Making togetherness your holiday focus

Whether you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah, you are faced with the yearly dilemma of deciding how much is too much to spend on your children. A 2016 study revealed that parents spent an average of $422 on presents for each child in the family. Twenty-five percent of parents withdraw money from their 401K  or dipped into emergency funds to finance Christmas. Fifty-six percent went into debt and an alarming 16 percent knew going in that it would take them a full 6 months to pay off their holiday charges.

Hearing these statistics made me wonder: In a country where most of us live better than the rest of the world, is it necessary or even proper to spend this much cash on holiday giving? Does it detract from the true meaning? Or is it important to blend in with American culture and give our kids all that we can afford?

My family has always had a policy of moderation when it comes to gifts. I was struck with the following thought in one of those  crystal clear moments that end up defining your parenting philosophy: If I start giving my kids piles of presents at Christmas, they will come to expect the same year after year. But if I give them just a few well-chosen items, that’s all they’ll ever expect.

God must have been smiling down on me that day, because it was one of the greatest realizations I’ve ever had: Don’t start something with your kids that you don’t want to continue doing forever. This applies to virtually everything, including how you respond to temper tantrums, what you allow your children to do, and what kind of behavior you accept. It’s so much harder to change those behaviors long after they first began than to nip them in the bud early on or prevent them all together. That’s what we did with Christmas. And our kids have never questioned it.

The result has been a Christmas morning that is unhurried and joyous. We have always exchanged one nice present on Christmas Eve from each other, and no more than three presents on Christmas morning from Santa. One item may be a more expensive item, but the others are thoughtful, small, and bring smiles to faces. My children are now grown and no one has ever been anything but thrilled with this system. No one goes into hock to buy presents for family members; no one greedily rips open packages, barely acknowledging them; and most of the focus of the holiday stays where it should – on the reason for the season. We worship at a candlelight service, we eat traditional holiday meals, and we spend time together as a family. The specifics may change from year to year just to keep things interesting, but the one constant is our focus on  togetherness, not the materialism so often associated with this time of year.

What are your thoughts on holiday gift giving? Do you love to indulge your kids as much as possible, or do you prefer a toned-down Christmas or Hanukkah? I’d love to hear about your family traditions.

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Being thankful for your teens

I’ve heard a lot of words associated with parenting teenagers. Exasperating. Frustrating. Confusing. Very rarely do I hear someone exclaim, “I’m SO happy to be raising a teenager right now!” If I do hear it, it’s generally dripping with sarcasm.

But the reality is that teenagers really are quite a bit of fun, and they embody some lessons we would all do well to learn. So this Thanksgiving month, spend some time reflecting on what makes your teenagers wonderful and why they are actually a huge blessing in your life.

Need help focusing on the positives? Think about this:

  • Teenagers keep your argumentative skills honed. You have to be sharp in your thinking and your decisions, or they will call you on it. They will ask why until you want to strangle them. But be grateful, because they’re forcing you to ask yourself why, and I don’t think we do that enough. A little introspection never hurt anyone.
  • Teenagers are still children in a lot of ways. They will make side-splitting comments. They still take joy in the seemingly small moments. Their silliness and appreciation for all things farcical make them perfect companions for watching comedies, cracking jokes, and having fun with the eccentricities of extended family members. One year over the holidays, my teens started a quote list for a particularly “interesting” family member visiting from out of town. They kept the list in a kitchen drawer. When the annoyances threatened to bring out the worst in us and the week was beginning to stretch everyone’s nerves a little too thin, one of us would depart to the kitchen, open the quote list drawer, and laugh. I never would have thought to do that on my own. Leave it to the teenage brain to create a unique escape from visitor stress.
  • Teenagers are adults in a lot of ways. They are sensitive, can be thoughtful when they want to be, and understand way more than you realize. You can talk to them, even about the big stuff, as they are quite deep and are able to understand adult issues much more deeply than you suspect. They can be wise and offer new perspectives.
  • Teenagers love you and need you. They don’t show it all the time (that’s what dogs are for), and they may not say it, either. Heck, they may not even realize it. But every time they sit next to you at dinner, ask you for advice, tell you a story about their friends, or even shuffle into the kitchen in their PJ’s, they’re telling you that they trust you, that you offer them a safe haven, and that they even enjoy your company.
  • Teenagers keep us young. They blast all the latest, greatest hits, use ever changing acronyms (GOAT, anyone?), know the perfect emoji to use in any and all situations, and remind us what it was like to fall in love, become yearbook editor, and earn an “A.” We watch them play sports and it takes us back to our glory days. They introduce us to new technology, download apps on our phones, and make sure we don’t wear anything embarrassing. Without them – let’s face it – we’d be stuck in the past.

So you see, you have a lot to be grateful for when it comes to raising teens. They may wear you out, but they also build you up and bring joy to your life. Enjoy them now, because in a few years, you’ll be hoping and praying that they’ll be home for Thanksgiving.

For more tips on living with teens, check out Teenagers 101.

Teaching kids to be proactive

We’re all familiar with the concept of proactive versus reactive responses.  A proactive approach anticipates and seeks to avoid potential problems or obstacles. A reactive approach waits for problems to arise and then deals with them as they occur. As it turns out, both can be beneficial, but while knowledge should be gained from mistakes and difficult processes, stress can be reduced by avoiding them in the first place.

This is where teens and children really need the help of adults. Children are already at a disadvantage with an undeveloped frontal lobe that hinders their ability to see long-term, to think about the consequences of their actions, or to plan ahead. That’s why we often shake our heads and ask, “What were they thinking?” when it comes to this age group. They weren’t. They haven’t learned to be proactive, to consider that what they are doing now matters to their future.

Enter mom and dad. You have a lifetime of experience and you’ve oftentimes wished you would have thought things through before making a big decision or taking an action you later regretted. You want your kids to benefit from your experience, especially since being proactive crosses many domains, including school work, goal setting, and preparedness for activities, sports, and other extra-curriculars. It’s important that they get it now, or they may face much unnecessary hardship down the road.

So how can you prepare your kids to be prepared? Think about this:

  • Kids need to have goals. What’s the point? What are they working toward? Why are they participating? Do grades matter? Unbelievably, we fail to talk to kids about these big questions. We put them in activities, send them off to school, and encourage them to join clubs, but never tell them how they’re going to benefit themselves or others through their participation. Kids needs to know how today’s behaviors affect their future. If they don’t, they will go into everything with a short-sighted attitude and therefore, a lack of internal motivation. They will question working hard on something, and making sacrifices for it, if they don’t see the value.
  • Kids need to know that every action has a consequence. Science teaches us that for every action, there is a reaction. Every decision or indecision, both good and bad, leads to an outcome. Kids struggle with understanding this concept, even as they age and go on to college. Witness some of the behavior of young twenty-somethings and there’s no doubt that they still haven’t grasped the concept of consequences. But the sooner you talk to your kids about this, the better chance you have of getting through. Discuss how a decision about homework, or quitting a team, or running for office will have long-term implications. Have your kids walk through various scenarios and really think through each decision they make.
  • Kids need to realize that staying ahead of the game is easier than playing catch up. Every person alive has let a job or responsibility slip and then scrambled at the last minute to try to minimize the damage. And every person alive has dealt with the repercussions of procrastination. Teaching your kids to work ahead and to plan their schedules will positively impact every area of their lives. As I tell my students, “If you control your schedule, it won’t control you.”
  • Kids need to experience how good it feels to be proactive. Once kids begin to plan, work toward goals, and think through decisions, they will see a noticeable change in their lives. They will experience less stress and their confidence will grow as they gain control of their responsibilities. Research shows that kids crave structure, rules, and boundaries. Recording homework in a school agenda, breaking large assignments down and working on them each night, and keeping a personal calendar of upcoming events are all ways kids create structure in their lives. Positive results breed internal motivation, so the more proactive kids are, the more motivated they become to take control of and responsibility for their decisions.

Of course, the best way to teach kids to become proactive is to demonstrate it in your own life. Teach by example and show your kids that foreseeing obstacles and planning ahead is always better than dealing with the aftermath of a failure that could have been avoided.

For one-on-one help with your teens, check out Teenager Success 101. For more tips like these, read Teenagers 101

How to live peacefully with teens

You probably read the title of this article and thought, Live peacefully with teens?? Are you kidding? And I get that. Sometimes it seems nearly impossible to communicate with them, get them to comply to your wishes – heck, to even understand them. But as it turns out – and I know you’ll find this hard to believe – they’re people, just like us, and they can be understood if we just try to see the world from their eyes.

So here are some insights that may help you navigate the parenting waters a little more easily.

  1. Ever been the victim of hormones or a really bad mood? Imagine being in a body ruled by ever changing hormones that really can’t be controlled. So much is changing in teen bodies on any given day that they really are victims, so to speak, of their biology and chemistry. They are literally watching their bodies changing. They are feeling emotions they’ve rarely felt before. Their brains are not yet fully developed, so they can’t make sense of it all. They are whirlwinds of emotion. It’s no wonder, then, that you never know what you’re going to get when you ask them a question or tell them they need to do something,
  2. They crave peer acceptance at all costs. Because they have such little control over their bodies and the changes they are experiencing, they are more self-conscious than at any other time in their lives. Combine this discomfort with an intense desire to be accepted, to be like everyone else, and you will begin to understand the level of frustration they feel pretty much every day of their lives. Who do you think gets the brunt of these emotions? That would be you, mom and dad.
  3. They are stressed more than any other previous generation. Psychologists and therapists report that the number one teen issue they address is stress. Increasingly competitive sports teams, academic programs, and college acceptance criteria keep teens nervous and agitated. Many feel that no matter how hard they work or how busy they stay, it’s never enough. Many worry about letting you down. And many keep these fears to themselves, exacerbating the problem even further.
  4. They are expected to make life-changing decisions. Think about who you were at age 15. What did you know about the world? How well did you know yourself? Could you project who you would be 20 years later? How accurately did your 15-year-old goals align with your current life? Despite our 20/20 hindsight, for some reason we still expect teens to know what they want to do with the rest of their lives and to have the discipline and focus to reach all their goals. Of course, we can help them do this, but it’s an awful lot of pressure to put on someone who is in many ways still a child.
  5. They are distracted by any number of moral choices and get most of their advice and life lessons from the media. They have grown up in a world where sex is a given in every relationship, drinking is lauded, lying is expected, and loyalty to friends is more important than saying or doing the right thing. Moral ambiguity is the standard. And sadly, they spend more time learning from celebrities than they do from the people who matter.

Knowing all this about your teens should give you an understanding of what they face and struggle with on a regular basis. It won’t make them any less moody or any easier to live with, but it should help you to see that what they dish out is a culmination of all of their struggles. It’s not personal, mom and dad. Your job is to give them tools to help them through these struggles, to recognize when they need guidance, to offer them support, to let them know that you’re always there for them. If you can do those things, you’ll carve a path that will eventually lead you out of the woods and into clarity.

 

The best gifts you can give your kids

How do you determine how you and your family will “do Christmas” every year? Do you repeat your parents’ traditions? Do you deliberately avoid them? Do you insist on creating your own traditions and steadfastly stick to them each year? Do your kids – consciously or not – dictate what Christmas will be like for the family? Or do you let fate take you wherever it wants, one year at the folks, the next in a cabin in the woods?

It’s interesting how traditions are formed. Sometimes they’re based in strong feelings of what a holiday should look like, how it should feel. Other times, they’re set up to avoid painful memories, certain family members, or unhappy situations. Sometimes they begin as happy accidents that are so much fun, we deliberately repeat them, paying homage to that first wonderful memory by recreating it each year.

My family has always spent every Christmas with extended family. At the beginning, when my husband and I were very young and just having babies, we’d haul car seats, strollers, pacifiers and diapers across the miles to visit our families in Pittsburgh. I remember my husband pulling the car over in a Waffle House parking lot so I could nurse, burp, and snuggle a little with our 3-month-old daughter on our way to spend the holidays with family. As our kids grew, I remember our son buckled into his car seat on the left, our daughter strapped into her big-girl seatbelt on the right, a fistful of french fries in her hand. We had trained our dog, bigger than both of them combined, not to beg, so in an effort to be a “good dog,” he had buried his head in the car seat, his own personal form of Time Out.

I remember Christmas Eves that preserved the traditions my husband and I had agreed upon: The kids would open family presents that night and Santa presents in the morning. When they were young, my husband always bought gifts I knew nothing about. Bouncy balls, Slurpee mix, the kids’ favorite snacks. As recently as last year, those gifts kept on coming, So did the stuffed stockings (personalized, cross stitched with love when the kids were little and I was a stay-at-home mom), the dog bone wrapped loosely enough for our mutt to find an opening and dig in, and that one special gift for each of them, the one we were excited to give, the one that would bring joy to their little faces.

When we took a cruise last year that took us many miles away from extended family and eschewed every tradition we had cherished over the years, we discovered that sometimes spontaneity is just as genuine a path to discovering the spirit of Christmas. For the first time, there was no burden of cooking, cleaning, finding activities everyone would love, or hosting out-of-towners. There was nothing but the luxury of spending time together. Nothing to distract us or add stress. We rented dune buggies and drove from one end of Cozumel to the other. We spent a day at the very resort in Jamaica where my husband and I had honeymooned 28 years before. Talk about a cool way to share our past with our children! We woke up to towel designs of snowmen and a giant Santa floating in the pool. The Grinch lurked around corners and the crew actually made it snow in the ornate ship’s lobby. None of it followed a single family tradition and all of it was fabulous.

Our gift to each other was the gift of time, and that Christmas will go down in history as being one of the most special we ever experienced. We felt no pressure to meet the expectations of Christmas – from baking cookies to sending cards to finding the perfect gifts. Instead, we simply enjoyed each other. My wish for you is that this Christmas you will give yourself permission to do the same. Rather than being pulled in a hundred different directions to meet obligations and impossibly high expectations, give the simple gift of time. You’ll never regret it.

What are your treasured holiday memories or traditions? Please share in the comments below. I’d love to hear them!

 

 

Finding balance in an unbalanced world

Our country has been in flux for a while now, and regardless of what political candidate got your vote, you’re probably still worried. Add to that financial strain, increasing pressure to compete in the workplace, and, at this time of year, holiday stress to meet expectations and get along with extended family members, and it’s easy to understand why we all may feel more than a little unbalanced.

You may think only adults feel this pressure, but in reality, teenagers are also carrying a burden. They are being hit with deadlines at school, where classes are well underway and the expectations are increasing. Some are applying to colleges and feel as if their futures are on the line. If you think your job is competitive, just look at what teens are up against as they try to get into their first choice school with a minimum GPA, SAT score, leadership requirements, and the insistence that they be well-rounded to the point of exhaustion. You might be surprised to learn that during the holidays, your kids’ pressures are exacerbated by the same expectations you have of what this time should be: love, compassion, a spirit of giving, family gathered around the perfectly festive table giving thanks, thoughtful presents, and a beautifully decorated home aglow with twinkling lights. We want to live the Hallmark movie, but let’s face it, none of us ever do.

It’s upsetting for both parents and kids to discover that reality oftentimes doesn’t come close to matching our holiday dreams. If you’ve ever sat by the tree remembering when your son gleefully made that light bulb Grinch ornament you still hang every year, while he sulks in his room playing loud music, you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever poured yourself an extra Hot Toddy or two to get through an evening with annoying relatives, you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever opened a present that in no way resembled who you are or what you like, you know what I’m talking about.

So how do we find balance during this stressful time, both for ourselves and our children?

  1. Keep your expectations realistic. Lose the should and replace it with is. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Hanukkah don’t have to meet anyone else’s standards. Regardless of what all those warm and fuzzy TV shows and movies tell us they should be, the holidays should be about what works for your family, even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else. I once heard someone say that Thanksgiving is his favorite holiday because there are no expectations other than to eat yourself silly and lie around all day. Give yourself permission to create your own vision for how these days will unfold.
  2. Understand that your kids need a break from school and life stress just as much as you do. I’ve never agreed with teachers giving projects and massive reading assignments over breaks. If that’s the case at your kids’ school, you might want to speak to the teacher about it. Research shows that most people do better when they’re given brain breaks and time to rejuvenate. Allow your kids to just relax and enjoy a couple weeks without homework and sports practices.
  3. Give everyone permission to sleep in and take comfort in the holidays. Teenagers need more sleep than you do, so give it to them. There’s nothing wrong with rest in an otherwise busy teenager’s life. Relish the rarity of not having to be anywhere or do anything.
  4. Keep the focus on the meaning of the season, not on outdoing yourself every year with grandiose gestures and expensive gifts. Gifts should be about quality, not quantity. They should show thoughtfulness and love, and they shouldn’t put you in debt. If you’ve gone overboard in the past, there’s no shame in telling your kids that you’re reining it in from now on. You’ll teach them a valuable lesson that the holidays aren’t about breaking the bank. Take this one step further by considering giving to others through donations of gifts or time, and trust me, you’ll feel a whole lot better.
  5. Don’t force relationships. The kids may only see Aunt Kathy and Uncle Mike once a year, so of course they should be kind and welcoming. Politeness is never wrong or out of date, so insist on it when it comes to your kids’ treatment of others. But don’t insist that they spend every minute with relatives they barely know and hardly see. You can’t force feelings on anyone, and the more you try, the more likely you are to produce the opposite result – resentment and an eventual unwillingness to even try.
  6. Maintain meaningful traditions. Regardless of whatever is going on in everyone’s life, be sure to hold on to the traditions that you love. It may be saying what you’re grateful for around the Thanksgiving table, lighting the Hanukkah candles together, or opening pajamas on Christmas Eve. These traditions will sustain your family unit and create memories that will live on with your kids and maybe even future generations. Don’t let them get lost in the excess and in the minutiae of the holidays. It’s easy to lose focus of what’s truly important when you’re bombarded by all the little things that really don’t matter.

My favorite Shakespearean quote says it all: “All of life’s greatest sadnesses stem from unmet expectations.” Don’t set yourself and your family up for failure. Remember what matters and leave the rest behind. Happy holidays, everyone!

Need help working with your kids to find balance AND success? Find personalized plans with proven success at www.teenagersuccess101.com. And for more tips on parenting teens, check out Teenagers 101

Three tips for reducing teen stress  

teen stressIt’s that time of year when the cries of teenagers everywhere can be heard ‘round the world. It’s college application time, well-into-school-and-absolutely-no-breaks-until-Christmas time, and “I’m up to my eyeballs in due dates” time. When kids are stressed, parents are stressed, and no one is happy. So what can you do to alleviate your kids’ anxiety? You can help, guide, suggest and even model good organization for your kids.

Teach your kids these skills today, and they will thank you for the rest of their lives:

1. There’s no way around it, something’s got to give. I can almost guarantee that your teens can drop at least one activity from their list that is a.} not that beneficial or important anyway, but that b.} takes up valuable time and adds unnecessary stress. Your kids need to decide for themselves what that is. When you pose this question to them, don’t be surprised if it takes them 30 seconds or less to answer. Teens know how they feel about their activities whether they verbalize them or not. They know what’s wasting their time, and they know what depletes their passion resources. They hate busy work. They hate pointless meetings. They’re just like us in that regard. So pose the question and step back and let them freely share the answer. Chances are, they’ll quickly identify their energy drainer. Be ready – you must be willing to hear it and let your child drop it, even if it’s a favorite activity of yours. If it’s not crucial to their future, an activity about which they are normally passionate, or something that is truly necessary for their growth and well-being, they should be allowed to drop it in the interest of life balance and stress reduction.  If you’re still hesitant about your child stopping piano lessons or SAT Prep, check out this article about the myriad ways stress hurts our bodies, minds, behaviors, and attitudes and ask yourself if that one hobby or class is worth it. http://www.stress.org/stress-effects/

 2. Kids know and understand everything they have going on in their lives, but they’re not great at figuring out what should take precedence. In fact, most would choose social media and friends over responsibilities any day of the week. They need parents to guide them and remind them, without nagging or taking over their calendar. The skill of prioritizing is so important to their lives that you would be negligent if you didn’t teach it to them. Think about the many times in your life when you’ve had to determine what is most crucial and then work to that end in order to keep your job, pay your bills, or maintain your sanity. You must teach this to your kids. Never expect that they will be able to figure this out on their own.

3. Help your kids by setting them up with a personal calendar where they can enter due dates, homework, activities and events. Teach them to review the calendar daily to determine what they can do today that will make tomorrow a little easier. Walk them through the importance of tackling big projects, college applications, and tests step-by-step, and by starting when the assignment is given, not the day before it’s due. Teach them that procrastination is dangerous, especially when entering adulthood, in that it adds additional and avoidable pressure and stress. Show them that a little forethought today can make an enormous difference to their futures.

Look for more tips like these in my book, Teenagers 101, found everywhere. And if your kids need personalized guidance, they can get it at Teenager Success 101.