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My Kids Have Nothing to Do This Summer. Now What?

This Dear Christine column offers tips for structuring your family’s summer during the pandemic.

Dear Christine,

Since school ended, my whole family is floundering. We have no summer plans. I’m feeling some pressure to make up for “COVID slump,” but I haven’t a clue how to do so. Neither of my teenagers has summer jobs or internships, and neither is interested in taking an online class. We need to find a purpose this summer—all of us. What, even, is the goal?

Warmly,
A Floundering Family

Dear Floundering,

In Dear Christine, sociologist and coach Christine Carter responds to your questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life. Want to submit a question? Email [email protected].

You aren’t alone! Day-to-day life without structure and routine is hard. We human beings are creatures of habit, and when our routines are disrupted, we tend to feel anxious and agitated.

So, here’s the goal: Do something productive every day. Also, get into some semblance of a routine.

Even though your kids probably feel like there is “nothing to do,” they are going to feel better if they make themselves useful or do something creative every day. People feel good about the things that they do well. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have other sources of good feelings, but, truly, there is no other source of self-esteem than doing something—anything—well.

Also, there’s so much to be done.

I’m guessing you noticed: It’s a mess out there. My kids are tired of people telling them that 2020 is going to go down in the history books. They know that this is an important historical moment on a lot of fronts. A lot of old institutions and social structures, including our kids’ educational structures, have been profoundly shaken. If your kids are like mine, they may feel angry about all that is wrong in the world, and they may blame “you Boomers.” (For the record, kids, I’m not a Boomer.)

But, seriously, this is no time for finger-pointing. Neither is it time to wallow in self-pity or to allow ourselves to be sidelined by despair or resignation. It’s time to create the world we want to live in. We all need to get involved in fixing all the things that are broken. We need to step up and engage. What do you as a family care most about? What do your kids care about most? What role do you each want to play in making the world a better place?

This summer offers a chance to get involved in a meaningful cause. It could be through protest or activism, or it could be through learning, growth, and self-reflection, which are also productive foundations for social change.

And the goals we set for the summer should rest on that foundation. What do we want to learn or accomplish? How do we want to make a difference? The key here is not to set goals for our kids, unless we want to set the stage for endless conflict and nagging in our households (not recommended).

But using non-controlling, non-directive language, we can ask our kids questions about what they want. We can encourage them to set their own goals, letting them be guided by their own motivations (rather than what we want for them). What do they want to accomplish? What helps them feel like they are productive members of society, and of the family? What can they do every day to improve a skill that they value?

I don’t think that we need to push our kids to achieve something big this summer, and I don’t think we need to be particularly high-performing ourselves during this crazy time. Let “doing something productive every day” be a low mountain to climb. No need to construct some amazing program for your kids to counter the “COVID slump.”

Again, this is about stepping up and engaging.  Whatever they, and we, are interested in is fine. And as parents, we need to hold our kids to the expectation that they will contribute to our household in meaningful ways by, say, consistently helping with dinner or emptying the dishwasher without being asked. This may not feel as meaningful to them, historically speaking, as the other productive things they do. But it will make a big difference in our households, and our sanity as parents.

Key to accomplishing these goals is creating routines around them. 

Should you exercise in the morning or afternoon? Check email before or after breakfast? Work on college applications during the week or on the weekends? Shower every day? Go to bed before midnight or play video games all night?

Having a summer routine can free up a lot of energy that is otherwise exhausted by the constant need to decide what to do and when to do it. And for parents, this is even more important if we are managing (or just worrying about) our kids’ schedules.

This might seem crazy, but I ask my kids (and many of my clients) to construct their ideal day in increments of 30 minutes for themselves on a spreadsheet. I also do this for myself at the start of every new season, or when there is a big change afoot (here is an example of one created by a teenager for summer).

Developing a daily routine is about deciding how you will spend your time. More specifically, it’s about deciding what you will do and when you will do it. The key is to decide on these things one time instead of trying to figure out how to structure your day/week/summer every morning. Once constructed, we can lean on that structure to guide our daily life.

I like to think about our daily activities in terms of five big buckets:

  • Physical. How will we get some exercise? Is there something athletic we’d like to train for? How can we move our bodies throughout the day? What are other components of physical health that are important to me?
  • Emotional. How can we care for our psychological health by bringing some enjoyment into our daily life? How can we foster positive emotions like gratitude or awe? How can we connect with nature or pets or something that brings us peace or happiness?
  • Social. How can we connect with the people around us? This one is tricky during a pandemic, and it is also extraordinarily important. Teenagers need to connect with their peers. Similarly, most people need to connect with sources of emotional support outside of their immediate family unit. With creativity and determination, now that it is summer this can be done outdoors in ways that lower the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
  • Cognitive. Many of us get the intellectual stimulation we need through our work; kids can get it in myriad ways over the summer. What are they interested in reading? Learning more about? Can they get a jumpstart on their AP reading or SAT prep so they have less to worry about in the fall?
  • Spiritual or humanitarian. This is where our daily routine can connect back to engaging in something that brings us meaning or connects us to something larger than ourselves. Teens who provide tangible, emotional, or informational support to people in crises tend to feel more strongly connected to their community. Over and over, research shows that we feel good when we stop thinking about ourselves so much and support others.

Creating an ideal day that includes each of these aspects of well-being gives us something concrete to shoot for in a world of uncertainty. Once created, we don’t have to stick to it rigidly. Often, it’s not the plan that makes the difference, but the planning process. Having decided once, we don’t have to decide every day.

Floundering Family, your teens may or may not engage in deciding on their ideal day. They may or may not decide to be productive this summer. Either way, make sure they see you do these things. That you are clear with them what the larger goal is for the summer. As parents, often the best we can do is to teach through our own example. Fortunately, with teenagers, that is almost always the best place for us to start—and it is enough to make a difference in the long run.

Yours,
Christine

Resources for Learning about Racism

What am I doing to be a better antiracist? Learning both about myself and about the racist systems, policies, and beliefs that are driving our culture.

Want to join me? You could start by taking the Harvard Implicit Bias test about race. Don’t worry if you find out that you have more unconscious bias than you realized; there is a lot we can do to dismantle our unconscious racism once we identify it. It’s helped me to see that the terms “‘Racist’ and ‘antiracist’ are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each movement,” as Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to be an Antiracist, writes. “These are not permanent tattoos.”

Reading Ideas

Real American by Julie Lythcott-Haims
A poetic and powerful memoir about growing up as an upper-middle-class, biracial black woman in America. I recommend listening to the audiobook!

How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad
A 28-day “challenge” to own up to and share our racist behaviors, big and small. Powerful to do with a close friend, spouse, or discussion group.

You could also check out Kendi’s Antiracist Reading List, or one of these best-sellers about race (I hope to read them all).

Movie Ideas

13th

A documentary about the origins of America’s carceral state.

I Am Not Your Negro

The Force

The second in a trilogy by indie filmmaker Peter Nicks. (I also highly recommend the first in the series,The Waiting Room.)

I’d like to watch everything on this TIME list of expert recommendations of movies about racism and protest history.

Listening Ideas

Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris, episode 253: An Uncomfortable (But Meaningful) Conversation about Race with Lama Rod Owens

Unlocking Us with Brene Brown: Brene with Ibram X. Kendi on How to Be an Antiracist

The Science of Happiness with Dacher Keltner, episode 29: From Othering to Belonging

 “The only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it — and then dismantle it.” — Ibram X. Kendi

 

A Conversation About Race with Julie Lythcott-Haims, Nefertiti Austin, Christine Koh and Leslie Priscilla Arreola-Hillenbrand

Probably like many of you, my “plans” for the summer are not what I anticipated they’d be. And my summer reading list has changed.

I’m with Van Jones  in believing that we’ve each been called to do “a personal and spiritual accounting.” How did we, as a society, get here? Though we may often feel powerless, most of us are not. And those of us with power and privilege are responsible for the state of things.

Ibram X. Kendi reminds us in How to Be an Antiracist  that “racist” is not actually a pejorative term. It’s a descriptive one. Personally, my fear of being racist has sometimes prevented me from taking antiracist action. As such, my fear is in and of itself unwittingly racist.

According to Kendi, “The only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it — and then dismantle it.” To do that, we need to be able to label things we say or do as racist when they support or express a racist idea, even if our intentions are otherwise. “The attempt to turn this useful descriptive term into an almost unusable slur is, of course, designed to do the opposite: to freeze us into inaction.”

So I am asking myself a question posed by my friend and colleague Julie Lythcott-HaimsWhat am I doing to put my antiracist beliefs into action?

Parents: If you’d like to join a discussion about how to face this summer of uncertainty and unrest, I have a great opportunity for you on Wednesday nights 5pm PT/ 8pm ET. Join me and a dozen other parenting authors for a masterclass called Parenting in Place: Helping Families Thrive in Challenging Times.  Our conversation this week is about race, and it’s with Julie Lythcott-Haims, Nefertiti Austin, Christine Koh and Leslie Priscilla Arreola-Hillenbrand. If you miss the live version, you can catch the replay!

The entire series— 9 live classes, the bonus bundle, and the closed Facebook community—is only $39. (Registrants will have access to all replays, no matter when they join.) 10 percent of the proceeds will be donated to charity—I’m donating my proceeds to the Equal Justice Initiative. See the whole line up and register here: https://parentinginplacemasterclass.com.

Summer Parenting MASTERCLASS

I know many parents are feeling burned out on summer (already). I have a great resource for you! It’s a virtual masterclass called Parenting in Place: Helping Families Thrive in Challenging Times. It’s a new series from a group of parenting coaches, therapists, authors, educators, and neuroscientists who’ve come together to share best practices for thriving this summer.

Because the event is live, attendees will have the opportunity to ask the hosts questions. Don’t worry if you can’t join us right away; all sessions will be recorded. Register Here.

The Details

Parenting in Place features 9 weekly masterclasses hosted on Zoom, each focused on a different theme, and each including specific takeaways and strategies. We’ve also put together a bundle of free bonus content (downloadables, templates, webinars) from our speakers, and created a closed moderated Facebook group so together we can keep the conversation going throughout the duration of the event.

Live events will be held on Wednesdays at 8 pm ET / 5 pm PT, but registrants will have access to replays in case they can’t attend live.

We want to make this event accessible to as many people as possible and recognize the difficult position many families find themselves in these days. Therefore, we’re offering the entire 9-week series of live classes, the bonus bundle, and the closed Facebook community—for only $39.

Here is my favorite part: 10% of the proceeds for the Masterclass will be donated to charity to support COVID-19 and social justice-related work. I will be donating my share to the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization that advocates for criminal-justice reform and racial justice. I recommend this New Yorker interview with EJI founder Bryan Stevenson (he’s also the author of one of my all-time favorite books, Just Mercywhich was recently made into a feature film.)

The Line-Up

June 10: Summer Without Camp
with Audrey Monke and Katherine Reynolds Lewis

June 17: A Conversation About Race
with Julie Lythcott-Haims, JD, Nefertiti Austin, Christine Koh, and Leslie Priscilla Arreola-Hillenbrand

June 24: Screen Time
with Devorah Heitner, Ph.D. and Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD

July 1: Independence
with Julie Lythcott-Haims, JD, MFA and Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD

July 8: Anxiety & Building Resilience
with Madeline Levine, Ph.D., and Michele Borba, EdD

July 15: Showing Up
with Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., LCSW and Katie Hurley, LCSW

July 22: Finding Peace
with Debbie Reber, MA and Christine Carter, Ph.D.

July 29: Motivation
with Katherine Reynolds Lewis, Ned Johnson, and William Stixrud, Ph.D.

Aug. 5: Back-to-School
with Jessica Lahey and Phyllis Fagell

All I Want for Mother’s Day Is an Equitable Division of Labor

Here’s how to renegotiate the unfair burdens created by the coronavirus lockdown

This Mother’s Day is going to be a doozy for a lotta moms out there.

I have been flooded with requests from working moms for strategies to sustain their own well-being while trying to keep their children from slipping into depression and their careers afloat.

“I’m grateful to be working from home, but I’ve taken on way more of the housework and homeschooling than my husband has,” a client recently complained to me. “And I’m the one my kids come to to have their meltdowns. I’ve never been so exhausted. Or angry with my husband.” I know she is not alone; I imagine the resentment is reaching record highs this year.

I know from personal experience that resentment can show up on Mother’s Day as an expectation that our motherly sacrifice and hard work will be acknowledged and celebrated in a way that makes up for the unfairness of those sacrifices.

But this, of course, is an impossible fantasy. Even the greatest Mother’s Day brunch, complete with presents and flowers and heartfelt speeches (it’s a fantasy, after all), can’t fill the holes in our relationships that are created when mothers sacrifice their own well-being to take care of their families.

The resentment women feel when they do an unfair share of unpaid household labor is real, and it’s damaging. It hurts mothers and impairs their ability to parent well. It harms their relationships with their husbands. And, ironically, it strains their relationships with their children.

When my friend Monica and her husband married, she made more money than him (she was even, at one point, his boss). But by the time their third child came along, she’d taken a series of pay cuts in exchange for greater flexibility and more time at home. Her husband started doing less and less child care and housework. Even before the pandemic, she rarely had a moment to herself, while he has always taken the evenings and weekends off to “recharge.”

Now, even though they are both currently working from home and her husband’s job has turned out to be quite flexible, he is not helping out more. His work is considered more important than Monica’s because he makes more money. Ergo, he gets to focus on his work while she manages their three kids and the household and her own business. He recharges on the weekends and plays catch with their oldest son; she vacuums and mediates the kids’ bickering. For Monica, there is no time to relax.

Need I point out that this is unfair? Earning more money does not entitle a partner to a more joyful or restful life. Most women simply can’t earn as much as men. Mothers tend to take a financial hit when they have children; fathers do not. Women earn less than men in nearly every occupation. On average, they make only 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. In middle-skill jobs, those that require some college, workers in jobs mainly done by women earn only 66 percent of what workers earn in jobs that are mainly done by men.

This, obviously, is a vicious cycle. Earning less money (which in and of itself isn’t fair) means that mothers’ careers are less important than their husbands’, and therefore that they are expected to do more unpaid labor than their partners. It’s clear whom this arrangement serves, and it isn’t women.

Now, I know that there are a lot of mothers who do more unpaid labor at home than their husbands because they work outside the home less or not at all—and the arrangement feels fair. And I know there are a lot of couples who split the unpaid family work equally, or in ways that they both feel is fair.

This post is not about those couples. Nor is this post for women who want to take on extra unpaid labor so that their husbands have more time than they do to rest and recharge.

It’s for mothers in heterosexual partnerships who feel like they were dealt an unfair hand—one that has been amplified by school closures and endless time at home. This post is for the women who’ve said to me recently, “This is not what I signed up for when I married him. I thought we were going to be equal partners.”

Many moms renegotiate a raw deal through divorce: Dads with 50 percent custody suddenly find themselves doing all of their own housework and half the labor related to having kids. Divorced moms find themselves with uninterrupted time to rest, restore, and tend to their careers, while the kids are with their dad.

But divorce is a painful—and expensive—way to split unpaid family labor fairly. Doubling the amount of household labor that needs to be done is inefficient and heartbreaking.

Often, a better option is to renegotiate the terms of the marriage related to the division of labor. I can’t imagine a better time to do so than now. Dads who are working from home can plainly see how much unpaid work their wives do on behalf of their families. As old structures crumble around us, I hope the unfair division of labor at home is one of them.

10 steps to renegotiating a bad deal

No savvy businessperson will enter into a partnership without negotiating the terms of the deal. Marriage is a partnership; clear communication about roles and responsibilities is essential. When anger and resentments build in any partnership, it’s a sign that the partnership is in danger.

Renegotiation is always a possibility. I’ve drawn on the work of Harvard Business School professors and negotiation experts Deepak Malhotra (author of Negotiating the Impossible) and Max Bazerman (author of Better, Not Perfect) to outline some best practices when a lot is at stake.

1. Start by looking inward, to get really clear about what you need. Notice what ticks you off; anger is often a symptom of an unmet need. If you feel resentful whenever you see your husband reading on the couch, you probably need more time to relax.

2. Question your limiting beliefs. “I don’t get to decompress after work like my husband does,” a mom recently said to me. Why not? Who made that rule? What would happen if you were better rested or if you did less housework?

3. Set your assumptions—and fears—aside for now. Sometimes we don’t ask important questions because we are afraid of the answers. Does your husband really think his well-being is more important than yours? You won’t know until you ask, and you might be surprised by the answer. Once we know the truth of a situation, we can better deal with it.

4. Consider what you are willing to give up, or where you’ll lower your expectations. It can be hard to let someone else take on a task or a role you’ve been playing in the family if you fear they won’t do it as well as you. If you’ve been in charge of the meals, for example, consider that you’ve actually been practicing skills like meal planning and cooking. You’ve gotten good at them. Are you willing to trade having a task done your way for more time to do something else? Also: What if you weren’t the go-to person in your household for something? What if your partner does it better? Are you willing to relinquish control?

5. Begin the conversation by telling your partner how you feel. The goal is to be seen and heard in your marriage; this won’t happen if you come at him with guns blazing. Try to use specific feeling words rather than judgments or accusations. For example, DO say: “I feel so tired all the time. I want more than anything to just unwind and read a book.” DON’T say: “You do LITERALLY NOTHING around here compared to me.”

6. Agree on the larger goal, which is to arrive at a sustainable division of labor that feels fair to both of you. Research clearly shows that a perception of unfairness hurts both the marriage and the individuals in it—husbands as well as wives. When one person in a couple is dissatisfied about the division of labor in their household, the marriage as a whole suffers.

7. Negotiate as an equal partner. Even if your husband makes more money than you, or seems to have more power, negotiate as his equal. He can’t have your family the way it is without you. If your husband is making a demand of you that he would not make of an equal (say, if you were making the same amount of money he was), call him out on it. Remember: The unfair expectation that women should sacrifice their well-being for their families or otherwise do an unequal share of unpaid family labor is being renegotiated.

8. Find out what your partner wants, and why he wants it. Ask questions like: What kind of relationship do you want to have with me? The kids? What role do you want to play in our household? What would you like to do more of? Less of? Where would you like to have more control?

9. Find out what’s holding him back. It might be fear that you’ll criticize him or that he won’t be able to go out with his friends anymore. He might feel that you’ve been too controlling. Do not defend your position. Listen to his fears and complaints so that you can solve for them moving forward.

10. Find opportunity in your partner’s needs. Once you know what he wants and what he’s worried about, together you can find something that feels fair to you both, rather than dismissing the partnership as unworkable. Instead of thinking, How can I avoid having to accept this? Think: What have I learned about my husband’s needs? How can we meet his needs while also meeting mine?

Right now, whether they realize it consciously or not, many dads are benefitting from the gender wage gap. When your wife earns less money than you do, it can be easy to believe your own work is more important or to assume it’s fair to expect her to run the household and to contribute to the family financially.

Which is why courageous conversations can change the world. When it no longer serves men for women to be paid less, more will join forces with those who are already working hard to close the gender pay gap. Personally, I can’t imagine a better Mother’s Day present than that.

How to Help Teens Handle the Loss of Proms and Graduations

Losing these ceremonies is a big deal. We need to help them grieve.

Yesterday at dinner, one of my children was sad and irritated. She was offended by our mere existence.

“What’s wrong with her now?” one of the other kids asked unkindly, to no one in particular.

Like many young people around the world, this is a kid who has weathered some deep disappointments in the last month. She was studying at an art school, a once-in-a-lifetime semester program, when COVID-19 hit. Classes aren’t the same when you don’t have the materials, studio, and equipment you need for printmaking, sculpture, and developing your film.

And it turned out that my irritable art student had just been dealt a new disappointment: Her first real art show had been canceled. There’d be no way for her to demonstrate to her friends and family that she’s crossed over from being a creative little kid who liked art into a full-fledged, real-life artist. Her identity is different now than it was a year ago, a fact that would have been made concrete with a gallery opening and show. That rite of passage would have allowed us to better see her as she now sees herself.

Modern society has precious few rituals and rites of passage to mark kids’ journey through adolescence. The ceremonies and celebrations we do have are often in the spring. Performances and proms, championships and final projects all showcase growth and learning and accomplishment. And, of course, there is graduation.

These important ceremonies that say “Look at you! You are growing up! We are so proud of you!” have been canceled, leaving kids with no closure. Rites of passage have vanished into thin air. Even as they feel grateful for their health, and sorry that the world is suffering in the way that it is, Generation Z feels cheated. Their losses are tangible to them. And so they are grieving.

My daughter’s sadness and frustration—indeed her loss—has been hard for me to witness. I want to fix it. And yet I know I cannot. Here are some things that we parents can do.

1. Acknowledge their loss

Some “stepping up” ceremonies are so abstract (and, I’ll just say it, tedious for their audiences) that their importance for our kids doesn’t always register with us adults.

It’s true that their disappointment about not going to prom or having graduation is trifling compared to the tragedies that thousands of families are facing right now. Many people have lost family members who they didn’t get to say goodbye to, loved ones who died alone and terrified in an ICU.

And it’s also true that our kids’ losses and their resulting grief is real. Most of them don’t have the life experience that would help them put something like a canceled prom into perspective. Discounting their very real frustration and sadness will only make them feel worse. We adults can help them feel better by acknowledging both their losses, and also their feelings about the loss.

Empathy is powerful medicine.

2. Name their feelings

If you are raising or teaching teenagers, you already know that adolescents experience their emotions much more intensely than adults. This is normal and appropriate—and it can be distressing to us as adults. To be truly empathic, we need to listen without trying to fix or take away their grief. “I feel so FRUSTRATED!” my art school kid said before bursting into tears. “Looks like you are also feeling really sad,” I replied, pulling her in for a hug.

Helping kids identify what they are feeling can, ironically, ease their pain. This is the “name it to tame it” technique. Research shows that when we label our emotions, we are better able to integrate them. If your adolescent starts telling you a story about an imagined future—perhaps bringing up worst-case scenarios in which they aren’t able to go off to college—gently bring them back to what they are feeling right now, about the current disappointment.

See if you can demonstrate that you appreciate their difficult feelings in a simple phrase or two. For example, “I understand that you are super sad that your first real art show was canceled. And you’re mad that every day seems to bring a new frustration and disappointment.” Then, throw in a little empathy: “That’s just plain hard. I totally get why you are angry and sad.”

3. Teach them about grief

You may recognize that your teenager is grieving, but your teenager probably doesn’t. Though Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s seminal work on grief was originally about the way that we cope with death and dying (which is, unfortunately, relevant to many people as they lose family members to the coronavirus), her later work with David Kessler is relevant to more common losses, like canceled proms and graduations.

There is power in naming what teens are experiencing as grief; it helps them acknowledge and validate their own experience. Kübler-Ross and Kessler detailed five “stages” of grief. Because we don’t often progress through these stages in a linear way, I think of these as five typical human experiences we tend to have when we endure a loss. They are:

  • Denial: Many teens are denying the threat of the coronavirus, both the danger of their exposure to it and their ability to spread it.
  • Anger: Teens are clearly frustrated by having to stay at home. They are angry that we adults are keeping them from their friends. Many are furious—with President Trump and the Centers for Disease Control and the ways that this pandemic continues to be mishandled. Notably, adolescent anger is often misdirected. Teens who are mad about what is happening in the world often take it out on their parents and pick fights with their siblings.
  • Bargaining: Desperately hoping to avoid a key cause of grief—loss of social contact with their peers—many teens are negotiating hard to see their friends.
  • Depression: Kids are sad about their losses. In addition, they feel lonely and isolated. Prolonged sadness and loneliness can snowball into depression. Depressed teens often have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning (and an equally hard time getting to sleep at night). They may spend more time alone in their rooms or show up at meals sullen and mournful.
  • Acceptance: Teens who’ve gotten themselves to acceptance understand that this too shall pass; they see the futility of resisting a global pandemic. Their emotions stabilize, and they start to experience the calm that comes from accepting what they cannot change. They regain a sense of control by maintaining social distancing.

We adults can’t deliver teens straight to acceptance, but we can try to model it. By accepting these challenging circumstances—and also by accepting our own and our teens’ feelings—we can bring a calm acceptance to our household.

4. Help them find meaning

Kessler has continued the work on grief that he started with Kübler-Ross, recently adding a sixth stage: meaning. Meaning comes from the light we find in dark times. It might come from the gratitude we feel for our family or a sense of awe that overcomes us on a hike. And, often, meaning comes from helping others.

Again and again, research has shown that even in dire circumstances we feel better when we turn our attention to supporting others. This is true for teenagers, as well. It’s not surprising that teens who provide tangible, emotional, or informational support to people in crises tend to feel more strongly connected to their community. They cope with their own challenges more effectively, and they feel more supported by others.

As we approach what is likely to be a long summer for our kids—mine all had jobs and plans that are now in question—we can ask them: How can you be helpful to others during this time? How can you channel your frustration and anger? Our questions may or may not spark something in them. They may not be ready or able to find meaning.

Whether or not they see it now, meaning will likely come from simply enduring this difficult time. These kids—even the full-grown ones who are now living with us again—are getting a crash course in dealing with discomfort and disappointment.

While it’s true that a joyful life comes from positive emotions, it also comes from resilience—from having the tools needed to cope with life’s inevitable difficulties and painful moments. The silver lining for this generation is that, like it or not, they are gaining the skills they need to cope with difficulty. Fortunately, these are skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

Comfort Yourself Today

“I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.”

― Mahatma Gandhi

This whole global pandemic thing is tricky. Most of us are tired and triggered and possibly day drinking. Even if we’re healthy and enjoying the slower pace of life, being trapped at home with our nearest and dearest can be pretty hard. And although it doesn’t feel right, it’s totally normal to be more reactive around your immediate family than you are with your friends. Our parents, spouses, and siblings know where our buttons are and how to push them, because in many cases, they installed them.

We will get to the other side of this. I don’t think this is going to put a dent in us that we can’t recover from. But we will only come out the other end better people if we practice our positive coping mechanisms.

Of course, we do always want to be generous and loving and patient even when we are stressed and grieving and facing tremendous uncertainty. But if we are to follow-through on these good intentions, we need to feel safe and secure, because when we are stressed, our brain tries to rescue us by pushing us towards negative coping mechanisms like sugary treats or social media. These negative coping mechanisms tend to activate our dopamine systems, and a dopamine rush makes temptations even more more tempting. Think of this as your brain pushing you toward a comfort item . . . Like an extra glass of wine instead of a reasonable bedtime. Or the entire loaf of sourdough. Or an extra little something in your Amazon cart.

As Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, writes, “Stress points us in the wrong direction, away from clear-headed wisdom toward our least-helpful instincts.” When we’re relaxed, we’ll choose and the earlier bedtime and the stairs instead of the couch. We’ll respond to a difficult person with love and compassion.

And when we’re stressed? Personally, I have a weakness for tortilla chips and spicy queso.

So instead of turning to social media and chardonnay to soothe our rattled nerves, this is the time to preemptively comfort ourselves in healthy ways. Fortunately, positive emotions like compassion and gratitude act as powerful brakes on our stress response — and as such, are truly comforting.

The takeaway: When we are stressed or tired, we can schedule a quick call with a friend, reflect on what we are grateful for, or let ourselves take a little nap. Perhaps we need to seek out a hug from someone in our household or watch a funny YouTube video. These things may seem small — or even luxurious — but they enable us to be the people that we intend to be.

When you aren’t feeling so stressed, you might take a minute to reflect. What “reward” does your brain direct you towards when you are stressed? 

Moreover, what is a more constructive reward or treat that you can direct yourself towards? What are some healthy ways to comfort yourself?

Make a plan to pre-emptively comfort yourself today. Before you feel stressed, give yourself the healthy comfort item.

This prompt is an excerpt from my free eBook, How to Set a Resolution that Sticks: Establishing New Habits & Achieving Your Goals. If you are interested in learning more about how to get into a new habit, you could download it.

Parenting in the time of COVID-19

People keep asking me for “best practices” for sheltering-in-place. My honest answer: We don’t know what the best practices are. We’ve never been through this before. We’re all just making it up as we go along. We’re all just doing the best that we can.

In that spirit, I offer this video, an interview with Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan about parenting during this global pandemic. You’ll see in the Facebook comments that I’m already revising my advice as we learn more and figure this thing out. Once we know better, we can do better.

I hope you all are finding some silver linings and also, letting yourself cry in the car on the way t0 the grocery store. I’m sending you lots of love.

Watch the Townhall Video Here

How Divorced Parents Can Get on the Same Page

Dear Christine,

I’m a divorced dad who remarried, with a son and a stepdaughter. When shelter-in-place hit and school was canceled, everything changed.

We all started working at home—or not working at all. Though we have successfully established a new custody schedule so that there is less back-and-forth between houses, we still have a lot of conflicts. We don’t agree about whether it’s okay to go outside, who can enter the other parents’ homes, or how the new schedule might affect child-support payments, among other things.

I’m concerned about routines and schooling and the emotional atmosphere in the other households. My stepdaughter’s parents don’t care much about school and are treating the closure like a vacation. My ex-wife is very anxious and never hesitates to express fear in front of my son, which I don’t think is very good for him.

How can we negotiate these differences? Can we all get on the same page, or is that just impossible?

Divorced & Confused

Dear Divorced & Confused,

In practice, this is absurdly difficult. Oh, how I hear you. Blended families like yours and mine—where kids go between households—can’t follow the mandate to shelter in a single place of residence. So, the safest thing to do is to operate as a single household with our children’s other homes.

Take the case of my neighbor, a single mother. She lives with her boyfriend half-time, and with her daughter half-time. Her boyfriend also has kids, who spend time at his ex-wife’s house as well as his. His ex-wife remarried, and she has three stepkids, who live part-time in yet another household. Unfortunately, anyone who has been exposed to the coronavirus in any of these households risks infecting everyone else.

Their situation—and yours, Divorced & Confused—is already complex, but made worse by the emotionally fraught relationships many divorced parents have with their exes and their new partners. You don’t agree on some key issues; how can you possibly operate as a unified family unit?

It’s hard, but we must find a way to do this hard thing. What we do here is a life-or-death issue, literally. It’s not a question of whether or not you should find a way to negotiate your differences, Divorced & Confused. You must, for the safety of all.

I can’t address your individual issues, but I can share some ideas for making shared custody possible during a global emergency.

1. Bring acceptance to this enormously tricky, emotionally complicated situation.

Conversations with ex-spouses are often difficult, especially when there is so much at stake. When we reduce conflict, we make things better for our kids, and we increase the odds that we’ll all miraculously arrive on “the same page.”

A lot of interpersonal conflicts come from resistance. One way we resist is by blaming, judging, and criticizing others. In this case, Divorced & Confused, it might be tempting to criticize your children’s other parents. Which will probably make them defensive and angry and, in turn, make them more resistant to your requests or helpful suggestions. So, scratch “well-intentioned critique” off the list of useful strategies.

We also often resist difficulty by denying and avoiding. Instead of raising our concerns with our ex-spouses and their new partners, we might suppress our worries and naively hope for the best. But there’s no time for avoidance in a health crisis like this one.

Criticizing and avoiding are tactics of resistance, and they won’t protect our families or communities from the dangers of COVID-19. Weirdly, the opposite of resistance—acceptance—will help us negotiate our differences.

We can reduce conflict with our children’s other parents by accepting them—and also by accepting the way they are responding to this crisis. We don’t have to like how they are responding. Nor do we have to resign ourselves to others’ future risky behavior. Acceptance is about meeting life where it is right now and moving forward from there. It allows us to see the reality of the situation in the present moment.

For example, the next time you interact with your ex-wife, you could say silently to yourself: “I accept that she is anxious and scared. And I accept that her emotions and actions are making all of us more anxious right now, too. That is the reality I’m working with.” When we accept a person (and their emotions), we let go of the resistance that creates stress and tension between us. Letting go allows us to soften, which opens the door to our compassion and our wisdom.

2. Keep your side of the street clean.

It’s always hard when other people don’t do what we want them to do. But right now, when so much feels dangerously out of control, it’s ridiculously hard.

The truth, though, is that we can never really control other people. “Control is an illusion,” a wise friend once wrote in an email. “Our only choice in each moment is: How much grace and beauty can we show up with? How well can we love?”

So. All we can control is how we show up in each moment, in each situation, in each conversation. When we feel angry or afraid, we’ll need to bring attention to our breath. We’ll need to resist speaking (or writing) until we can bring a little grace to the situation. Sometimes soothing ourselves is the only productive thing we can do in a given moment.

I hear you that you want your stepdaughter’s parents to take school seriously and that you are concerned about routines and exposure to your ex-wife’s anxiety. The most useful thing you can do in this situation is to be the best parent that you can be. Establish a solid structure for routines in your household. Talk to your stepdaughter about why education is important to you. Ask your son how he’s feeling and how he’s handling the big emotions of the adults around him.

Stay engaged and loving, even when your kids are with their other parents.

3. Have a little mercy on others and yourself.

Anne Lamott defines mercy as radical kindness bolstered by forgiveness. Mercy fundamentally changes how we communicate, even when we are interacting with someone mired in anger or fear or jealousy. You probably won’t be able to get rid of your negative thoughts about them, and you won’t be able to change them, but you can make an effort to be a loving person. Can you hold space for their suffering? Can you send a loving-kindness meditation their way?

Having mercy means that when others get short or nasty with us, we can be kind in return. We can recognize that they are feeling a lot of challenging emotions right now.

Forgiveness takes basic kindness to a whole new level. (And what we need right now is a whole new level.) I used to think I couldn’t forgive someone who’d hurt me or my children until they’d asked for forgiveness.

But to negotiate our differences in a crisis, we must forgive whether or not we’re asked for forgiveness, and whether or not the person is still acting in hurtful ways. We might need to forgive others at the end of every day—or, on bad days, every hour. Forgiveness is an ongoing practice, not a one-time deal.

We also need to have mercy on ourselves right now. If you get short or nasty with others, be kind to yourself. You’re feeling a lot of challenging emotions right now. You’re doing the best that you can. So are your co-parents. We’re all doing the best we can.

Yours,
Christine

Coping with Disrupted Routines

Are you following along with our daily routine make-over? (In other words: Are you trying to keep everything from going to hell in a handbasket?)

Most of us are feeling like our routines have all been upended by the school closures and by working at home. But this could be an amazing opportunity to establish new happiness habits, and to extinguish the habits we have that detract from our wellbeing. This is an on-going series about how to do that (in less than 5 minutes a day). I’ll be updating this page (as well as Instagram and Facebook with videos) a few times a week.

Step 1: Make a list

Make a list of all the healthy behaviors that you want to hang on to or create in this “new normal.”
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Step 2: What Would Be Better Than Nothing?

Write down a “Better Than Nothing” routine for each of the habits you’d like to establish or keep. For example, designate a “better-than-nothing” exercise plan. This could be 10 squats, 5 push-ups, and a 30-second plank: something that only takes a minute or two.

Don’t worry: You’ll get to do more. Your “Better Than Nothing” routine isn’t your ultimate goal. But for now, what could you do that is super easy? What can you still do while stressed and overwhelmed? That you can do even when nothing is going as planned?

While you are looking at the list of the habits you’d like to get into or keep, perhaps add some that you’d never have thought of just one week ago. Like “Get Dressed” or “Shower.” ?

Download the Better Than Nothing Worksheet
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Step 3: Decide on a Structure For Your Day

It helps to decide when you’ll do something, and stick to that decision come hell or high water — for example, that you’ll do some exercise in the morning before breakfast, or a meditation when you wake up in the morning. That way, every morning (and afternoon, and evening) isn’t a negotiation between your best self and the one that is exhausted or overwhelmed.
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No Motivation? No Problem!

A lot of the motivating factors that got us out the door in the morning pre-Coronavirus have gone out the window. That’s okay! This is a great time to learn a way to get into a routine without relying on willpower or motivation to do so. “Motivation is unreliable,” writes BJ Fogg, the Stanford habit researcher.

“It’s unreliable with diets, exercise routines, creative projects, filing taxes, opening businesses, searching for jobs, planning conferences — self-improvement of all types.” Fogg now has a GREAT book out that you might like, it’s called TINY HABITS. I highly recommend it!
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Why a “Better Than Nothing” Habit?

Once a habit is hardwired into our brain, it is EASY. It’s on autopilot. We don’t have to WILL ourselves to do it. A “Better Than Nothing” habit is easy to repeat, again and again, until it’s on autopilot. You can do it even if you aren’t motivated, if you’re tired, if you have no time. And THAT’s the golden moment that we can start to expand.
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Can I Do More?

Are you feeling held back by your “Better Than Nothing” habit or routine? Are you itching to do more? Good news: You can! Under this ONE CONDITION. 🙂

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Feel SUCCESSFUL!

It’s so important for us to feel successful after we’ve enacted our “Better Than Nothing” habit. Why? Because we hate feeling like a failure. We humans avoid behaviors that make us feel lame.
So remember: You are building a habit here, a new routine that will contribute to your wellbeing. Feel good about that! Doing SOMETHING really is better than doing NOTHING.

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When it works best to reward yourself

Want a little treat? GREAT news, friends. There are actually THREE times when it is important to reward ourselves when we are trying to get into a new habit or maintain a routine. (As usual, I refer to BJ Fogg in this little video because I’m obsessed with his new book, Tiny Habits. Go buy the book! It’s great!)

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Why You Aren’t Doing that Thing You Meant to Do

There are 3 specific reasons we tend to struggle to re-establish our disrupted routines. Two of the reasons I’ve already addressed; the last reason I talk about in this little video. Post your questions in the comments! (Also, that’s my dog Buster at the end. He’s hungry and restless. Time for a walk!)

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