Therapy That Works...

Living Together Before Marriage May Hurt - By Chris Gearing

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Living Together Before Marriage May Hurt

July 23, 2009

Dr. Sylvia Gearing, TXA 21 News

Although twelve million Americans live together before marriage, new research now reports that premarital cohabitation can actually increase the chances of divorce.

Let me tell you why you should care about this study:

For years, many people thought it was better to live together before marriage to confirm compatibility. This study now confirms that living together before marriage may introduce significant difficulties.

  • 1.) More Difficult Break Ups: People seem to have more difficulty breaking up when they are cohabitating than when they are dating.
  • 2.) Marriage Not Active Choice: Unfortunately, they transition into marriage more by default than by intention and complacency begins to define the relationship.
  • 3.) Routine and Habit: It is all too easy to drift into a companionable relationship and abandon the romantic aspects of relating.
  • 4.) Marital Neglect: All too often, marital neglect develops as the partners ignore the daily marital habits that are essential in maintaining romance and interest. Living together before marriage often causes partners to step past important rituals of connection.

You may be wondering how prenuptial cohabitation actually hurts a relationship.

Couples who cohabitate often live together for the wrong reasons including convenience, saving money and spending more time together. However, the chief reason most people live together is to test the relationship. However, “testing the relationship” may be based on faulty expectations since living together is fundamentally different from marriage. Knowing that there is a commitment to tomorrow shifts the relationship fundamentally. The partnership that has been formalized with marriage holds both parties accountable.

And what about the kids? Here’s how they affect these marriages.

A new study that followed couples for eight years found that ninety percent of the couples experience a decrease in marital satisfaction after the birth of the first baby. Couples who lived together before marriage seem to experience more problems when the first baby is born than those who postpone cohabitation until marriage. Apparently, they may not have made the best transition from dating to marriage.

Obviously, these kinds of issues come up in my practice all the time. Here’s a quick strategy I give people who want to make a successful transition from dating to marriage.

Expectations shift dramatically from dating to marriage and it is vital to keep two points in mind:

  • Moving Forward: For dating couples, the relationship revolves around whether things are moving forward. Happiness with the relationship depends on the belief that the relationship will develop and that the partner will support our dreams.
  • Fulfilling Obligations: After marriage, satisfaction is based more on the partner actually fulfilling responsibilities and obligations (which can include equality in childcare). Follow through is essential. The interwoven lives of today’s couples are based on “real time” strategies of mutual support rather than the theoretical hopes and dreams that are more typical of dating.

If you are determined to live together before marriage, here is some parting wisdom for you.

  • Reconsider that Decision: Protect the mystery of your relationship. Although it is prudent to be as certain as possible about marriage, there are better ways to assess marital potential. All too often cohabitation creates complacency, boredom and companionable relating too early.
  • Do Not Confuse Passion with Potential: Passion may lead you into decisions that feel good short term but may not be the best relationship sustaining decision.
  • Self Understanding is Key: The more self-understanding you can master, the better your assessment skills of a partner and the potential of the relationship. Give your relationship the time it needs to prove itself.

How Children Cope With Parental Death - By Chris Gearing

Thursday, July 09, 2009

How Children Cope With Parental Death

July 9, 2009

Dr. Sylvia Gearing, TXA 21 News

Millions of Americans were deeply saddened by the sudden death of pop icon, Michael Jackson. His daughter’s heartfelt words reminded us that such losses always involve two victims -- the parent and the child. Here’s the full story on childhood grief and what you can do to help a grieving child.

A loss of this kind can have many devastating effects including:

  • Safety and Security Threatened: There are few traumas as severe as losing a parent in childhood. We are at our most vulnerable as children and we rely on the stability of parents to guide us through a confusing and dangerous world. With parental death, the familiar guardian of safety, shelter and security has vanished exposing us to overwhelming anxiety. In some cases, that anxiety can transform into serious trauma conditions that last a lifetime.
  • Long Term Health Issues: Losing a parent in childhood causes a disruption in normal childhood development as the child grieves the parent and adjusts to a new normal. The long-term implications of parental loss are severe and include compromised mental and physical health, depression, substance abuse and even increased suicide risk.
  • Broken Hearts and Impaired Immunity: Cardiac issues in adulthood are correlated with the loss of a parent. In one study, a significant number of coronary patients had suffered the loss of a father between the ages of five and seventeen. Bereavement compromises the immune system and reduces resilience.

I am frequently asked if the age of the child is an important factor in their coping.

In reality, there is no good age to lose a parent but we know that the impact increases once the child really understands what they are facing -- a forever separation. Prior to age three, babies will miss a familiar presence but not understand the concept of permanent absence. A preschooler may talk about the death but expect the parent to return. By age 9 to 10, the child is completely aware. He has usually developed an understanding that death is permanent, irreversible and final.

Here are the differences between the types of grieving:

Normal Grief

  • Tearfulness: Tearfulness is common at first but dissipates after a few weeks. However, 13% of kids still cry daily or weekly after one year has passed.
  • Sadness, anger, guilt about the death
  • Appreciation and Identification with Parent
  • Sleep and Appetite Problems
  • Withdraw from Family/Friends
  • Physical Complaints (headache, stomach ache, etc.)
  • Return to Earlier Behaviors (Bedwetting, Clinging to Parents, School Refusal)
  • Acceptance of the Death: They accept the reality and permanence of death and adjust to their new identity of their life without their parent.
  • • Continuing with Normal Development

Traumatic Grief

  • Intrusive memories About the Death: Nightmares, guilt, and obsessive rumination about the events that are intrusive and disruptive.
  • Avoidance and Numbing: Withdrawal, denying turmoil, avoiding reminders of the person, the way he died, etc.
  • Physical or Emotional Symptoms of Increased Arousal: Irritability, anger, difficulty sleeping, decreased concentration, increased vigilance, grades dropping, fears about safety for oneself or others.

You may wonder what the child is supposed to do if the other parent is grieving.

It is vital to remember that the child often loses the emotional availability of the other parent and of the relatives who are similarly devastated. Emotional neglect, whether intentional or not, is common. The parent’s loss can inflict untold suffering on the child who is struggling to regain his psychological “footing” in a world that has been rearranged. The remaining parent may cycle in and out of depression remaining unaware of his child’s agony. The child may conclude that he has emotionally lost both parents. The most startling statistic involves the risk of suicide. It is seven times greater among children who have lost both parents than for those kids where there is no such disruption.

Here are some tips to help kids going through this kind of situation:

Educate Yourself: Be aware of the difference between normal and traumatic grief. The entire community needs to watch the child and remain vigilant about symptoms Remember that the child needs safety, information and guidance in creating a new identity without the parent.

Model Emotionally Intelligent Grief: The child will take his cue from you so make sure your words are measured, thoughtful and calm. Assure your child that the departed parent is fine, that life will go on and that you are not going anywhere.

Provide Children with Emotional Support: Children at different ages may need different types of support. Younger kids may need more cuddling, attention, patience and understanding. Older kids will need reassurance of your stability, of the continuity of home and hearth, and of your dedication to creating a new family.

Is Spanking A Good Decision? - By Chris Gearing

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Is Spanking An Healthy Parenting Choice?

June 18, 2009

Dr. Sylvia Gearing, TXA 21 News

Reality TV’s Kate Gosselin has made national news with the on-camera spanking of her daughter. Such behavior raises the question as to which was worse for the child—the spanking or the constant public exposure.

Spanking is not the first discipline choice I ask parents to make, since it is so unreliable in changing child behavior. All spanking does is to stop the immediate behavior. Judicious spanking in certain situations that are dangerous can be effective, but only if used very sparingly and only until the child is three to four years old.

The media over-exposure these kids have experienced from the reality show has far greater potential to harm them negatively.

This type of overexposure does the following:

  • It’s All About Me: Constant exposure to television cameras encourages exhibitionistic tendencies, especially at an early age. Belief systems are formed early in life, and such experiences can have a dramatic effect on a child’s evolving view of the world.
  • Risk of Becoming Entitled: Because such media emphasizes immediate and grandiose attention, kids are at risk of developing a sense of entitlement. The downside of entitlement is the accompanying rage that ensues when disappointment or frustration is introduced.
  • Performance Versus Learning: Effective discipline flourishes in a private environment in which the child is able to think about her actions and to integrate what the punishment means. With a camera positioned on her, it is doubtful that the five-year-old learned anything, or she may have misinterpreted the lesson.
  • Fuzzy Boundaries: Opening your home and life up to a camera crew for round-the-clock coverage is a serious interruption of family boundaries for a child. Things need to be simple and well-defined in a young child’s life. Cameras everywhere are deeply confusing.
  • Many parents really have a hard time controlling their kids, and spanking is frequently used by millions of parents.

    Ninety-four percent of American parents spank their kids between the ages of three and four. After that age, there is a sharp drop in spanking for one good reason—the kids can reason with parental coaching and input. We strongly discourage parents from a continued use of spanking.

    A comprehensive review of over 62 years of data found that corporal punishment is associated with ten negative childhood responses that include increased aggression. The single positive benefit was immediate behavioral compliance. However, it is doubtful that the child learns to reason better when they are spanked. As a result, I ask parents to choose other, less physical acts of discipline that emphasize self-control, logic and reasoning skills. The child will learn more with less effort from other disciplinary methods than he will learn from spanking.

    The best parenting choices for discipline include the following:

    • Never Dismiss Emotions: In general, parents must first be willing to deal with bad behavior and negative emotions when they occur. Ignoring or dismissing negativity prevents the child from learning how to handle himself effectively in the world around him.
    • Provide a Road Map: If kids grow up without a road map of good behavior, then they will have little idea of how to control their thinking and emotions effectively throughout their lives. Model the behavior you want to see in your child and do not deviate from being a consistent and compassionate example.
    • Set Limits and Don’t Feel Guilty: I prefer time out and other behavioral restrictions that emphasize emotional control over physical punishment. Remember that it is your job to teach your child the basic rules of socialization—verbal and behavioral controls. Do not feel guilty for doing your job.
    • Love Your Child to Better Behavior: Explain, coach and consequate your child when you are disciplining. Being emotionally close to your child gives you even greater influence on his thinking, his emotions, and his behavior.

    Sources include:

    The American Psychological Association files and journals

Should Parents Fight in Front of Kids? - By Chris Gearing

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Should Parents Fight In Front Of Kids?

April 2, 2009

Dr. Sylvia Gearing, TXA 21 News

The stress of raising a family and dealing with a struggling economy is affecting millions of American families. Conflict often increases with stress and up to now, psychologists have cautioned couples to not fight in front of the children. Now a new study suggests that children may actually benefit from watching their parents disagree openly.

This new study taught us several things:

Parental Conflicts are Teachable Moments: These are prime opportunities to teach your children that even the best relationship experiences differences. Adults are not joined at the hip and kids are safer with two strong parents who disagree once in a while.

Conflict is Inevitable: Even the best adjusted adult reaches his limit once in a while and the marriage is the inevitable forum in which daily tensions are released. All of us snap at the ones we love the most and it is healthy for kids to see mom and dad misbehave, apologize and be forgiven.

Resolution is Vital: Even intense irritation and frustration can be instructive if the disagreement ends in compromise and resolution. Kids need to see that differences can be respected, argued about and resolved peacefully.

When parents do not fight, there are hidden dangers. Emotional disengagement is the number one correlate of divorce and parents who rarely fight may be increasingly disengaged. If you don’t disagree occasionally, you may be increasingly apathetic.

Disagreement signals that there are two adults who have separate opinions that are clashing and that each of the adults cares enough to argue about it. Such disagreements indicate that there is still connection and passion. Surrendering absolute power to another person is very destructive in marriage since it erodes self-confidence and self-efficacy. Through healthy fighting, parents, also demonstrate that each partner is empowered to stand by his convictions while working toward resolution.

Children who witness chronic and intense fighting between their parents may become symptomatic over time. If your children begin to show regressive behaviors such as uncharacteristic crying, irritability, bedwetting, increased aggressiveness or anxiety, or separation anxiety, pay attention. Parental fighting is highly correlated with childhood anxiety.

If the fighting is becoming too intense, parents should begin to take steps to resolve the tension. Remember that fighting is a learned discipline. Never let your child witness destructive, contemptuous conflict. Such exposure can be traumatic to your child.

When you argue, please remember the following tips:

  • Be concise and do not reference history.
  • Focus on constructive concerns and avoid blaming.
  • Start with something positive about your spouse.
  • Maintain empathy for your partner’s point of view.
  • Remain polite and express appreciation for the efforts your spouse is making.
  • Remain focused on achieving a successful resolution for both of you.

Parenting In Tough Economic Times - By Chris Gearing

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Parenting Tools In Tough Economic Times

February 12, 2009

Dr. Sylvia Gearing

As Congress approves yet another stimulus package, North Texans continue to experience more layoffs, downsizing and financial shortfalls. And as we all know, as families struggle to stay afloat financially, tempers can flare and kids can suffer.

What are the top challenges for parents during these difficult economic times?

Your Own Fear: Parents are facing their own sense of powerlessness and loss of control in this economy. Even if your job is not in jeopardy, you are bound to know some one who faces a potential financial hurdle. As the recession continues, people are going to have increasing difficulty calming down and retaining perspective.

Avoid Becoming the Super-Parent: Parents often try to overcompensate for their fear by becoming super-parents and hiding all negativity from the kids. As a result, they tend to dismiss their child’s pain. This avoidance prevents the child from learning how to handle adversity effectively. This dismissive style is disingenuous especially with kids since they generally sense what you feel anyway.

Remind yourself that your child most likely knows that something is wrong especially if one of the parents has lost a job or money has become especially tight. The older the child, the greater the awareness but even very young children can sense tension in their parents. A child’s worry flourishes in an atmosphere of uncertainty and he begins to feel helpless. His uncertainty combined with a difficult outcome imposes definite health risks including infections, agitation, and aggression toward others.

Anger and frustration are a part of life but remember that is okay to express displeasure with your child if he misbehaves. Avoid sarcasm, ridicule, and contempt and maintain an evenhanded approach even if you are angry.

By appropriately expressing your anger, you are teaching your child two things:

1.) Angry Emotions are a part of a close relationship and these emotions such as anger and frustration can be handled appropriately.

2.) Kids need limits and they need to know that you care enough to be involved. The child is reassured that you are in control of the family and they will feel safer as a result.

Emotional neglect is the biggest risk factor.

Worried parents may be present in body, but not in mind -- unintentional emotional neglect can occur without parents realizing it. According to research, people who are prone to depression are at least twice as likely to have mental problems in the face of economic stressors. Emotional neglect is difficult to measure since there are no bruises or cuts. How can you definitively prove that a child is not being loved enough? But in certain extreme cases, neglect can be more harmful than outright acts of cruelty such as child physical and sexual abuse. We do know that the trauma of neglect can predispose a child to a host of emotional problems as he grows up.

As families go through tough times, these behaviors may occur:

Tensions Flare: Families often enter a complex, downward spiral as finances tighten and spirits fall. Increased irritability, anxiety and outright rage become more frequent as the parents become more helpless.

Parents Become Emotionally Absent: Mothers become less patient and fathers become more withdrawn. Marital spats and bickering over money and daily living become commonplace and a tense silence often invades a once happy home.

Lost Children: Kids begin to react negatively outside of the home. Socially, academically and psychologically, they begin to struggle and are marginalized to a lower social and academic achievement level. The lack of parental support leads to chronic academic underachievement. They are ill prepared to enter a competitive job market.

Financial adversity offers a mother lode of teachable moments.

In fact, the baby boomers have been remiss in not allowing their kids to experience enough negative events and consequences. We have spent too much effort sheltering our kids from the inevitable adversities of life. Now we have a twentysomething generation that is struggling with a sense of entitlement and confusion and lacking the necessary skills to deal with failure successfully. Adversity teaches coping skills as parents model effective reactions and then teach their kids how to deal directly with challenge. Such strategies literally inoculate your children against severe depression, which strikes a full decade earlier than it did a generation ago.

The secrets to keeping families strong during these tough economic times?

Family Team: When parents put family first and continue to communicate with the kids, everyone does better. Do not let the adversity define your parenting strategy. By fortifying your kids with activities, games and long talks, you are preventing a feeling of isolation and helplessness to grow. There is no substitute for the time you invest in a child.

Avoid Dismissive Parenting: Many parents are concerned that negative emotions are unhealthy for their child. Some parents see their child’s distress as an impossible demand and they insist that the child “not feel unhappy.” Instead, they react with humor and reassurance without really hearing what the child is saying. Listen to your child and then help him deal with the anxiety.

Loss of Parent’s Focus: Children are much less affected by the loss of possessions than they are by the loss of a parent’s focus. Don’t worry that your child lacks the latest fashions or toys. He needs your emotional presence more than a video game.

Community Counts: Increase your attendance in religious, school and civic activities when times are tough. Being with other people reassures your child that the community is stable, predictable and supportive. Familiar faces of loving, concerned adults are the antidote to a family’s tough times.

Resources for Readers:

"Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child" by Dr. John Gottman

"The Optimistic Child" by Martin Seligman, Ph.D.

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