Let the Sunshine In

Summer is a time of warm temperatures, sunny skies, green leaves, neighborhood cookouts, family vacations, ice cream cones, and more. You’d think that summer and all it entails would boost the happiness that most of us feel. But instead, I’ve noticed that a lot of people drift through these warm weeks in the same hum-drum fog they’re lost in during the other three seasons…and I think I know why.

If you’re anything like I was before I had my happiness breakthrough, you’ve probably become numbed by life. You might feel like a victim of circumstance who is simply trying to survive each day. So while a refreshing dip in the swimming pool might put a smile on your face as long as you’re submerged, your positive mood usually doesn’t last long.

Now, here’s the good news: As I have said time and time again, happiness is a choice because you can always decide to think and act more positively. The best news of all is that summer is an ideal time to start changing your focus. That’s because for many families, the daily pace is less hectic, and you’re more likely to spend time relaxing. Plus, since summer is a time of warmth, light, and growth, it’s naturally uplifting. Put together, that all means that over the next few months, you’ll have more time and (hopefully) energy to devote to making meaningful lifestyle changes.

If you’ve been reading my blog for long, chances are you’re already familiar with some of the concepts I’m about to introduce. Whether this post is “review” or brand-new to you, I hope you’ll take the following suggestions to heart this summer.

*Enjoy the weather: Exercise. Take advantage of the wonderful weather and up your activity level! (Summer is perfect for walking, biking, swimming, sports, and much more.) Exercise will relax you, make you feel stronger, and improve your sleep. It’s also a natural anti-depressant that will boost your attitude and outlook. And as time passes, you’ll gain the added bonus of being happier with your physical appearance as well. Take your kids along too—you’ll be instilling exercise in them as a great habit that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

*Get some new sunglasses: Be easier on yourself. Most people tend to go through life as though they’re wearing glasses with prescriptions that allow them to focus only on the negative things: their failures, mistakes, worries, etc. This summer, put on a new pair of shades with a more positive prescription that enables you to focus on all of the good things in your life, too! The fact is, we’re all human—and thus fallible—so it’s normal to make mistakes. However, it’s not healthy or beneficial to dwell only on them. As you’re out and about this summer, let yourself bask in your family’s compliments when you grill a great meal, for instance, or savor your neighbor’s praise of your backyard garden. You’ll be surprised by how much better you feel when you celebrate your many successes more often and focus less on your weaknesses.

*Plan some fun activities: Play to your strengths. The days are longer, schedules are more relaxed, there are several holidays to look forward to, and you’ll probably be taking some vacation days. Resolve to spend some of that time developing your special abilities and talents! If you want to be happy, you need to recognize, use, and share your gifts. Each of us has been given special, unique strengths, and when we are using them, we’re happier and feel much better about ourselves—and the world at large is better off, too! Think about it this way: Your kids get to go to special-interest activities and camps during the summer…so why shouldn’t you get in on the action, too?

*Smell the roses: Live in the present. There are so many moments to treasure throughout our lives, and they’re often especially vivid in the summer: the sound of your kids playing outside, the scent of the herbs in your garden, the feeling of sand between your toes and sun on your skin. The question is, are you really experiencing and enjoying these moments…or is your mind obsessing over the past or worrying about the future while only your body is physically present? I can’t stress enough how important it is to truly appreciate the present moment. Try to be aware of what your thoughts are “doing” over the summer, and by autumn, you’ll be closer to living the adventurous, wonderful life you were always meant to. And remember, your kids know when you are with them only in body (while your mind is elsewhere) and this can make them feel very bad.

*Break out the barbeque: Strengthen close relationships. Summer is known for cookouts, pool parties, and front-porch sittin’. Don’t be “that family” who always keep to themselves—try to host at least one or two events between now and September and invite the people you love over for some fun. The truth is, it’s worth putting work into improving your relationships with your family and friends all year round, because the quality of your bonds with the people closest to you can make or break the quality of your life. And (this won’t come as a surprise to my loyal blog readers) be sure to spend some one-on-one time with your spouse or significant other. Summer is a great time to pick a bouquet of wildflowers, plan a romantic getaway, or purchase tickets to an outdoor concert that you’ll both enjoy, for starters.

*Smile and say hello: Be friendlier. You’re not the only one who ventures outside your front door more often in the summer—so make a conscious effort to be friendlier to others you encounter, too. Introduce yourself to the family next to you at the pool or beach, for example, and say hello to folks you pass while walking in the park. (You’ll also be setting a great example for your kids.) I have found that extending simple human kindness to others can make a huge difference in their lives…and in yours. When you make friendliness a habit, you’ll attract kindness and smiles in return…and you’ll feel great about yourself for making a positive difference in the world!

My hope is that you’ll incorporate these habits into your life and experience a more sunshine-y summer…and that you’ll remember this season as the beginning of your journey toward more happiness. It’s true—what may seem like small changes in your actions and attitudes today really can make a huge difference in how you experience the rest of your life!

It’s Time for Summer Camp…and Separation Anxiety

For generations, sending kids to summer camp has been an American tradition. For a lot of youngsters, camp is what their parents hope it will be: namely, a blast! But for other children, camp is something to be unsure of…or downright terrified by.

The fact is, many children experience some degree of separation anxiety when they are away from their home and parents. Many eventually learn to deal with the absence of Mom and Dad without experiencing undue stress. However, assuming that your homesick child will “get over it” might be a false—and even dangerous—assumption to make. Trust me, I know from firsthand experience!

I dealt with separation anxiety throughout my childhood, and one instance in particular was nearly disastrous. When I was ten, my parents sent me to a sleepaway sports camp in a different state. They figured I’d enjoy it because my brother did and because I loved sports. Boy, were my mom and dad wrong despite their best intentions! The first night away from home I barely slept, and the next day I felt panicked and sick.

Soon, I was experiencing full-blown anxiety attacks (though I didn’t recognize them as such). My heart was pounding so hard I thought I was going to die. After seventy-two hours away, I was willing to do anything to get home…so I tried to drink some of the paint in the art shop to force my ticket home. Luckily a counselor caught me before I could really harm myself, and my parents were called to bring me home early.

While my story may seem “extreme,” my point is that to kids, anxiety and apprehension are real. Homesickness won’t necessarily go away on its own. So if your child is anxious about a separation, please take his or her concerns seriously. Here are a few facts and pieces of advice that you might find helpful if camp is in your child’s summer plans:

*First, gauge your child’s level of anxiety before making summer plans. According to my friend Dr. Howard J. Rankin (a licensed clinical psychologist), about one in twenty-five children suffers from Separation Anxiety Disorder. It goes beyond “normal” homesickness and can have long-lasting negative effects on your child’s development. Specifically, kids whose separation anxiety is severe may:

  • Worry that something might happen to you or other loved ones while you are separated
  • Suffer from nightmares
  • Manifest physical symptoms, such as a stomachache or a panic attack
  • Cling to you, especially in an “age-inappropriate” way
  • Refuse to go to a particular destination, such as school…or camp

If you suspect that your child might have Separation Anxiety Disorder, please seek the advice of a medical professional! As my story proves, sending a child who suffers from Separation Anxiety Disorder away may end up doing more harm than good.

Now, what about children who are nervous or apprehensive about leaving for camp, but who are not severely anxious? Here are a few things you can do to alleviate their worries and ease the transition:

*Talk it over with your child. Before signing up for any camp or away-from-home activity, talk to your child about it. Ask him how he’s feeling and what he thinks about these plans. Above all, be sure to acknowledge your child’s feelings as legitimate. Even if you don’t believe there’s any real reason for him to be upset, remember that his feelings and fears are very real in his own mind. It’s a good idea to let your child have some say in decision making—if he flat-out doesn’t want to go to camp, don’t force him! I repeat, do not force him!! You might also consider giving him a choice—day camp as opposed to sleepaway, for example.

*Stay calm and positive. If your prospective camper voices worries, acknowledge them, but don’t feed into them by adding your own apprehensions to the pile. (And certainly don’t bring up worrisome what-ifs yourself—for example, “I just don’t know how I’m going to make it a whole week without you here, Junior!”) Instead, focus on camp’s positive aspects. Remind your child of how much fun she’ll have and what she’ll learn. And don’t make a big deal out of the drop-off—if you get emotional, your child is more likely to lose control too. Lastly, if you do receive an upset phone call, email, or letter, don’t make a fuss that your child can feed off of. Instead, try to talk to a counselor or camp administrator about your child’s homesickness before making a decision regarding how to proceed.

*Feed your child’s interests. Sometimes homesickness can be sparked by boredom and unhappiness—so don’t assume that just because you enjoyed science camp in your youth, for example, your child will too. It’s always a good idea to make sure that any camp you’re considering for your child is a good fit for him. After all, if he’s happy and engaged, his attention is more likely to be focused on what’s right in front of him, and not on what he’s missing.

*Let your child take “home” with her. Your child may be traveling miles away, but there’s no reason why she needs to leave home behind altogether. Send familiar objects with her, such as a favorite stuffed animal, a small picture of you, a handwritten note, and/or phone numbers. She’ll feel less cut off from everything that’s familiar and will therefore be less likely to experience severe homesickness. It’s even better if she can go to camp with a friend from home.

Ultimately, I believe that there are very few children who won’t at least feel a twinge of homesickness when overnight camp—or any significant separation—rolls around. But if you approach the situation positively and rationally and encourage your child to do the same, you’ll both be better prepared for the separation—and you will be better equipped to determine if your child’s anxiety levels aren’t normal or healthy.

 

How NOT to Raise a Bully

In my last post, I explained why I think bullying is “the” problem of our day, and I concluded with the following assertion: We must all make it clear immediately that bullying is simply no longer acceptable. So this week I want to follow up by sharing more thoughts on how not to raise a bully.

*Encourage empathy. Sometimes bullies—kids and adults—don’t always intend to be mean. They just don’t think about the impact their words and actions will have. So, get your kids into the habit of considering how others feel when they’re as young as two or three years old. You can use books, movies, and even real-world situations as tools. For example, if you’re watching a movie in which a character is taunted, press “pause” and ask your children how they think he’s feeling. Also, I’ve seen many wonderful children’s books that talk about sharing, feelings, and kind behavior.

*Help them understand “different.” Kids who are different (from a different culture, a different socioeconomic group, handicapped, etc.) are easy targets for bullies. Teach your kids that “different” doesn’t mean “less than,” and give them the tools to step outside of the box to help them gain understanding and perspective. That might mean checking out a library book about a different culture or encouraging them to attend a religious holiday celebration with a friend who has different beliefs, for example. If you have younger kids, simply go on a walk and point out all the birds you see: red, blue, brown, black, big, small, etc. Explain to your children that all of those differences are beautiful and that the same thing is true when it comes to their classmates.

*Take every opportunity to build their confidence. Many bullies put others down to boost their own low self-confidence and to make themselves feel more powerful. So by letting your kids know that they are valued, loved, and important, you’ll reduce the chances that they’ll try to validate themselves at the expense of others.

*Have “the bullying talk” with your kids and stick to your guns. Make sure that your kids understand the definition of bullying. It’s any action—verbal, physical, or online—that makes someone else feel bad and that happens more than once. Be sure to also point out that bullying can even include “just” passing on a note or text that says something nasty about a classmate. Then, let your children know that just like lying, cheating, or stealing, bullying will not be tolerated in your home. Set up pre-determined consequences, and don’t let anything slide. And when you do get that first call about your child, which you almost certainly will (because kids are kids, and this stuff begins young with just name-calling), be very, very strong! You must nip this behavior in the bud, because the consequences can be far too serious! The fact is, none of us can know what sort of drastic and tragic action a young person may already be considering when our child’s behavior just happens to be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back.

*Share statistics with them. If you feel it’s age appropriate, take a few minutes to research bullying statistics with your child. A quick internet search will reveal a large number of disturbing facts. For instance, here are some statistics from www.bullyingstatistics.org that I also included in my last blog post:

  •  Almost 30 percent of young people participate in bullying behaviors or are bullying victims.
  •  Every day, around 160,000 students do not attend school because they are afraid of being bullied.
  •  Young people who have been bullied are two to nine times likelier than their non-bullied peers to consider suicide. Most worryingly, the actual suicide rate as a result of bullying is on the rise because technology allows hurtful and cruel behaviors to continue 24/7, long after the school day is over.

Seeing these statistics can prove to your child that bullying isn’t just something that Mom and Dad are needlessly worried about—it’s real, and it’s happening at their schools and to their peers. Reading that their actions might make a peer skip school, for instance (or even worse, kill him or herself), can have a real impact. At this point, it might also be a good idea to explain that we never know what other issues—for example, a parent’s illness—kids might be dealing with on top of being bullied.

*Be involved every day. It’s tempting to think that the best thing we can do for our children is to provide a good life for them. No, I’m not saying you should discount the material things entirely, just that you should also keep in mind that nothing can take the place of what’s truly the most important thing in a child’s development: his parents. Being involved in your kids’ lives on a daily, nitty-gritty basis will allow them to stand the best chance when it comes to making all the right choices (not just avoiding bullying). Also, when you’re involved you can keep an eye on who your children’s friends are. Remember that in terms of our attitude, outlook, and behaviors, we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. So no, you aren’t being too mean or controlling if you don’t allow your child to spend time with a peer who seems to be a negative influence. Instead, encourage your kids to seek out friends who exhibit positive behaviors and healthy attitudes.

*Teach them to intervene when possible. This is essential to fighting bullying today, according to teachers, counselors, and school administrators. Since bullies tend to victimize their peers when adults aren’t around, other young people who see these behaviors happening are the key to making sure that they stop. Encourage your children to step in if they see another child being treated badly—if they are comfortable doing so. If not, make sure your child knows to talk to a teacher or other authority figure when another child is being bullied. Even an anonymous note on a teacher’s desk can open an adult’s eyes to a bad situation. If you learn that your child has helped to stop a bully, treat her like the hero she really is.

*Be a good example. And finally, as I’ve said in several other posts, our kids learn how to live by watching us. So when you tell your kids to always be polite but are rude to a waiter at a restaurant, you’re sending majorly mixed signals. Talk the talk and walk the walk.

Ultimately, there’s no foolproof strategy for raising a child who isn’t a bully. But I do think that these strategies will give you some useful and effective starting points. And most of all, remember that nobody knows your child better—or is more influential in his or her development—than you.