Yes, parents, the kids really are okay.

Have you ever noticed that as parents one of our most deeply embedded instincts seems to be criticizing our kids? We harp about their lack of work ethic, bemoan their obsession with technology, fret about what they don’t know how to do, and constantly correct their behavior. We wish they’d be more focused, more self-directed, more constructive; less easily distracted, less selfish, less needy…and so on.

Of course, all of this negativity comes from the best of places. We love our children, and we care even more about their well-being than we do our own. In our heart of hearts, we fear that they won’t have the right skill set to be successful adults. (Of course, this fear isn’t helped by the ever-growing legion of news stories that label the current generation “helpless,” “entitled,” “too reliant on technology,” “unable to communicate,” etc.)

Believe me. I understand. As a modern parent myself, I’ve experienced these thoughts and fears. But over the years, after watching my son grow up and after meeting many more young people around the country, I’ve come to the realization that despite what our instincts are telling us, we don’t need to hammer our kids into what we think they need to be. That way leads to misery for us (as we spend every second worrying that our kids won’t be “okay”) and for them (as they constantly struggle to be viewed as “good enough”). What we do need is a shift in perception.

We need to realize that (here’s the aha! moment) we view the world through a different lens than our kids do—because the world has changed since we were their age and is continuing to change every day. Our perception comes from the things our generation valued, which are not necessarily valued today.

To be clear, I’m not talking about character traits like integrity, honesty, dedication, and so on. Core values like these have been prized for millennia, and I don’t see that changing. I’m talking about the skill sets our kids will need to succeed in tomorrow’s world. For instance, to compete in the global marketplace, they’ll need to communicate and collaborate in ways we’ve never had to. They’ll need to be highly technologically literate. The traditional “Three Rs” of education will still be important, but they will need to be supplemented by a host of “soft” skills that weren’t widely emphasized when we were entering the workforce.

Here’s my point: To stop worrying and criticizing our kids so much, we need to shift the way we think about them, their development, and their generation’s eventual place in the world. Here is a great article from Slate that will help you make this mental shift. It gives you a new way to think about all the things your kids are doing RIGHT and how they fit into this new 21st-century world. And it frees you up to find happiness with your kids instead of agonizing over them and crushing their self-esteem.

After reading this highly entertaining, eye-opening, and timely article, I hope you’ll agree with me that, much more than you may have supposed, the kids really are okay.

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How Bullying Starts at Home

If you’re like most self-respecting parents, your response to the title of this blog was probably, Not in my home, it doesn’t! I am 100 percent against bullying. I would never condone anything that encourages my children to develop those behaviors.

Until fairly recently, I would have been right there with you in voicing a similar protest. However, since bullying is a topic that is very close to my heart (as you know already if you’re a longtime follower of my blog!), I regularly think about what causes it and how we can prevent it from happening. I have come to the conclusion that kids learn bullying behaviors not only from each other, but also from us, their parents! That’s right. I’m not innocent on this count, and you probably aren’t either. Let me explain.

You might not think of yourself or anyone in your family as a bully (or as someone who is being bullied). But consider this: Bullying doesn’t just happen when someone steals your lunch money or calls you names. In my opinion, it happens anytime another person repeatedly and purposefully lowers your self-confidence, maliciously hurts your credibility, intimidates you, ridicules you, puts you down, and more. Do any of these things hit uncomfortably close to home?

In today’s post, I’d like to share with you some of the ways in which I believe our kids are learning bullying behaviors at home. You may object to my analysis or think that I’m overreacting, but I promise you, children are very observant and impressionable. They pick up on our attitudes and behaviors with uncanny ease, and we often see those attitudes and behaviors magnified in their young lives. With back-to-school season upon us, it’s very important to take an honest look at what goes on in your home to make sure that you aren’t inadvertently modeling or condoning bullying behaviors.

*We bully in our marriages. It may be uncomfortable to admit, but in most marriages there’s a dominant spouse—and that partner isn’t always gentle about getting his or her way. Think about the married couples you know. Chances are, with many of them it’s very obvious who “wears the pants,” as the saying goes. On one end of the spectrum is the stereotypical henpecked husband, whose most commonly uttered phrase is “Yes, dear.” On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the timid wife who is intimidated by her husband and who allows him to make all of the decisions.

Most couples fall somewhere in between these two extremes, but the point is, in our marriages we often use our anger and displeasure to influence our spouses. Unfortunately, even uglier things like name calling, threats (e.g., “I’ll leave you if you don’t do this!”), and abuse sometimes happen as well. Even if you and your spouse make a point of having disagreements and fights when your children aren’t around, don’t fool yourselves: The youngest members of your household see the dynamics between you and your husband or wife. And if bullying behaviors are a part of those dynamics, your children are absorbing them.

*We bully our kids. When a parent tells a child, “Just do what I told you. Why? Because I said so! If you don’t, I’ll take your allowance away,” it’s accepted and considered normal. But now, imagine those words coming out of a child’s mouth as he or she is talking to a classmate. Suddenly, they’re much more shocking, and even menacing.

Can you see how kids take our more authoritarian parenting methods and twist them into bullying behaviors? Yes, of course there are times when, for one reason or another, we must issue commands instead of taking the time to explain to our kids what we want them to do and why it’s important. But I would caution all of my fellow parents to be very careful in how and when you give “orders” to your children. Too many commands along the lines of “Go to bed!”; “Don’t argue!”; “Be quiet!”; and “Never do that again!” and your children will assume that that’s how they should relate to their peers.

*Our kids bully each other. Admit it: In most families, siblings can get away with a level of name calling, put-downs, and conflict that would never be allowed on a sports team or in a school. And often, I’ve noticed, we treat our siblings the same way at age 40 as we did when we were 14. Do your kids see you being put down at family gatherings, for example, or hear you talking about how stupid your younger sister is? Whether you allow your kids to strong-arm each other too much or permit them to see nasty behaviors happening between their adult parents, aunts, and uncles, the fact is, poor relationships between siblings often encourage bullying tendencies in our young people.

*Our kids bully us. Kids bullying their parents? It goes against nature…or so we’d like to believe. But in reality, we let our kids bully us all the time. For example, your teenage son comes home in a bad mood, snaps at you when you ask how his day was, and slams the door to his bedroom when you request that he help you set the table for dinner. You know what you should do: Your son’s behavior was unacceptable, and there ought to be consequences. But you just don’t have the energy for that struggle, so you let him stay in his room and set the table yourself. Essentially, he has just used his surliness to bully you into doing what he didn’t want to do himself.

I could give you more examples of how kids use bad behavior, tears, tantrums, and more to bully their parents, but if you’ve been a mother or father for more than a day, you don’t need me to extrapolate. You know that often, it’s just so much easier to “give in to the terrorist” than it is to confront your child and correct her behavior. But if we allow our kids to manipulate us in this way on a regular basis, we’re teaching them that this is how to get what they want with everyone else in their lives, too.

*Our kids are being entertained by bullying. Throughout childhood, but especially as they reach the teenage years, kids watch popular television shows and movies that are full of examples of kids bullying each other, as well as their parents. If you don’t believe me, spend a few minutes flicking through the channels on your television.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not trying to point fingers or accuse anyone of terrible parenting practices. I’m a dad myself, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that being a parent is the most challenging job in the world. We will all make many mistakes, despite our best intentions, as we try to raise empathetic, values-centered kids.

Here’s the point I want to make: Since you may not be able to influence what your child is exposed to at school, you must be as vigilant as possible regarding what happens in your own house. Make every effort to ensure that aggressive, mean-spirited, controlling, and dominating behaviors aren’t present in your home, even when you’re frustrated or upset. Remember, your kids will adopt the behaviors, attitudes, and habitual responses that they see you and your spouse exhibiting, regardless of what you tell them is right or wrong. Let’s all commit to being more aware of what we do, say, and allow at home as we continue the fight against bullying!

 

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Summer Goal: Happy Kids (and How to Instill the Happy Habit)

One of the best things about summer is the fact that most of us get to spend more time with our kids. They’re home from school for a few months, and while our time off doesn’t generally mirror theirs, we adults still tend to take more vacation time during these lazy, hazy, crazy days than we do at other times throughout the year.

That being the case, this is the perfect time to teach your children some important life lessons. Specifically, I’m referring to lessons about happiness. If you’re familiar with my message, you already know that I believe happiness and success are not the same thing, and that our society tends to prioritize achievement over things like contentment, balance, and well-being. All too often, this state of affairs causes us to become overstressed, overscheduled, and overwhelmed—a lifestyle that doesn’t really leave very much room for “happy.”

The good news is, semi-constant stress and dissatisfaction aren’t inevitable. In fact, the root of much of our unhappiness can be traced back to our childhoods—which means that as a parent, you’re faced with a very important responsibility. More than sending your kids to a deluxe sleepaway camp or supervising their summer reading, the absolute best thing you can do for your children this season is to instill habits that will cultivate lifelong happiness.

Now, don’t panic. I’m not saying that you need to forgo pool trips and ice cream runs for lectures on the power of positive thinking—far from it! I’m simply suggesting that you take advantage of summer’s slower pace (and the increased amount of family time that goes with it) to help your kids develop healthy habits that will contribute to their happiness now and throughout the year. Here are eight suggestions to help you get started:

*Show your kids what happiness looks like. Kids do what they see us doing, not what we tell them to do. If you live a frenetic, stressful, and unhappy life, chances are good that your kids will grow up to do the same. When it comes to instilling happiness habits, the most important thing you can do is model the behaviors and attitudes you want them to adopt. So if you feel that your own priorities are out of whack, that your coping mechanisms are unhealthy, or that your outlook could use improving, do what you need to do in order to make the necessary adjustments. (Viewing my Twelve Weeks to Living a Happier Life program at www.toddpatkin.com or reading some of my previous blog posts will give you some good tactics to begin with!) Be sure you’re modeling all of the behaviors I’m about to describe. Remember, you’re not being selfish in the least—you’re guaranteeing a brighter future for yourself and your kids…and their kids after them.

*Teach your kids to love themselves. Despite what you may tell yourself as you tuck your children in at night, the love you feel for them—as boundless and unconditional as it might be—won’t be enough to sustain them throughout their lifetimes. It’s crucial that you teach them from a very early age to love themselves as well. The confidence that comes from loving yourself helps to guard against everything from feelings of inadequacy to living to please others to bullying, all of which can lead to more serious problems like depression. Overall, always be your kids’ biggest cheerleaders. Teach them to focus on all of the unique, positive aspects of themselves instead of dwelling on what they can improve and what they’ve done wrong. And always, always let them know they are loved unconditionally. So many children believe that they are only as good as their grades, their ability to entertain others, or who their friends are. Teaching them that they have intrinsic value starts at home with you.

*Help them to let go of the obsession with perfectionism. It goes without saying that parents don’t set out to harm their children when they push them to succeed—it’s natural to want your child to realize his full potential and take advantage of every opportunity. But the truth is that parents’ high expectations put the most pressure of all on their children, and many kids—especially those whose personalities predispose them to it—get the (incorrect) idea that anything short of perfection is failure. Always think about how your expectations and reactions might affect your child. Releasing him from the grip of perfectionism has to start with you—it won’t happen on its own. Tell him on a regular basis that you love him—not his grades or his sports trophies, but him. Help him to believe that he is adequate and successful no matter what. It’s important to realize that when young people go to college at age 18 (often their first extended time away from home), an unattainable compulsion to be perfect is extremely dangerous, and can lead to serious anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Again, do everything you can now to make sure your children enter the adult world with a healthy perspective on success and achievements.

*Teach your kids to play to their strengths. It’s no secret that we are raising our children in a very competitive world. Many kids—and their parents—feel a compulsion to be good at everything. As a parent, don’t support this notion. Instead, tell your child that everyone is good at some things and not so good at others—it’s what makes us human! Also, help your child to identify what her strengths and talents are and encourage her to pursue those things, rather than activities that make her feel less-than-great. Summer, with its increased amount of free time, is a great time to do this!

*Help your kids develop the power of perspective. Kids live in a small world where even the “little stuff” is a huge deal. (Case in point: Mom, I didn’t get to play on the same kickball team as Jimmy today at day camp!) And as you know from experience, the problems you encounter in elementary school don’t compare to the ones you encounter in high school…which don’t even begin to compare to the ones you face as an adult. That’s why one of the best things you can do to instill the happiness habit in your kids is to help them to develop perspective. From now on, when your child is faced with a problem or disappointment, sit down with him and make a list of all of the things he is good at—for instance, talented soccer player, wonderful big brother, great artist—and then point out how one mistake is a drop in the bucket amidst all of his other successes. Keep the list handy to pull out as a reminder in the future! Remember, when your child is able to accept failure, move forward, and keep a positive outlook, then he will have developed a crucial skill for his adult life.

*Raise your kids to be helpers. As adults, we know how great it can feel when we give back to others. Helping another person—whether it’s through service, teaching, or donating your resources—connects you to the rest of humanity in a powerful way. It also cultivates qualities like selflessness, empathy, and generosity, which are crucial building blocks when it comes to creating healthy, happy kids who grow into fulfilled, balanced adults. So sit down and talk with your kids about what it means to give back and why it’s important and discuss all the ways to do it. Make sure they understand that giving back doesn’t just mean donating money and that generosity is not limited to giving away things you no longer want. Then, make a list of projects that your kids are interested in participating in. Maybe they’d like to help out with a food drive or a bake sale, or perhaps they’d rather volunteer at a local animal shelter or nursing home. Again, because of the relatively large amount of free time your kids have, summer is a perfect time for these activities. Have conversations with them throughout the process, helping them to tap into how philanthropy makes them feel and who they’re helping.

*Give your kids the gift of gratitude. An attitude of gratitude might be a clichéd concept, but I know from experience that having one can change the way you look at and interact with the world. When you realize on a daily basis how fortunate you are—from being born in this country to having food on your table to having a family who loves you—you’ll develop perspective and compassion. You’ll have stronger, more genuine relationships, and you’ll look at the world with a healthy perspective instead of believing it revolves around you. That’s true for kids as well as adults! There are so many things you can do to instill gratitude in your kids. Verbally identifying and naming your blessings as a family is one, and making thank-you card writing a “rule” after birthdays and holidays is another. Another more subtle method is to deny your kids every once in a while. Of course I’m not advocating compromising their well-being, but the truth is, they don’t need every toy they ask for or ice cream for dessert every night. Not getting what they want, when they want it, every time, will help them to value what they do have, and it will protect against entitlement. Making your kids chip in to pay for what they want (whether it’s with money or by doing chores) will have the same effect.

*Make happiness a priority for your family. For many families, things like academics, sports, or other activities are in the top priority slots—and they may not be making any of you as happy as you once thought they did. Make no mistake: What you prioritize in your family unit will become the things your kids learn to prioritize too, well into adulthood. So sit down with your kids and talk about the things that make them happy. Try to get a feel for whether or not their daily and weekly activities fulfill them. Ask questions like, “Does playing softball make you feel good?” or, “What were you doing today when you felt the best?” If you hear surprising answers, talk about what your family could be doing differently. This isn’t a one-time exercise, either. Sitting down on a regular basis throughout the year to talk about how to reprioritize will make a happier family and will give your kids the valuable skill of evaluating their own lives and letting go of the things that aren’t working.

In a very real way, the attitudes and outlooks you instill in your children today will impact the rest of their lives—for good or ill. It’s not too late to make summer 2013 the season your family took a positive turn toward happiness. I promise, you won’t regret it!

 

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Getting Real with Yourself in 2013

In our society, “authentic” is a positive buzzword. If you’re authentic, you’re honoring your own values, desires, and goals. You’re honest with yourself and with others, and you aren’t being deceptive or fake. Most notably, you are comfortable in your own skin.

Yes, this definition of authenticity sounds nice. But here’s the problem: I don’t think most of us come anywhere close to being as authentic as we think we are. From our mannerisms to our career choices to the cars we drive and the places we vacation—and everything in between—our choices are often influenced (or dictated outright) by others. And we don’t consciously realize it’s happening!

That was the story of my life before my quest to find happiness. I was so concerned with fitting in, being liked, and becoming the man I thought I “should” be that I wasn’t very authentic at all. I had convinced myself that I had chosen the life I wanted, but in many ways, it was really the life that my society, my community, and even my (well-meaning) family and friends wanted for me. If you are familiar with my story, you know how that turned out: my workaholic lifestyle and the compulsion I felt to do, be, and achieve more drove me to the brink. And—newsflash!—when you have a breakdown, you are not living a very authentic life.

In the following years, my mindset, beliefs, habits, and choices have evolved quite a bit. Some of these changes have been met with approval; others have raised a few eyebrows. But the point is, I am constantly learning more about what it really means to be true to myself, and I am a happier person because the expectations of others no longer play such a large role in my decision-making.

For my next three blog posts, I am going to look at the concept of authenticity in more detail by sharing what I’ve learned about getting real with yourself, your spouse or partner, and your friends. I hope that what I have to say will help you to make 2013 the Year of Authenticity, and to take a major step toward living a happier life.

First up is being authentic with yourself. Yes, the relationship you have with the person in the mirror does matter. Either you know who you are, what’s important to you, and what makes you happy—and choose to honor those things—or you don’t. And the difference between those two paths is profound.

When you choose authenticity, you’ll learn to accept yourself as you are—warts and all. You won’t feel compelled to be, think, or do things a certain way, and the expectations of others will merely inform you, not control you. You’ll feel freer, more confident, and more empowered, and you’ll also find that the amount of stress in your life diminishes. What’s more, being authentic in your own decisions and actions will attract more positive relationships into your life. Those who love and value you will seek you out, and those who don’t will drift away. Overall, “getting real” with yourself will help you to reach your fullest potential.

Here are my tips on being authentic with yourself:

*Redefine your priorities. Stop using other people as a template to determine how your own life should be. Balance and happiness look different for everyone! If you’ve never done so before, sit down and think about what would bring you the most contentment and fulfillment. Maybe you’re okay with living in a small home if it means you’ll have more money to travel, for example. Remember, as long as you aren’t harming anyone or breaking the law, it’s okay not to “fit in.” But when you shift your priorities because of what other people think of your choices, you’re veering away from authenticity.

*Be honest about your capabilities. Living within a reasonable timeline is just as important as making choices that make you happy. So whenever you identify a change that you need to make, pat yourself on the back…then figure out a realistic way to reach it. Remember, you know yourself better than anyone else. You know when you’re pushing yourself too hard, taking on too many responsibilities, and crossing the line from “challenged” to “stressed.”

Even for the sake of healthy progress, moving too fast isn’t an authentic way to live. So if your coworker lost 20 pounds in two months, for example, don’t hold yourself to that deadline. It’s okay if your own weight loss takes much longer, as long as you’re shedding pounds in a healthy and sustainable way. The same thing goes for money. You know how much you can comfortably spend, so don’t go into debt in order to keep up with the Joneses!

*Stop hiding. Even though I’m an extraordinarily open person, there are still things about me I’m sure I’d rather the world not know about. Whether it’s an episode in your past, a somewhat-taboo desire you’re harboring, or your reasoning for making a particular choice, I’m sure that you also have “secrets.” I’m not saying that you need to shout these closely guarded tidbits from the rooftops, but you should be honest with yourself that they exist. You may want to write about them in a journal, or even share them with your partner or a trusted friend. If you are ignoring or rejecting any aspects of yourself, you aren’t being authentic.

*Get in touch with your emotions. We all bury emotions we think we “shouldn’t” have and fake feeling things that we believe we “should.” You know what I mean: My coworker is doing her best—I shouldn’t be angry that she’s slowing me down. Or, I hope she doesn’t get that promotion—she’ll gloat about it forever. Or, It’s been three months since my mom died—I shouldn’t be crying this much. Better paste a smile on my face. Hello—that’s not being authentic! I’m not saying you should give yourself a free pass to act on all of your emotions (especially the negative ones), but you should acknowledge that they exist and allow yourself to experience them without the need for apology.

Also, when you know you’re not at your best, remember that it’s okay to take a step back from the situation you’re in. If you can feel your blood pressure rising exponentially, tell your spouse that you need to wait a few hours to discuss the monthly bills, for example. In my experience, ignoring what you really feel and faking a different attitude usually doesn’t end well anyway!

*Own up. When life doesn’t go your way, it’s tempting to dodge the blame. Often, it’s very easy to point the finger at another person, at the status quo, etc. But authentic people don’t place themselves in the role of the victim. Realizing that you, and only you, ultimately hold the key to your own happiness and success can be a tough pill to swallow, but it’s true. And it is the key to turning your whole life around. For as long as you dodge the responsibility to create your own reality, other people will do it for you…and you may not like the results.

*Put yourself first. Putting ourselves last and ignoring our own needs is a common American malady. But the fact is, taking a half-hour to soak in the tub before bed is not selfish. Admitting to your spouse that you need more help with the house and the kids is not a sign of weakness. And letting yourself splurge on that new jacket does not mean you’re irresponsible.

Honoring your needs and acknowledging your desires is an important component of authentic living. And giving yourself permission to stop doing all the time so that you can simply be is crucial. Personally, spending quiet time in meditation and staying connected to my Higher Power help me to identify the things I really need and want.

*Do some deep cleaning. From beliefs to belongings to relationships, we tend to keep things around long after they’ve served their purpose or become unhealthy. It can be painful and will definitely take some brutal honesty, but it’s important to declutter your life. Do you really think you’ll fit into those old jeans anytime soon? If not, donate them to charity. Do you enjoy looking at the giant painting in your living room? If not, take it down. Does the friend you’ve known since childhood build you up or criticize you? If it’s usually the latter, allow the relationship to drift away. Holding on to things that no longer enhance your life also holds you back from authenticity.

Until you learn to get real in these ways, you won’t be able to make much progress in being authentic with others in your life, and you definitely won’t experience true happiness. Ultimately, being authentic with yourself comes down to one thing: really loving yourself and accepting yourself for the unique, one-of-a-kind human being you are. When you believe that you don’t have to change yourself to be worthy and valuable, you’ll begin treating yourself with much more kindness, honesty, and yes, authenticity.

The Year of the Quitter: Twelve Habits to Drop in 2013

The Times Square ball has dropped, champagne has been sipped, and 2013 has begun. Are you feeling energized and excited to embark on a new year…or (more likely) are you just plain exhausted?

If you barely have the energy to think up a list of resolutions that you know you won’t end up keeping, you’re not alone. So many Americans are desperate to perform to a certain standard, look a certain way, weigh a certain number, make a certain amount of money, and much more…despite the fact that nobody can do it all, all of the time. So when you inevitably take on too much and allow one of the plates you’re juggling to drop, you end up disappointed, tired, and miserable.

Well, if you ask me, enough is enough. A big part of my own happiness journey has centered around the realization that for decades, I set myself up for disappointment by having unrealistic and unsustainable expectations. And I promise that if you’re currently caught in this trap, you’ll be best served by making 2013 the year you stop doing things that aren’t adding to your happiness.

In this post, I will share twelve behavior habits that you might want to consider quitting. And some of them will probably surprise you, because on the surface, they’re success-oriented. But trust me: More isn’t always better. This year, resolve to stop pushing yourself too hard, prioritizing the wrong things, and working toward success for the wrong reasons. Here’s how you can do it…and make 2013 your greatest year yet:

*Give up on relationships. …The ones that aren’t working, that is. Whether it’s a coworker who hands out backhanded compliments like they’re candy or a “frenemy” who always tries to one-up your accomplishments, there are people in your life who drain your energy and make your attitude dip into murky territory. No matter how much you may want to make these relationships work, forcing yourself to spend time with negative people won’t do you any favors. It’s okay—and actually healthy—to distance yourself from so-called “toxic” individuals. Of course I advocate doing everything you can to eliminate strain with family members. Realize, though, that maybe this is the year to finally admit that you and your partner have irreconcilable differences that are making both of you unhappy, or it is the year to finally tell your mother that her controlling behavior needs to stop.

*Stop being so darn nice. …And start being real. Chances are, you sometimes swallow blunt comments or constructive criticism in favor of a more diplomatic response. You might even allow yourself to be taken advantage of from time to time in order to please another person. Guess what: It’s time to stop! Dishonest politeness doesn’t develop authentic relationships. No, it’s not appropriate to go on reality show-worthy rants whenever you feel upset, but at the same time, masking your real opinions and feelings isn’t helpful in the long term. Remember, having a smaller number of true friends is healthier than denying your own happiness in order to make everyone else like you.

*Stop working so hard. Don’t become a total slacker, but do think about the b-word: balance. The fact is, every year we try to reach new heights in our careers. However, everyone has physical and mental limits. And more to the point—despite the fact that our society often confuses the two—achievement doesn’t equal happiness. No matter how good your intentions are, overloading on work will cause your relationships, mindset, and even health to suffer. For me, 70- and 80-hour weeks actually caused a breakdown, not happiness! Please, don’t follow in my footsteps. Even if you don’t drive yourself over the edge, living the life of a workaholic can still bury you in stress, anxiety, and depression. This year, really think about what a healthy balance looks like. And remember, no one looks back on their lives at age eighty and says, “Gee, I wish I’d spent less time with my family and friends and more time at the office.”

*Lower the bar. This may come as a shock, but you probably expect too much from yourself. Whether the issue is your appearance, your house, your family, or your job, you want to achieve as much perfection as is humanly possible. And on top of that, you most likely focus on what you do wrong and rarely celebrate what you do right. Well, guess what? Setting the bar so impossibly high is a recipe for feeling miserable. This year, it’s time to really realize that you’re human, so it’s inevitable that you will mess up—or even just put in an “adequate” performance—every now and then. That doesn’t mean that you’re in any way unworthy or undeserving of love. This year, consciously lower your expectations to more realistic standards, celebrate your many successes, and stop beating yourself up so much.

*Ignore the Joneses. Keeping up with the Joneses seems to be the American way of life. We’re constantly comparing ourselves to our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers, and even people whose lives we see displayed on reality TV. I know that Bob’s salary is the same as mine, you might think. How come he’s driving a new SUV and I can’t even scrape together a down payment? No matter what the situation is, thoughts like these only leave you feeling jealous, less-than, and unhappy. The most ironic part is, the friend whose life seems perfect on the outside probably doesn’t feel that way in the privacy of his own home. For years, I was the guy whose career and bank account others would have killed to have, but the truth was, I was stressed out of my mind and unable to relax for even a second! Yes, it will be hard to change your habitual thought processes. But you need to understand the fundamental truth that “happy” for you won’t look the same as it does for anyone else—and that’s okay! Focus primarily on your own feelings and fulfillment—don’t use another person’s life as a measuring stick to determine how good your own is.

*Don’t focus on your spouse. …To the point where you forget to take responsibility for yourself, that is! Yes, conventional relationship wisdom tells you to focus on your spouse and to put his or her needs first. To a point, that advice is accurate: As a partner in life and in love, you should be your spouse’s biggest supporter and coach. Just don’t allow tunnel vision to blind you to your own needs and responsibilities. While you should never take advantage of or ignore your partner, putting yourself second all of the time can breed frustration and resentment. This year, look inward more often, and figure out what will make you happy. Remember that when you do things that make you happy, it’s good for your husband or wife too.

*Stop giving so much. If you don’t, you’ll eventually run dry! The fact is, there are a lot of people in our lives who depend on us and who want our help, our time, our advice, etc. But it can be all too easy to keep giving and giving and giving to others to the point where there’s nothing left for you. So if spending all of your time and energy on others is the norm, and doing something for yourself is extremely rare—watch it. Figure out what is important to you and what fulfills you, and prioritize those things more. Stop putting others and their needs first all the time! In order to be happy, you have to know what your strengths are, and you have to play to them on a regular basis. You can’t live your life primarily to please other people.

*Stop pushing your kids so hard! As parents, we really care about our kids, and we want them to have the best possible futures. But that doesn’t mean you need to turn into a so-called “Tiger Parent.” Too much pressure to perform can cause children of any age to burn out and make self-destructive decisions. It’s crucial to remember that success and happiness aren’t the same thing. Your kids will be much happier, healthier, more creative, and more motivated throughout their lives if you prioritize balance and love them for who they are, not for how many As they get on their report cards.

*Forget quality time with your kids. …And start focusing on quantity! Please believe me, if you are simply home more and allow your children to seek you out in their time and on their own terms, you will be amazed how much they come to you. This one change in your scheduling can make all the difference in the world in your relationship with your children. It’s easy to use the words “quality time with my kids” as a free pass to focus on other aspects of your life 95 percent of the time. In other words, we want to believe that we can make up for working 70-hour weeks by taking a trip to Disney World, or catch up on all of the week’s events while going out for ice cream. But the fact is, life is found in the everyday moments, not in the big blowout trips. And kids themselves are perceptive—they can tell if they always take second place in your life. I also know from experience that doing “normal” things with your kids on a regular basis will mean more to them—and to you—long-term than the occasional extraordinary event. So this year, as much as possible, build regular “parent time” into your schedule, and try to be present for as many day-to-day activities as you can.

*Cancel your gym membership. No, I’m not saying that you should give up on exercising, and of course, if you’re already a gym lover, continue going. But if you’re a fitness newbie, begin with something that’s sustainable. You don’t want to purchase a gym membership only to have real life get in the way and derail your big plan. Then, not going to the gym will become just one more thing to beat yourself up about. So start small. Take a 20-minute walk every other day around your neighborhood—that’s it! You can work up from there if you want to. Also, try not to make physical activity all about weight—it has many other benefits. Exercise will make you feel more relaxed, stronger, and more capable of handling life’s challenges. It will also improve your sleep, and it’s a natural anti-depressant that will help your attitude and outlook.

*Stop obsessing over your health. Everywhere we look, there’s a new medical threat to worry about. Sure, you can spend a lot of your time worrying about BPA in your water bottles, drug-resistant bacteria, or the likelihood of whether swine flu will overrun your community. Likewise, you can make appointments with specialist after specialist whenever you feel sick, and try every new vitamin, supplement, and protein shake on the market. But it probably won’t help as much as you hope! At the end of the day, you’ll never have ultimate control over everything you touch, breathe, and eat. And if you allow yourself to fret over every health threat you hear about on the news or see on the Internet, you’ll be afraid to leave your house without a hazmat suit on. Just focus on eating right, going to the doctor, and fitting in as much exercise and relaxation as you can. If you don’t, all the worry and stress will be what ends up killing you!

*Trash your goals. …Except for this one: Be happier! Much like striving for perfection, being too goal-oriented can harm more than it helps. When you’re always focused on the “next big thing,” you’re perpetually anxious, you often forget to live in the present, and you’re never able to enjoy all of the blessings you already have. Plus, taking a step back from “the plan” can bring some much-needed clarity. You may find that the direction you’ve been heading isn’t what you want after all! My breakdown—at the time—was horrible. But it really was the best thing that ever happened to me in the long run, because it forced me to literally drop all of the things I’d been working on and to reevaluate how I was living my life. I promise you, when you prioritize your own happiness and well-being, you’ll be truly amazed by how smoothly everything else falls into place!

Believe me, being a “quitter” can be a very smart move, as long as you’re leaving behind activities, habits, people, and responsibilities that aren’t enriching your life. Above all else, as you move through 2013, take it from me that a successful life without happiness really isn’t successful at all!

 

 

Going Deeper: Why We Shouldn’t Stop at Small Talk

Recently, a friend forwarded me a New York Times article titled “Talk Deeply, Be Happy?” As this person had suspected, it was right up my alley. It reported the results of a study on conversation. Turns out, the more meaningful conversations you have, the happier you tend to be. (And on the other hand, people who engage in more small talk are generally less happy.)

For me (and I suspect for many of you as well), these findings didn’t come as a surprise. After all, decades of experience have taught me that I feel much more alive and engaged when I’m having a meaningful conversation than when I’m chatting about the weather or something equally mundane. However, the article did get me thinking: Why do “deeper” interactions make us feel so good? And if our conversations might directly correlate to our happiness levels, how can we infuse more of the meaningful kind into our lives?

Well, I think the answer to my first question—Why do “deeper” interactions make us feel so good?—is pretty simple: Our lives are driven by and centered around relationships. Whether you’re an extrovert who thrives in a crowd or an introvert who prefers small-group settings, that statement remains true. So any time you have a meaningful conversation, you’re getting to know another human being better. You’re learning about his or her opinions, motivations, and plans. You’re forging a deeper connection.

The fact is, everybody wants to feel valued and appreciated. And when someone encourages you to go beyond the facts and share your very own emotions, views, and beliefs, you get that feeling (and vice versa). It’s like your subconscious is thinking, Wow, out of all the things this person could be doing, he or she is choosing to hear my take on the world. I must be pretty special. Plus, by hearing from someone else, you’re learning new things and expanding your worldview.

Now, on to my second question: How can we infuse more meaningful conversations into our lives? Here are a few of my ideas:

*Seek out people who like to go deeper. This tip is pretty obvious—if you want to have more meaningful conversations, spend more time with people who feel the same way. For instance, you probably know “that” coworker or friend who is always willing to get into a good-natured debate, no matter the subject. Set up a weekly lunch or coffee date! And on the flip side, you probably know someone who, despite your best efforts, insists on sticking to sports scores and celebrity gossip. I’m not saying you should avoid all contact with people in this last group—just don’t beat your head against the wall in a fruitless attempt to delve into their emotions and motivations.

*Let others know you enjoy their conversations. If you think someone else is particularly insightful, entertaining, engaging, authentic, etc., let them know! In my experience, “I honestly enjoy talking to you” is one of those compliments people don’t give or receive very often. However, that one simple sentence might be all it takes to draw someone even further out of his or her shell and into more frequent discussions.

*Join groups of interesting people. I have noticed that often, our relationships with the people we love and spend the most time with can fall into ruts. It’s not that you don’t want to engage more meaningfully; it’s just that (to give one example) you and your spouse get into the habit of only going through the next day’s schedule and reporting any significant news before falling into an exhausted sleep each evening. A good way to break this pattern is to expose yourself to new individuals and situations. If you have time, think about joining a book club, taking a woodworking class, or even gathering a group of neighbors to walk around the block in the mornings. Getting to know others will give you the opportunity to introduce new subjects into your conversational repertoire—which will, in turn, give you new stories to tell and new subjects to talk about with your close friends and family.

*Be interested, not interesting. No, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to talk about things that other people will find informative and entertaining. Rather, I mean that your number one goal when you talk to someone else should be to find out as much as possible about him or her. When you try to dominate the conversation, you’ll all too often end up looking selfish and arrogant. But when you show a genuine curiosity in others, you’ll encourage them to go deeper, to open up, and to be honest. And you’ll probably also find that they, in turn, want to know about your thoughts and opinions—giving you the opportunity to tell that story you wanted to share in the first place. So the bottom line is, if you want to encourage a meaningful conversation, start by asking thoughtful questions and truly listening to the answers you receive.

 

 

 

Treating the Dorm Room Blues

Time really does fly. It seems like back-to-school just happened, but somehow, we’re already staring fall break in the face! Realizing how far we are into the school year has caused me to think about a topic that’s really close to my heart: the often-difficult time young people can have adjusting to college. If you’re a longtime follower of my blog, you may remember the posts I wrote last September regarding depression and anxiety on college campuses. This year, I’d like to share my thoughts on homesickness.

I think that many parents probably feel a huge sense of relief when their child gets into college. Years and years of hard work (your child’s and your own) have finally paid off. She’ll be having the time of her life, you think to yourself multiple times a day. Or, I just know he’ll fit in and do well—he was made for that school. Then you get the call: “Mom, Dad, I miss you. I’m homesick. I don’t think I like it here as much as I thought I would.” Now you’re shocked, bewildered, and maybe even a little disappointed. College (not to mention paying for it) has been the ultimate goal for years—what’s going wrong?

Actually, homesickness is more common than you might think. According to the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, 65 percent of all college freshmen suffer from homesickness and the condition often continues into subsequent academic years. And now that the initial adjustment period of moving in, attending new classes, and making friends has ended, homesickness is starting to hit many students full force. At this point in the semester, many young people are reaching the I’ve-never-been-away-from-home-this-long milestone, and they’re missing their old surroundings, routines, and support systems.

I’ve been there. As you may already know, I struggled with homesickness and separation anxiety throughout my childhood and into college. In fact, as a college freshman, I didn’t hesitate to drive 45 minutes to my home on a near-nightly basis. To this day, sticking it out and graduating from college in spite of the difficulties I had in adapting remains one of my proudest accomplishments. And while I don’t want to needlessly alarm parents, I also know from experience that if not addressed, homesickness can lead to more serious issues such as anxiety and depression.

If your child calls home expressing feelings of homesickness, it’s important to know how to address the situation. Here are some of my tips:

*Don’t downplay your child’s worries. “Don’t worry,” you might instinctively want to say. “You’ll get used to your dorm and your classes, and I know you’ll make friends quickly.” Squelch that impulse. If your child calls home and says that she is worried or misses aspects of her “old” life, always talk to her about what could be causing her feelings. Is she under a lot of academic pressure? Does she like her classes? Does she have problems with her roommate? Remember that adjusting to college is different for everyone: Some may take days; some may take months. If your student does not seem to be adjusting at all and has been homesick for weeks, it might be good to suggest that she look for resources through the counseling and wellness department at her school.

*But don’t rush to school to pick up your child, either. If your child seems to be experiencing a normal level of homesickness (i.e., not depressed or experiencing dangerous levels of anxiety), then it won’t help him if you rush to his rescue. You can help in small doses from home, of course—just don’t drop all of your weekend plans to make a last-minute collegiate road trip or immediately start researching local colleges for a transfer. Learning to rely more fully on oneself without a parent in the next room is something that we all have to do sooner or later. And if your child goes through these growing pains now, he’ll be setting himself up for more success in the future.

*You can help take the edge off by making a few plans together. In an unfamiliar new environment, it can be difficult for your student to accurately picture what next semester, next month, or even next week might look like—and that uncertainty might be feeding her feelings of homesickness. In this instance, simply making plans to see you or to visit home in the near future might be just the remedy the doctor ordered, as long as the discussion is confident and encouraging. Also, take advantage of technology like Skype and set (and keep) a weekly date. However, do not make a pick-up bargain (if you start to feel homesick or if it doesn’t go away, we will come get you). Kids can end up using this as a crutch—after all, what incentive do they have to proactively build a fulfilling college life for themselves if they know Mom and Dad are on the way?

*Help them to re-create the security they feel at home at school. Part of the insecurity that new students feel when they are living on their own for the first time stems from the loss of the routine and comforts they were used to at home. For example, figuring out simple tasks like laundry and grocery shopping can be daunting when you’ve always had your parents’ help. If you suspect that this issue is impacting your child’s happiness at college, send a pre-emptive email or care package full of advice and guidance. For example, you might include a sample schedule for laundry and instructions on how to wash darks vs. whites. Or if your child cooks for himself, talk about what grocery staples he should have on hand and perhaps send him recipes for a few of his favorite homecooked dishes (with shopping list included!).

*Realize that you and your child aren’t locked in. Yes, you have paid a deposit, moved your child into her dorm, and maybe even started to tackle those daunting tuition payments. While this does signify a big commitment, it’s important to realize that your child is not locked into remaining at her current college. And if her homesickness doesn’t abate despite your best efforts, she shouldn’t stay there long-term. Some students, like me, may not be able to find a healthy balance far away from home. In this case, know that transferring to a school that’s closer to home is an option, and may be the best possible alternative. I’ll be honest: I think that attending a university only 45 minutes away from my parents’ house might have saved my life. I’m not sure how well I would—or wouldn’t—have coped with my anxiety had they not been so close and so continually supportive.

While anyone who has been to college knows that it isn’t one big never-ending party (nor would most parents want it to be!), it should still be a positive, fulfilling, and growth-inspiring period in your child’s life. If your child’s happiness seems to be compromised at any point by homesickness, be ready to listen and educate yourself on what you can do to alleviate the pressure. It is my hope that together you and your child will be able to achieve the amazing college experience both of you have been hoping for.

 

 

 

Portrait of a Great Coach

Everyone who knows me personally is aware that I am a huge sports fan. I love to support all of my local Boston professional teams. But without a doubt, my favorite sports events of all are those in which my son, Josh, is a player. (This may be a father’s pride talking, but he is a whiz on the basketball court!)

I know I’m not the only parent who wants his or her child to succeed athletically. That’s why I’ve been thinking a lot lately, as fall sports start up, about what a huge difference coaches can make in young people’s lives—for good or ill. While my own son has always been fortunate enough to work with supportive, uplifting coaches, sadly that’s not the case for all young players. In fact, it is amazing to me how often I am asked by “struggling” parents how they should handle their son’s or daughter’s upsetting coach.

With that in mind, I think it’s very important for parents to first understand that most coaches are doing their best, are not paid, and are giving of their time and energy very unselfishly. But you should also protect your kids by staying aware of how coaches interact with your children and what type of influence they’re having, and most importantly, to hold them accountable. While I don’t advocate becoming a so-called “helicopter parent,” I do think that as a parent you should always be vigilant when your child’s well-being is at stake. Don’t hesitate to step in if you feel that a coach’s attitude or actions are harmful to your child. If possible, discuss the situation with your child before approaching the coach so that your child doesn’t feel blindsided or betrayed by your involvement. And yes, the older your child is—especially if he or she is in high school—you might want to think twice about taking on a coach unless actual harm is being inflicted. Ultimately, though, always remember that no sport or tournament or trophy is worth sacrificing your child’s self-esteem and emotional well-being.

So, as this athletic season gets underway, take some time to think about how your child’s coach interacts with athletes. Here are some things to consider when evaluating a coach, as well as some qualities I think great coaches possess:

*Realize that harsh coaching methods do cause damage. There’s no question that harsh coaching methods, such as calling players out, getting in their faces, and “motivating” them through fear, do more harm than good. In the short term, these tactics cause anxiety, shame, and low self-esteem. Over time, a bullied athlete’s weakened confidence and sense of self-worth can eradicate motivation and love for the game. And worst of all, it can transfer to other areas of the young person’s life, making him or her less confident socially and academically. After all, it’s a short step from believing I’m not good enough on the field to I don’t have what it takes to succeed at all.

*Think about what a coach’s job really is. Your child does not play on a professional team. His coach’s goal should not be to build a career, but to teach and guide young people who are in the midst of their mental, emotional, and physical development. Ideally, what a coach teaches during practice will also help kids develop the skills they’ll need to succeed in many other areas for the rest of their lives. When you look at it that way, coaching is as much about growing children through positive motivation and attitude as it is about imparting the mechanics of swinging a bat or kicking a ball. So in addition to making sure that your child is learning the rules of the game, make sure he also feels special, valued, and encouraged.

*Watch a replay of the coach’s motivations. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to win, make sure that your child’s coach does not use her position primarily to brag about her successful seasons and coaching record. Also, to some extent, a coach’s goals should match the level of athletics in which your child is engaged. For instance, if he is doing YMCA coach-pitch baseball, his coach’s main motivation should definitely be centered around having fun and helping kids. But if your son is a high school baseball player and his team has a legitimate chance to go all the way to the state championship, it’s okay for the coach to put more of an emphasis on winning vs. losing…as long as the players’ physical and psychological well-being are still a firm first priority.

*Has the coach done some emotional intelligence warm-ups? If you aren’t familiar with the term, emotional intelligence is a quality that enables you to be empathetic, an effective communicator, to navigate conflict, etc. If you’re emotionally intelligent, you’re better able to manage your own emotions, pick up on what others are feeling, and react constructively to setbacks—all of which are qualities that coaches should strive to have. Remember, everyone, but especially the young, can be made or broken by others’ words. A coach has the responsibility to make sure that he or she is setting kids up for present and future success, not filling them with self-doubt and hurting their self-esteem. So if you’re watching a practice or cheering at a game, try to gauge what the coach’s emotional intelligence quotient might be, based on his behavior. If you come to believe that it is really hurting the players, don’t be afraid to act, whether you speak to the coach or even try to find a different team for your child.

*Does the coach score points through caring? People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And in sports, it’s crucial that coaches care about athletes as people, not just as players. Watch to see if your child’s coach gets to know her on an individual basis and incorporates that knowledge into their regular interactions. It’s always a good sign if, for instance, a coach keeps tabs on your daughter’s academic achievements and compliments her for doing well on a test, or asks her, “I know your family was going to go hiking over the weekend. Did you enjoy it?” Showing genuine interest and caring is the greatest motivator I know of because people, kids included, will do anything to keep getting those things. And when players know that they mean more to their coaches than the numbers on their jerseys, they’ll naturally have a greater desire to excel.

*Does the coach strike out through criticism? Many famous coaches in sports history are known for berating players and shaming them in front of the team. Unfortunately, these approaches tend to only alienate players and make coaches an object of fear rather than respect. In my opinion, a good coach should criticize only in private, not in public, by pulling a player aside for a one-on-one discussion rather than yelling at him in front of the whole team. Also, a good coach should make sure the player knows he cares about more than just the mistake. Ideally, he’ll try to accompany each criticism with a few compliments. Remember, we all tend to be our own worst critics—even kids. Many young athletes will tend to focus on what they’ve done wrong, not the many things they’ve done well. The ratio of compliments to criticism they receive from their coaches can shape their self-perception for a long time to come.

*Does the coach scout each practice for all-stars? On the sports field, compliments act as confidence—and thus performance—boosters, and they also improve motivation, team spirit, determination, and more. With that in mind, a good coach will always start each practice with the intention of catching as many players as possible doing well, then praise them in public and in private whenever the opportunity arises. If she wants to go the extra mile, a great coach might even send out a team newsletter that includes short write-ups of players who improve, who are team players, who give their all in practice, etc. Again, kids will work hard to keep getting recognized because it simply feels good.

*Has the coach added “positive thinking” to his or her paraphernalia? With few exceptions, players will develop their attitudes, outlooks, and expectations based on what they see from their leaders. Coaches should be proactive about getting their teams in a winning mindset by saying things like, “We’re going to have a great practice today,” or, “I know everyone will do their best during the game,” etc. Here’s a great saying I’ve found to be true: People generally perform at the level that is expected of them. So without putting negative pressure on the athletes, your child’s coach should let them know that she believes in their ability to accomplish great things. I can’t help but think of Lou Holtz, the legendary college football coach whose philosophy of positive thinking was instrumental in inspiring his teams to achieve many amazing successes, often against the odds.

In conclusion, I hope everyone has fun and stays positive during this fall sports season. I know I’m looking forward to cheering for all of my son’s teams!

 

How Parents Can Dial Down the Pressure This School Year

In my last post, I talked about how our competitive, achievement-oriented culture is causing many young people to be overstressed, overscheduled, and burned out. This week, I want to discuss several ways in which parents can help make sure that the heat on the pressure cooker isn’t turned up damagingly high.

*First, realize you are doing damage. Even though it’s not what we parents intend, our high expectations put the most pressure of all on our children. A student who feels a few minutes’ chagrin at a teacher’s disappointment might beat herself up for days if Mom and Dad aren’t satisfied with her performance. Teens might act like they couldn’t care less about their parents, but the truth is that they do want to please us. In fact, some kids are experiencing symptoms ranging from stomachaches to severe depression due to the day-to-day stress they encounter at school and at home. So if, for instance, your daughter comes home with four As and one B, don’t ask, “What happened? Why did you get the B in this course?” Instead, focus on how great the As are. You’re still letting your child know that top marks are the goal—but you’re doing it in a much healthier and celebratory way than by being immediately disappointed over the one grade that was lacking.

*Accept that not all kids are the same. Resist the natural tendency to compare your own children to each other, to their classmates, and to your friends’ children. Never forget that kids develop at different rates, and that they also have different talents and abilities. No two children are ever going to be alike, and that’s a good thing! Our world needs variety and uniqueness. And trust me—your kids will be happy adults only if they too learn to love and be okay with themselves as they are and for who they are. So, I’m sorry if you wanted your son to follow in his older brother’s footsteps and be a straight-A student as well as a star athlete. If he is not so good at school and prefers the arts, you’d better love him for that just as well. Ultimately, the most important thing you can do to help your children is to love them for who they are.

*Be willing to let some things go. All parents struggle with striking a balance between holding their kids accountable and letting them get away with too much. Especially in today’s culture, it’s easy to err on the side of expecting too much, so take time to evaluate what expectations are actually realistic and what achievements are really important. For example, come to terms with the fact that your teen may never quite get up on time or make her bed before school. And realize that neither of those things is likely to ruin her life. Instead of getting caught up in making sure that every box is checked all of the time, try to keep the big picture in mind. Everyone will be much less stressed if you can resist the urge to micro-manage each and every task. So instead of fixating on little things that weren’t completed perfectly, focus on your children’s successes!

*Teach kids to be easier on themselves. In any given middle or high school, chances are that a majority of students tend to focus much more of their time brooding over the test they bombed than celebrating the one they aced. And as a result of magnifying what they perceive as failures, these young people reinforce in their minds just how “subpar” they think they are. If you suspect that your child has a tendency to beat himself up, help him to refocus the way he looks at life. Specifically, try to direct his attention to all of the things he does well instead of allowing him to fixate on his few slip-ups and shortcomings. The best way to teach this is to model such behavior. I think that everyone—not just young people—can benefit from showing ourselves more compassion and love. The bottom line is we’re all human—and thus fallible. So instead of demanding perfection from ourselves in every situation, we need to learn to cut ourselves a lot more slack.

*Discourage overscheduling. Between school, soccer practice, dance class, church, friends, family, community service, and more, it’s easy for kids to become overextended. In fact, many driven teens have trouble remembering the last weeknight (or weekend!) during which they had a significant amount of free time. It’s not unusual for young people to crack under the pressure of what can be sixteen (or more)-hour days, and parents often don’t recognize the strain until their children become physically affected. Outside of what’s required of them in school, encourage your kids to focus on activities that bring them the most joy. In the long run, developing their skills in a few things they’re good at will help them much more than trying to do a little of everything and burning out on all of it. If you see your teen starting to become overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to say no to the next time commitment request he or she makes.

*Get help if it is needed. You had your “bad” subjects in school, and chances are your child will too. If she is really giving this subject or class her all but is still too far below the mark, search for ways to get academic help. A tutor is certainly a good idea if you can find one who is affordable and qualified. You might also ask your child’s teacher if she can spend a little extra time with her or recommend someone who could give out-of-school help. Getting your child the help she needs can make a world of difference in her performance and boost her confidence. Even with a parent’s support, what a child perceives as a failure can have a big impact on her self-esteem.

*Promote exercise. This is extremely important! If your child is already involved in a sport or athletic activity, great! It will help him feel more relaxed and stronger, it will improve his sleep, and it’s also a great natural anti-depressant. If physical activity isn’t a big part of your teen’s life, encourage him to find a way to be active that he enjoys. As I have written in previous blogs, exercise is the single most important thing your child, you, or anyone else can do to become less stressed and happier right now. It’s a fantastic energizer, and it actually opens you up to future change by invigorating your mind and body. You might even consider making physical activity a family event! Go for a hike in the mountains, for a swim at the YMCA, or just go for a walk around the neighborhood. You’ll all benefit from the quality time together as well.

Whenever I’m faced with the difficult parental task of setting guidelines and expectations, a question I now ask myself is, What kind of future am I encouraging my son, Josh, to build for himself? It’s helpful for me to remember that even if my son does succeed at the highest level, go to a top college, earn all As, and make millions of dollars, he might not be happy. Instead, he might be overwhelmed by stress and experience a breakdown, as I did. That’s certainly not a future I want for Josh, and I’m sure you feel the same way about your children.

So throughout this school year and into the future, always remember that the ability to cultivate happiness and balance is one of the best possible ways to set your child up for success. Yes, performance and doing one’s best are important—but not at the price of your child’s well-being.

Back to School; Back to Stress

It’s that time of year again: Back-to-school time (even though your kids may be in denial!). And as school systems across the country open their doors for The First Day, concerned parents are already in the throes of planning ahead for their children’s success.

I need to start looking into hiring an algebra tutor for my son, because last year’s math grade didn’t cut it. Is it too early to sign my daughter up for SAT-prep classes? Will the soccer team’s practice schedule interfere with piano lessons? Should I try to meet with my children’s teachers before school starts? And so it goes.

Yes, of course any loving parent wants the best for his or her kids. The reason why we’re asking so much from our kids and from ourselves is that we want them to stand out, to succeed, and to achieve as much as they can. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that subjecting children to relentless academic and extracurricular pressure may be doing more harm than good. We may not only be pushing our children to excel—in many cases, we’re pushing them over the edge too.

That’s why I think it’s so important to look at this topic right now, as our kids are at the beginning of a new school year. In this week’s post I want to examine “the childhood pressure cooker” a bit more closely, and next week, I’ll share some strategies to help you turn down the heat in your own home.

Kids—especially teens—are under a lot of pressure. Consider this: Hours spent on homework and extracurricular activities are on the rise among all age groups. Increasingly, every block of time is scheduled and structured. And for many high schoolers especially, every minute of the day is devoted to school, studying, homework, and other “necessary” activities ranging from sports to service work—to the exclusion of free time and fun. These teens—and their parents—are grappling with a very real fear that they won’t have what it takes to be at the top of the class, to get into a “good school,” and ultimately, to be “successful in the real world.”

Often, that pressure is too much for them to handle. Across America, teens are burning out and making self-destructive decisions. There’s an epidemic of teens and even pre-teens suffering from anxiety and depression, cutting themselves, and using prescription medications just to get through their day-to-day lives. Also, kids are drinking to excess and doing drugs on the weekends in order to escape this incredible pressure, even if only for one night. Most worrying, suicide is the third-leading cause of death among teens. Sixty percent say they’ve thought about it, and 9 percent of high schoolers admit they’ve attempted it at least once.

Is this extreme pressure cooker environment worth it? Absolutely not! Even if all of the pushing and over-scheduling and stress get your child into a top college, there is still no guarantee that he or she will be on the fast track to professional success. And is the payoff really worth the sacrifice, which some kids later describe in terms of “being deprived of a childhood”? If we truly have our children’s well-being at heart, we need to face the fact that forcing them into a mold of perfection isn’t working. If we really want our kids to grow up to be capable, creative, and inspired problem solvers, we need to focus less on their scores and grades and more on their happiness.

The change needs to start at home. In my opinion, it’s not going to be the experts who lead the way on this one. Yes, they can share the results of their studies and offer informed advice. But ultimately, it will be ordinary people changing what we are doing in our homes to help our kids grow up into healthy, well-adjusted, and fulfilled young men and women. We as parents must be the ones to make sure that the push for success isn’t eclipsing happiness. We must be the ones who teach our children that being human means not being perfect at everything, all the time.

As I said earlier, in my next post I will offer some suggestions to help you make sure that living in this high-pressure achievement culture doesn’t have lasting negative effects on your children. Until then, think about where your family’s priorities lie, what your kids’ school-life balance looks like, and what might need to change.