Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Tell the Truth -- one of the bigger lies taught children -- an issue in therapy

photo by Ruth Houston Barrett
"Heather didn't do it, it was me!"

Frequently, in therapy with children, their caregivers have a powerful need to list all of the kid's faults, as if the longer and louder their list, the bigger the prize they will win.  It's analogous to what couples sometimes do in therapy, but in this case, it is one-sided, and the child tends to shrink smaller and smaller, the longer it goes on.  Which, as the therapist, I redirect.  There is a time for the parent or other caregiver (and it's often a non-parent caregiver in these situations, and it is often a very sad situation for the child) to speak with me one-on-one and feel heard and supported, but the time is not with the child sitting there.

It has struck me as surprising that a very common top-priority charge in these cases is that the child lies. I'm afraid that I've heard this so many times that I have an internal struggle to remain patient when I hear it.  Of course children in conflictual, punitive, abusive, unpredictable, neglectful, or otherwise troubled family homes lie.  They would be incredibly self-destructive or dumb not to.  Not only that -- where on Earth did parents get the idea that people are truly supposed to tell the truth all the time?

It is so prevalent a fiction (lie) that telling the truth is what good people always do, that it sounds shocking to many when I say: Our job is not to teach children to always tell the truth, but to help them to negotiate when, why, what, and how much truths to tell.  Especially children in troubled environments. In fact, "good" people -- meaning those who care greatly about doing what is best for others -- negotiate levels of truth constantly.  Here are the two most clear levels:

#1 When you should tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth:
Most of the time, as a habit, but especially:
When someone is counting on the information, or when having false information will harm someone.

#2 When you should not tell the truth:
When someone has no need for the information, and when having the truth will harm them or someone else.  Often called the "white lie," and some teach this exception as something we do courteously or to spare others' feelings.  But there are other, more serious, times when lying is actually the safer or morally superior thing to do, and personally, I believe children should get some real education on this.

I put it to you that what we really need to teach is the importance of #1 AND the judgment to determine when #2 applies.

Here's the rub -- what if the someone who will be harmed is oneself? Is it okay to lie in that situation?  Let me tell you, if you were in some of the situations these kids are in, you might think it was the right thing to do.

One situation that comes to mind: A very thin 7-year-old boy with severe ADHD was struggling hard and was super stressed with terrible feelings about himself; he had a hard time being still and focusing, even with heavy doses of meds that zapped his appetite.  The mother -- who could have been focusing on any of several serious needs her son had -- could only talk about what an awful liar her son was.  Exploring further uncovered that she was really talking about confessions, such as a lamp that got broken. It turned out that when her son finally admitted he had knocked it over, she allowed her boyfriend to whip him with a belt, followed by an evening spent locked in his room without dinner. (Of course, this necessitated my calling child protective services.)

Now should this child, morally, tell the truth? What about prisoners of war who would be beaten, say, for passing notes. Should they tell the truth?  What about someone in a bank during an armed robbery -- should they let the robbers know that there is someone hiding around the corner, calling the police?

Okay, these are extreme and dramatic situations.

How about this one -- how many of us have ever lied about liking a gift that was given to us? Is that wrong or right to do?

A child who hasn't seen their mentally challenged parent in some time meets with him in a supervised visitation.  The one gift the parent has ever given the kid is an old violin. The parent asks whether the child is practicing every day.  Should the child tell the truth?  What is the most moral thing to do?  In the case I saw, the child lied and said they loved the violin and hoped to be really good at it some day, and changed the subject. It was one of the most elegant, caring acts of thoughtful lying I've ever seen, and this child was only 12 years old.

Again, too extreme?

Okay, what does a child say if they were unable to turn in their homework because their father, as punishment for his drunken misperception that the kid was smart-mouthing him, threw it in in the trash and poured their coffee over it. Are they morally obligated to tell their teacher this truth?  Perhaps  it would be understandable for them to say they were ill and needed an extra day to complete it.  Or should I have focused on the terribleness of lying, when I saw this kid during the divorce (Mom had had enough)?

What should you do if you want your child to tell YOU the truth?
Check yourself, and see what you are teaching them to expect from you when you do.

I once wrote a paper in which I made the case that truth and beauty were almost the same thing; now I would change that to say that it is beautiful when it is safe to speak the truth, that ultimate truths of the universe are indeed beautiful, but that in our messy lives we sometimes do better with some caring fiction.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Being a Good Parent, or What do kids really need to thrive?

photo by Ruth Houston Barrett, Ocean Shores, Washington, Dec 31, 1998
My daughter and her father

The basic needs of children from their parents are simple, and not that hard to meet, really, given that we have years to get there. Much of it can be thought of in terms of fostering the development in the child of certain capacities -- like love, empathy, connection, spirituality, morality, beauty, appreciation, and good judgment -- that will serve them as persons throughout their lives. Most of the rest boils down to teaching instrumental (how-to) tasks, but the latter is shallow and empty without the former, no matter how well learned. As a parent, as a researcher in the field of family science, and as a professional therapist helping children, I've come to believe the following tenants of child rearing.

  • Children need to be made to feel that they are loved and wanted. (We could almost stop here.)
  • Children need to develop their capacity for empathy, to respect it, and to act accordingly, if we are ever to have a beautiful world.
  • Children must feel that they, and their feelings and thoughts, matter -- speaking to modeling and developing empathy and to the most valuable aspects of self-esteem.
  • Children need to learn that they can trust and rely on their people most of the time.
  • They need to learn about forgiveness.
  • They need to learn how to deal well with their own failure, frustration, and disappointments, so that they can develop coping and resilience, persistence and recovery.
  • They need to develop a moral compass, not through harshly punitive, shaming means intended for instant success, but through ongoing explanatory redirections that are firm and consistent and calm, and that tap into what the child already knows really matters and who they want to be, at each age and stage, and as life offers teaching moments.
  • They need to learn social skills in communication, cooperation, connection, respect, kindness, and so forth through being around people who model and teach them.
  • They need to learn what hard work is and why it is worthwhile.
  • They need to learn to express and take joy in their creativity.
  • They need to learn how and why to be courageous.
  • They need to learn that giving to others -- whether that is a material object, an act, praise, apology, love, or appreciation --does not take away from them, but instead enhances their own as well as others' well-being and enjoyment. 
  • They need to understand their own emotions, both "good" and "bad" -- what they are for, how to identify them, and how to manage them. 
  • They need to develop a sense of what is good in the world, what is beautiful, what is spiritually profound.
  • They need to know the joys of generosity and charity.
  • They need to know that they are heard, and learn how to listen.
  • They need to learn self-management and what energizes, motivates, sustains them.
  • And they need the values that their parents impart to them, such as religious and cultural, to provide meaning, purpose, and enrichment of the lives they will live.

I'm sure I've left some things off, inadvertently, but this is a pretty good basis, I think.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Breast Cancer: 10 Shared Wisdoms from the Other Side of the Mountain

Finally, I am just about at the end of the road of treatment for that little lump I found in my breast, ooooh, about two years ago.  After chemo, radiation, surgery, MRIs, biopsies, and more, I get to hang up my hats, unpack my survival kits, and breathe a huge sigh of relief.  So somehow, it seems I should have something to say about all of this, some wisdom distilled from all of that fear, suffering, and surviving business.

While I may never completely relax with the specter of "Might it come back?" lurking, I do hope I'm done with the beast of breast cancer.  After all, my amazing oncologist uses the word "cure" about me, and I'm to schedule a final surgery to remove the port catheter that is a physical reminder of all I went through. So here I am, just on the other side of the mountain,  a little disoriented here in normal-life land. Still, while it's fresh in my mind, before I've wrapped up those memories of nastiness in puffy clouds of gauze and "put it behind me," I'd like to offer some help and information to anyone who might be just beginning their own, similar epic journey.  While I can't guarantee that this is profound wisdom, I can say that these are things I discovered in the climb up and the hard scrabble down, things that helped me ultimately, and that I wish I'd known before I started.

#1 is to surrender to the suck. Don't expect too much from yourself, do let yourself off the hook in every way, and realize that kicking cancer in the teeth is the ONLY job you have for a while.

#2 is to ask for help and be open to receive without embarassment the love and care of family, friends, doctors, nurses, and whoever else is there to help you.  Take people with you to your appointments, especially the scariest ones in the uncertain beginning or when something new is happening.

#3 is to realize that it's going to suck, but it's going to pass. Take the drugs, take to your bed, watch movies all day and night, eat what makes you feel alright. (For me, cheddar cheese was a blessing, strong enough to taste good with fried taste buds and overcome that chemo taste in my mouth.) Realize that sometimes it is going to be frightening, painful, and depressing, but that you WILL get it behind you.

#4 is to treat all symptoms right away, before they get worse.  In fact, once you learn your pattern of after effects following chemo treatments, you can take steps to head them off.  It's a lot rougher if they get out of hand before you treat them, so don't try to tough it out.

#5 is to find and use the supportive drugs that work for you. Don't be shy about letting your oncologist know if the first symptom-relief medications are not working well, and do keep communicating until you find what works best for you and your symptoms. There are many options, and everyone is different, so sometimes it takes several tries. Don't worry that you're being a difficult patient (which I did, at first), but realize that your nurses and doctors want to help you and have the knowledge to help you manage the symptoms. You may need to look elsewhere if you decide to try medical marijuana, which many find works better than anything else for nausea, diarhea, heart burn, and appetite, without druggy side effects. (One of my antinausea meds put me into a heavy, dizzy, sleeping state that I didn't like.) There are no gold stars for suffering more than you need to, so do keep working until you find what works best for you.

#6 is to let your children help you, if you have them.  Of course you want to protect them, but try to strike an appropriate balance for their age and personality between over and under sharing.  Being able to do things for you is good for them in many ways. They can make you a cup of tea, rub your feet and legs (that helped me tremendously), put lotion on your dry skin, light a scented candle for you (I liked citrus), or bring you things.  When I was very sick, I asked my girls to come sit on the bed and talk about all that was going on with them, and even if I couldn't respond much, I loved to hear their voices and feel their presence, and I felt good that they knew how wonderful, important, and loved they are to me, even though I could not be as involved as usual in their activities.

#7 is to be patient with your partner, and support them as much as possible, as they support you in such crucial ways. With the stress, hormone-effecting therapies, steroids, drugs, chemo fog, and physical suffering, I experienced some serious crankiness and lack of clear thinking at times. I think that understanding this and externalizing it can help, and so can the knowledge that it is temporary, even though not short.  Try not to say every rotten thing you feel like saying, because you won't mean it.  I still cringe when I think of some of my outbursts.  Offload as much as you can to others, even though it's easiest to go to your default caregiver with everything, and you'll have to on the worst days, but the rest of the time do reach out and do accept help from your friends, even if it's just to talk. (I say just to talk, but the listening ears and heart of a friend are a wonderful gift.)  Encourage your caregiver to do things for him or herself during this time, they surely need it.

#8 is to forgive yourself when you're not as brave, sweet-natured, strong, or positive as you'd like to be.  Your super hero cape may be in the wash.  You're still a great person.

#9 is to be unrealistically optimistic.  I wrote about this in an earlier post.  That doesn't mean that being optimistic is unrealistic, but that being optimistic doesn't have to be only based on facts and statistics (which only apply to large groups, not to any one person).  It is powerful and helpful, when you are able to do it. The pendulum swings between worry and hope, and you can't be positive every day, but an optimismistic perspective will get you through the minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months, and help propel you over that often brutal peak.

#10 is to laugh; laugh loud and often; laugh with all the people who are going through this with you.  Cry, too, when you need to, express your fear and anger, but let it turn to laughter whenever you can  Laugh at the ridiculous horribleness of it, laugh at the awkward things people say and do (without meanness), laugh at every incongruous, surprising thing you encounter, and it is amazing how much better you feel.  My husband is a riot, and I took him and my hilarious (and warm and loving) friend with me to many appointments, especially in the early scariest days, and this turned unbearably terrible moments into (believe it or not) largely enjoyable ones.  I could do an entire post about this.  Like waiting to hear just how bad the cancer is, and everyone but the doctor kept walking into the exam room -- "This is it!" "Oh, no, it isn't."  It became funny after 5 minutes, and became an hour of silliness, until the doctor finally arrived; the hilarity really took the edge off the sharp anxiety.

In my next post, I'll share the results of the massive amount of research I did about other things you can do for yourself to augment your main medical treatment, such as light exercise and several supplements that appear to have helpful effects, supporting you through chemo and radiation, and also fighting cancer.

Until then, hang in there, be optimistic, and tune into the love and light that surround you even in the darkest of times.

Fellow warrior,

Finding a bright moment, even in the toughest part of the journey. Summer, 2011, halfway through

Monday, January 2, 2012

Contemplations for the New Year....

The only person in charge of my being happy is ME, and we don't have to seek happiness, make happiness, earn happiness -- we just need to tune into it. It is there, already.

We can think about removing the blocks to happiness, like forgiveness, letting go of the desire to be the injured party, martyrdom, and so on. We can do exercises like writing gratitude lists. Those are cool.

But more than anything, for me, is just to take a breath, realize that I need to tune into the happiness channel that is broadcasting all day every day. Let go of sadness and irritation -- let go of it! Let it float away, don't fear its loss, don't grab it back. And just breathe, be happy. We have that freedom, that power in our daily lives.

Photo by Ruth Houston Barrett Blank, Our dog Chase contemplates the new wave...