Positive Psychology: 9 Habits of Happy People

happypeepsOften, when writing psychology related articles, my topics tend to focus on understanding problem areas, dealing with struggles and how to cope with challenges. The stigma around ‘having a problem’, as being the main reason why someone would need to see a mental health professional, is still very present. However, the study of Positive Psychology (or as some are calling it ‘the science of happiness’) is growing and people are focusing more and more on the strengths that lie beneath and how to access these even before any ‘problems’ arise.

There are literally thousands of books and websites claiming they have the solution on how to live a happy life. I’m sure most, if not all, of them are right in their own way. Happiness is different for everyone and changes significantly throughout our lives as our own priorities change along with it (what made you happy as an adolescent might not do it anymore for you as an adult).

Our personality traits, interest etc also determine our individual definitions of happiness. While one person gets great joy from being surrounded by a large number of friends, another person might prefer to hide in a quiet room and curl up with a book.

I won’t be writing anything that hasn’t been written a million times before, but I thought I would summarise for you the 10 habits I’ve witnessed to be most effective on people’s happiness:

1. Be Kind, Always 

People who cultivate kindness tend to me happier and show less signs of depression. Being kind to others and caring for others, tends to make us feel good ourselves (like they say, there are no selfless good deeds). So not only do you better someone else’s life, but you’re also improving your own in the process.

Being kind, doesn’t mean we need to always go overboard and ‘save’ everyone that crosses our path.. Kindness can be shown in the simplest of forms by acknowledging someone with a smile, wishing someone a good day or reaching out to someone who might need your help (however big or small that help is).  It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.

2. Recognise your Strengths and Work with your Weaknesses 

Studies (such as M. Seligman’s research in Positive Psychology) have shown that people who discovered their unique strengths and used them for more than their own personal goals, are generally happier.

I would say this also goes hand in hand with recognising your own weaknesses and working with them, rather than letting them hold you back.

Strengths include, but are certainly not limited to, things such as integrity, critical thinking, humanity, motivation, determination, kindness, open-mindedness and many more.

Weaknesses such as people-pleasing, self criticism, prejudice, discrimination etc should be acknowledged (after all, none of us are prefect), but we can work around or with them in our path to improving ourselves and how we are with others.

3. Mindfulness and Positive Thinking

As a psychologist, the word ‘mindfulness’ and positive thinking, often had some of my patients roll their eyes as they sat back and expected the caricature speech on yoga positions, relaxation exercises and group therapy (even though they’ve all been proven highly effective, but that’s not my point 😉

Mindfulness is focusing on the here and now, and what is around us. It’s being aware of our situation, our feelings around it and the effects they may be causing. Practising mindfulness does not require you to be incredibly spiritual or religious, and it can be done by anyone as it is something we naturally do. However, practising it on a regular basis, allows us to strengthen it as it can help us improve our state of mind.

Positive thinking, in conjunction with being mindful, focuses on our appreciation of the good things we experience and have in life and allows us to better manage the negative flows that often cross our way.

Practising mindfulness does not necessarily require you to be in the seated position surrounded by only quietness. We can be mindful whilst doing every day activities. Pay attention to your breathing, get in touch with your feelings, or get lost in the flow of doing everyday simple activities you enjoy (for me personally, cleaning gets me very relaxed, as I can just ‘switch off’ and focus only on the task at hand) .

4. Laugh 

Laughing truly is the best medicine. Laughing (like exercising) triggers the release of endorphins, which are our body’s feel good chemicals, as well as decreases stress levels and increase our immune cells.

Not only do we see physical benefits form laughter, but it also takes a load of our mental burdens and strengthens our emotional health.

It’s not always easy to find situations in which we can spontaneously burst out in fits of laughter (although the concept of ‘laugh yoga’ is increasingly becoming more popular), but we can find ways to at least spark a grin here and there. Smiling is a good start.. a smile is contagious and can go a long way not just for you but for others as well.

Spend your time with playful people and appreciate the humour in life. It’s important to remember the funny side of things and to appreciate the laughter when it happens.

5. Live healthy and Move 

I could write an entire article alone in this, as everyone has their own definition of what ‘eating healthy’ and ‘exercise’ means.

To put it simply, eating healthy involves eating fresh food, avoiding processed meals, junk food and unhealthy fat/sugar levels. How you want to go about that and to what extreme is your choice. Basically, feed your body what it needs rather than what it wants (ok… from time to time also eat what it wants, because eating a treat often contributes greatly to our happiness as well 😉

Exercise does not mean spending your life in the gym (although if that makes you happy then absolutely go for it!). With exercise here, in order to promote happiness, I mean moving your body every day to get your endorphins going. This can be as simple as a 30 minute walk, taking the stairs instead of an elevator or walking that extra block to avoid taking the bus.

6. Nurture Positive Relationships  

Humans are social animals. Surrounding ourselves with people we care about often has an immediate impact on our levels of happiness. Again, this differs for many people as some are perfectly happy with one or two people close to them whereas others thrive from interacting within a large group.

The number of people in your life isn’t the important aspect here, but rather the effort you put into your relationships that matters.

Social relationships come and go and even the closest of friendships can dissolve in time. Having social relationships takes effort from all parties involved and should not be taken for granted. The focus should not be on ‘how often’ you see someone, but on ‘how meaningful’ it is when you do. Happy people tend to surround themselves with people who make them feel good instead of negative people (misery loves company). Happy people also nurture their relationships by talking about the things that matter and resolving any issues that might come up.

7. Be Inspired to Grow 

There are two different mindsets… People who are ‘fixed in their ways’ and who refuse the notion that they can change because they feel that this is who they are. When confronted with something they don’t know, people with such a mindset might find themselves feeling overwhelmed or hopeless about something they feel they can’t handle. When people show a more open-minded approach, it encourages them to learn from and improve their footprint in the world. Open-minded people don’t shy away from a challenge, which in turn builds the tools we need to manage difficulties in life or make necessary adjustments. Challenges are viewed as opportunities, and succeeding in them leaves us feeling happier with ourselves.

8. Find a Balance 

Being happy doesn’t mean we constantly need to walk around with a smile, making us feel as if we slept with a hanger in our mouth. There is nothing wrong with allowing ourselves to feel the bad things, and to complain as we work through them. Life is not  all rainbows and sunshine and we can often find ourselves in a downright sh*t storm. But even a thunder storm helps the tree get rid of dead branches (how’s that for positive visualisation! ha!)

Let yourself feel the negativity, we can’t live without it, but try to find ways not to let yourself drown in it.

For example, after a negative experience, focusing on what you have learnt from it or how you can improve/avoid it in the future, might help in processing it and moving on.

9. Make an Effort  

Happiness that lasts is built through habits. It’s easy to get sucked in by the daily routines and struggles that sometimes impede on our happiness. It’s also hard to sometimes not let go of the negatives and overthink where we went wrong. We can’t sit around and do nothing expecting happiness to fall in our laps, nor can be expect happiness to stay if we don’t actively do things to maintain it. This should not be seen as ‘work’, but rather as seeing that the mere actions of these habits is what makes us feel happy in the first place. This doesn’t mean we can’t allow ourselves to feel the negatives, it just means that, on some days, we might need to push harder to focus on the positives.

If you want to be happier, or want to continue to strengthen your happiness, try out some of the above habits!

Remember, the definition of happiness is different for all of us, so don’t compare yourself with others, but focus on what is important to you in order to increase your everyday ‘happy’ and dive in, head first …

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Suicidal Ideation: The Red Flags and How You Can Help

(Also published in ‘Bonjour France Magazine’ July, 2017)

PLEASE NOTE : **Although the author of this personal blog is a psychologist, this article is aimed to provide further information and is not the equivalent of therapeutic intervention. If you believe you or someone you know might be suffering from depression/suicidal thoughts, please contact your local suicide support line or a healthcare professional**

For every attempted suicide, there is thought to be one or more people where the thought of suicide is still very present but has never resulted into an actual attempt. With over a half a million people making a suicidal attempt each year, this translates into a huge problem that largely gets ignored.

Suicide or Suicidal thoughts are very complex. They are often a symptom of mental health concerns such as depression paired with life stressors that only exacerbate the idea of feeling hopeless, being lost or feeling like a burden.

Often people who attempt suicide don’t actually want to die, but see it as their only way out.  Sometimes, such attempts might be viewed as a ‘cry for attention’, but they can’t be ignored.  If you’re concerned about someone who might be suicidal or harbor these thoughts, it’s important to take them seriously.

One of the common misconception about suicide states that someone who is determined to end their life will do it one way or another; this is not true. More often than not, people who contemplate suicide give out warning signs (intentional or not) and you may be in a position to help them before they make a decision that can never be taken back.

Even if you see it as merely a ‘cry for attention’ , it is still a cry for help, regardless, and needs to be addressed.

The following signs are no sure indicators that someone will in fact attempt, but they are red flags to keep in mind and address:

Signs of Possible Red flags Concerning Suicidal Thoughts

1.Talking about suicide

One of the most obvious red flags). They might seriously conciser it or casually mention it’s on their minds, but listen. Sometimes (especially amongst teenagers) it could be seen as ‘getting attention’ or being ‘dramatic’. Regardless of our own prejudges or whether we things the person is just going through a bad spell, it’s important to take this seriously and listen to what they have to say.

2. Alcohol and drug abuse.

Often people who are suffering from depression or anxiety turn to alcohol or drugs as a temporary relief of some sorts. Although this might be a quick fix, more often than not substance abuse only escalates the depression/anxiety as the underlying reasons or not addressed. A band aid might stop the bleeding but eventually it peels off. The risk of suicidal thoughts turning into a more realistic action is greatly increased with substance abuse … someone who may not take that step sober, might find themselves with the ‘liquid courage’ or diminished reasoning to push themselves over the edge and take their own lives.

3. Withdrawal from others.

Another red flag is when someone decides to cut themselves off from their friends and family. They become withdrawn and don’t want to talk to anyone about it as they don’t feel it’s worth the effort. Although the withdrawal might again be a temporary fix, it only enhances their isolation and feeling that they are handling all of this on their own

4. Not seeing a future.

When someone says they can’t see a clear future, sometimes may indicate that they have lost all hope for what’s ahead… they might not find themselves strong enough or worthy enough to get out of this bad period they find themselves in. Again, just because someone doesn’t see a clear cut out future, doesn’t make them suicidal, but put together with some of the other signs we are mentioning here, it could also be a red flag

5.’Saying goodbye’

This isn’t always in a form of a letter or note that has come to be so largely associated with suicide. Sometimes people will make fleeting comments like ‘I won’t be around to bother anyone for much longer’, there’s just no way out of this or giving away personal possessions or getting their affairs in order … These may be indicators that they are contemplating life without them in it

6. They are no longer sad, they are numb, which somehow seems worse

Sometimes an eerie ‘calmness’ might come over someone who has made the decision to take their own life. When someone who is usually very social and outgoing suddenly becomes withdrawn and isolated , take note. When someone who is usually rational and careful, displays reckless behaviors. Take note. When someone seems to ‘not care anymore’ about anything. Take note. Perhaps they’re going through a rough time and suicide is not on their mind at all… but you won’t know that for sure until you listen and talk to them

What can I do to help?
You don’t need to be a mental health professional in order to be part of helping someone who is contemplating suicide. Of course professional help is highly recommended to support someone through the underlying issues that are causing them to feel like there are no other options. But before getting them to see a therapist, doctor, counsellor or any other health professional, here are a few things you could do to help them get there:
     1. Be prepared

Make sure you yourself are ready to hear the possible answer that they are indeed planning to end their own life. What actions would you take to help them and prevent them from making that choice. What are your own beliefs around the topic and how would you handle supporting them)

2. Be direct

You may not want to offend them (because we live in a society where we all step on eggshells around each other when it comes to certain topics) but be direct.  People who have such thoughts may not always know how to ask for help, and they might try and push people away as they try and process what’s going through their own minds.  Ask them if they are thinking of suicide… don’t be vague. If the answer is no, that doesn’t mean they don’t need help … Prevention is not only about stopping a planned attempt, but about helping someone before they even get to that place

3. Don’t panic and stay calm

Focus on asking questions and get as much information on what is happening in their life that got them to feel they have no way out. Panicking could only escalate the situation and add extra misery to an already chaotic mind. Tough love comments such as ‘the coward way out’, it’s selfish and idiotic can backfire as it will only reinforce their own thoughts of feeling useless and unworthy.  Stay calm and help them through this

4. What can I (not) say

As mentioned before, you don’t need to be a healthcare professional in order to help someone you know or care about, just being supportive and a listening ear can be a great start. However, be mindful about the following : a) don’t be judgmental or guilt-trip: they already feel pretty low about themselves b) saying things like ‘don’t worry, it will get better’ may be said with the best intentions, but it may also make them feel like you are minimizing what they are going through or feeling. What may seem trivial or ‘not as serious’ to you, may feel like the end of the world for them. Try and focus on giving examples of how they could work through this c) Everyone’s story is different so don’t tell them you know what they are going through (even if you had a similar experience). This isn’t about you, it’s about them and acknowledging that you hear it’s tough for them rather than claiming you already know what it’s like.

5. Most importantly, encourage them to seek professional help.

Be it a hotline, a general practitioner or a mental health professional. Show them that they have you there for support no matter what, but that speaking with someone could help them work on possible outcomes to work through this…. A network is stronger than one individual.

Responding in a Crisis Situation

When you feel someone’s suicidal thoughts might be putting them at immediate risk of harm, ask the following questions:

– Do they have a suicide plan

– Do they have the means to carry our their plan? (eg: pills, knives, guns, …)

– Do they know when they would do it?

– Do they intend to take their own life?

If a suicide attempt seems imminent, contact your emergency services or take them to the hospital. Remove all weapons, knives, medication or other potentially lethal object from their environment, and never, under any circumstances, leave a suicidal person alone.                                                                              (source: helpguide.org) 

At any one time, people may exhibit many of the warning signs mentioned above, without harboring suicidal thoughts. But a lower rate in a larger population is still a lot of people – and many completed suicides had only a few of the conditions listed above. In a one person to another person situation, all indications of suicidal ideation need to be taken seriously.

Remember, nothing is more terrifying than battling with your own mind every single day.

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7 Life-Related New Year Resolutions to strive for

(posted in bonjourfrance.eu, Dec 2016)

It’s that time of the year, when we note down our New Year resolutions with the best intentions of keeping them. But what if we had a look at some resolutions we could all strive for a little more these days, which could have a direct impact on our life and perhaps on the life of those around us?

This is most certainly not an article where I tell people what to do, even though the title indicates a strong suggestion… If anything, these are resolutions I would like to apply more myself and what better way to get motivated than to drag the rest of you along with me!

  1. Be simple

Life is already complicated enough without us adding an extra topping of trouble. Look up anything around ‘simplifying life’ and you’ll read the same rules over and over again: when you miss someone, just call them. Want to see someone again? Invite them over. When you feel you’re not being understood, explain yourself. If you have questions, ask them and if you don’t agree or dislike something, state it..constructively. Just like when you love something or someone… tell it. When you want something… it’s an automatic ‘no’ until you ask. It’s often really just that simple.

Unnecessary mind-games, in my opinion, were reserved for the wonderful world of dating (but that’s another article to write later). It seems like such pretenses have worked their way into our professional and personal lives. Is it because we’re too sensitive and afraid to offend or do we play along because we’re becoming more and more dishonest?

  1. Complain Less

We’ve all been a culprit and it would almost be unrealistic to ask someone to stop complaining. Life is an adventure and will sometimes throw us some doozies, where we can’t not complain. There is nothing wrong with venting our frustrations from time to time, and like the above point suggests, stating something we’re unhappy about can help in simplifying our lives. But let’s keep it at just that. Let’s blow off steam, and then move on. Why complain about the petty things we cannot change? Do we really need to spend more than 20 seconds of resentment when the RER is late… I know, again, or when some idiot cuts us off in traffic (the latter being one I need to practice a bit more myself… I mean is it really that much of a challenge for them to use their indicator when turning?! ugh)

  1. Eat well and move

Ahhh, the all too common ‘I-wont-eat-junk-for-the-entire-year-but-I-secretly-went-to-Macdo-a-month-in-when-no one-was-looking-and-cried-about-it-after’ resolution.  With this I don’t mean to go on a diet of any kind or to starve ourselves from life’s goodies. After all, we live in France and are surrounded by gastronomic treats everywhere we look.

Explore new cuisines and discover herbs and spices or bring a twist to an old favorite. Eating well isn’t limited to only the food, but also focuses on how we eat it. Turn off the TV and have dinner as a family, eat something fresh every day and pour yourself that glass of wine even though it’s a school night.

It’s a scientific fact that physical exercise makes us feel better. We don’t need to hit a gym or run a marathon to experience the extra energy endorphins give us. Take the stairs, avoid the elevator, walk when you get the chance and heck… go jump on the bed (just don’t let your kids catch you)

  1. Hate less, tolerate more

I don’t want to get into a political debate nor dive into the Pandora’s Box that is ‘religion’. Rather, I want to focus on criticizing each other less just because we do things differently. Let’s focus on tolerating each other more rather than jumping to conclusions and spreading even more animosity in an already prejudiced world. There’s enough bad people out there lighting up hate, why add fuel to the fire?

  1. Forgive

I’m not saying to forgive and forget.’ Not forgetting’ teaches us our life lessons and helps us not to make the same mistakes again (even though sometimes we need to make them a few times over before we truly get it). But forgiving is important… not because people always deserve our forgiveness, but because we deserve our own inner peace. Wasn’t it our buddy Buddha who said that anger is like holding onto a hot stone with the intention of throwing it at someone else… we’re the only ones to get burnt. For the sake of our own peace of mind, and no one else’s… let’s learn to let go.

  1. Investigate

Dr. Wayne Dyer states that the ultimate ignorance is the rejection of something you know nothing about, yet refuse to investigate. With all the fake information that seems to be published these days, isn’t it better we get our information from various sources before we make up our own minds?

Based on the random articles that seem to flood our Facebook newsfeed and certain sites these days, we are lead to believe that Paris has ‘no-go, danger zones’, vaccines cause autism, you haven’t’ lived until you’ve cooked with coconut oil and pretty much anything you say, do, or eat gives you cancer (which can all be cured by drinking apple cider vinegar by the by).

Let’s educate ourselves more and not accept everything we hear as immediate fact. We are being spoon fed information every day and it’s up to us to consider which stories are truthful, important and worth sharing with others.

  1. Laugh a little

Don’t take yourself too seriously. Farts are still funny (prrt). Liking a video of a cat stuck in a bathtub while an Australian guy narrates, does not make you any less of an intellectual, and remember that a smile is contagious and could brighten up someone’s day. (Perhaps not so much if you’re staring at them with a huge grin on your face for an extended period of time… in that case you might just freak them out a little bit).

I hope this article got some of you motivated to join me in making our world just a little bit more bearable.

With this I wish everyone a happy Silly Season and a great start to the New Year… see you in 2017!

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Making the Heart grow Fonder: 7 Tips for when your partner works Long Distance

(Also posted in BonjourFrance.eu, Nov 2016)

Growing up, I remember my father being away for work quite often and we did not see a whole lot of him during the week. With that said, his weekends were for us and us alone (and maintaining the garden, but he’d put us to work in there together so you know… two birds… one stone).  We didn’t have Skype and mobile phones back then, yet seeing my parents work together like a well-oiled machine really influenced my future relationships.

When I met my husband whilst living in Australia, one of the first things he told me about himself was that he was a French national (although the accent kind of gave it away pretty quickly) and that his work required him to relocate on a regular basis. Our relationship kicked off with a long distance stint before I followed him overseas 14 months later. We traveled in Europe and Asia for his job and settled back in France 2 years ago to plant our feet in the soil and settle down. Nevertheless, his job still has him travelling quite often as I stay behind with our two daughters and the dog.

I certainly am not the only person in this situation, far from it, and have connected with a number of men and women that have spouses working away from home. I thought to share with you some of the tools that we have used over the years and that have proven to be helpful at times.

  1. Communication is key

This is pretty much a given. Communication is vital in all relationships, but it doubles in importance when that same relationship must battle the distance. In today’s tech savvy society, we’re extremely spoiled with all the applications and programs available to us to connect with our loved ones. That doesn’t mean communication over the net is as easy as it seems. Although you miss someone every day, you don’t always have a lot to talk about when you get your 15 minutes on the phone together. Often it can feel a bit forced as you try to sift through the day in your mind and share the highlights. Don’t put too much pressure on having the perfect phone call or a deep and meaningful e-mail, simply touching base can be enough to let each other know you’re thinking of one another.

  1. Prioritize each other

Enjoy the small talk and joking around, but also leave room for the bigger issues.  Let your partner know where you’re at, even if it’s not the fun news of the day. I know some of us hold back as we don’t want to worry our partner while they are away (or vice versa, worry the ones at home).

Call each other on the times you agreed and touching base during the day can also minimize the ‘out of sight out of mind’ pitfall. Send a sweet video of the kids or a romantic picture to let your better half know they’re on your mind. (Side note: Be cautious with the romantic portraits though, you wouldn’t want to accidentally send a sultry image to their boss or have your sexy face pop up on their computer during a presentation).

  1. Learn how to Argue Constructively

Like any relationship, clashes and disagreement happen from time to time. It feels almost artificial to follow what the books say and start an argument calmly with “I feel that…” and “How can we approach this together”.  Take away the face-to-face aspect of the argument and there can be even more room for miscommunication and conflicts. There is nothing wrong with allowing yourselves to have a heated dispute at first, where you throw random arguments at each other and even bring up stupid things from the past (like when they said they would be home at a certain time and strolled in an hour later without a text… the drama :p. Release that frustration, albeit somewhat incoherently. Once all issues have been thrown on the table, that’s when we can calmly focus on the bigger picture and work through the important ones together (some of them might simply go away once you’ve said them out loud).

  1. It goes both ways

After a rough day, you might feel  that you’re doing a lot staying behind and taking care of the family, while you think your partner is ‘sleeping in’ at the hotel and having a nice dinner, but that is not always the case.  While it can be exciting to visit new locations and network, the demands of being away for an extended period can cause both physical and mental exhaustion. A few days away might feel like a nice break, but all the comfy hotel beds in the world don’t make up for missing out on the everyday things at home. Working away, while the  significant other stays behind, can be stressful and taxing for both parties. It’s not a competition and being part of a team requires a little give and take from everyone.

  1. Make the best of it

At first it didn’t bother me too much that my partner was away a lot. Before we had children, I took advantage of the ‘me-time’, and indulged in ‘girly-my-husband-would-rather-have-a-lobotomy-than-watch-these’ movies as well as meet up with friends. After the arrival of our daughters however, we became a bit more house bound and our priorities changed. Nevertheless, as soon as those monkeys are in their bed, I might grab a glass of red and put on the corniest series I can find (I have no shame in admitting I’m currently hooked on the show ‘Pretty Little Liars’… well maybe a little bit ashamed). It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling a certain void while your partner is away, but making the best of a less favorable situation avoids cutting into your couples-time once they are back. (e.g.: file paperwork, catching up with your own friends, or finally do that ‘extreme Spring clean’ you’ve been planning… even though it’s November).

  1. Perspective

Whenever I do feel a bit down in the dumps because, yet again, my husband gets called away for a few weeks, I try to put things in perspective. I have friends in the military who can be away from their partner and kids for 18 months at a time… looking at it that way, our measly 2-3 weeks feel modest. This does not mean that your situation is irrelevant nor that it feels any better being apart. However, reflecting on others’ situation could bring a certain comfort in knowing you’re not the only one doing this and people are rocking the long distance relationships every day! It does take a village to raise a child, so don’t be afraid to accept outside help where offered and build yourself a little support network.

  1. You’re a rock star!

Maintaining a relationship from a distance (any relationship for that matter) is not always easy and needs us to be bold and to hang in there. It’s for those who are willing to spend a lot of time alone; in exchange for a little time with the ones they love. It’s for recognizing a good thing when they see it, even when they may not see it nearly enough”. I read that once somewhere (thank you random late-night Internet searches whilst hubs is overseas).

Long distance relationships (however short or long) are hard, but they are also incredible. If you can communicate with, love and respect each other from a distance, well then you can knock it out of the park when you’re together!

“Distance gives us a reason to love harder” (Anon).

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“Tongue tied”: When you think you’re fluent in a foreign language and 7 setbacks that show you’re not quite there yet…

As a Flemish-speaking Belgian; who lived half her life speaking English in Australia; and subsequently married a Frenchman and moved to Paris; it’s safe to say that my linguistic skills range from being a fluent smooth talker to stumbling around like a 4 year old (sometimes even changing levels within the same conversation).

When I first met my husband, my high-school French had to suffice, while I took on extra language courses in my quest to become a bona fide ‘française’ (or at the least, sound like one….) Being a native Flemish speaker as well (which is essentially just Dutch, but with a cooler accent, teehee 😉  I honestly thought I was doing a good job.  However, often I’m met with a few setbacks which take me down a peg and remind me that, no matter how fluent I might become, there will always be these hick-ups. This, in turn, damages my confidence at times and makes me feel like I’ll always be the eternal ‘outsider’.

The following setbacks do not necessarily block the communication, but tend to derail the messages I’m trying to get across. These obstacles are not only limited to my time in France but are based on various experiences my family and I have had over the years, all over the world.

1. Vocal cultural contrast 

I don’t know if this is specific to English-speakers, or if I’m just a talker, but I always tend to add a little backstory or example to ‘further explain’ my messages. Even writing this now, I know I’m not making a lot of sense.. so let me add a backstory to clear it up 🙂  For example, when needing to change an appointment; the French simply call… change the date….say goodbye (they are direct, but still have manners).. and hang up. Me, on the other hand, I feel the need to explain why I am changing the appointment. Doing this in my native language, takes a matter of two seconds: “Hi, I need to change the appointment, I have to pick up my child from school earlier than I thought“. However, throw in a second or third language, and that simple explanation turns into a mumble of excuses! “Hi… I need to change my appointment.. the family… my kid is at school… but they can’t be for long.. I have to pick them up..*fumbles with phone’s translation app* ..*groan*”.  Frankly, no one has time for that; and some lose patience;  which gets you even more tongue tied when you hear someone’s annoyed sighing on the other end. Keep it simple… if you stay simple, chances are you’ll be understood better.

2. The ‘direct translation’ catch 

This one has gotten me on numerous occasions… I know that the basic message is usually received when we translate directly from our native language.. however certain misuses of words can often lead to either comical or awkward situations. I once told my mother-in-law I was excited to see my husband again after 3 months… sounds innocent enough right.. but the word ‘excité‘ in French is more commonly used when someone is excited in the .. let’s say.. more ‘romantic’ sense (yes, I mean horny).  I also once told them I lost my mind which, using direct translation, lead them to believe that I had misplaced my brains. My Belgian friends have had a chuckle or two where I’ve thrown in some expressions directly translated from English. My girlfriend was very confused when I randomly started blabbing about pastries when her partner ‘wanted to have it all‘.. in Belgium, it seems, people don’t “have their cake and eat it too“.

3. You’re not funny in another language

There’s nothing worse than trying to fit in with a joke and being the only one left laughing to an awkward silence or the sound of crickets chirping. Unless the joke is a primary school leveled wisecrack, I’d stay away from using witty humor in another language until you’ve mastered it. Like the above two points, a lot of the underlying wit is often misinterpreted or the message is lost in translation. A direct translation can lead to an entirely different joke and don’t forget the cultural differences in what we perceive as ‘funny’. What may be seen as dirty in one language, can be construed as completely vulgar in another. Also, some things are just funnier in one language and not the other (looking at a play of words, colloquial meanings etc) …. well at least you cracked yourself up right?

4. Some people just switch off as soon as they hear an accent

It’s unfortunately true that some people switch off and stop listening as soon as they hear an accent. This does not mean they are completely ignoring you, nor that they are discriminating (calm down), but they only end up hearing what they want to hear and they no longer put in the effort. For me, this happens most frequently when on the phone. At least in person you could charm them with a smile or sad ‘please-I’m-not-fluent-but-I’m-trying’ puppy eyes. In certain cultures, it is also common that someone refuses to tell you they don’t understand you…. a Chinese person will rather send you clear across town before admitting he did not understand your request for directions (then again, by being sent all over the city is how I got to explore the majority of Hong Kong.. brownie points).

5. An attempt to master the accent ends up in a drunken slur

Sometimes we try to master an accent in order to sound more fluent, however we focus less on the grammar and start making mistakes. We often pick up on these mistakes straight away, but instead of changing our accents mid sentence (because we don’t want to sound like an idiot), we end up slurring or mumbling our way out of it. I think it’s better to speak the language correctly, even if our accents are lousy, rather than sound like a fluent, but moronic, native.

As a side note, I would like to include the actual slurring incidents (usually  as a result of one too many beers) where we think we’re a lot more fluent than what we are (we also think we’re better dancers, philosophers and peacekeepers).

6. The nonexistence of certain words

Anyone who speaks more than one language is familiar with the scenario where you know the perfect word or expression to describe your situation, just not in the language you need at the time. A direct translation of such a saying only results in confusing the person even more. Just like having ‘chickenskin’ (‘kippenvel’ in Dutch) is not the right way to describe goosebumps, neither is ‘becoming a goat’ (devenir chêvre’ in French ) to tell people you’re being driven mad by all the language jumbles. We,multilingual speakers, would kick ass at scrabble if we could just mix and match the languages we know.

7. Language fusion 

Any multilingual family can relate with the vast mixing pot of languages we deal with on a daily basis. Because we all speak the different languages together, often our sentences can start in one language and finish in the other (heck, let’s add a third one in the middle, just for shits and giggles – another expression badly translated by the way). We do it with such speed and accuracy that we don’t even notice the difference.

Fast forward to when you’re speaking with someone who is not part of that same family and you’ve got yourself a very confused listener. Just like our 3 year old, who is currently speaking in three languages… often in the same sentence (seriously, the teachers at her kindergarten have no idea what she’s talking about), I’m often throwing in a word in English hoping no one will notice and think I’m super fluent and oh so funny hahahaaa.. Nevertheless, unlike my 3 year old who will grow out of it soon and master her linguistics, I’ll need some more practice…..

The idea that the world of each language is divided into two groups: “fluent” and “non-fluent” is not realistic . Language is a living thing; it always happens within a certain context and every scenario is different for everyone. Fluency is not purely linguistic but involves non-verbal communication as well . Written fluency won’t help you to understand the meaning of a nod or a gesture. I think that’s why children (well.. children and drunk people) can communicate so well… they focus on what the person is trying to relay rather than how they are saying it.

I know, with time, I’ll hopefully master the French language and walk around like I own the place, but in the meantime I’ll just row my boat on the ‘fluent enough’ plateau and go from there..

I hope some of you could relate, and you’re welcome to share your funny ‘lost in translation’ moments in the comments below for us to have a shared chuckle..

In the meantime I bid you ‘adieu’ with ‘nog een prettige dag verder’ or ‘une bonne journée’

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“When we try our hardest not to be a f°ker, but we end up being a bigger f°ker just to outf°k the f°ckers”: Can’t we all just get along?

After a recent rage induced build up, resulting in my first public argument with a total stranger, I got to thinking why the number of ‘assholes’ seems to have increased in our society over the last few years? Have they always been there? Am I just more susceptible to them now? Or worse even.. am I an asshole myself?

I did a little brainstorming session on the possible causes responsible for “assehole-itis” (which funnily enough is actually a term already defined on the internet).

1. Delusional Anonymity

Because the world is becoming vastly overpopulated, it’s only natural we’re running out of space. The morning rush on public transport with a sea of nameless faces, endless traffic jams and access to the Internet behind a hidden desk; all provide us with this false sense of anonymity. We can pretty much do what we want and no-one knows who we are or where they can find us, which in turn could lead us to forget about the consequences of our own crappy behaviors. You see, “we try our hardest not to be a fucker, but people we deal with everyday are fuckers, so we become a bigger fucker, just to outfuck the fuckers” . I read that somewhere a while back, I couldn’t tell you the original author, but they were spot on! I think most of us do try to be the best we can be, but even the best intentions have their limits.

Treatment for this does not require taking drastic measures, like hugging random strangers out of the blue, but rather starting with the basics, like the common smile. When making eye contact with someone, a smile goes a long way (please note: this can be brief and minimal – staring with an overbearing grin for longer than 4 seconds will most likely result in the person freaking out a bit and probably changing seats). If you accidentally bump into someone,that’s okay, sh*t happens, but excuse yourself and continue on your busy day.

When in the car, I know- I for one- have a very short fuse.. It drives me crazy when people don’t indicate, drive careless and don’t even get me started on what I think of texting and driving (idiots). It would be unrealistic to expect we all drive like saints following the speed limit to the dot with our hands on the 10 and 2 position at the wheel…and yes, it becomes a bit of an ‘eat or be eaten’ mentality on the road at times, but just be careful. It goes without saying that if your driving also puts others at significant risk, you’re not considering the consequences (and if you do think about the consequences but still don’t care, well then my friend, you’re an asshole).

2. Social Media overload 

It’s true that social media networks have given every man and his dog a platform to share their ideas. I remember the days where our news feeds were flooded with people’s lunches, holiday pics and baby/pet gushers… but lately the majority of posts seem to comprise more opinion pieces, scary documentaries and 500 different ways on how I will get cancer from pretty much anything I eat…. Don’t get me wrong, I fully support the right for absolutely anyone to share their opinions and info (our differences is what makes us such a dynamic bunch!). However, when social media is no longer based on sharing information but rather aiming towards judging others for not thinking the same and downright spreading the hatred, that’s another story (I’m looking at you, Donald Trump). This isn’t just limited to the big guns like politics and religion though, as people are becoming more and more divided on daily topics (what we eat, marriage equality, how we parent, the things we watch on TV, the fact we even watch TV at all, etc)

Since when did it become an intolerant “us vs them” mentality as opposed to the less aggressive “let’s agree to disagree” attitude? I’m not suggesting we all go hug a tree together, but unless someone’s opinion or actions are directly affecting your life in a negative way, do we really need to break each other down the way we do and create even more hatred in an already pissed-off society?

3. Seasonal Affective Disorder 

This is an actual mood disorder that affects an individual the same time each year, usually starting when the weather becomes colder, and ends when the weather becomes warmer. People with SAD feel depressed during the shorter days of winter, and more cheerful and energetic during the brightness of spring and summer. It seems to be related more to daylight rather than temperature.  That being said, of course, not every Grouchy Marx in winter is diagnosed with this disorder, but I have noticed a difference in behaviors during the colder seasons (especially on the train where people are sweaty from their thick coats and pressed together like sardines).

For those who truly struggle with this, treatments such as light therapy and medication (for more severe cases) are available. For the rest of us who are just grumpier in winter, we need to acknowledge that it’s not our neighbor’s fault that it rained last night nor can the woman on the bus help it that you slipped on that patch of ice earlier (unless she pushed you, then well..).

4. The Departure of Basic Etiquette 

Gone are the days of curtsying, bowing and throwing your coat over a puddle. But it seems that basic etiquette rules have reduced (and a few disappeared all together) for some people. Again, this doesn’t have to go to the extreme case of shaking everyone’s hand in the store and striking up a conversation, but knowing a few basic terms will help us go a long way and not shit on anyone’s day. Words such as “hello”, “thank you”, “you’re welcome” and “goodbye” are still in today’s dictionary… let’s use them more often.

I stopped counting the times where I’ve seen people buy something at the store without eye contact or any form of acknowledgement of the seller, or where strangers tell another stranger to ‘fuck off’ merely because they were standing in their way, and many more examples come to mind.

It’s okay to not be the friendliest, most social person in the world… just don’t be a dick.

5. Someone else’s story 

Of course, anonymous-fast and the furious-Facebook-users standing in the cold, are not the only ones that can act out and behave like an a-hole. We don’t know everyone’s backstory and you could be having the worst day of your life, with someone else’s feelings being the last thing on your mind. But be mindful, that this goes both ways..

Just be kind to people, always, as everyone is battling their own demons that we know nothing about…

The last thing I want, is to encourage a divided society of thin skinned wieners who get offended at the slightest hint of conflict. We can of course still clash with each and show our annoyance at others…we can be angry, grumpy, and downright moody when we need to.. but there are many ways we can do so, and being an asshole is just not a very productive one.

Disagree, just don’t be disagreeable…

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“Workin’ hard for the mommy”: I chose to bench my career for family

Just like wanting the ability to eat what I want and not gain weight.. (which sadly was no longer an option once I hit 25.. *pff*)  my need to ‘have it all’ did not stay limited to my love for peanut butter M&M’s and party snacks…

When I first started my career, fresh out of university, I was a doe-eyed optimist with a Psychology degree under her belt, ready to dive into the workforce….and boy, did I dive in! I launched my career working for children services, which opened my eyes rather quickly to all the darkness that’s out there. That being said, it became clear that I had a knack for working in the field of psychological trauma, where I could not always prevent the trauma, but made darn well sure that I was there to help survive it! It was not long before I started to live and breathe the job, just like my colleagues in the field did. After a few years of working close to 12 hour days in high risk situations and court deadlines, I decided to take it down a notch and move into private practice where I could focus more on the psychological process rather than the initial intervention. I loved my job and everything it stood for .. the only people I had to look out for was me and my dog (yes, he counts as a person). And then, another many years later… I met a boy.. (*blush*)

Being a French expat in Australia, I knew my partner would not be around forever, but that didn’t stop us from falling in love (*nawww*) and a year and a half later I followed him back to Europe. As my parents were expats (we’re originally Belgian), I had lived in various countries before, so the idea of moving away did not scare me as such. I had finally found someone I wanted to actually commit to and although some interpreted my move as ‘throwing away my career’, I saw it as a great opportunity to learn more (and be with the one I loved.. you know…. ‘having it all)…and of course the dog came along as well…

Fast forward another 3 years, when we welcomed our eldest baby girl, and life truly changed for both of us. We were living in Hong Kong and, given the situation, I was able to stay home for a year and raise our daughter. Now, I had worked in trauma, interviewed sex offenders and dealt with pedophiles… and yet that year, being a stay-at-home-mom, was one of the more challenging years I had had in a long time (not that there’s really a comparison..but you see what I’m trying to relay here..) I had never experienced this feeling of being so busy; you didn’t have time for anything, yet feeling so bored at the same time; before. I felt like I couldn’t identify as anything else but ‘a mom’ and although I poured my heart and soul into this gorgeous little monkey, I didn’t feel like I was making a difference in the world anymore. Please don’t get me wrong, being a stay-at-home-parent is a full time and admirable job and for those doing it every day, you’re bloody amazing and my hat goes off to you ! This is merely a depiction of what I was feeling at the time and the internal struggle I myself felt, missing my career and trying to find my place again. I like working, having a routine and feeling like I’m going to be a productive member of society for the day.

I expected life to change when I chose to follow my husband overseas, and I felt nothing but excitement. I expected life to change when we started having kids, and I felt nothing but love… some fatigue… a bi-it of nausea… but mostly, love.

But what I didn’t expect was the feeling of guilt when I decided to give up some of that precious time with my child and go back to work, paired with the resentment I felt every time I lugged a big laundry basket down the stairs. I wanted the best of both worlds, but that was just no longer an option. I made the choice to shelf my career for the time being,  working in a less stressful job with fewer hours. Coming to terms with these new priorities in our lives still created the occasional internal battle but as I would’t give up one for the other, I had to find a middle ground.

The reason for this post, is because we just welcomed our second little monkey into the world.  I spent the last 3 months living in a blissful cocoon, sniffing my baby’s hair and what not, but the reality of postponing my career for that while longer, has come and hit me all over again…

I’m not the only parent going through this and after speaking with a number of people in similar situations, I decided to share a summary of useful tidbits that are helping me along the way and that may be useful to others as well.

1. Drop the guilt-trip

There is absolutely nobody, other than yourself, judging you for giving up on the work you were doing in order to put your family’s priorities first. You didn’t fail because you’re holding a degree you’re not using nor did you waste the last 10 years to just be a house wife/husband (what we do before molds us in who we become today, that doesn’t change no matter where our paths take us). We are our own harshest critics. Those who do judge, don’t know your story and therefore don’t deserve your guilt either.

2. You can’t have your cake and eat it too… *mmm cake*

I know many couples where both the parents have a successful and driven career whilst raising beautiful and happy children… it is possible yes! Having a career does not mean you make unhappy babies…..far from it… but it’s only realistic to say that one does impact on the other (and like a scale, the balance changes from day to day).  That doesn’t mean it can’t be great.. we just can’t have it all. The sooner we drop that expectation, the sooner we can jump on the seesaw and just go where gravity takes us and balance as best as we can.

3. It’s okay to feel resentful once in a while, just don’t drown in it

There’s nothing wrong in feeling that bit of bitterness from time to time.. I sporadically have pangs of jealousy when seeing my single friends and reminiscing of the times where we went to dinner any night we wanted and going for an after-work beer was a spontaneous choice rather than a well-planned-out operation. But then I come home to my kid picking her nose and licking the window while the other one is laughing hysterically at her feet .. and as much as I loved that family-free, social time in the past.. I wouldn’t want it any other way now. I think we all look back at certain moments in our past with much fondness, but that doesn’t mean we want to be right back there either.. And of course, having kids does not mean you become a total shut-in.. that too, is a choice..(one, I know, I personally need to put more effort in).

4. Sacrifice is a team effort

My husband and I chose to rank our jobs and made the conscious decision which one to prioritize (future opportunities, financial input, location etc). Safe to say it was a no-brainer that we would follow his career and I would put mine on hold for the time being. But a decision like that is made together, and there is not one party sacrificing more than the other. As a couple,the most important aspect for us is to remain part of a team and where I have given up certain things for him, he has most certainly given up things for me as well. I know, at times, because I was no longer the main breadwinner, I felt like I didn’t contribute as much as my husband did,  which clouded my view and often would be the basis for arguments. Not once has my adorable Frenchman made me feel like I’m not contributing, and it was, yet again, my own inside voice that put me down more than anything. I know my partner fully supports me when I decide to jump back in the saddle… no one needs to be the martyr.

To be honest, once the kids are at a school age, I don’t know if I’ll fully get back to the career I had before. But what I do know is that I wouldn’t trade my life nor my little family for anything, not even a job. (Unless I become ‘George Clooney’s personal body lotion application executive’.. then they’re on their own)

In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy these little rugrats and the bearded lover who is the absolute cheese to my macaroni, and be grateful for all that I have.. I might not have it all.. but it’s more than I need and for that I feel like the luckiest one.

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Parenting Wars: Bringing Balance to the Force..

Episode II

“It is a period of subliminal unrest. Online forums, striking from a hidden base, have won their first battle in spreading insecurity within the Parenting Galaxy. During the clashes, parenting styles were dissected and misinformation lead to judgement and ridicule .The Internet, an armored entity with enough power to destroy an entire mindset, left parents confused and turning against each other. 

Joining the battle in keeping the peace, Stef attempts to write a blog, with the help of Yoda, to try and aid her people and restore freedom of choice to the galaxy…” 

I always sensed it.. I had heard stories.. but I was never confronted with the force until I became a parent myself. I’m most certainly not the first, and definitely will not the last, to write a post on the ongoing tension between parents and the different parenting styles out there, but I wanted to throw my perception on the topic in the mix as well… trying to channel the great Master Yoda.. yoda-photo-drawing

(Note: before you have me committed to the psych ward, I am fully aware Yoda is a fictional character created by George Lucas in the Star Wars Space Opera franchise and therefore not real..)

1. No true parenting style, there is ..

There is no such thing as the one and only, perfect parenting style. There’s already enough conflict around the religions people practice and the political parties they vote for, and don’t even get me started on the ‘tight are not pants’ or ‘is the dress blue or yellow debate’! Why should we add more stress and fight over the best way to raise our child? “There is no such thing as a perfect parent, so just be a real one” – (S. Atkins.)

2. “Many of the truths that we cling to depend on our point of view” 

There is absolutely nothing wrong with disagreeing with a particular parenting style. But before you go and condemn someone and call them a ‘hippie’ for practicing attachment parenting or mumbling ‘nazi’ as an authoritarian parent disciplines their child, educate yourself on what is out there. I believe there is not one true solution to each problem. Every parent and every child is different and what may work wonders for one, does nothing for the other. When you don’t understand someone’s reasoning, try and see it from their point of view (that does not mean you have to agree or understand it.. but just to respect it..)

3. To only one style, limit yourself, you should not..

I’m a very indecisive person at best, picking a restaurant with me can be an absolute nightmare! I’ll be craving pizza with just a side of sushi but really that Indian place has the best Naan… So it was no surprise that when it came to parenting, I could not make up my mind on which style to follow and implement. I like the idea of giving my children choices and trying to negotiate with them on certain topics, but then again I am also a very firm believer in having boundaries and routines to guide them. I don’t believe in physical punishment, but have no problem putting my 3 year old in the corner as she calms down from what I can only describe as a satanic episode. I want my child to explore the world around them, but often I also have to say the word ‘no’ (quite often actually). I don’t believe the child needs to adjust to the parents’ schedule or vice versa for that matter. I think both parties need to compromise and the family works together as a unit to try and have a happy, balanced life for everyone. Children need affection, love and attention.. no doubt.. but sometimes mommy also needs 20 minutes and that glass of wine..

4. “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering” 

(yes, I’m channeling Star Wars in case we hadn’t picked up on that yet). 😉   In today’s society where the internet bombards us with factual and fictional information, we are torn between what we truly believe works for us and what we fear others will think of that (and I’m not only talking about parenting here).  Rather than being proud of the way we parent, we often feel as if we have to justify why we do things a certain way. This underlying defensiveness blocks us from sharing experiences with each other and learning from others. Rather than passing on what we have learned, we hold back out of fear of sounding judgmental and minding our own business. There is nothing wrong in sharing what we know.. as long as we do it with respect and not through judgement.

5. “A Jedi uses the force for knowledge and defense. Never for attack”

Elaborating on the above point of sharing information with each other… share it to do good, not to judge or attack. If a parent is struggling, positive comments such as “what worked for us was…”, “you’re doing great, have you tried….?”, “We’ve been there..” etc can be useful and comforting. Comments that focus on attacking someone’s parenting only encourages the divide that is already there. An example that comes to mind is when I heard someone tell my attachment-parenting friend that the reason they weren’t sleeping well with their 2 month old was because co-sleeping is not the way to go….*pause* you see, to me the reason they weren’t sleeping well is because… ding ding ding… they have a 2 month old!?! I don’t co-sleep myself because it’s not for my husband and I, but I have many friends who do with perfectly happy kiddos and it works just fine for them.. so no dramas here if you ask me.  Don’t get upset if someone does not take your advise, don’t take it personal if your advise did not work for them and if you have one of those  mythical ‘Oh-my-child-never-does-*insert negative behavior*’ children.. that’s amazing news… keep it to yourself.

 

6. “Truly wonderful the mind of a child is”

I think the most important thing that should be present in every parenting, is the love and respect for our children. At the end of the day, the way we parent directly affects our children.. we’re going to screw them up no matter how we go about it, so we might as well focus on what works best for us and them, as long as they know they are loved and protected and pass on the same courtesy to others.

7. Reckless you be, matters get worse 

As much as I support and preach the need to be open minded and respect other’s decisions, it goes without saying that this too falls within reason!  There is no condoning child abuse or recklessness where a child is placed at direct risk of harm. Everyone has their own rating scale of what they consider to be reckless and harmful, and that unfortunately I cannot change, so I’m basing this on my own experiences as a child psychologist and former child safety officer. From where I stand, if you physically harm your child (I’m not talking a spanking here or a tap on the hands, I’m talking abuse) you are wrong. If you demean your child and emotionally batter them (I’m not talking about raising your voice or getting angry, I’m talking abuse) you are wrong. Then there are the grey areas that are not necessarily illegal… I must admit, if you choose to not vaccinate your child with the basics or let your child die because you do not believe in blood transfusions or modern medicine.. I find it very hard to understand and respect that decision, and for that I’m sorry.

8. A parent, you must not necessarily be, to support 

You don’t have to be a parent in order to help someone or give advice on parenting. There is also no parenting level of who knows it better depending on how many children one has or how old they are. You don’t ‘level up’ every time you have a child… Everyone has their own experiences and many of these can be second hand and just as valuable. It does take a village to raise a child and the more we know, the more we have to work with..

9.” Do or do not, there is no try “

Just dive in… sink or swim. Parenting is all about figuring out what works best and going with the flow (or sometimes being swallowed and dragged down the stream by the flow). Nobody knows it all.. although some may claim they do, and sadly they will never find out that they don’t. Just do the absolute best that you can..

10. Your example, your child follow, it will 

At the end of the day, let’s just focus on raising children that are tolerant of others (even when those others are different), that love one another (even when the others are being a butt) and that have the confidence to live in a society where we all just live our lives the best way we can.. together. In other words.. don’t be a dick and your child will follow by example…

As usual I haven’t written anything new here but I do hope I managed to share some of the love and show other parents out there that we’re not at war.. we’re raising the new generation, with all it’s beautiful variety (warts and everything) as we aim for our children to have a great life.. and there’s many different ways to give that to them

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Developing an Emotional Toolbox: How to help you and your child manage high emotions

From an early age, children understand the concept of a ‘toolbox’ and that it contains a variety of tools that are there to repair a machine or help fix a household problem. The idea of an ‘Emotional Toolbox’ (developed by Tony Attwood, PhD) is to develop different types of ‘tools’ that will help with the struggles associated with negative emotions (for example: anxiety, anger, depression, etc).  Over the many years working as a child psychologist, I have found it to be extremely helpful for just about anyone (not just young children) struggling with managing their emotions…

The initial idea of the Emotional Toolbox was linked to successful strategies in the treatment of anxiety and anger in children with Asperger’s syndrome (Sofronoff et al 2005/2007). Like any household toolbox, the tools are divided into different categories : physical, relaxation, thinking, social, special and inappropriate tools. Each category has tools that quickly and effectively reduce emotional energy, and promote thinking.

As a therapist,  I work with children/adults and their family, to develop personalized tools that can help manage their negative emotions, as well as look at some ‘inappropriate’ tools that, for them, possibly makes the emotions worse.

Today, I would like to share with you the basic template of developing an emotional toolbox together with your child. (*PLEASE NOTE: This is just a template to help you get started at home and not equivalent to a therapeutic session. Any ongoing concerns you may have for your child should be followed up through professional psychological intervention)

With your child, set some time aside where you can uninterruptedly brainstorm and work together on creating their own set of tools and activities that can help them manage their negative emotions when they feel overwhelmed. Below you can find the different categories and a brief explanation, as well as a sample template, to get you started…

Physical Tools

This category represents tools or actions that release emotional energy through a physical activity. Choose a ‘logo’ that symbolized physical activity for them (for example, sneakers, a soccer ball, etc). Then, with your child, discuss which physical actions could help them ‘release’ their excess energy at the time and when this tool could be best implemented (remember, playing soccer might be a very helpful tool to calm them down, but will not be useful at night just before bedtime).

Relaxation Tools

Just as it sounds, relaxation tools are there to help them calm their body and mind through mediation-related actions. This can include reading a book, taking some time-out and listening to music, and the most effective form of relaxation…breathing techniques. Breathing techniques can be practiced together for your child to understand how they work and the benefits as they feel their heart rate slow down and their body relax. Again, choose a logo that will help them identify with this type of tool (for example, a flower, the sun, a book, etc)

Social Tools

Social tools include the involvement of your child’s support network. That can be their immediate family, school staff, friends etc. The social tool requires them to enlist someone from their support network to help them manage a stressor, this can include asking mom for a hug, talking to their teacher about a problem at school, or asking a friend to play or sit with them. A logo I found useful is the outline of their hand (where each finger signifies a person in their support network).

Thinking Tools

Thinking tools focus on helping them understand and rationalize their behavior when dealing with negative emotions. Have them write down what is happening at the time, using three columns: 1. What am I feeling 2. What was I doing before I started feeling this way 3. Which tool can I use to help me work through this feeling until I feel better? Some children respond well to having their very own notebook (which can be decorated as they see fit) to help them take notes and track their progress.

Special Tools

Some children might have a special interest that takes up a lot of their time, or a special toy (for younger children). This can be placed in any of the above categories, however, some children like to have an ‘extra’ tool for the things they hold ‘extra’ dear.

Inappropriate Tools

It is also important to identify the tools they use that have proven to be unsuccessful and aggravate the situation (for example, hitting someone, breaking property, hurting themselves etc). Once you have, together, established these tools, write them down in their toolbox and draw a big red line through them. This helps your child understand that these tools are not helpful and puts focus on the other, more useful, tools around that they have created for themselves.

Important Notes:

  • Help your child understand that they have developed a variety of tools to deal with different situation and locations, and it is up to them to choose a tool that works best at the time.
  • Mastering their toolbox effectively will take time and practice. Just like learning any new skill, the more they practice and evaluate their progress (with your help), the easier managing their emotions will become overtime…but this does not happen overnight !!
  • Allow room for error.. just like adults, they are bound to slip up once in a while. Take the opportunity to reflect and evaluate and look at how it could be done better next time ..
  • Managing negative emotions does not mean suppressing negative emotions. Your child needs to know they are absolutely allowed to feel these feelings and find helpful ways to work through them rather than ignore them and act out.
  • Sometimes, some tools might need some tweaking or new tools are developed as their needs and interests change and grow constantly.

I hope this template helps you get started….. Once you have created the Emotional Toolbox (this can be a piece of paper, an index card etc) it is useful to display it somewhere your child can easily access it (for example, the fridge door). Whenever they feel overwhelmed, help draw their attention to the toolbox and together discuss which tool would work best for them at the time… (depending on your child’s emotional management outside the home, sometimes having a replica of their toolbox at school/nanny/etc can help them practice further).

As mentioned earlier, any significant, ongoing concerns you may have are always best followed up through professional intervention..

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“Ahma-nomnomnom”: 10 confessions of an Emotional Eater and Tips to address it

I used to be one of those skinny kids that would have the metabolism of an oil rig and energy levels that still has my mother smirking when I recognize them in my now super-duper-active-run-here-and-there-one-year-old.  This little hyper, skinny heaven continued into my twenties as I happily enjoyed beer fueled nights and the hangover junk food that followed.

However, after years of enjoying the emotional roller coaster that is living away from family and friends, being introduced to the trials and tribulations of mommy-hood, and all the other daily challenges we all face… it seemed my weight was coming along for the ride.  My eating habits were reflected by my moods, and my moods in turn were scattered due to my eating habits (a pretty little loop which has been yo-yo-ing my weight continuously over the years).

I know it takes time, patience and a lot of hard work (oh yay), but like a lot of unhealthy habits, recognizing the stressors is the first step to setting up your new goals and finding ways to initially manage the cause of why you want to eating rather than the eating itself.

10 Signs you might just be an emotional eater:

1) You eat when you’re emotional…. yep. that was my first clue.

2) There are days when you will feel like a bottomless pit and will eat literally everything in your fridge (including a handful of grated Parmesan cheese and a half cut-up pineapple).

3) When you receive bad news or suddenly becomes stressed, you’re surprised that the first thought  in your heads is wondering what the roast chicken in your fridge might taste like on some rye with mayo. Food becomes somewhat of an obsession.

4) You wake up feeling great, as you confidently strut your stuff (often naked… but at home.. stay reasonable) only to find yourself sobbing in the corner of your closet clutching your skinny jeans a mere few hours later. You have a very turbulent relationship with your own body and if you were friends on facebook it would state ‘It’s complicated’.

5) You get excited about any fad product that will help you tone up without giving up yummy food (says the person typing this post whilst her abs gets electronically zapped by her ‘Abtronix X2’).  Note: Never watch daytime infomercials … just .. never.

6) You tend to eat when you’re bored even when you’re not hungry. You desire to eat tends to take on it’s own form and you find it hard to stop yourself (you even overeat).

7) Often you think you’re hungry, but you don’t necessarily want to eat just anything, but rather you prefer to eat one particular thing. This is a craving and not hunger (which can be brought on my emotions/stress)…. I have cheeseburgers flying around in my head all the live-long-day when I’m not feeling too hot.

8) You often don’t want people to know what you are really eating or feel guilty for eating. When you hide your food it perpetuates your belief that there’s something wrong with you. This often relates to the love/hate relationships with your body mentioned before.

9) Instead of seeing food as what it is (something you consume for survival), you turn it into something else. You become attached to it, give it emotions, and personify it. I’m not going around calling my bag of chips ‘George’ or anything, but a lot more focus is placed on the food and how it makes you feel rather than what it is supposed to do (fuel you).

10) Just like food is there to comfort you in need and bad times, you also see food as a reward or treat during good times. Emotional eating involved all emotions, the good and the bad.

Tips on breaking down some of the first bricks of the emotional eating wall

1) Don’t kick yourself every time you overeat. Making yourself feel guilty will only add to your stress and .. you guessed it… cause more emotional eating. When you’ve fallen off the wagon, try and recognize the stressors that lead to the eating and how you could avoid them or manage them differently next time.

2) Take a break before giving into the urge to eat. If you challenge yourself to hold off on grabbing that stick of cheese for 15 minutes might give you a sense of control. Sure, you might eat it anyway, but you held off for 15 minutes which was better than last time.

3) I’m no advocate for self-torture or anything, but sometimes wearing a rubber band around your wrist, and flicking it whenever you reach for the fridge, can help you become more mindful of your behavior and can help you intervene by assessing what’s going for you at that moment. (Helps with breaking any habit really).

4) Replace your emotional eating with a ‘quick fix’ that will keep your mind off it and place focus on something else. You can write down a list of things you enjoy as a quick fix (e.g.: making a cup of tea, quick breathing exercise etc).

5) Practice makes perfect!! Keep practicing the tools you’ve set up to help with you emotional eating, and even with a few failures and bumps along the way, you will become more aware and in control of your own eating habits.

My name is Stefanie and I’m an emotional eater… (*burp*)

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