Wednesday, October 22nd11.4°C
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Andrew Portwood

Can a step-family actually work?

In my previous column, I took some time to talk about living through divorce as a child, 34 years after the fact. Some of the lessons I learned through that experience contain parallels I have since seen with other individuals, especially those who have been fortunate enough to grow up in a healthy way despite the divorce. In fact, I would say that this trauma was actually much less challenging in some ways than discovering the "art" of growing up in a step-parent family. Having a family learn to function with one less member is one thing, asking that family to re-engineer itself with a new and non-blood related parent (and potentially siblings) is quite another. So how did this experience become one that I can look back upon fondly, rather than with resentment?

 

Step-Parent Connection

My stepfather turned out to be a very positive influence in my life, and I was very fortunate to have this. Such is certainly not always the case! He also brought no children of his own into the home; while it might have worked out fine hypothetically if he had, it probably reduced the number of conflicts that might have occurred in the process of reinventing our family. He had at least some degree of interest in connecting with my two sisters and I, which meant that there were at least occasions where we were able to go with him to the corner store, listen to stories, and even play catch with a ball and glove in the nearby park. While his interests were largely different from those of my father, and I was a little more hesitant to open myself up to this new relationship quickly, my stepfather and I over time created a unique and enjoyable bond that fed me in ways I would never trade back. This could not have occurred without his wish to create a healthy connection with children that were not his own - something that has been instructive to me in my counseling practice.

 

Continued Support from Mom

As much as the relationship with my stepfather went in a positive direction, it would have been easy for my own mother to have become preoccupied with her new relationship and marriage, and all but forgotten about her own children on some level at the same time. There are many mothers (and fathers) remarrying or entering into a new common-law relationship who, without ever intending to, provide far less attention and support to her children than might have been true previously. The allure of the new relationship is usually most powerful in the early stages, and both this and the connection with children all demand significant time and energy from Mom.

My own mother knew that each person in our family needed a specific degree of time and energy in getting their needs met, from tutoring homework assignments, to solving friendship challenges at school, and ensuring everyone received rides to and from extracurricular activities. Though I can't tell you specifically how she handled this monumental task on a daily basis, I can certainly share that without her desire to provide the best for her children, it would not have happened. My sisters and I would likely have turned far more to our peers for needed support and connection, and our family would inevitably have become less united over time.

 

What About Dad?

Periodically I still get asked about my own relationship with my father, and what it's like all these years later. Consistently, I can feel an expectation from many people that I must hold a grudge against him, or am otherwise angry or resentful of his role in leaving the family. The reality is that I really hold nothing against him at all, and long ago let go of any hard feelings that may have lingered for a time. The secret was a key practice my mother stayed true to: never share opinions and frustrations about the other parent with the child, and risk a feeling by that child that he/she must empathize and adopt similar views. When both parents share such opinions openly, that child is put in an impossible position of wishing to please everyone, but being pulled in two completely opposite directions.

On the contrary, having a meaningful and lasting relationship with my father, as long as he was choosing healthy behaviours himself, was encouraged by Mom. This eliminated almost any sense of competition between parents, as well as any feeling that my sisters and I had to "choose" which parent to be loyal to. As it turned out, this was an incredible gift that everyone has benefited from, even several decades later. Without question, I am still on very good terms with both parents; and while those relationships are very different, both have helped me to grow into the person I have become all this time later.

 

Divorce and step-families are an undeniable part of our society, and current trends give every indication that they will remain so for a long time to come. When divorce becomes a reality within our own families, we have an opportunity as parents to help reduce the degree of negative impact that such a trauma is likely to present. Similarly, the introduction of a step-parent (and often step-siblings) into a family creates its own challenges, none of which are insurmountable when there is an openness to building new healthy relationships, and ultimately a new family.

 

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/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Andrew-Portwood-Youth-and-Family-Counsellor/



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My own experience with divorce: Part 1

I am going to tell a very personal story this week, and one that strikes at the very heart of who I have become as a person. It was close to this date 34 years ago that my mom and dad had "the talk" with me and my sisters. No, it wasn't THAT talk, where we learned that the stork actually had very little to do with the appearance of babies. It was one that has become just as familiar in these times, the talk where your parents inform you that they would not be living together anymore, and dad (as it most often is) will be soon collecting his belongings and moving somewhere else. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, but it seems almost everyone can relate to this talk on a personal level, and remembers what it felt like when they were informed of the new reality, almost regardless of their ages at the time.

If anything, I really don't recall this being the traumatic and life-changing event one might imagine it was. It is difficult to remember all the words that were said and emotions felt, but I do have a recollection of the lack of clear emotional responses any of us gave in that moment. Neither my sisters nor I cried, got angry, or even really understood what divorce meant at that time. Rather, in our own ways, each of us simply accepted that this was now going to happen, much like we accepted that each summer would invariably come to an end, or that we were expected to make our beds each morning. It was another of life's events that we dealt with, that at the time did not seem massively life-changing.

My own life journey, then, has seen relatively little trauma that could easily be attributed to my parents separating and later divorcing when I was 9 years old. Yes, it would have been nice to have someone to throw a baseball around with more often (though my stepfather eventually stepped into this role), and to teach me some of those "essentials of male life" on a deeper level at this time. It is quite humourous to now fumble my way through attempting to teach my son how to fish, for example, and am often asking others how to properly tie a lure and find good fishing spots! Nonetheless, I developed a relatively normal level of emotional health in adulthood, and the great trauma of the divorce hasn't turned out to be a great trauma at all. How could this be?

 

Separation from Conflict

My memories from around 1980 are understandably patchy, save for a couple of significant events. Neither of these events was related to witnessing conflict between my parents, or even feeling that they were not getting along very well. Regardless of what was actually occurring between them, the fact I can remember very little from that time suggests I was witness to very little conflict, particularly of the kind that took away physical or emotional safety. There is no doubt in my mind that I benefited from this lack of witness, and thus never felt unsafe in my own home. In turn, I was able to avoid thoughts that my parents' separation was somehow my fault, which is a shockingly common thought for many children going through this change.

 

Enjoying who I Became

Despite the separation and divorce, my parents did not leave me with lingering reasons to doubt who I was or my own worth as I grew up. Though I admittedly struggled with figuring out who I was during my school years, and would have a tough time pointing to that period as the "best years of my life", my own winding life journey was not derailed or compromised by my parents' post-marriage dealings with each other. Instead, the normal ups and downs of growing up were allowed to occur naturally, and my process of self-discovery took place within a typical time frame. I certainly didn't grow up problem-free, but I wouldn't trade the journey for anything, and it brought me to a place that I am thrilled with today.

In our society, separation and divorce is a fact of life, and nobody can say with absolute certainty that neither could ever be possible. However, the manner in which that process unfolds can be one which either does not cause problems for affected children in the family, or can cause anxiety, frustration, anger, or many other emotions that can last for years, and affect our lives potentially well into adulthood. My own story is a personal reminder of this fact, and that my parents helped me in ways I could not have understood at the time to become healthy and happy in later years.

 

Next time: Lessons learned from growing up with a step-parent family.

 

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/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Andrew-Portwood-Youth-and-Family-Counsellor/



Why your teen is always taking "selfies"

I'm sure it has something to do with the non-electronic era I grew up in, but the phenomenon of the "selfie" photograph is one that has continually surprised me with its resilience. Yes, it is amusing to take a picture of oneself and nice to have, but this is not exactly a brand new idea. For decades, people have turned their click cameras toward themselves, only to often find out a week later when the film was developed that half of someone's face was left out of the picture! Nonetheless, my own lack of participation in the selfie has not prevented me from looking into the practice with my psychology hat on. In short, I wondered how such a seemingly trivial practice could gain such widespread importance and use. My take on the selfie, if one chooses to look past simply the technology allowing us all to have cameras constantly at the ready, is that taking them is a result of one of two basic needs:

 

I Need to Belong

Nothing does a better job of identifying you as a member of a group of friends, colleagues, or of a team than to take a quick picture of you as part of that group. It's not that taking such a picture was never thought of before the advent of cellphone cameras, but quickly making it available for the world to see has made the selfie infinitely more important than it ever was before. Their purpose is to show others (and oneself) that one is a member of a group, and that he/she belongs to that group beyond the shadow of a doubt. Sometimes we feel it tremendously important for others to know this (social proof that THESE are my friends, despite what anyone else may think). Other times, we need the selfie to remind ourselves that we are important and have valuable friends and/or connections. These are the selfies that are extremely common among high school and first year university students.

 

I Am Independent

The selfie that features only ourselves is often trying to highlight our health, beauty, or sense of importance to others. As with the selfie taken for purposes of needing to belong, it has significantly reduced value if not easily seen by others on social media or personal blog.

When someone goes on a trip to a faraway (or not so faraway) place, the purpose of selfies tends to be less about inclusion with a group, and more about showing the world that we are adventurous, and can stand just fine on our own two feet. If we can squeeze in a background of Central Park in New York (a shockingly common photo now, it seems) or the canals of Venice, our message is that much more powerful. Sheepishly, I will admit that my Facebook cover photo is one of me at my first NFL game, sitting in Giants Stadium with a cheesesteak sandwich! In addition to students, these selfies are favourites of young adults, particularly those in their mid to late 20s, or in anyone proud of stepping out of their comfort zone through travel.

 

The key element of the selfie photo itself is the statement it makes to those around us, and this has only really become true in the era of sharing pictures on social media. Now, with only a few clicks we can share almost any photo we wish with countless people all over the world, making the potential impact of any picture we share much more broad and deep than was ever possible when the parents of today's teens were taking pictures! Regardless of your own thoughts about the importance or vapidity of the selfie, it may be helpful to realize they are always purposeful, as each young person explores who they are, what they need, and who they would like to become.

 

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/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Andrew-Portwood-Youth-and-Family-Counsellor/



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Nature deficit disorder

Although we are in the midst of a potentially lengthy teachers' strike, it does not take away the fond memories I have of this past summer. Truly, even by Okanagan standards, it was exceptionally hot, sunny, and full of opportunities to be comfortably outdoors at almost any hour. As the last of friends and relatives visiting from afar made their way home, it provided some time to reflect upon the great summer of 2014. It didn't take long before I asked my two young children about what their favourite part of the summer was, and allowing them do their own reflection, whatever form that takes for six-year-olds!

Invariably, both immediately brought up a game or activity from one of our two camping trips this summer. For me, it was sitting up late one evening with my wife and two good friends, playing cards by the lantern light in a silent campground. Thinking back to some of the most significant events in my life, it was easy to recall canoe trips, week-long and overnight hikes, learning to fish with my father long ago, and so many more. The trend became clear, and I had an epiphany: could it be true that as human beings, our greatest memories will often take place in the outdoors? If so, is there something magical or therapeutic about being outside that we need to be aware of?

Richard Louv, author of a book I recently came across entitled Last Child in the Woods, would not be the least bit surprised by my observation. He makes a convincing argument that any human spending sufficient time outdoors, especially during the childhood years, will be much healthier on not just physical levels, but also emotionally as adulthood is reached. Further, the epidemic-levels of ADHD and depression we have become accustomed to in our society have shown through many scientific studies to have a high degree of correlation with spending a great deal of time indoors, and seldom venturing far from home, especially on foot. Though we are near many great lakes and outdoor activities, there is certainly no shortage of young people who come through my office and report (very matter-of-factly) that they spend much time gaming by network, on social media, or generally and unintentionally avoiding sunshine.

There is clearly something very good that happens for each of us who regularly engage in some sort of activity outdoors, even if it is simply walking to the store, or choosing to eat lunch on a bench outdoors, rather than at one's desk at the office. The fact that science now largely backs this idea makes it all the more vital to ensure our children and teens have healthy structure and boundaries around "screen time" at home. That does not mean declaring all tablets and smartphones off limits or unplugging the internet for all but three hours per day, for example, which would likely damage trust and connection if it was done too autocratically. However, it may mean that a family discussion takes place about how much screen time is healthy on a given day, and creating some mutually agreeable rules to help ensure the attraction of staying inside all day remains minimal.

I am often asked by parents the degree to which I believe medications have an important role to play in someone receiving counseling therapy. To be honest, and this may surprise some, I fully accept the necessity of carefully prescribed medications at times to help with the therapeutic process. However, I am also very open to the idea that even pharmaceutical assistance may not provide the ideal "chemical balance" in the brain and body; the natural endorphins that are created through breathing fresh air and moving in the outdoors, along with the vitamin D created with exposure to the Okanagan sun, and reduction of cortisol (a stress hormone) through a natural relaxation of the mind that can take place by simply being fully present in the outdoors, may actually produce the most potent chemical intervention possible in reducing the often-intense effects of ADHD and depression. It is a natural part of the solution that has been scientifically proven - an attractive combination in challenging times.

 

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/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Andrew-Portwood-Youth-and-Family-Counsellor/



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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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