Online While on Vacation? How (and Why) to Unplug

It’s summer, otherwise known as vacation season, and I have a few questions for you: How much of a vacation is your vacation, really? Do you unplug from your job? From social media? If so, to what extent?

I’m asking these questions because I’ve noticed that over the past decade or so, the mountains have become a pine-scented office. The beach has become “just” a gorgeous backdrop for selfies. Stand in line at a theme park, and you’ll probably notice that a majority of the people around you are absorbed in their smartphones.

I’m not knocking technology per se, but I am suggesting that we all examine its role in our vacations. Vacations are supposed to be breaks—from our jobs and from our usual routines. They allow us to relax, recharge, and spend a large quantity of quality time with our loved ones. They boost our creativity and energy, and reduce our stress. But the more our gadgets encroach, the less of those benefits we tend to reap. We’re less mindful, less present, and often, more connected to the things that cause us anxiety.

If you’d like to unplug on your next vacation but aren’t sure where to start, here are a few tips I’ve learned through experience:

Know that plugging in is a slippery slope. You may think, Well, I’ll just respond to this one email, or, I’m just going to play one quick game of Words with Friends. And the next thing you know, an hour or more of vacation time that you can’t get back has passed! Plus, once you make your digital presence known, others know that you’re available, and it will be that much harder to shut down your work email or log off of Twitter. So think twice (and maybe a third time) before opening your laptop.

Talk to your boss beforehand. America is a work-oriented culture, and thanks to computers and smartphones, many of us are used to taking work home with us. Often, the compulsion to be available by email and to check in with coworkers extends to vacation time, too. That’s why I recommend talking with your boss about what his or her expectations are before you hit the road. Ask questions like: Do you expect me to check my work email? If so, how often? If I don’t receive a call from the office, can I assume that all is well? Are there any projects I can work ahead on to make sure that I won’t need to clock in on vacation? If you’re clear on what’s expected, you’ll be less likely to plug in out of paranoia, worry, or guilt.

Set some ground rules. I know that for many people, completely unplugging for days at a time simply isn’t going to happen. And that’s fine—just remember, all things in moderation! Whether you need to check your work email or enjoy scrolling through the latest Instagram updates, talk to the friends and/or family members with whom you’ll be vacationing and set up some ground rules. For instance, you might agree that mealtimes are to be totally screen-free. You might ask your spouse to gently remind you to put your phone away if you’ve been on it for more than 15 minutes. You may even want to set up designated screen times—maybe half an hour after dinner—that everyone adheres to.

Create barriers. What I mean is, make it more difficult to immerse yourself in your device (which, let’s face it, often happens on autopilot!). For instance, some phones allow you to configure their settings so that data isn’t used for specific functions or apps: email, social media, etc. While it’s true that these settings can be easily reversed, the fact that your Facebook feed doesn’t immediately appear may be enough to remind you of your intent to unplug. And if you feel you need to get more extreme, give your phone or laptop to someone else for safekeeping when it isn’t a designated screen time!

Bring other distractions. Often, our laptops and smartphones are sources of entertainment. To prevent yourself from pulling up YouTube every time you feel bored, pack a book, a board game, a sketchbook, a football, a Frisbee, your knitting—or whatever floats your boat!

Realize that your kids will base their habits and priorities on yours. There is a strong likelihood that your children will grow up to be like you. After all, they learn what’s normal, what’s right, and what’s valued by watching their parents. When it comes to influencing your children, your actions definitely speak louder than your words—so while your family is on vacation, be sure you’re not “telling” them that work is more important than family, balance, or happiness.

Yes, in a technology-dominated world, it can be difficult to step away from the gadgets and simply enjoy the here and now. But at no time is it more important to strike a healthy balance than when you’re on vacation. Remember, if you set reasonable rules and boundaries, you can still enjoy technology while not allowing it to take over your time off. And who knows? As the days pass, you might even find that your fingers itch less and less to pick up your phone.

Curing the End-of-Summer Blues

In most areas of the country, the school year will start soon. The red, white, and blue celebrations of the Fourth of July are over a month behind us. Most swimming pools close on Labor Day. What’s my point? Simply this: While the calendar says that summer lasts through September 21st, for all practical intents and purposes, it’s already more than halfway over.

At this point in the season, many people start feeling small flutterings of anxiety. They’re dismayed when they anticipate darker days and colder temperatures. They dread the quickened pace that usually accompanies autumn. (Goodbye, vacations and lazy summer days!) And the thought of the fast-approaching back-to-school hullabaloo is enough to make most parents want to lock themselves in a closet.

I certainly understand the bittersweet feelings that accompany the last weeks of summer, but what a shame it is that we allow anxiety and dread to suck the enjoyment out of this time of year! Maybe one of these scenarios sounds familiar:

  • You obsessively count the number of weekends left until Labor Day. “Only four more relaxing Saturdays spent basking by the pool!”
  • When you’re not making a mental list of new school clothes and supplies you’ll need to buy for your kids (and tallying up how much all of it will cost), you worry about how hectic your family’s schedule will be once school, soccer practice, karate, Girl Scouts, and piano lessons start up once more.
  • Whenever you look at a calendar, you bemoan the fact that you won’t have another vacation until Thanksgiving.

One of the most important things I’ve learned in my quest to find happiness is the importance of living in the present, and I think that’s especially important to remind ourselves of as we head further into August. I urge you to make the choice to engage fully with each day and get the most out of what remains of summer 2013. Here are some suggestions:

  • Instead of allowing everyone to flop in front of the TV on the weekends, round up the kids and go for a hike.
  • Focus on how nice the warm sun and cool water feel on your skin the next time you’re at the pool.
  • Invite the neighbors over and fire up the grill.
  • After the kids are in bed, take a few glasses of wine out on the porch and watch the stars come out with your spouse.
  • Grab some extra change the next time you hear an ice cream truck coming down your street and indulge in a sweet treat.
  • Instead of rushing through the grocery store, plan ahead and spend a Saturday morning at a local farmer’s market with your family.

You get my drift! The point is to enjoy the moment and savor all of the good things that summer still has to offer, instead of spending your time ruminating on what you aren’t looking forward to this fall.

In a very important way, spending the last few weeks of summer in a state of dread is representative of how many of us live our lives. We miss out on so many potentially happy moments and ignore so many blessings because we’re constantly focused on negative aspects of the future. If you recognize this tendency in yourself, I encourage you to read my blog post on the importance of living in the present from December 2011. In it, I talk about this topic in a little more detail and offer some advice to help you stop worrying about the future and ruminating on the past.

For now, here’s a quick and easy tactic you can use as summer draws to a close…and throughout the year: Whenever you find yourself dreading something that’s going to happen, pause a moment and identify one thing in the here and now for which you’re thankful. Tapping into the power of gratitude will refocus your attention and brighten your mood.

Here’s to a wonderful end to the summer!

 

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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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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.