Sunday, January 25th3.6°C
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Andrew Portwood

Don't rescue, empower

One of the toughest situations to deal with as a parent can be when one of our children or teenagers feels excluded by one or more peers at school. It can bring up a whole litany of feelings and emotions, both for our son or daughter, as well as for us! Anger, frustration, helplessness, and rejection are four that are very common to experience at these times, and certainly appear in my practice space on an almost daily basis.

When our own needs for connection and belonging are threatened, our world can quickly appear to become a cold, unforgiving place for a time. It triggers powerful emotions that as parents, we often want to take action on. This is a shift from previous generations, I would suggest, as during the eighties and earlier an approach of "boys will be boys" was far more prevalent. Parents and to some extent teachers would be much more prepared to let social difficulties faced by children work themselves out, with a belief that minimal intervention from adults was often appropriate. However, today we look at such situations much differently, and parents tend to be much more supportive of contacting schools and teachers directly and immediately. We are fearful of bullying situations arising, and ready to take action!

There is an important complication that can arise, however, that we need to be aware of in supporting young people through feeling rejected at times. We focus on that which we have no control over, and overlook that which we can control. In other words, we cannot change the behavior of others, including that girl in our daughter's grade 5 class who says nasty things and has little need for her presence. As frustrating as it is, we really can't change much about that other girl's behavior and commentary choices, even if the teacher and other parents were to become involved. She potentially has her own difficulties and hurts in her own life, which may tell us why she chooses certain unhealthy responses towards our daughter, but this approach very seldom brings a sustained solution on its own.

Far more important and effective is to engage your son or daughter about what might be occurring at school. To be fair, this is sometimes easier said than done, as teenagers especially can be hesitant to share about peer challenges with their parents or guardians. Nonetheless, having a dialogue about what is occurring can create an opportunity to set free the hurt and frustration that has built up inside, and provide a chance to build one's own skill set in working through these tough situations. Here is a quick sample dialogue:

Dad (D): I'm noticing you just don’t seem like yourself today. Have you noticed the same thing?

Daughter (G): I guess.

D: What do you think might be making you seem so down?

G: Nothing.

D: Hmm, okay. So your friends are all still treating you well at school, right?

G: Well, not exactly. Mia hates me.

D: What's happening with Mia?

G: When we're out at recess she tells me to go away, and that I'm too slow to play soccer with everyone.

D: What are you feeling when she says that?

G: Mad, sad, and I feel like crying.

D: So do you think she's right?

G: No! She just doesn't give me a chance for some reason. But I still want to play.

D: So if she isn't right, but you still like playing soccer, tell me what choices you see you have right now.

This dialogue would go on, but the father is doing something very important here. He is being fully present with her, hearing her without judgment or coming up with a "quick-fix" solution, and encouraging her to express herself while also coming up with a solution that fits how she is feeling. In essence, he is empowering her to look at what she can control in this situation, and supporting her to develop and access her own skill set. It is in these moments, when healthy connection is in place, that real help for difficult scenarios at school can be most effectively addressed. It may not result in a quick-fix, but it might begin a process that allows your child or teen to grow naturally as he or she learns to find their way in the world.

 

Andrew Portwood is a certified Masters-level counselor in Kelowna with a heart for supporting and helping children, youth and young adults. He has also helped many parents to grasp a better understanding of why their children are choosing the behaviours they have, and how to move forward in a supportive, healthy manner. Creating authentic connection and clarity is essential in all he does, both as a counselor and in his life. Find more about him and his practice:

Website: http://clarowellness.ca/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/AndrewPortwood/



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Dictate the tone in your family

I have to admit, I am a big hockey fan. Ever since I was small, nothing has been able to top going to an intense, exciting game with the local team. Having arrived in Kelowna in the first part of 2012, I quickly became a fan of the Rockets and enjoyed attending many of their home games this season. In addition to the excitement a hockey game can bring, it is also an interesting study in human behavior that can be a reflection of real life.

In everyday life, each of us always has a choice in how we decide to meet the challenges of a given day. Generally, we can respond in one of two ways; we can allow others to set the mood or tone for us, leaving us to react to the different tasks or challenges that come on a case-by-case basis. We can also choose to set a clear tone ourselves, and let others know that we will be responding in a particular way or maintaining a specific mood. The first response waits to see what others around us wish to create, while the second response takes control, and empowers us to decide what we would like life to look like. It also creates a sense of predictability that especially children and teens tend to draw comfort from; when we know what to expect from someone, and how they are likely to respond to happy and challenging situations alike, we feel much different than when reactions from others seem less predictable.

Over time, I have learned that the hockey team that is able to set a tone for the game, and dictate the pace or style at which it is played, will almost always come out the winner. Earlier this year, I went to watch the Rockets host the best team in the league, the Portland Winterhawks, and like many, anticipated an epic battle between two bitter junior hockey rivals. Though the Rockets got out to a fast start, it became clear that Portland’s desire to come back from an early deficit set a dominating tone for the rest of the game, and was tragically much stronger than Kelowna’s commitment to maintaining the lead. The result was a tough defeat for the home side on national television, after having been in the lead for much of the game.

A family can work the same way, though hopefully with much happier results. The parent or parent figures in a home are constantly shaping the overall atmosphere in the home, whether they realize it or not. They will have the strongest influence over the many different characteristics of a family: the general mood, the chosen responses to stress or disappointment, how achievements are acknowledged or celebrated, the roles each person has within the home, and even the senses of respect and equality each family member feels. The parents’ choices and actions will be observed and learned by the children in the house, regardless of age.

As a result, every home has its own unique tone, and a feel for how healthy it is on the inside. It’s a quality that others can literally feel, even if they are just visiting. Human beings are born with an innate sense of when an unsafe situation is near – a survival instinct that has been with us since the dawn of mankind, and pushes us to seek out safe, comfortable, and welcoming places to be. When a family home feels unsafe, but the people inside cannot reasonably just leave and live somewhere else (especially small children), the stress and anxiety can’t help but build and intensify.

Sadly, too many parents are unable or unprepared to set a tone that will assist all in the home to be happy, feel healthy, and most of all, physically and emotionally safe. This can lead to a vast number of problems for each individual, and can require many supports to help solve. There is emerging evidence that even elements such as physical illness (do you know someone who just seems to get sick all the time?) are impacted by the degree to which we all have a safe place in which to live and retreat to as well! Making the best possible effort to create a home where everyone feels at least a minimum level of comfort is a big step in raising healthy children; and truly enjoying life as it was intended.

 

Andrew Portwood is a certified Masters-level counselor in Kelowna with a heart for supporting and helping children, youth and young adults. He has also helped many parents to grasp a better understanding of why their children are choosing the behaviours they have, and how to move forward in a supportive, healthy manner. Creating authentic connection and clarity is essential in all he does, both as a counselor and in his life. Find more about him and his practice:

Website: http://clarowellness.ca/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/AndrewPortwood/



What kids should know about Ferguson

After this past week of protests and violence in Ferguson, Missouri, I struggled with both wanting to acknowledge this event which was noted and discussed by many kids and teenagers, but not willing to do so without some nugget of insight that might be useful for others to digest. There is little point in rehashing events and news coverage of them, especially when they have been so thoroughly covered already, and have no direct connection with growing up here in the Okanagan, at least on its surface. Nonetheless, the need I felt to write about Ferguson in this week's column would not leave me.

The turning point came through a column I found, written by a parent attempting to process the events in Ferguson, and messages they may contain. She writes from a very unique perspective; one of a parent of young children acknowledging her own membership in a privileged group in America - that of being white-skinned - and wishing to connect the implications of this on the messages her children are likely to receive as they grow up. In essence, she states a fact that made much sense to me: being a member of a minority carries with it specific challenges that cannot be fully understood by those of the majority. At a certain point, understanding that some people are treated differently simply on the basis of their ethnicity or skin colour is, I will suggest, a valuable piece of awareness for a young person to obtain.

Admittedly this is not necessarily an easy discussion to have, particularly with children under the age of 7 (as mine are). In fact, I will be very up front and confess my kids currently have no idea whatsoever what racism is, or certainly that it exists even here in Canada. There are many who would question the importance of such a discussion at all, and would leave kids and teens to discover their own perspective on this instead. Nonetheless, this past week reinforced to me that sharing this awareness is something I wish to do as a parent, and now comes the time decide when this discussion must happen, and how I would like to share with them the realities of racism as I see it, in terms that elementary-aged children will best understand.

Some of the lines in the column referenced earlier provide a somber reality, including:

  • "Clerks do not follow my sons around the store, presuming they might steal something."
  • "Their normal kid stuff – tantrums, running, shouting – these are chalked up to being children, not to being non-white."

These realities for many people are so far gone from my own upbringing that it was nearly impossible to fully comprehend how many in our world have to live with them on a daily basis. Yet failing to share these at some point, in some way, with my children is to prevent some degree of two important elements from fully developing in them: respect and generosity. Respect refers to treating others as you would like to be treated, while generosity is connected with a giving of one's spirit, through sharing and helping others while expecting nothing in return. As I work through doing my best to encourage respect and generosity in my kids (and I speak only for myself, by the way), it became clear that treating all other human beings equally is paramount to the understanding I wish them to have; not just in theory in their minds somewhere, but in everyday practice.

There is no way I can pretend to understand the complexities surrounding the incidents over the last few months in Ferguson, nor do I have any intention of showing my young children a few televised news stories in hopes that it will somehow benefit them. If anything, the past week has reminded me that when opportunities to broaden a child or teen's experience present themselves, especially when it involves addressing difficult topics, it can be a real gift to understand some of these realities of life in our world. It is often only when we do so that choices to empathize and create love-based change around us become actions, and ones that can make us truly proud to have been one small part of.

 

Andrew Portwood is a certified Masters-level counselor in Kelowna with a heart for supporting and helping children, youth and young adults. He has also helped many parents to grasp a better understanding of why their children are choosing the behaviours they have, and how to move forward in a supportive, healthy manner. Creating authentic connection and clarity is essential in all he does, both as a counselor and in his life. Find more about him and his practice:

Website: http://clarowellness.ca/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/AndrewPortwood/



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Learning from sexting and hockey

One of the themes often discussed in this column is that of relationships. Life is ALL about relationships, and this has been true from time immemorial. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who would disagree with you that the need for connecting with others is programmed into each person, and without satisfying that need on some significant level, human beings are more likely to engage in unhealthy or unusual behaviours as a response. My all-time favourite example of this comes from the movie Castaway, where Tom Hanks' character Chuck Noland finds himself utterly alone on a tropical island, and eventually creates a volleyball "friend" by accident. This volleyball became essential enough that Chuck ultimately risked his life to prevent it from floating away!

This past week, it seemed that no matter where I turned, another example reminding me of the depth of this need presented itself. First was hearing of a young person I know who wished to quit a sporting activity, yet was afraid to do so because of the risk perceived to his own relationship with his father, who very much enjoyed watching his son play hockey at a high level. Unfortunately, this young person continued playing hockey for an extended number of years, largely out of fear of his father's response if he were to quit. The real tragedy in situations like these (and I have seen so many) is that an otherwise-healthy relationship can be poisoned simply by failing to have a serious conversation about an "elephant-in-the-room" topic. When we are afraid of discussing something because of a fear of another person's response, often that important conversation cannot happen, and we choose to accept growing resentment and frustration in its place.

Next, I read a fascinating article in the Atlantic Monthly detailing a study on "sexting" within teen culture, in particular a county in Virginia that was chosen as a reasonably middle-class cross section of America. It found that about one-third of teens in this study, and potentially in the U.S. as a whole (though this is of course unproven) engage in this practice, where selfie photos in suggestive poses that would normally be very personal in nature are shared with one or more people, with the potential of becoming visible to an entire community through the use of photo-sharing programs such as Instagram. The obvious question that one could pose from this article is "why?" Is it because our society is home to many more predators out in cyberland than was once true? The answer, I suspect, is rooted much more in a need to belong and connect, and that there are times when membership in a group of friends, winning approval from a particular member of the opposite sex, and even a wish not to disappoint others can result in engaging in this practice. Again, relationship is a powerful motivator; if we sense getting this need met means to participate in sexting, or there is a perception we will be disparaged and marginalized by peers if we fail to participate, it can be shocking the actions young people in our society have the potential to engage in as a result.

My week was rounded out by a quote that both humbled and encouraged me however, and perhaps this is a good way to conclude this week's column. It was given by Tom Perez, the Secretary of Labor in the U.S., in response to a working mother who wrote to him, describing how difficult it was for her to be able to make a living sufficient to raise a family, while living close enough to work to be able to share enough time at home with her family including newborn baby. Perez reminded me of how much we and those around us yearn for relationship, and connection on an authentic and deep level, with this quote: "Raising and supporting a family isn't just a financial obligation. What's important isn't just being able to put food on the dinner table -- we want you to be at the dinner table, too. The most important family value of all is time with your family."

I was left with a thought to reflect on, that I will in turn leave with you: never stop seeking new ways to connect with those important people around you, and doing so in ways that honour yourself. If an issue is getting in the way, resolve it, even if it means an intimidating conversation must occur. If you are expected to make unhealthy choices in order to be part of a group or community, ask for advice and support from people you trust before you do something you wouldn't want a best friend to see. And if your family needs you, remember that it isn't just about money - it's about time.

 

Andrew Portwood is a certified Masters-level counselor in Kelowna with a heart for supporting and helping children, youth and young adults. He has also helped many parents to grasp a better understanding of why their children are choosing the behaviours they have, and how to move forward in a supportive, healthy manner. Creating authentic connection and clarity is essential in all he does, both as a counselor and in his life. Find more about him and his practice:

Website: http://clarowellness.ca/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/AndrewPortwood/



Read more Youth & Family Dispatch articles

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About the Author

Andrew Portwood is a certified Masters-level counselor in Kelowna with a heart for supporting and helping children, youth and young adults. He has also helped many parents to grasp a better understanding of why their children are choosing the behaviours they have, and how to move forward in a supportive, healthy manner.

Creating authentic connection and clarity is essential in all he does, both as a counselor and in his life.

Find more about him and his practice:
Website: clarowellness.ca
Twitter: @AndrewPortwood

Contact him at The Core Centre of Health (250) 862-2673.




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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet presents its columns "as is" and does not warrant the contents.


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