Q&A: How Can I Help My Grieving Friend?

Q: A close friend of mine lost someone close to them recently, and sometimes they seem so lost. I’d like to help them feel better, or to at least not say anything to make them feel worse. What can I do?

A: The first key in helping a grieving loved one is to simply accept where they are in the process. Everybody goes through grieving in their own time, and sometimes you can get frustrated that the grieving loved one seems “stuck.” Don’t worry; they’ll make it through the process.

It also helps to accept that there’s no right way to grieve. Each person experiences the process differently because each person looks at the loss through their own lens. Again, just be patient.

Sometimes, we struggle for things to say to make our grieving loved ones feel better. These phrases come out awkward and sometimes seem insensitive. For example, “He’s in a better place now,” might make sense to you, but the other person might see it as minimizing their loss or even as if you’re implying that it was a good thing that the person died. Nobody says these things to be mean; they really are trying to help and, in their own way, to make the grieving loved one feel better. But it’s important to understand that the best thing you can do is simply ask how the person is feeling and offer support. Even if your words could make everything better, it’s important for the process that the person is allowed to feel the pain. It’s part of the healing.

As for specific actions to take, try checking in after a month or two has gone by. Grieving loved ones are often flooded with assistance immediately after a death — church casseroles, for example — but after awhile, everyone assumes the grieving person is okay and even doing well. That’s when the support goes away. Sometimes, just the offer of dropping off another meal or helping with another errand will take stress off someone and show that you still care as they continue adjusting to day-to-day life without their loved one.

A bonus tip related to children: Kids often grieve differently than adults do. They might seem quiet, or they may seem to be shrugging it off, but they’re really confused by the loss and trying to process and understand what happened. It’s okay to ask how they’re feeling, but if they’re not ready to talk about it, be patient and let them continue to process the death, too. Don’t worry – they’ll find you when they’re ready to talk, especially if you’ve been supportive and show that you care.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy at Grody Online Family Counseling in Columbus, Ohio. He has 12 years of experience working with children, teens, families and couples. He’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s a regular columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. For an appointment, call Carl at 614-477-5565. You can also schedule directly online at carlgrodylisws.clientsecure.me.)

When It’s Hard to Let Kids Just Play the Game …

Imagine you’re at a local high school watching a baseball game on a lovely spring afternoon. The sun is shining, birds are chirping, the smell of cheap hot dogs teases you from the snack cart . . .

And then you hear it.

“Catch the stinking ball! How stupid can you be?”

Oh. That guy. The one who screams at his kid like a drill sergeant wearing down a fresh recruit. Most parents shy away from him. On the field, the guy’s son hangs his head and wonders if there’s room to hide under second base.

Now, we’re not here to trash this guy. Yes, he’s over-involved, and yes, he’s making things harder for his kid, but he doesn’t see it that way. He’s trying to do the right thing. He cares about teaching his kid to work hard, to put forth his best effort and to never give up. He wants his son to be a leader. And, yes, sometimes he wants his son to be a star player because it makes Dad feel good.

I’ve seen this problem from every perspective. I started my career as a sportswriter covering high-school sports, and then I became a baseball coach as my kids got older. Eventually, I made another career change to clinical social work, where I specialize in family therapy. I know this problem coming and going, and unfortunately, this approach drives kids away from the game for several reasons.

First, it embarrasses the kid, especially if he’s a teenager, when being embarrassed by parents is a normal part of growing up. When that goes to an extreme, the teen feels extra anxiety, which makes him less likely to want to play and less able to succeed when he does.

These behaviors also make the kid a target of extra teasing. A teenager would rather walk across hot coals without his cell phone than be scolded by his parents in front of his friends. If he feels like he’s going to look stupid in front of everyone, he’s not going to want to play.

There also can be damage to the child’s relationship with his coach, who’s not immune to being embarrassed by the parent as well. That often leads to conflict between the parent and coach, possibly leading to less playing time for the child — sometimes because embarrassment causes the player to make more mistakes, and sometimes because the coach just wants to give the kid a break.

Sometimes these parents even contradict the coach, which means the player has to pick between two important authority figures. If he listens to his coach, he catches grief at home. If he listens to his parent, he loses playing time from the coach. This puts him in a classic double-bind (damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t). He feels anxious, confused and like he can’t please anybody. Since he can’t make a “right” choice, he’ll often make no choice at all, like the proverbial deer in headlights.

I remember a high school freshman baseball game. Our pitching coach was in the bullpen with our pitcher as he warmed up. But soon, the pitcher’s father strolled to the bullpen and started coaching his child as well, openly contradicting whatever the coach said. Not knowing what to do, the pitcher didn’t last through the first inning.

You really can’t blame the kid for that. He already felt pressure to pitch well. He felt embarrassed by his father. He was stressed, anxious and confused, and he felt like he couldn’t win no matter what he did. It’s no wonder he symbolically yakked all over the pitcher’s mound. Imagine if his dad felt that way at his job – he’d want to quit, too.

So what’s the solution? Here are a few things that can help:

First, leave the coaching to the coach. His job is hard enough when the players want to listen to him. If a parent really wants to have a say, he can volunteer to help; then his child (and the rest of the team) will see the parent as an appropriate authority figure on the field. When I coached, I loved when parents volunteered. I always found something for them to do, even if it was just hitting fungos to the outfielders or keeping the scorebook.

Second, focus on the positive. Repeated studies show that giving attention to behaviors that you like is more effective than giving attention to mistakes. If the player boots a ground ball, for example, remind him of what he does well when he catches the it. I once had a player who dropped his hands during his swing when he was in a slump. If I told him not to drop his hands, he focused so much on them that he dropped them even more. But if I reminded him to take his hands directly to the ball, his hands never dropped. That reminder during an important tournament game resulted in a game-winning double that had him smiling for a week.

Third, the parent should ask himself what his goal really is. If his goal is to help his child, he could try this approach to see if it gets better results. And if the parent realizes that he cares so much because it makes him feel better about himself . . . well, nobody’s perfect. He may count on his child to fill a void in his own life, but the first step toward changing that is to recognize it.

If it feels overwhelming to make these changes, the parent could see a clinical social worker or counselor to help him through it. Positive change is always possible. I see positive change happen every day in my office, and this situation is no different.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy at Grody Online Family Counseling based in Columbus, Ohio. He has 12 years experience working with children, teens, families and couples. He’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he coached baseball and softball for more than 10 years. He’s also the family therapy columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. As a writer, he’s sold hundreds of articles to national magazines, including a monthly coaching column for HOOP [the NBA’s magazine] for several years in the 1990s. For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565 or schedule directly online at carlgrodylisws.clientsecure.me.)

Review: Girls’ Q&A Book on Friendship

Sometimes, middle school is where self-esteem goes to die.

If you have preteens or teenagers, you already know there are times that you feel like you’re dealing with aliens. But there are also times when you know too well the issues they face, and they won’t listen to you or let you help. While those are both a normal part of development, knowing that doesn’t make parenting any easier when you see your children struggle to handle complex issues like relationships. Let’s face it – you’ve been around enough of life’s street corners to know what they might run into, while kids often bound around metaphorical corners oblivious to possible consequences.

On the issue of drama between friends, Annie Fox, M.Ed., has tried to provide your girls with a map.

Fox has credentials with both kids and parents. She’s the author of Middle School Confidential and Teaching Kids to Be Good People, and she hosts a weekly parenting podcast, “Family Confidential: Secrets of Successful Parenting.” And in The Girls’ Q&A Book on Friendship: 50 Ways to Fix a Friendship Without the Drama, she’s created an easy-to-use guide which gives girls a resource when they can’t, or won’t, talk to their parents.

The format is simple: each of the 50 questions is answered in one page, which lends itself to generalized advice that won’t apply to every girl who reads it. But even when the advice won’t apply to a specific person or situation, it offers a place to start exploring options. Maybe that’s the biggest plus of the book: in a world of impulsive decisions governed by emotional reactions, the book gives its readers a reason to pause, take a deep breath, and think about a response.

My favorite parts of the book, though, are the quotes from older girls who’ve been through similar situations. That gives the book credibility with an audience of readers that often would rather run headfirst into a wall than ask adults for advice. The book is laid out nicely as well, and the illustrations by Erica De Chavez add to the enjoyment and flow of the book.

All in all, as long as readers understand that the suggestions won’t always apply to their unique situations, the book is a useful guide to help guide girls around life’s street corners with as much confidence as possible. The book is targeted for 8-to-12-year-olds so that girls are ready for the friend drama of middle school, but older girls would probably find the book useful, too.

One last thing for the girls out there: just because it’s normal to want to hide problems from your parents doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Believe it or not, those old coots might just have gone through the same thing “back in the day” (you know, before they invented the wheel and the Internet).

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio. Carl is a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s the family therapy columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565.)

(If you’d like to order Annie’s book, you can get it here: http://www.anniefox.com/books/girlsqa_order.html.)

Nobody Wins the Blame Game

Let’s say I have new clients named Joe and Mary. Let’s say they’ve never been in for a session before. Joe often expects things to go like this:

“Well,” Joe might say, trying to sound reasonable, “the problem is Mary. She’s always nagging. If she’d just leave me alone when I come home from work, we’d get along just fine.”

“Well, that’s an easy fix,” Joe expects me to say. “Mary, you’re obviously to blame. What can we do to make you less of a harpy so your family can have peace and harmony?”

That’s not how it would happen.

Meanwhile, Mary might expect something like this. “Joe’s the problem,” she’d say. “He comes home grumpy and lazy, and I need him to stop that. If he wasn’t such a Grumpy Gus, we’d be just fine.” (OK, she probably wouldn’t say “Grumpy Gus,” but this is a family-friendly blog.)

“Well, that’s an easy fix,” Mary expects me to say. “Joe, you’re obviously to blame. What can we do to help you stop being such a jerk when you come home from work?”

That’s not how it’d go, either.

Now, people do come into family sessions with the idea of “fixing” someone else, but that approach rarely leads to positive change. More likely, it leads to more of the same arguments that they have at home, only this time they’re in my office and expecting me to referee. They play the blame game with all the skill of a kid trying to blame a broken lamp on a little brother.

So imagine the looks I get when I say to Joe and Mary, “I’m not really a blame guy. Tell me, what’s working well for you?”

They normally stare at me. As they gape, I follow up with, “Tell me one small thing that works well when Joe comes home from work.” It sounds simple, but you’d be amazed what people agree on when they just give themselves the chance.

Blame is one of the biggest obstacles to progress. This applies at all levels of our lives. When Congress and the President point fingers at each other, they only alienate each other so nothing can get done. When a referee makes a bad call, players and coaches lose focus by giving too much attention to it, making it harder to win the game. When the brother blames the toddler for breaking the lamp, the lamp’s still broken, and the toddler’s confused about why he’s in trouble.

And when Joe and Mary blame each other, they’re pushing away a dear member of their family that they count on for love and support. Instead of lifting each other up, they’re tearing each other down, and that often devastates not just the two of them but the rest of the family as well.

Now, let’s not be too hard on Joe and Mary. Our brains are wired to remember the negative much more than the positive. It’s a survival technique from the days when we lived in caves instead of condos; many of the negative things that happened those days either made you deathly ill or made you some creature’s lunch. These days, the chances that you’ll be attacked by a wild animal while strolling down the street are next to nil, so we really don’t need that approach anymore. That’s why I help Joe and Mary leave blame behind so they can build on what works for them.

Deep down, that’s really what Joe and Mary expect, too.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio. Carl is a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s the family therapy columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565.)

Regrets Get Old After A While

Everyone has regrets. We might not want to admit it, but we do. Maybe it’s a lost relationship, or a choice you didn’t make, or even something as simple as trying to sing Sinatra’s “My Way” at karaoke. Regrets come with life. They’re part of the process of learning from our mistakes.

The problem with regret is we’re not always good at letting it go. We let it make us miserable in the moment, which keeps us from appreciating the good things we have now.

So it’s ironic that in a study released in 2013, the group who should have the most regrets (because they’ve lived longer than the rest of us) is also the group that doesn’t worry about them. As a group, the elderly say regrets don’t do much good, and they’re much better at letting them go. Ironically, their biggest regret is worrying so much when they were younger.

I was reminded of this study recently when I played golf with an 86-year-old man named Al. As you might expect, Al didn’t move very fast, but he was efficient. He hit the ball straight and surprisingly long for his age, and we laughed a lot. I told Al I hoped to just be able to get out of bed when I’m 86, and he laughed and told me the key was not to worry too much about it.
As we chatted, I noticed Al’s attitude was upbeat about almost everything. When I mentioned that, he smiled and said, “People worry too much about stuff they can’t control. If they mess up, they worry too much about it.”

One of the reasons the elderly regret less is because they’ve seen so many problems come and go. They’ve seen more life than the young whippersnappers who are only experiencing things for the first or fourth or eighth time. They’ve learned the wisdom in Mark Twain’s quote: “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

But as I say to clients in my office, it’s easier to identify a problem than to change it. So how can you help yourself let go of regrets?

First, you need to recognize them. When you feel annoyed about a lost opportunity or something that didn’t work out, step back, take a deep breath, and see the regret for what it is – a chance to learn from the mistake.

Second, ask yourself if you can change it. If so, go ahead and do it. If not, you’re just punishing yourself by holding on to it. Try to imagine what life might be like without the regret guiding your thoughts.

Third, keep track of what triggers those feelings. Do you regret losing a past love, for example, when you fight with your current partner? Regret is sometimes a sign that you need to work on a current issue or relationship instead of trying to fix an old one.

Finally, be gentle with yourself. It’s as important to forgive yourself as to forgive others. Trust that you’ve learned from your past to make better choices today.

I mentioned the recent study about regrets to Al. He nodded and said, “When someone makes a mistake, I ask, ‘Can you walk on water?’ Only one man ever has, so if you can’t, it makes you human, and you’re going to make mistakes like the rest of us.”

Al then missed a putt. He didn’t get mad or scowl; he just picked up his ball, shook his head with a smile, and moved on to the next tee.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in child, adolescent, and family therapy at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio. He’s also a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s the family therapy columnist four Columbus Parent magazine. For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565.)

Why Family Therapy?

Here’s a scenario I see again and again — a parent drags a kid into therapy who doesn’t want to be there, looks at me with a grimace and says, “Here’s my kid! Fix ’em!”

There are cases where children and teens have legitimate mental health disorders. But often, they’re simply playing out their parts in a system of behaviors that makes up your family. Put another way, everyone in a family reacts to everyone else, and your kid’s job is to act out.

That’s why family therapy is so important. It’s not enough to sit a child down and try to convince him why he’s wrong and why he has to change. We need to discover the function of the behavior in the family — or more simply, how does the family benefit from the behavior?

Now, when I say that to parents, they think I’m crazy (much like you might right now). How could I say a child’s negative behaviors are helpful to the family?

Let’s look at one example. Let’s say Johnny’s mother is depressed. Johnny’s like most kids – he’s used to Mom getting mad, but he’s confused by her sadness. He doesn’t know how to handle that. So Johnny does the only thing he can to “help” his mother. He breaks a rule in such a way that he’s sure to get caught. His mother gets mad, anger gives her energy to deal with Johnny and what do you know — Johnny just “fixed” his mother.

That’s one simple example of how a negative behavior serves a purpose in the family. There are countless others. That’s why it’s important to consider the situation from everyone’s point of view and then come up with ideas together to help make positive changes. When those changes happen, the negative behavior is no longer needed.

Individual counseling can be a valuable piece of making positive change, and it does seem easier to just drop off your child and tell the therapist to, “Fix ’em!” But even if your child responds well to individual counseling, he’s likely to return to his old behaviors because the family system is the same, and thus his role in the family system is status quo as well. Positive change is much easier to create and maintain by working with the entire family.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, works with families at Grody Online Family Counseling based in Worthington, Ohio. He has 12 years of experience working with children, teens, families and couples. He’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s a columnist for Columbus Parent magazine.  For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565 or schedule directly online at carlgrodylisws.clientsecure.me.)

Yes, Mo’ne Davis Is Good; Now, Let Her Be A Kid

Mo’ne Davis is a star this week.

She’s the first girl to ever pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series. She’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated. She’s overwhelmed by requests for interviews and autographs. She’s being treated as the torchbearer for girls and young women trying to break into traditionally male sports. An ESPN analyst even compared her to Michael Jordan on SportsCenter.

It’s time to cut it out.

I’m a LISW-S specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. I’m a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program. Before becoming a therapist, I wrote about sports in newspapers, magazines, and children books for 20 years. I’ve also coached baseball and softball at every level from T-ball to high school, including middle-school softball (which would be Davis’ level if she played softball). I see children (yes, 13 year-olds are still children) forced into inappropriate roles by well-meaning adults on a regular basis. Often, families end up in my office for therapy simply because their child plays an adult role in the family rather than being allowed to just be a kid.

Being 13 is tricky. Kids at that age are caught between childhood and adolescence. Their bodies are changing, they look at things differently than they did before, and they’re transitioning into the job of defining who they are as people separate from their parents. But 13-year-olds also know they’re still kids at heart, and too much responsibility to act “grownup” can hamper their normal development.

Thirteen-year-olds and three-year-olds are surprisingly alike. (As you might expect, 13-year-olds hate hearing me say this to their parents.) It’s because those ages represent major strides in independence. Toddlers are mobile, can talk a bit, and can finally explore the world around them. They play and explore with enthusiasm, but they also make sure mom and dad are nearby. That’s because they know their parents will protect them – keep them from running into traffic, for example, or from kissing a light socket.

Thirteen-year-olds go through a similar phase of newfound independence and exploration, but they also know that they’re still kids at heart. They need to feel like the adults are protecting and taking care of them, too. They might yell, “I hate you!” on a weekly basis, but they need and appreciate the chance to still be a kid.

Now, compare that need with quotes like this one given to ESPN by a former president of the WNBA: “Mo’ne Davis could actually be (the) antidote to the loss of young people in baseball.”

Well, no pressure there.

“She’s the most talked-about baseball player on Earth right now,” Mark Hyman, assistant professor of sports management at George Washington University and the author of three books about youth sports, told The New York Times. “More people are talking about her than Derek Jeter. That’s a lot for a 13-year-old kid.”

To her credit – and contributing to the impression that she’s older than her years – Davis seems to understand how crazy it is to get all this attention. She told Sports Illustrated, “People were like, ‘Oh, there are going to be people running up to you taking pictures,’ and I thought it was going to be a bunch of little kids. But it’s grownups! And that’s, like, creepy.”

Like, yeah, it is.

Susan Perabo was the first woman to ever play college baseball at a NCAA school (at Webster University, then a Division III school near St. Louis). Now she’s a Writer in Residence and associate professor of English at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. “Mo’ne fits that profile I put out there, the imagined profile of what I thought the girl and woman would be who eventually breaks that barrier (into professional baseball),” she told Yahoo Sports. “But she’s only 13. The best thing personally that could happen to her is everyone forgets her for a while. It’s overwhelming to be in the spotlight.”

Now, I’m as impressed as anybody by Davis’ success at the Little League World Series. Any 13-year-old who can throw 70 miles-per-hour and show poise on a national stage certainly deserves admiration and praise. From her coach. From her teammates. From her opponents. From her parents. From her friends and family.

But from the rest of us? For the good of Mo’ne Davis, it’s time to tone it down.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in child, adolescent, and family therapy at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio. He also offers sports performance counseling. To contact Carl, call 614-477-5565.)

Curses! What To Do When Your Kid Starts Cussing

Parents often complain their children morphed overnight into drunken sailors – not because they found a parrot and a bottle of rum in their kids’ rooms, but because the kids started cursing.

For many parents, this is more vexing than funny. They think it makes them look like bad parents. They think it’s the first misstep on a slippery road of behavioral issues. They’re afraid someone will drop an F-bomb in front of Grandma, and then all hell will break loose.

Sorry. I should’ve said, “heck.”

Cursing is a reality of the world around us. Kids hear it on TV, with their friends, at school, from relatives and even just walking down the street. It’s impossible to keep kids from hearing these colorful, um, adjectives. So how can you make sure your kids don’t become masters of invectives? A few tips:

— Don’t overreact. If you make a big deal out of cussing, your children know what button to push when they want to annoy you, get your attention or both. Simply say something like, “It’s not ok to do that. I expect better from you.” That sets a firm boundary without feeding the behavior.

— Notice when your children aren’t cussing and praise them for it. It’s important to notice when your child is doing the right thing. Use phrases like, “I noticed you haven’t cussed for awhile. That makes me proud.” If you’d like to reinforce that, add something like, “That made me so happy that I’d like to play a game with you.” Reward the behavior you like, and you’ll see more of it.

— Some parents use a “cussing jar.” (Say a cuss word, drop a coin in the jar.) If that works for you, go ahead. But if it doesn’t work, it’s probably because it gives attention to the cussing, which makes it more likely to increase.

— Be a good role model. Often, kids just repeat words they learned from us. (Think of Ralphie in “A Christmas Story.”) If you’ve cursed in front of your kids, don’t be too hard on yourself; most parents have (including me). But if you want your children to be more conscious of what they say, you should be, too. And if you slip up? Don’t make a big deal out of it. Just apologize, thereby being a role model for what the kids should do when they make a mistake.

— Age makes a difference. Teens are more likely to curse, especially if they think it’s cool (doubly so if they know it bothers you). The same tips from earlier apply, but it’s even more important not to overreact. Remember, teens are looking for ways to rebel against you.

— Decide if cussing is something you want to ignore. Some parents don’t pick this battle, saving attention for issues that matter more to them. The attention principle applies: behaviors that you ignore should eventually reduce or vanish, especially if you’re praising the behaviors that you like instead. Other parents make a stand against cursing, hoping to prevent their kids from rebelling with more extreme behaviors by setting a consistent boundary about cussing. There’s no right or wrong; the key is to be consistent and predictable.

— Don’t take it personally. Often, we think we’ve failed when our kids cuss, especially in public. Be gentle with yourself. If your kid drops a verbal bomb in public, look around the room and ask yourself, “How many parents here never had that happen?” You’ll realize you’re in a very large club of parents.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, is in private practice at Grody Online Family Counseling based in Columbus, Ohio. He has 12 years experience working with kids, teens, families and couples. He’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s also the family therapy columnist for “Columbus Parent” magazine. For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565 or schedule directly online at carlgrodylisws.clientsecure.me.)

Divorced Parents: The Way It Should Be

It takes a lot to surprise me as a therapist.

Clients have told me they want to give their adopted children back. Children have told me how they help cover up their parent’s addictions. Once, a school psychologist even insisted a well-behaved child should go to a behavioral school because the psychologist didn’t like a former diagnosis in the child’s school files.

But this session . . .

“We’re divorced, and we’d like to make sure that we’re doing the right things as parents of our kids,” the father said. “That’s why we came to see you.”

Okay, that one surprised me.

Here’s how it normally goes when divorced parents come in for family therapy:

“He abused me.”

“She’s a controlling harpy.”

“He checked out the babysitter.”

“She’s poisoning the children against me.”

“Why does he have to drink in front of the kids?”

“Who’s that stranger trying to act like a father to my children?”

“The problem is him!”

“The problem is her!”

Those are the things I expect. In fact, my family therapy mentor, Dr. Gil Greene of The Ohio State University, likes to say family therapists will always have job security as long as there’s divorce. But the couple in my office continued to surprise me.

“I agree,” the mother said. “He’s a good father, but we struggle sometimes with knowing if we’re doing any damage to the kids. We hope that you can help guide us through that.”

So nobody’s calling anybody a name? Nobody’s threatening anyone? Nobody’s using the children to attack the other parent? What was I supposed to do with this . . . this . . . cooperation? It was all I could do to keep from breaking into a therapeutic happy dance.

This couple should be the norm, not the exception, but that’s just not easy to do. People who break up often can’t stand each other. They often feel varying degrees of hate for the other parent, and it’s hard to see good qualities in someone that you actively loathe.

Of course, kids suffer in these situations. They feel torn between their parents. They feel like the breakup is their fault. They feel anger they don’t really understand but that they have no trouble expressing. And if Mom or Dad happens to start dating someone else, well, heaven help them all.

So I smiled at the couple, thanked the therapy gods for sending me two people who wanted to put the children first, and thanked them for coming in.

“I’m guessing you’re co-parenting better than you think you are,” I said, “just because you’re so determined to do the right things by your kids. Tell me about the things that you’re doing that seem to be working . . .”

I didn’t see that couple for long. They were indeed doing a lot of things well, and my job was to help them tweak a few things along with helping them develop confidence in themselves as parents. After a couple of sessions, they really didn’t need to keep seeing me. I could fill their time slot with another set of parents looking for help.

“Their dad’s an alcoholic loser who never worked a day in his life,” the mom said at the start of my first session with the new family. “I hope the court never lets him see the kids again.”

Ah, that’s what I’m used to hearing. Time to get to work . . .

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, sees clients at Grody Online Family Counseling based in Columbus, Ohio. He has 12 years of experience working with children, teens, families and couples. He’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s also the family therapy columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565 or schedule directly at carlgrodylisws.clientsecure.me.)

So Now You’re the “Bad Guy” — Dealing with Teenagers

I see a lot of angst in my job. It comes with the territory when you do family therapy. But sometimes, the turmoil is simply caused by the passage of time. It seems like such an innocent thing because it happens to everyone, but eventually, children become teenagers.

(How many parents out there just gulped?)

Let’s face it, the teenaged years throw even the most prepared and flexible parents for a loop. Your kids seem to completely change. One day, they’re trying to be like you and make you happy; the next day, they’re saying they hate you and you’re the worst parent evvvvvvvvvver. (If you haven’t heard a teenager drag out a word to make a point about how “lame” you are, just wait – it’s going to happen.)

Parents, you’re not going through this alone. Many parents feel disconnected from their teens because the relationship changes so dramatically, and they don’t understand why. Simply put, it’s a teenager’s job developmentally to create their personality separate from their parents. They pull away from parents because they’re supposed to pull away from parents.

They still need you, of course. Teens need rules and boundaries as much as when they were younger. In fact, three-year-olds and teens are a lot alike. Watch a three-year-old at the park; he’s happy playing, but he also glances over to make sure Mom or Dad is there. He knows they’ll protect him – for example, they won’t let him run into the street – so he feels safe when they’re around. Teens look to parents for the same thing, but they’re operating in a much bigger “park.” They still want and need parents to be in charge, but they’re not going to thank parents for the effort. In fact, teens are likely to rebel against it while knowing intuitively it’s exactly what they need. Deep down, they see consistent rules and boundaries as proof that you still love them.

At the same time, teens also need enough freedom to explore the world around them, how it works, and who they are in it. Teens need to make mistakes so they can learn lessons. They need to experience success as a result of their own efforts. And they need to develop relationships separate from the family. Parents often feel threatened, even rejected, when teens invest so much effort into friends, but it’s a natural part of growing up. It helps to remember that when teens navigate their small part of the world, they’re learning how to navigate the much bigger world when they’re adults.

I remember a story from my first psychology professor in college, who also doubled as the school’s baseball coach. One of his players said to him, “We like you because you’re not just a coach. You’re our friend.”

“I’m not your friend,” the coach said. “I’m friendly. There’s a difference.”

That’s the parent’s role with teens as well. Our first job as parents is to make sure our children make it to adulthood feeling safe, secure, and confident that they can operate in the world. So sometimes it’s our job to make them mad, and sometimes it’s our job to listen to how much they hate us. That cuts deep occasionally, but it’s part of the process.

In time, it will get better. Ben Franklin once said his father got a lot smarter between the time Ben was 15 and 25. Of course, his dad didn’t really get smarter. Ben just became more aware.

Don’t worry. That should happen for you, too.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in child, adolescent, and family therapy. His practice, Grody Family Counseling, is located in Worthington, Ohio. He’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s also the family therapy columnist for Columbus Parent magazine.  For an appointment, call Carl at 614-477-5565.)