new series are welcome.
I wish you and yours a healthy, happy and love-filled Holiday Season!
Before The Glow Is Gone
This morning on CBS Sunday Morning, they featured a story about fireflies. There is a state park in a heavily wooded area down south where many people of all ages go at night during a short period of summer each year to watch a magnificent show.
In a splendid mating ritual, the male fireflies (beetles, actually) light up all at once in a competitive display to attract their mates. The females answer with a glow of their own. Unfortunately, the mature fireflies don’t last too long – only a few weeks – before they die.
We humans live a lot longer on average and we, too, have our mating rituals. And ours are about much more than procreation. We have emotions and free will. In fact, I believe that we are here to love one another; to really care about, care for and give love, respect, empathy, compassion, gentleness, kindness and affection to each other; to share a good laugh and, occasionally, a tear or two with each other.
The key word is “with.” Curious word, “with.” It means, “together, related, sharing.” When we are “with” another, at its best, it’s about giving! Yes, giving!!
Last night, Ellie and I went to the New York City jazz venue Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola to hear a performance by Richard Galliano’s quintet. He is a world-class jazz accordion player. Beyond his incomparable technique, like all of the finest musicians he pours love into every note he plays. When the love is missing, so is a crucial part of the music.
There is another reason we drove to New York last night in spite of foul weather and it also brings us back to the fireflies’ love display, as well. Our friend, Brazilian drummer Mauricio Zottarelli, was one of the musicians in the band. Like the other three members of the quintet who Richard Galliano chose for his performance at Dizzy’s, Mauricio is an extraordinary musician!
Before the performance, he joined us at our table. However the subject of our conversation was not, as you might expect, music. It was love! Mauricio and his wife Milene had their first baby; a boy, two months ago. So what I was most interested in hearing about was what it has been like for him to be a new papa.
Mauricio described several different kinds of moments he has experienced, from the awe-inspiring moment of delivery to others where he has been really tired and not feeling great. What made these moments so different for him was he was holding his son in his arms. He said that at such times he has seen his son pick up on the less positive energy coming from him and he recognized the negative impact on his precious baby.
In those moments his sensitive heart has immediately opened wide and he’s put out more loving energy, because he knows the truth about unconditional love: it’s about giving!! Yes, Mauricio has a big, generous, loving heart! He will be a really good father and the world can use all of them we can get!!!!!
Life is fleeting. Even though our life span is many decades, not a few weeks like the firefly, it still seems to zoom by. Given this reality, here’s an important truth that we’re better off understanding as early in our lives – and the lives of our children — as possible: When you have someone to love, love them unconditionally — before the glow is gone!
“To Love is To Give!”
Charleston a Father’s Day Thought
The church massacre on Wednesday where 9 people were shot to death in a Charleston, South Carolina church, is a dramatic example of the dichotomy between love and hate – good and evil!!
Hateful attitudes and violent behavior towards others, racially motivated or not, are always the result of immaturity, impulsivity and emotional illness! Lacking any healthy personal resources, those who act out aggressively and violently externalize their emotional pain and fears onto the outside world.
There is nothing that defines us more than the choices we make when we are afraid and in pain. Defensiveness is an automatic psychological defense mechanism we are born with.
Feeling arrogant and justified, people like Charleston shooter Dylann Roof engage in what they believe is a righteous war with the enemy! He was welcomed into this church carrying hate in his heart and weapons of violence in a backpack. Motivated by extreme racial hatred, he waged war on his perceived enemy: all blacks.
On the other side of this dichotomy we see the most important emotional value in human existence show up – front and center – in spite of unthinkable pain and loss.
It is exemplified by the comments of Arthur Hurd, the husband of one of the victims, Cynthia Hurd, who said, “I would love to hate you but hate’s not in me. If I hate you I’m no better than you.”
As a sign one woman carried so aptly stated, “Love breeds love, hate breeds hate!”
Today is Father’s Day – a day to celebrate the reason we are here – “To Love!!!”
Twenty Years Later, It’s Worse
Last weekend, CBS Sunday Morning ran a story about sexual assault on college campuses. The report stated that this serious problem is far more prevalent now than in the past.
It was another Sunday morning about 20 years ago when I was enjoying a coffee and reading the local paper, the Journal News, and caught the headline, “Assault, Attempted Rape Charged.” The story was about an unthinkable crime:
Two men were indicted on charges they tried to rape a woman after they tied her up in her apartment and beat her for several hours. Fortunately, the woman was able to free herself, run from the house, flag down a car and get away.
Reading about the assault shattered the peacefulness of that Sunday morning. I sat down and wrote a letter to the editor to share my revulsion at the brutal act and to call for a stop to such violence. The article was published by the Rockland Journal News on November 5, 1995.
Writing it, I could sense the indignity, violence and fear this woman was forced to endure, but it’s impossible to know the impact of such an experience unless you have lived it: trapped, terrorized and repeatedly violated.
The woman had become an outlet for the impotence and insanity of the perpetrators – as does every woman who is a victim of domestic or ideological abuse.
In the letter to the editor I asked, “Where was this woman going to turn now or ever again to feel safe? How could she ever learn to trust a man again? Even a conscious, gentle and loving man gets angry once in a while. For her such moments will forever bear the residue of terror.”
I went on to say, “The time is long overdue for men to face the injustice found in patriarchal attitudes that, at the very least, tolerate male violence and abuse.” I described wanting to go door to door demanding, “Enough, enough, this has got to stop!!”
It has not stopped or slowed down – it has gotten worse! According to the CBS Sunday Morning story, rape on college campuses happens much more than ever before. The only good thing reported was the raised voices of some courageous young women talking about what happened to them and doing so in a very public way. Hopefully their actions will take the issue out of the dark and help bring about long overdue and much needed change.
I reflect often about all the influences that contribute to the pain, fear and anger of those who disrespect others, acting out aggressively toward strangers and even those they claim to love.
As I did in 1995, I again want to enlist every conscious man this may reach to help end male violence. We may not be able to put an end to all abusive behavior in the world, but we can change the world one conscious, respectful, kind and loving act at a time!
If you see abuse, do not turn away or pretend it isn’t there. Name it! If you are guilty of abusing anyone, verbally or otherwise, please – please get help now.
Want Real Love?
When romance begins, our world may be calm,
Then come intoxicating breezes, what a balm.
Next, pulsating music and dancing feet,
Glowing moon, red sunsets, oh so sweet.
Flying high on the magic carpet ride,
It’s fantastic in this magical land,
But soon you’ll need to take a stand.
Lyrics say, “The best things in life are free”
But you must know that this just can’t be.
It’s true great love cannot be bought,
But when it’s real love that you have sought
Be prepared to practice everyday,
The art of loving has rules to obey.
Its great reward you may achieve,
If you stay committed and never leave.
When it’s love you both want, real and true,
Really wanting it, your significant other and you,
When you are frightened and feeling pain,
Thinking, “Oh no, I don’t want this, not again,”
It’s in such moments you both must know,
Stay the course – you reap what you sow.
Take lessons, get help, if you know not how,
Then practice, practice, practice — and wow!
If you both take the time and stay the course,
Stop and breathe to relax – that’s the source
With time and effort you’ll begin to learn,
The magic isn’t magic, but wisdom you earn.
A Beautiful Life!
The weekend of December 12-14, Ellie and I went to “New York, New York – in the city that never sleeps!” for our anniversary. Our plan was to enjoy a relaxing weekend roaming around town and hearing great jazz.
I got reservations at the Village Vanguard Friday night to hear Christian McBride and his trio. For those of you who are not familiar, Christian McBride is one of the best bass players in the world and a truly nice guy. The music was fantastic!
I also got us reservations for the following night. This performance was at Jazz Standard. I knew it was guaranteed to be another night of very special music, because it was a Jimmy Greene gig. Jimmy is a world class saxophonist; a former member of Harry Connick, Jr.’s band, who has played with many other renowned musicians.
This performance was celebrating another anniversary. “Beautiful Life,” is the name of Jimmy Greene’s new album. It celebrates the life of his daughter Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, who was 6 years old two years ago when she, along with many other children, was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where the family had recently moved.
Ellie and I were at Ana Grace’s memorial service. We cried many tears that day. I’ve thought about her everyday since because I’ve kept the program from her memorial with a picture of her jumping in the air with so much obvious joy in a prominent place in my home.
So as it turned out that night, Ellie and I were celebrating two anniversaries. We sat close to the stage and directly in front of Jimmy as he poured his heart out through his saxophone playing original music he wrote for Ana Grace – as well as songs and hymns that were her favorites. It was one of the most profound moments either of us has experienced. It goes directly to the heart of love — with all its rewards and pain. This moment like few others defined, “To Love Is To Give!”
If you want to hear some love music — a father’s love for his little girl — you can get a copy of “Beautiful Life.” Ironically, Christian McBride is one of the musicians who can be heard along with some of Jimmy Greene’s close musician friends – drummer Lewis Nash, pianist Renee Rosnes, guitarist Pat Metheny, vocalist Kurt Elling and others.
Ellie and I have each ordered numerous copies to give to friends and family. Much of the cost of producing the album was gifted to Jimmy and, in turn, the proceeds are going to support a couple of causes important to Jimmy and his wife Nelba. The causes are both geared to preventing this kind of tragedy from happening again.
I wish you a holiday season filled with love.
In Music and Love the Commitment Is Everything!
What do you want?
I wanted to play music! As early in my life as I can remember, our home was filled with the sound of music. When I turned five, my physician father and life long musician, told me I was going to study a musical instrument. He listed the various instruments he had. “Choose one,” he said.
“I want to play drums,” I proclaimed. “Oh no, not drums!” said my father, offering no explanation. It may have been that he did not consider drums a real musical instrument, or because his office was on the first floor of our home, directly under our living room. Either way, I had to choose another instrument.
He had saxophones and an extensive collection of other instruments: a Steinway Piano, a Heckle Bassoon, an accordion, oboe, clarinet, flute, piccolo and a trombone to name a few. The LP’s playing in our home frequently included the great Louis Armstrong and a Mexican trumpeter, Rafael Mendez. Both wowed my senses! “O.K. trumpet,” I decided. Thus began my life as a musician!
My father was a strict taskmaster and regularly ordered me to play my exercises when he heard me playing love songs. Though I rebelled against his style of discipline, which I experienced as rigid and controlling, my love of music and commitment to being a musician has endured all through my 66 years.
Many of those years passed before I was able to set aside the early dislike of practicing from my childhood. Although my father’s style was less than encouraging, he was absolutely correct about the necessity of practicing the fundamental ingredients in playing any musical instrument! Ask any musician, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer will be, “Practice! Practice! Practice!”
My deep love of music has never wavered. It fills my life with great joy. It is a most important and wonderful passion that Ellie – the love of my life – and I share. We’ll travel log distances to hear music when we know the skill and musicality of the players is at the highest levels! I continue to play trumpet, guitar and yes, drums! I too have a home office under my living room, but now it is my house so I get to decide.
I have used a musical metaphor to make an important point that doesn’t only apply to being a good musician. It is true to most aspects of life, especially great friendship and love. Commitment is everything! In our important relationships there will be many moments where both heartbreak and love are present, but if both you and your significant other want to share great love; ups and downs not withstanding, commitment to your relationship must remain your highest value!
Just like playing a musical instrument well, good relationships also take ‘practice’ – especially in the moments when things aren’t going so well and it would be easier to set it all aside for something that ‘feels’ better. But in the tough moments, if you stop to listen more carefully and with a loving heart, you will find a way to make beautiful music together.
“To love is to give;” respect, remain faithful, listen, compromise, laugh, play, share and when necessary forgive day by day, year after year. Great love is about many years traveling in close parallel across all bridges – into the sunset.
Why Do People Seek Help For Headache – But Not Heartache?
If people experienced emotional pain as physical pain, they’d run to get help.
Unfortunately, though millions of people are experiencing emotional pain, far too few seek professional help.
This thought occurred to me recently when I learned about CRPS (chronic regional pain syndrome) and RSD (reflex sympathetic dystrophy.) These two disorders are characterized by excruciating pain – often the pain level caused by amputation without anesthesia – and can persist with little relief for years or for life. There is no known cure.
When confronted with the pain of CRPS/RSD – or any significant physical pain for that matter – people run to a physician to find the cause and get relief. Although CRPS/RSD has visible signs like mottled skin and variation in skin temperature from non-affected parts of the body (the only pain disorder with this characteristic) it is surprisingly difficult to diagnose.
This is in part because there are few health care professionals who choose to be trained to diagnose and treat CRPS/RSD. It is indeed personally difficult to work with a condition that may not improve regardless of treatment. The instinct of those who treat pain is to make it go away and it can be demotivating when it does not, despite best efforts.
Those who do treat these relatively rare and often debilitating conditions have learned that if they help patients to function better with available medications and other techniques, they also enable them to distract themselves from the pain and focus on leading more normal and fulfilling lives. This is significant when we consider that the disease does not kill, but suicide is the result for some who do not get the right help.
So what parallels or differences can we identify by comparing physical to emotional pain?
- We know when we’re feeling physical pain, but we may not identify any specific emotional pain as the cause of our problems. Although our important relationships may be in trouble and we may feel insecure, sad, lonely, depressed, frightened, anxious, angry, hopeless or an array of negative emotions, we don’t label these as “pain.”
- Like CRPS/RSD, where the physical pain has outward visible signs, so does emotional pain. Think chronic negativity, addiction, arrogance, violence, isolation, divorce, sleep disturbance, sexual problems and other dysfunctional conditions.
- Like CRPS/RSD, when you understand the causes and properly label the pain, you can learn to function better and live a happier life – even if the pain may never completely go away.
- Like CRPS/RSD the most extreme result of failing to get the right help is suicide.
- Unlike with CRPS/RSD, there are knowledgeable, dedicated professionals who choose to treat emotional pain. You may need to search for a while to find the right therapist for you – and you should. But the fact is that help is available.
You wouldn’t think twice of running to your doctor if you became aware of an excruciating physical pain anywhere in your body. So if you recognize any of the signs of emotional pain as mentioned above, don’t think twice about seeking help from an experienced and highly recommended mental health professional.
The Impact of What We Teach Our Children
Recently I watched the inspirational movie by Mike Pavone, “That’s What I Am.” At its core, it’s a film about human dignity, courage and compassion – essential ingredients in healthy love.
When an immature, bullying 8th grader starts an untrue rumor claiming that the highly regarded teacher, Mr. Simon, is gay, we watch this malicious behavior fester, as it unleashes a current of toxic, fear-based emotions into all the connected relationships. We also get to witness the courage required by those who recognize how destructive such behavior is and decide to do something about it.
When the movie zooms in on the home of the boy who started the rumor, we get a glimpse into the relationship between his parents and how their views have influenced his cruel behavior. The father is a muscle bound homophobic, possessing no gentleness. His wife, the boy’s mother, appears to be frightened of him and starved for respect and genuine intimacy.
We begin to see that starting the rumor is a result of the boy’s having absorbed his father’s prejudice against homosexuals. It is stunning both in the film and in real life when we see how these dysfunctional beliefs travel from one generation to the next.
In the film, though he’s responding to a false rumor of his son’s creation, the father accepts it as fact. As a result, he angrily confronts the school’s principal, demanding that she fire Mr. Simon — stating that his son will no longer attend any of the man’s classes.
From a therapeutic perspective, the father’s homophobia is a projection of his own fragile character and fears about his masculinity. This condition is at the root of both the father’s and the son’s problems. Only when a parent or a child understands that their emotional problems are impeding healthy relationships that one or both of them can make the changes that lead to healthier love.
Here’s a link to an earlier blog post where you may read a wonderful anonymous poem entitled “Children Learn What They Live.” It beautifully illustrates how dysfunctional attitudes make it from parent to child and offers some things to consider that can help to break the cycle.
In addition, this wonderful little movie includes two song tracks, which I’m sharing, that further address the influence – positive or negative – that parents can have on their children:
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Teach Your Children.”
“You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good bye.
Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you’ll know by.
Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.
And you, of tender years,
Can’t know the fears that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth,
They seek the truth before they can die.
Can you hear and do you care and
Can’t you see we must be free to
Teach your children what you believe in.
Make a world that we can live in.
Teach your parents well,
Their children’s hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you’ll know by.
Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.”
There’s something about reading lyrics for their poetic meaning. But for the music lovers who would enjoy a jolt of human spirit today, click here to listen to the song. While you’re at it you may also enjoy reading the lyrics from and listening to the other stand-out song from the movie.
“Go ahead and dream.
Don’t be afraid to laugh when others cry, to live instead of die.
Life isn’t what it seems, so go ahead and dream.
Go ahead and run.
Don’t be afraid to open up the gate.
To love instead of hate.
Life isn’t what it seems, so go ahead and dream.
Go ahead and walk right into fear.
The answer is to clear your mind and free your soul.
Life isn’t just a goal.
It’s how you go from here.
So go ahead and dream.
You know your only quest is here to take, to put those lies away.
‘Cause life ain’t what it seems.
The truth is in your dreams.
So go on.
Go ahead and dream.
‘Cause life ain’t what it seems.
So go ahead. Go ahead and dream!”