Q&A: I’m Nervous About My Kid Going Away To Camp

Q: My daughter is leaving soon for her first overnight camp. She seems happy to be going, but I’m a nervous wreck. How can I handle this as well as she is?

A: Well, I’ve certainly been where you are. My oldest daughter went to her first overnight camp when she was 13, and I spent the week worried she’d have an allergic reaction that required someone to stab her with an EpiPen. Everything worked out fine, but what you’re feeling is more common than you might think.

It’s normal to feel anxious when your kids are going to their first overnight camps. It’s symbolic – the kids are getting older, and just yesterday weren’t they toddlers who would never, ever leave you, and now they’re suddenly going to a place where strangers will take care of them? How did that happen so fast? Who’s going to tuck the kids into bed? The better question, though, might be who will the parents get to tuck in at night?

There are kids who aren’t ready for camp yet, and in those cases, taking it slow is definitely the way to go. But anxiety about camp sometimes comes from the parents, even if they mean well; kids who show anxiety about camp are often mirroring anxiety exhibited by their parents.

To make sure that your daughter is ready for camp, make a list of specific things that you’re worried about, and then go through the list and evaluate each worry one by one. Ask yourself if the event you’re worried about is likely to happen; how your daughter might handle it; and if the staff is trained to deal with it. Ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen if your worry comes to pass? Then ask yourself the most important question: What’s your hunch about whether your daughter is ready for camp? You know her better than anyone else does; you can trust your hunch. (If you’ve already agreed to let her go, you probably know that answer already.)

Overnight camp is like any other rite of passage for your kids. As parents, we don’t always want them to be old enough to make a developmental leap, but we work through it because we know it’s good for them. It’s the same as dropping the kids off at kindergarten and driving away while they cry in the doorway, and it’s the same as dropping the kids off at college and driving away while you’re crying in the car. These milestones are part of growing up, and like it or not, good parents let their children have these experiences because they help the kids grow into smart, confident, competent adults.

While your daughter is gone, it might help to distract yourself. Spend some quality time with your spouse or significant other. Work on a project that you haven’t had time to finish. Take a vacation of your own, or spend some “me time” relaxing, reading, and recharging. Some nervous parents even drop their kids off and then camp at a park nearby “just in case.” (While that doesn’t project a lot of confidence, it does let kids go to camp without interference, and you don’t have to tell your kids that you’re nearby.)

Trust me, I understand how hard it can be when your kids hit a milestone like this. I occasionally tell my college-aged kids that they should still be five years old. (They just laugh at me.) But I know that’s not realistic; it’s a child’s job to grow up and leave no matter how much his parents want him to stay, and events like overnight camp are part of the developmental process.

Don’t worry, though. You’ve got awhile before your daughter asks for a deposit for her first apartment. And some kids even come back to live in your basement, but that’s another blog entirely …

(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. If you’re interested in an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565.)

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Q&A: How Do I Get My Husband To Stop Irritating Me?

Q: I understand that I can’t control what someone else does, but my husband’s really been irritating me lately, and I don’t like it. How can I make things better?

A: Well, you’ve probably just asked a question to which everybody can relate (including my significant other). You’re halfway there just by realizing that you can’t control what someone else does, even someone as close to you as your husband. However, there are things that you could try to make you relationship smoother and help you be closer as a couple.

Before we go into that, though, I want to emphasize that I’m not assuming that you need to change or that you’re “the problem.” Blame doesn’t do anybody any good in a family; it just gets in the way of making positive changes that benefit everyone. Each person plays a role in supporting the status quo, even if that status quo doesn’t make you happy.

A family (and every relationship inside that family system) is made up of predictable patterns of communication and behavior. For example, a husband might leave his socks on the floor, and his wife is likely to complain just like she did the last hundred times his socks missed the laundry basket. He has a pattern (leaving socks on the floor), and she has a pattern (complaining about it). Predictable, comfortable status quo.

Often, the best way to change your partner’s behavior is simply by changing how you react. (Again, this doesn’t mean you’re to blame; it means that you can only control what you do.) If you respond differently to his pattern, his response has to be different as well. For example, if he normally snaps at you when you lose your car keys, you can make the choice not to respond to the snarking, thus avoiding the normal argument.

Instead, try using the attention principle. If you give attention to a behavior, positive or negative, that behavior will increase. If you ignore a behavior that you don’t like, the behavior should eventually diminish or vanish altogether. There might be an uptick in the negative behavior at first, but that’s normal. It’s called the extinction burst, which happens because your partner needs to test whether you’re really determined to ignore the behavior.

It’s not enough to ignore a behavior, though. You also need to praise behaviors that you like. For example, if you lose your keys and your partner helps you look for them, thank him. If he complains the entire time, ignore that part. Instead, just say something like, “I appreciate you helping me find my keys. It was nice of you.” You’ll be tempted to say something about his attitude, but if you do, you’re giving attention to something you don’t like, thus feeding the negative behavior.

You also need to accept that it’s ok for you and your husband to get irritated, even mad, at each other from time to time. Often, this is when big fights happen; you’re already stewing, and then an argument over something like socks or keys sends the conflict over the top. Give your partner – and yourself – permission to be angry. When things start getting out of hand, simply call a timeout by saying, “Look, I’m feeling angry right now. Let’s take a break until I calm down.” You need to let your partner do the same thing, though. It’s tempting to try to have the last word, but it’s more important to recognize the emotion of the moment and take that break.

One last thing: Often, couples stop talking before resolving their differences. They develop a pattern where one partner just throws up his or her hands and says, “Forget it!” This often is a protective pattern because it’s scary what might happen if you try to resolve an issue but can’t. In these cases, couples therapy is useful. The therapist’s office is a safe place where you can have those conversations and learn to resolve disagreements without having your relationship fall apart.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio. He’s 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.)

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.

One final thought: The American Psychiatric Association removed a bereavement clause as an exception to its definition of depressive disorders in its latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (The DSM is used as the diagnosing guide for mental health in the United States.) Unfortunately, while grieving can look a lot like Depression, it’s actually a normal and necessary reaction to the loss of a loved one, so the APA didn’t help most people by removing the exception. Be careful not to refer to your loved one’s grief as Depression unless it lasts longer than usual and/or is more severe than expected. If you’re truly worried that your love one’s grieving is more intense than would be expected, you should encourage them to see a qualified professional who specializes in grief before any labeling is done.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy at Grody Family Counseling in Columbus, Ohio. He’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s a regular columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. Call 614-477-5565 if you’d like to schedule an appointment with Carl. Online sessions may be available.)

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 run by the local boosters …

And then you hear it.

“Catch the stinking ball! I can’t believe you made such a stupid play!”

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 enough 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 and for himself. But we have to understand that 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 just 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.

There are several reasons. First, it simply embarrasses the kid, especially if he’s already 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 hit the field.

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 going to be less likely 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 might catch grief at home. If he listens to his parent, he could lose 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 ball. 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’d focus so much on them that he’d drop 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 Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio. 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 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.)

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.)

Grandparents and Divorce: How to Stay Involved

Q: I love my daughter-in-law like my own child, but she and my son are getting divorced. How can I keep her in my life after the divorce?

A: Divorce is tough on everyone, but you’ve asked the question that might get the least attention during a divorce. All too often, families feel like they have to stand behind their own blood relative, and someone who was part of the family one minute suddenly is shut out the next.

The toughest part about staying in touch with your ex-daughter-in law may be dealing with the feelings of mixed loyalties — those of your son, those of your ex-daughter-in-law, and even your own feelings. In a perfect world, the divorce would be amiable and you wouldn’t have to choose, but with the way divorces are contested, that’s often not the case. So how do you balance keeping a positive relationship with your ex-daughter-in-law when you son expects you to be loyal to him?

Here are a few tips:

— First, hard as it is, don’t take sides. Except in the case of abuse or the most egregious circumstances, both parties contribute to a marriage falling apart. We’re human; bad things sometimes happen. So avoid the temptation to say anything that might imply that you blame one person more than the other (even if you do).

— Have a thick skin. Even if you don’t pick sides, someone’s going to think you did, if for no other reason than they’re looking to project their own stresses onto you. Your son may say things that hurt your feelings, such as you’re not loyal, or you’ve always been against him, or you should support him no matter what he may have done because you’re family. A good response might be, “I know you feel that way now, but I love you as much as I always did, and I always will.”

— Set firm boundaries. Don’t allow your son or your ex-daughter-in-law to tell you what the other one did “wrong.” They will try to put you in the middle of their problems; it’s human nature. When they try, simply say, “I know you’re hurt by the divorce, but I don’t want to hear bad things about either of you. I love you both, and you’re both still family to me.”

— Attention increases behavior. When you give attention to a behavior, it happens more often, so don’t engage in conversations that you don’t want to be in. Simply say, “You know I don’t want to talk about this,” and change the subject. When they try again — and they probably will — stay consistent with your response. Eventually, the lack of attention to the behavior will make them stop trying.

— Do it for the children. It’s good for kids to have both sets of grandparents in their lives. If you need a trump card, use this one: “I’m sorry things didn’t work out for the two of you, but it’s better for the kids if they keep all of their grandparents in their lives. They need as much routine and love as they can get. I think that’s easier to do if I stay involved with both of you.”

— Be patient. Your son and ex-daughter-in-law are going through an emotional grinder (along with everyone around them). Be patient while they process what’s happening and eventually work their way to acceptance.

— Don’t expect yourself to be perfect, either. You might slip once in awhile. If you catch yourself taking sides or find yourself in conversations that you shouldn’t be in, step back, take a deep breath, apologize if it’s appropriate, and remember your ultimate goal: for everyone you love to stay in your life.

— If the parents just can’t buy into this approach, suggest family therapy. There, the family can work on ways to do what’s best for everyone while still honoring the hurt feelings and angst that come with divorce. There’s no shame in family therapy for divorcing families; in fact, I’d recommend most families meet with someone specializing in family therapy during a divorce to help with the transition to their new lives.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio. He’s 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.)

Stressed Out About Stressing Out

Often, the phrase “stress management” just causes you more stress.

It’s bad enough to feel overwhelmed by stress, but thinking about how to manage it often makes it more overwhelming. That’s partly our fault in the mental health field because we talk about it so much that it’s reached buzzword status. If people talk about it so much, it must be hard to master, right?

Not really. If stress controls your life, therapy might be the best answer for you. But before you make that call, here are a few simple tips to help you kick stress’ tail.

— Get enough sleep. Your body and mind need seven to eight hours of sleep to function properly. Sleep helps your brain process information, emotions, and experiences from the day before, which makes it easier to handle any stress caused by those events.

— Eat healthy. Again, your body and mind need proper nutrition to handle the stresses of everyday life.

— Exercise. Exercise keeps your mind and body healthy, and it gives you a way to release stress in a socially-acceptable way. (Example: Punching your neighbor who won’t return your lawn mower is frowned on; picturing his face on golf balls that you hit at the driving range is fine.) Exercising also releases endorphins, which are chemicals released into your bloodstream that make you feel happier and healthier. Exercise even helps battle depression; studies show regular exercise can reduce depression as much as taking an anti-depressant (and without the side effects of medication).

— Practice deep breathing. This sounds simple, but it works. Close your eyes, picture a place you like, and inhale deeply and slowly through your nose. Hold the breath for a second, and then slowly breathe out through your mouth. Imagine you’re blowing out a candle on a birthday cake in super-slow motion. Repeat the process a few times. This should relax you enough to take the edge off your stress, making it easier to deal with the problem at hand.

— Practice deep breathing every day, even when you’re not feeling stressed. If you practice enough, your body learns to automatically relax when you use deep breathing, even if stress is particularly strong that day. You don’t have to practice for hours; a couple of minutes at a time will do. But it does help to practice every day.

— Yoga. Yeah, I wasn’t a yoga person, either, until I tried it. Studies repeatedly show that yoga helps with concentration, relaxation, reducing stress, and even reduces depression and anxiety.

— Meditation. Don’t worry, meditation doesn’t have to mean sitting in a lotus position in the corner while wearing a revealing robe. Meditation can be as simple as taking a few minutes a day to relax, practice deep breathing, and notice your thoughts. Don’t judge your thoughts; just notice them and let them go. Studies show meditation not only helps relieve stress, but it also changes your brain’s chemistry in positive ways. (If you do find yourself sitting in the corner, please sash that robe closed.)

— Hang out with people you like. Laughter and the sense of not being alone with your stress will help reduce its influence. If you don’t have people that you like right now, try getting out to meet people with similar interests who’ll understand what you’re going through. (Might I suggest starting at a yoga class?)

— If the stress is still overwhelming, call me or another clinician for talk therapy. We can help you develop positive coping skills to deal with stress. We can also help you get to the root of the stress and help you make positive changes to reduce it.

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

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 that I see again and again — a parent walks into my office dragging a child 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 adolescents have legitimate mental health disorders. But often, children and teens are 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? If you figure that out, you can make changes so that the behavior isn’t needed anymore.

Now, when I say that to parents, they often look at me like I’m crazy. How could I say that a child’s negative behaviors are helpful to the family?

Let’s look at one example. Let’s say that Johnny’s mother is depressed about a loss. She might have lost a loved one, or a beloved pet, or it might even be as simple as she noticed crow’s feet in the mirror and is mourning her lost youth. Johnny’s like most kids – he’s used to his mother 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, specializes in family therapy. He’s in private practice at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio, and he’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program. He’s also the family therapist columnist for Columbus Parent magazine.  For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565 or e-mail carlgrody@grodyfamilycounseling.com.)