Monday, November 24th1.8°C
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Andrew Portwood

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/



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Our city needs mentors

There are few thoughts more distressing than of a child living in poverty, particularly in our affluent society. Though it is not always evident, 15 years of working in three different school systems has reminded me almost daily of the degree of wealth disparity we have in our neighbourhoods and communities. Far too many parents are having a difficult time making ends meet, which despite the efforts of even the most well-meaning parents can mean not only a struggle to put adequate food on the table, but also emotional stress that affects everyone in the home. It is easy for many right here in Kelowna to forget just how many children are struggling through poverty; look past the SUVs, boats and busy fashionable restaurants and there are families in our community who need support.

One of the realities of helping children with this challenge is acknowledging that almost always, they are hungry for mentors and trusted adults to play a role in their lives. It should never be underestimated the degree to which a child can be positively influenced and nurtured simply by being able to connect with leaders in out of school programs, sports teams, and any community organizations that offer opportunities for children and youth. One powerful example is the Boys and Girls Club, which has several branches just here in the Central Okanagan. They are committed to being an available resource for any children, but are especially valuable for those who really benefit from having structured, fun programs led by adults who are easy to look up to.

Mentoring children and youth tends to take two different forms in our society. The first comes through a focus upon schoolwork, and often involves working with teachers (who are also great mentors at times, by the way!) or tutors after school. This academic-based approach does have its merits, and certainly we all remember that teacher from long ago who made a real impression on us and helped us along in our journey. Nonetheless, having the sum of one's adult interaction be centered around schoolwork and chores at home can be a bit of a limitation, and fails to address any young person's need to connect with adults on a second and more "fun" level, where play and active participation form the core.

When this second form is provided for, it means another outlet to experience life with the active participation of adults in a healthy way. Why is this so important? All young people need to be able to enjoy positive and healthy relationships with adults, and struggling with poverty can often (though certainly not always) mean that such relationships are even more highly sought-after. All young people, regardless of age or family income, need to enjoy time with adults in a playful, authentic way at times, and the more the better! It is why I have now become a sort of intern with my young son, learning the world of Pokemon well enough to discuss some of its basic points with him! By the same token, it is always encouraging to see adults playing street hockey with neighbourhood kids, a classic Canadian example.

Have you ever considered volunteering a small piece of your time to enriching the lives of the younger members of our community? It can be as simple as offering to help out with hockey practice, assisting a club or class at a local school, or even approaching a local organization with an offer to share your love and knowledge of a particular skill set that others may be interested in exploring. Regardless of the activity, each of us has an opportunity to help out those who most need positive adult connection, and to do so through a sharing of ourselves in some meaningful way. You may be able to make the difference in a young life that nobody else truly has!

 

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/



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/



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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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