Making the Most of This Quarantined Spring Break

Family Time

“You will never look back on life and think, ‘I spent too much time with my kids.’” ~Unknown

A good friend of mine recently posted a darling picture of her family–toddler and all–hiking along a trail in the foothills of Utah. She said their family had a goal in 2020 to spend 1,000 hours outside. You read that right, one thousand hours spent outdoors. I love that idea so much! She found what helps her family connect and they have made a goal to do more (lots more) of it this year. Since Spring Break is nigh upon us, I want to talk about ways to connect with your family and create meaningful memories together, even with everything that is happening in the world right now!

Let’s first define connection so we all know what we are working towards. Connection in relationships means closeness, mutual trust, empathy, respect, loyalty, and love. This connection is what enables any relationship to continue on and deepen. When you feel connected or close to someone, you know you can rely on one another, and the relationship is meaningful. Connection is not a one-time occurrence; rather, it is a continual connection that strengthens any relationship.

What relationships could be more important than those you have with your family?  What can you do to connect with your family members this spring break? Here are some steps to ensure you spend quality time and create beautiful memories together:

  1. Be present. It is impossible to have connection if you are distracted or multi-tasking. Put down your phone. Turn off the TV. Hide the iPad. You and I live in a world filled with any and every distraction imaginable; yet all your children truly want is to be seen, heard, and noticed. They want your time and attention.  They want YOU. You are your child’s role model, best friend, biggest fan, and hero. You may unintentionally make your children feel like second best if your texts or Instagram take priority over what your children have to say or show you. So start connecting with those who truly matter to you by first disconnecting from what does really not matter.
  2. Explore hobbies. My friend’s family found a common hobby: they all enjoy spending time outside hiking. Maybe your family enjoys family bike rides. Or going to the park. Or grilling up delicious kebabs. Some families love playing board games, making cookies, doing chalk art, going on walks, reading together, watching movies, upping the ante a bit and making movies (aka filming, editing and whatnot; it is quite the creative process!); playing with legos, going on a drive, exercising together, playing sports, going swimming, traveling, etc. There are infinite possibilities for ways your family can spend time together. If you are unsure about what your family likes doing together, you can take turns trying someone else’s hobby! For example, if Gramma enjoys watercolor painting, perhaps you could try that activity as a family. If Dad likes bird watching, the family can try that together. Find a family hobby and do it this spring break!
  3. Make life skills fun. You can teach your children important and helpful skills and also have fun together. Give each child a chance to pick the menu for a meal and do the whole process together: come up with ideas, make the list, buy the food, prepare the meal, then sit down and eat together. Or you could spend time working together in the yard; maybe that spot you clear weeds out of is where you sleep or star gaze together one night? Declutter your home. Spring cleaning can be fun; help your children appreciate that fresh feeling that comes from deep cleaning! Wash the car and have a water fight. Have a competition picking up litter off the beach or in your neighborhood. Doing these types of activities together is simultaneously instructive and fun. Surely a great use of your time!
  4. Make a family bucket list. It is relatively early in the year; you still have time to seize 2020! What are some things you want to see, do, learn, or experience as a family? My friend made a goal to spend 1,000 hours outside. A great bucket list goal! Another friend has several family bucket list items for 2020: Making it to Redwood National Forest, visiting Four Corners Monument, going camping several times, taking the family fishing, learning to make ebelskivers, and painting and organizing the garage. A family bucket list does not mean that every item has to be expensive or time-consuming. Tailor your bucket list to your financial situation and interests as a family, and then make it happen! 

Spring break only comes but once a year. Make the most of it by connecting and making memories as a family! Be present, participate in fun hobbies, learn life skills, and make a family bucket list. Spring break will fly by, and you will be left with beautiful memories and a fun bucket list to keep you busy the rest of the year. Happy spring break!

Best,

Melissa

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Understanding Your Child’s Love Language

Love Languages

“It’s not enough to love your kids. You have to know how to communicate love to a child so that he genuinely feels loved.” ~ Dr. Chapman

Dr. Laura Markham, founder of “Aha! Parenting,” clinical psychologist, and mother says, “The kids who thrive are the ones who feel loved, accepted and cherished for exactly who they are.” One of the most important things you can do for your child–if not the most important–is consistently show genuine love. I am a believer in Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages. I have written about them at length in the context of adult relationships, but they also apply to the way children receive love from their parents and caregivers. Today, I want to put a new spin on it, though; I have never before talked about how to understand and apply the Love Languages with your littles. Though there are slight differences in the Love Languages between adults and children, the basics remain the same. Read on to know how to identify your child’s Love Language, as well as ideas for how to speak it, and pitfalls to avoid. 

TOUCH

“Mama, come snuggle me.”

If your child is constantly in your space, touching you, trying to sit on your lap, or playing with your hair, there’s your signal that he/she thrives on physical touch. Some children do not like hugging or snuggling; do not make the mistake of thinking all kids crave physical touch! While children in general enjoy being physically close to their parents, it is much more pronounced in children with this Love Language.

Here are some ideas to speak this love language: Snuggle on the couch. Let your child sit on your lap. Offer foot massages. Give high fives. Hold hands. Make a secret handshake (one mother squeezes her daughter’s hand three times to nonverbally say, “I love you”). Wrestle or try other sports that require jostling. 

Warning: Spanking or hitting any child is damaging in any and all cases, but it is particularly so to those children whose primary Love Language is physical touch. Also, according to Dr. Markham, research has shown that dads grow increasingly less physically affectionate as their daughters develop; she suggests making a habit of good-morning and good-night hugs, so it is already in place as kids get older.

GIFTS

“Daddy, will you get me a toy?”

For those children whose Love Language is gifts, they see a present as a symbol of your love. They love when you give them things. Children with this love language tend to care about how a present is wrapped. They often remember who gave them what for months or years after the fact. They also may have trouble throwing out things they have been given, even if they hardly use them. Now, before you freak out thinking your child is materialistic or that you are going to go broke buying all the things, let me talk you off that cliff. 

Here are some ideas to speak this love language: You do not need to buy a million toys to let your child know you love him/her. A gift can be anything from a very smooth stone to a ball of yarn in her favorite color. You could leave an origami creation on your child’s chair or a wildflower on her pillow. One grown woman with this love language said, “Every year since I left for college, my mom has mailed me leaves from Wisconsin so I can enjoy a bit of fall from home while living in California.”  Stickers and star charts are also concrete ways of making these children feel valued, says Parents advisor Harvey Karp, M.D., creator of the DVD and book The Happiest Baby on the Block. Low-cost options, people.

Warning: Avoid accumulating meaningless things. Give gifts that bear some meaning or are special to your child for some reason. Also, try to give gifts that are age-appropriate (for example, give your three year-old something that will stimulate her brain and encourage her to develop creativity, etc). When you are on the receiving end, be sure to make a big deal of any gifts your child gives you by hanging artwork or creating a “precious things” table for those tender presents from your youngster.

WORDS

“Mama, listen to me!”

These are the kids who listen intently and speak sweetly. They beam whenever you praise them, always have something to tell you about, and live for your loving words in return. For these children, it is not just what you say, but how you say it. They know when you are distracted or halfhearted, and it deflates them to the core.

Here are some ideas to speak this love language: 

Leave little notes in their lunch box, send texts, or even give a bracelet with something like “my hero” printed on it. Generously praise your child and let them know you see the good in them. One mother, Auburn Daily, will get down on her toddler’s level, stare into her eyes, and say, “You are the best thing in my life. You are so important to me.” Dr. Karp suggests telling a stuffed animal or anyone who will listen about something your kid did well, since research shows we all believe more of what we overhear than what is told directly to us.

Warning:  Regardless of who you are, insults cut deep. Try not to make blanket statements about these children being “bad listeners,” “bad sharers,” or anything of the like. Also, Dr. Chapman says it is particularly important for these children to hear the words “I love you” standing alone, rather than, “I love you, but …” 

SERVICE

“Mama, can you put my shoes on?”

These children may beg you to tie their shoes for them, fix a broken toy, or fluff their pillow. They like having your help–even with things they are capable of doing on their own. While it may feel like servitude to you, it is the deepest expression of love to these children!

Here are some ideas to speak this love language: One mother reports that helping her daughter get dressed in the morning is one way of doing this. Another mother says her son exclaims, “Tank you, mama, das so nice of you!” anytime she serves him food. Basic things like that show your children you love them. You can also go above and beyond by doing things like warming their clothes in the dryer on a cold morning, helping them clean up their room, or getting a stain out of a favorite shirt. 

Warning: Parents of these kids often end up feeling like servants. Obviously you want to encourage self-reliance and obedience to household rules, so picking up after your child over time may prove to be a hindrance. As with all children, it is important to encourage self-reliance and expect them to do what they can for themselves at each stage of development. The best act of service you can provide is walking your child through a new process and teaching him, step-by-step, how to be more capable.

TIME

“Daddy, come read me a story!”

These children feel most valued when you choose to spend time with them. A child who often says, “Watch this!” or, “Play with me,” is begging for quality time. Dr. Chapman’s own daughter would say, “Daddy, come to my room! I want to show you something.” They spell love t-i-m-e. 

Here are some ideas to speak this love language:  For these kids, time can be spent together doing anything. Reading books, building a tower, wrestling, snuggling, watching a movie, baking, eating, swinging, etc. All they want is you….and your undivided attention. This does not mean that you need to scrap your to-do list in order to show your children your love; instead dedicate blocks of time to your child. Dr. Markham calls this “special time,” and says it can be short, but let your child choose the activity, and be fully present the whole time. 

Warning: If your child’s love language is quality time, banishing him or her away for time out in isolation is the severest of punishments. If you have done “special time” but your child still seems to be craving your attention, try having him/her play at your side while you read or work. 

Can you see the 5 Love Languages through the eyes of your child? As you pay attention to what your child asks for, you will pinpoint his/her love language. If you are still struggling to figure out what your child’s language is, take this quiz. And remember that love languages can morph and change over time. As you embark on this journey to understand and speak your child’s language, they will feel your love, and your connection with them will grow. As always, should you find that you need help, please do not hesitate to contact me!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

References:

The Good, the Bad, and Motherhood

Guest blogger, Karlin Davison, writes a personal account on her experiences with new motherhood.

When I started writing this, I was sitting on a plane headed for Idaho with a lively, almost-one-year-old, baby boy that was supposed to sleep at least 2 hours but woke up after only 45 minutes. This was not his first flight, but it was our first without my husband to help keep us both calm and entertained. Was I panicking? No. Actually, I stayed very calm the whole time. This realization, 11 long months into this journey called motherhood, felt like a miracle.

I am the oldest of 6 children, and number 6 of 41 grandchildren to my maternal grandparents. I spent countless hours of my adolescent life begrudgingly babysitting my siblings and cousins; taking care of babies was not a new concept to me. As much as I hated it growing up, I have always loved children and especially babies. As an adult I was grateful for those experiences and I thought that it would serve me well when I decided to start my own family. I had dealt with some anxiety as a teenager and adult, but nothing that had ever stopped me from living my life. I was 24 years old when my husband graduated with a bachelor’s degree and we moved to Texas. Soon after that I experienced some more serious anxiety and even saw a therapist a few times, but I wasn’t prescribed any medication and it was resolved fairly quickly.

Our baby was carefully planned for and wanted, but I was still a little leery when we found out we were pregnant. I had always dreamt of a big family, but after 5 years of marriage I was so happy just spending time with my husband and doing all the things that I knew would be much harder once we had children. The day our son was born was a joyful day, but it was also exhausting and a little scary. When they finally placed him in my arms after 2.5 hours of pushing, I knew I loved him, but I was not overwhelmed by the kind of love it seemed many of my friends and every mom on social media had described. As soon as we moved out of the delivery room and the nurses started teaching me to breastfeed, the anxiety set in. The first 24 hours were such a blur with nurses coming in and out, a baby boy we were busy getting to know, and trying to catch up on sleep. When the doctor came in and said that our sweet little guy had jaundice, would need to stay another night, and be tested again in the morning I felt my anxiety get stronger. I had a hard time eating or sleeping, and it felt like every hour we were stuck there at the hospital those anxious feelings got even stronger. We ended up having to stay 4 nights in the hospital before the doctors were comfortable sending us home. I felt much better when we finally got home, and I was sure that everything was going to be great from that point on. 

It only took a few days for me to realize that my anxiety was still there and getting worse. There were days when the hair on the back of my neck would be standing on end all day. I would feel out of breath and panicky like I was about to have a panic attack, except that the attack itself would not come; I would just sit right on the edge of it all day until my husband got home. If I was around someone who was pregnant or had more than one child, it was all I could do to not get sick. I was so obsessed with keeping our apartment clean that I couldn’t rest or sleep when the baby was sleeping. I didn’t know how to answer when people asked how we were doing. I am not a good liar, but I also didn’t want to unload my heavy burden onto their unsuspecting shoulders. Every time a well-meaning friend asked if we were getting any sleep, I just wanted to slap the look of concern off their face. I was constantly checking on my baby to make sure he was breathing, but I would also think that if he wasn’t breathing then maybe my life would go back to normal and I wouldn’t have to feel like this anymore. 

The first time I experienced what I would later learn were passive suicidal thoughts, we were staying at my in-law’s house for the weekend and I was sitting up in bed at 2:00am trying to comfort a crying four-week-old baby while my husband slept soundly next to me. I had already fed, burped, and changed him but he just wasn’t having it. I sat there with tears streaming down my face, trying not to punch my husband, and contemplating jumping out the window and running away. My in-laws live in the middle of nowhere though, so it would have taken me too long to find a bus or airport to actually take me somewhere far away. I then found myself pondering other possible scenarios that involved me getting out of the situation. I’m not sure how much time passed before I caught myself, terrified, and thought “am I suicidal?” I had no idea what to think. All I knew was that I was miserable and having a baby wasn’t supposed to be this hard. On top of the anxiety, I was angry. I felt like I had been lied to by all my friends, family, and anyone who had ever said that having a family was a good decision. I was so intensely angry, even though I am a woman – whose body was designed to bear children, that this was all so incredibly difficult and exhausting.

When our son was six weeks old, we took our first trip as a family of three to Idaho to introduce him to my extended family. I was a basket-case on the plane, of course, but we made it. I had hoped that being home in Idaho around my family would help me feel better, but it didn’t. Feeling like I had to put on a smile for everyone just made me feel worse. We happened to be there over Mother’s Day, and I remember laying on my bed in the dark scrolling and scrolling through Instagram in tears as I read all of the sunshine-and-rainbow stories about motherhood. I couldn’t understand how these women were so happy and I hated that I couldn’t feel the same way. I had been pretty open with my ever-so-patient and loving husband about how I was feeling, but it was on this trip that he finally convinced me to call my doctor. My doctor and her nurses talked to me and called in a prescription for me to pick up the next day. When I got in the car alone to drive to the pharmacy, I kept thinking about how easy it would be to just run the next red light and hope someone ran into me. 

When we got back to Texas two weeks later, I had a follow up with my doctor and she referred me to a therapist who works specifically with women experiencing depression and anxiety symptoms related to pregnancy and the postpartum period. Just walking through her door, with the knowledge that I was taking the first step forward for myself, made me feel a tiny bit better. Ladies…that funny, sweet, knowledgeable therapist was amazing! I learned that I was indeed experiencing postpartum anxiety, and that things were going to get better. We talked through the anger I was feeling about motherhood being so incredibly difficult. I learned that I was never expected to do this alone and that I needed to let more people in. I learned that yes, despite it being so difficult, my body and mind were made for this. She taught me that I am capable of getting through the dark days and finding joy. I learned that the intrusive thoughts and passive suicidal thoughts I was having were actually very common and that they did not make me a suicidal person. She taught me to say the words out loud and not let those scary thoughts stay a dirty secret in the back of my mind. By some miracle I never felt guilty about my feelings, or lack thereof, toward my son. I did, however, feel like I owed more to my husband. We had made the decision to start a family together after all, and I felt terribly guilty that I wasn’t holding up my end of bargain. Over time I learned to forgive myself and actually believe my husband when he told me that he still loved me, he was proud of me, and that he knew I was a good mother. 

 Despite hoping that there would be a magical quick fix, my son was 4 months old before I started to see a tiny window of light at the end of the tunnel. But that light was definitely there, and I kept walking toward it. I took a few more baby steps forward and he was 5 months when I could honestly say the words “We are okay!” and mean it. I cannot not express how amazing it felt when I realized that I really was okay, and could see that it was possible for me to feel good in the future. With all of the patience and love my husband and therapist had to offer, I kept walking forward and the baby steps turned into normal steps. As I kept walking forward, I felt better about myself and my love for my son grew too. I stopped wondering where the guns were, I stopped hoping I’d get in a car accident, and I stopped wondering whether it would really be a bad thing if my baby stopped breathing. My son was 7 months old when I started to truly, deeply enjoy my baby and the new life we were building together.

Now, 11 months in, I am so madly in love and obsessed with our son! He has sparkly blue eyes and a beautiful toothy-but-gummy-at-the-same-time smile. I love the way his tiny hands feel in mine, and the way he dances when he is excited about something. My favorite time to kiss him is right after a nap and his cheeks feel like hot buttered rolls. He is the sweetest joy and I can’t imagine life without him. I have grown and changed, alongside my son, in ways I didn’t even know I was capable of. I am so incredibly grateful that we made the decision to start a family. I am even more grateful for the people in my life who were so kind and patient and helped me through it all, especially my nearly-perfect husband. A couple days after we returned from our most recent trip to Idaho, I took my son with me to the grocery store. Luckily, he was still snoozing away as we made our way to the checkout counter. Another mom, wrangling a wiggly 3-year-old in one arm and groceries in the other, got there the same time we did. I told her to go ahead of me but she replied, “No you go, you’re on a nap schedule!” It went without saying that we both were just trying to work through our to do list and get on our way. I wasn’t embarrassed or uncomfortable that someone was taking pity on me, but glad that we understood each other. She knew what it was like to be in my shoes. At that moment I finally realized that being in the mom club isn’t so bad, it’s actually pretty cool and I am happy to count myself a member. 

While I was pregnant, countless people said to me “motherhood is hard, but it’s so worth it!” At the time I was so annoyed and sick of hearing those words, I just wanted them to shut up and let me experience it for myself. Since then I have wished many, MANY times that someone had at least tried to explain to me how hard becoming a mother actually is. I’m not one to sugar-coat things and I have been fairly open about my healing process, but when I was invited to write this piece, I knew that I had a story to tell. I want to be honest in the way that I wish others had been honest with me. Having babies is hard. All caps, bold font, H-A-R-D. It is nearly impossible to do alone, but there is light and happiness at the end of that impossibly dark and terrifying tunnel. There is hope. Things will absolutely get better. I know that you have probably already heard too many people tell you that “You are doing better than you think you are.” Well, as I finish writing my story, I am realizing that those words are absolutely true. I have come so far since the day my son was born. I am giving myself a pat on the back, a gold star on my forehead.  I am doing much better than I thought I was, and SO ARE YOU!

Karlin Davison is a country girl from Idaho who fell in love with city life while living in Hong Kong. She is an accomplished hairstylist complete with a pink pixie cut she’s been wearing with confidence since 2017.  Karlin and her husband, Preston, live in East Dallas with their 11-month-old son, Beckett.

A Guide to Thriving in the Holiday Season Single

During the holidays, single individuals have the unique opportunity to take up new traditions, cultivate a sense of home and celebrate the relationships that they do have.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! This month is full of dinners, parties, events, service, and gatherings.  Because the holiday season is very couple- and family-oriented, it is incredibly easy for those who are single to feel down and lonely. I want to share some ideas for how you can make the holidays truly wonderful even if you do not have a significant other. 

Instead of focusing on your loneliness (which is easy to do), try viewing your singleness as a gift this holiday season. As a fellow single person, I believe that during the holidays, we have the unique opportunity to take up new traditions, cultivate a sense of home and celebrate the relationships we do have. I have compiled a list of several practical ways to get started!

  1. Holiday dates. Sure, dating is hard, but there are so many fun activities you can do around the holiday season. Instead of shying away from dating this time of year, take advantage of it! Ask a friend, or someone you have had your eye on, on a fun, low pressure date. Nutcracker and cocoa? Sign me up!
  2. Volunteer. There are a million opportunities to give around the holidays. I encourage you to serve at a soup kitchen, participate in a food drive, volunteer at an animal shelter, be a part of Sub-for-Santa, or do whatever you enjoy to make someone else’s season better. Giving heals the soul and will certainly invite the spirit of Christmas into your life.
  3. Organize your space. There is nothing better than starting the new year feeling organized and less cluttered. Make your living space somewhere you want to be by cleaning and making it homey. You can also do some good by donating things you do not need to a local charity (or selling them to make a few extra bucks).
  4. “TREAT YO’SELF.” Tom Haverford from Parks and Rec would tell you to buy yourself that gift you have been eyeballing. Schedule a spa day. Pamper yourself with a nice massage, manipedi, facial, whatever will loosen you up. Treat yo’self!
  5. Take a solo trip. If you can swing it financially, think about doing some traveling by yourself. No need to plan a huge, expensive excursion; consider exploring a new city — even if it is just for a night or two. 
  6. Hand make/bake presents. If you have several people you need a gift for, consider getting creative and making something. Creativity is a healthy outlet and also a form of self-care. Plus who would not want a tiny loaf of your homemade zucchini bread?!
  7. Create your own traditions. You do not have to wait until you have a significant other to start a tradition. You can start practices that bring joy to your life, no matter your relationship status. Buy a Christmas tree for your apartment, host an annual holiday movie night, volunteer at a local homeless shelter… the options are endless! One of my favorite things is to simply turn off all my lights,  turn on my Christmas tree lights, and curl up under my Sherpa blanket at the end of a long day and watch a holiday movie. 
  8. Embrace spending time alone. Learning to enjoy being alone is a journey. And although the holiday season can be a lonely one, it is also a great time to reflect on yourself. With extra time off during the winter, you have an excellent opportunity to spend time with yourself, pursue your passions, and make goals. Take time to be introspective; you may find it helpful to journal and reflect on the highs and the lows of the year, and what you want the next year to look like! 
  9. Remember that there’s nothing wrong with being single. Everyone spends time being single. It is a natural stage of life, and some are in this stage longer than others. If you are feeling discouraged and are tempted to stay home, I urge you to be brave enough to go into spaces where you might be the odd one out. Try to embrace your stage of life without feeling jealous or bitter. You can desire the kind of relationship that someone else has without letting that desire drive you to bitterness. 
  10. Focus outward. Ask yourself, how can I make this holiday better for others? It sounds really basic, but I have discovered that focusing on other people’s happiness makes me much less concerned with my own. It is nearly impossible to feel bad about myself when I am taking care of others. 

Regardless of whether you are single because you have broken off a long-term partnership or have been single your whole life, I hope that these tips encourage you to view your singleness not as an inconvenience, but as a blessing–full of beauty and opportunities for growth.  Make the most of what remains this holiday season by volunteering, taking care of yourself, creating your own traditions, and spending time with loved ones. You do not need a significant other to have the best holidays ever. Happiest holidays to you and yours!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

References:

Dealing With Passive-Aggression in a Relationship: A Guide to Survive

All of us have at least one passive-aggressive person in our life. Maybe it is your picky mother-in-law, or your demanding boss, or even your overly sarcastic partner. You may be surprised to learn from reading this post that even you have moments of passive aggression. Take heart; you can learn to avoid those tendencies in yourself as well as deal with passive-aggression from the people in your life. Here’s how.

Passive aggressive behavior is when someone says or does something that on the surface seems innocuous, or even kind, but there is a hidden motive that is negative. Passive-aggressive people may blame others, feel resentful, resist suggestions, and avoid responsibility.  They struggle to communicate their feelings and needs. The passive-aggressive person represses his or her anger and is unaware of the hostility he or she may feel or conveys. Passive-aggressive people feel misunderstood, are sensitive to criticism, and drive others crazy.  The passive-aggressive partner is often difficult to be around; sulking, backhanded compliments, procrastination, withdrawal, and refusal to communicate are a few of the most common signs you may observe.

Okay, so you have identified someone in your life as someone who can be passive aggressive at times. Now what? Here are some tips (although the majority of these are directed toward partners, they can be applied to any and all relationships with someone acting passive-aggressive, including yourself):

  1. Stay calm. It can be difficult, but work to not react to your passive-aggressive partner.  Remain calm, notice what your partner is doing, recognize your anger triggers, and be proactive to avoid falling into a pattern of expecting something that never happens.
  2. Mind your words. When you nag, scold, or get angry, you escalate conflict and give your partner more excuses and ammunition to deny responsibility. You also step into the role of parent – the very one your partner is rebelling against. Do not be vague, drop hints, blame, or allow yourself to pay-back (for these are also passive-aggressive behaviors). Be careful to not label your partner as “passive-aggressive,” instead tell them what behaviors make it hard for you to connect with them. .
  3. Be direct. The best way to deal with a passive-aggressive partner is to actively assert your own needs and feelings in a clear way. Be factual, state your feelings clearly, use “I” statements, avoid emotional words.  
  4. Do not enable.  When you fail to hold a passive-aggressive person accountable for their actions, you unintentionally perpetuate their behavior. The remedy here is to hold your partner accountable for his/her actions. Help them follow-through. 
  5. Apologies are not pretzels. Meaning you do not need to hand them out freely. If your boss drops a passive-aggressive comment about you leaving at 5:30, instead of apologizing (unnecessarily) and giving a reason, keep your apology to yourself and ask if you are needed to stay late. 
  6. Speak up. This step will be hard for the  people-pleasers out there. At times, self-preservation from a passive-aggressive individual will require you to speak up. Instead of letting the passive-aggressive person in your life dictate when you have a dinner party, for example, you decide when the party works best for you. If the time you choose is inconvenient for the passive-aggressive acquaintance, encourage them to let you know their needs and their alternative solution; do not do it for them or stay silent yourself.
  7. Control your part. The only person you can control is yourself, so do not take it upon yourself to cure this passive-aggressive person you know.  Manage your own life and avoid getting manipulated. If you find it hard to spend great lengths of time with this person, limit your contact. Practice self-care and surround yourself with people who lift you up and bring light to your life. 

One important disclaimer: It is important to understand that more often than not, the person who is being passive-aggressive is doing so unconsciously; they are unaware that they are being manipulative and unkind. There are, of course, others who are purposefully passive-aggressive, and they are more commonly referred to as manipulative.

If you are a victim of passive-aggressive behavior, you are likely left feeling hurt, confused, wronged, unappreciated, unimportant, and maybe even guilty for feeling that way. If this is you, I advise you to put the steps above into action. Take care of yourself. If it is possible to have a direct conversation with the person affecting you, do so. And if you need professional assistance, please remember that my door is always open. While you may feel like you have no power to change things, stay calm and remember that you can speak up and not enable their behavior. You do not have to be a victim of passive-aggression anymore.   

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

References:

Teaching Your Little Ones The Art of Gratitude

“Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.” ~ William Arthur Ward

Thanksgiving (and the month of November in general) is a great time to focus on gratitude. The added emphasis on being “blessed” certainly inspires all of us to consider our bounty and offer thanks. It is a time of gratitude lists, service, and gifts. I want to focus on how you can get your children involved and inspire gratitude in their hearts!

By age two or three, children are able to talk about being thankful for specific objects, pets, and people. By age four, children are able to understand the concept of being thankful for immaterial things like acts of kindness, love, and caring. Regardless of how old your children are, you can always teach age-appropriate gratitude! The following are ideas you can implement around the holiday season and throughout the year to foster an attitude of gratitude:

  1. Say please and thank you. Our manners show that we do not believe we are entitled to anything and that we are grateful for the kindness of others.
  2. Help someone less fortunate. This could be your neighbor down the street, grandma, or someone you know who is in a tough spot. I have fond childhood memories of taking meals or gifts to members of my church who needed help. 
  3. Model the adage “Tis’ better to give than to receive.” Take young children holiday shopping at the dollar store and challenge them to pick out gifts for others without buying something for themselves. Or go the DIY route and make something; even toddlers can buy or make gifts for others!
  4. Volunteer service or donate to a nonprofit. Nonprofits serve people in need and at this time of the year they are always looking for volunteers, basic necessities, meals and gifts to give to those in need. Help out at a homeless shelter, soup kitchen or non-profit. 
  5. Send out thank you cards or a letter. Express your gratitude for those who have served your or added value to your life. Encourage your children to write a letter to someone who has touched his life in some way or who has given them something. I highly recommend keeping thank you notes on hand and using them frequently!
  6. Intentionally look for awe-inspiring moments in your day. If the sunset is particularly beautiful, comment on it. If the sound of the baby’s laughter warms your heart, tell your children. Encourage them to look for their awe-inspiring moments and share them with you.
  7. Share your gratitude. There are a million different ways to do this; you can take five minutes at bedtime by asking your children what they are thankful for that day. You can go around the dinner table and allow each family member a chance to vocalize their gratitude. You can keep shared or personal gratitude journals. You can create a family gratitude list and post it somewhere visible. You can create a gratitude jar and share each entry at the end of the month. I even saw one idea of gratitude trees–where little leaves are written on with things the family is grateful for, and then hung from the twigs of a branch found outside. (This doubles as decór so win-win!)
  8. Compliment others. I heard a wise woman once say that withholding a compliment is prideful, so model sincere compliments. If you think it, say it! Share the things you appreciate about another person. Encourage your children to do the same. 
  9. Look for the positive. It is human nature to see the glass half-empty from time to time, and children are no exception.  Try to look for the silver lining; find something positive in frustrating situations and discuss it. When kids complain or gripe, it can be helpful to try to find a response that looks on the bright(er) side. It’s called an “attitude of gratitude” for a reason — it’s about perspective more than circumstance. 
  10. Take gratitude walks. While you walk, look for the simple pleasures in the day, such as the warm sun or the birds singing and express appreciation for them. Use this time to ask your kids what they are grateful for.
  11. Work through envy. Help your child work through any feelings of jealousy she may have. Envy can come when we are not feeling thankful for what we have, and are focusing instead on what others have. Easy access to social media surely contributes to feelings of jealousy and comparison!
  12. Have them pitch in when they want something.  When children take the time to save up and take ownership in a purchase, they gain an understanding of the value of a dollar by working toward what they want. It also teaches restraint and encourages them to appreciate what they have.
  13. Make time for chores: Most children have about four hours between the time they get home from school and bedtime where they need to fit in homework, extracurricular activities, dinner, bath, and bedtime. Without chores, children do not understand what it takes to run a household–they will take clean laundry and dishes for granted. So find age-appropriate chores for your children. Consider leaving time-intensive chores for the weekend, but allow your children to be grateful for the blessing of clean dishes or warm meals enjoyed in your home. 
  14. Let big kids take care of little kids: Surely you did not understand all the work that came with children until you had your own. If older children have responsibilities for their younger siblings, it fosters an attitude of gratitude towards you, their parents. Pair up big kids with little kids to get chores done or get through homework. 
  15. Talk about your ancestors: What are your family stories of hardship and perseverance? My grandmother lived in the depression and to this day she reuses her plastic baggies and counts her pennies. I remember hearing stories of this amazing woman and feeling so grateful for the box of endless ziplocs. It really is the little things! (If you are not sure of your past, you can take a family trip to the history museum, a battlefield, or other historic site. You will return home grateful!)

Studies have shown that kids who practice grateful thinking have more positive attitudes toward school and family. Being grateful benefits adults and children alike on a very basic level and can increase happiness levels by around 25 percent! It can help you live a happier, more satisfied life and with increased levels of self-esteem, hope, empathy and optimism. It also grants perspective to what really matters and improves relationships. There is no downside to gratitude!

Now it is my turn to be grateful: I am grateful for my health, my family, and a career I love. I am grateful for you, my faithful readers, and for such wonderful clients who trust me with the deepest, most vulnerable and beautiful parts of their lives. I am thankful I am allowed to live the life I love in helping people work through addiction, trauma, mental illness, and/or relationship issues. I am thankful for YOU. I am your biggest advocate! As always, please feel free to contact me with questions or to schedule a session. Let’s talk!
Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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When Conflict Ruins Your Cranberry Sauce

“The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of all kinds.” ~ Dalai Lama

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! It is time to gather, to eat turkey and stuffing and rolls, time to admire the snow falling, set up the Christmas tree, sing songs, and shop online. Jokes aside, the holiday season is nigh upon us, and it really can be the most wonderful time of the year. If you are one of many individuals who greets the months of November and December with equal parts excitement and trepidation–due to family gatherings–I have just the tips for you. 

Though getting family members and friends together this holiday season may be joyful and rewarding, there also exists the possibility for a healthy dose of awkward moments, conflict, disagreement, and discord. Since you are reading this post on avoiding family drama during the holidays, I dub you a peacemaker. Regardless of whether or not you have been a peacemaker in the past, that of a peacemaker can be your role this holiday season. Here are seven tips to be a peacemaker during your gatherings this holiday season:

  1. Listen. The most glorious and selfless gift you can give your family is your ability to listen. It costs nothing, and provides wonderful feelings for all those who receive it. When a family member is speaking to you, stop what you are doing and listen. Consider that person’s feelings and then validate them. The gift of listening is a powerful and wonderful way of connecting with those you care for.
  2. Be self-aware. You can choose not to be reactive to what you are feeling. Be aware of how you are feeling from moment to moment; recognize if you are tired or anxious or under pressure to get something done. This will help decrease the likelihood of snapping unnecessarily at someone.  Take responsibility for your own behavior. If you make a mistake, apologize and make amends. If someone around you makes a mistake, be quick to forgive and forget.
  3. Count to 20. If you feel angry or upset, remove yourself from the situation for a few moments. Remember that anger is generally triggered by a cascade of events…not just one event. You must break the chain of events to curb your emotional reaction. This is why I recommend stepping out on the balcony and counting to 20.
  4. Acknowledge anger. In the presence of angry or upset people, acknowledge their anger. “Oh, Aunt Martha. I can see that you are upset. I would be upset, too, if that happened to me! What can we do to make things right?” People usually become angry and upset because they feel unacknowledged or disrespected. Simply acknowledging the angry feelings of a family member may work miracles in restoring peace.
  5. Designate off-limit topics. For my family, there are certain things we simply cannot discuss–not during the holidays or ever. We cannot talk politics. We cannot discuss local football rivalries. Sometimes, being a peacemaker will require laying ground rules about what can be discussed. Remind everyone that you are there to enjoy each other’s company and that none of you would want to do (or say) anything to jeopardize that.
  6. Host. If a neutral ground is necessary to have a peaceful family gathering, volunteer your space. Being Switzerland may require a great deal of work, but it will absolutely be worth it if someone who may have been on guard at Gramma’s house can stand down and relax at your’s. Remember, this is to be a holly jolly joyful season! 
  7. If necessary, be a mediator. If individuals start fighting or arguing, intervene quickly. Take one of them away and cool down with them. Acknowledge their feelings and find out what is upsetting them. Offer to mediate both parties. Let them exchange stories one at a time without interruption, explain what injustices they feel, and then ask them for ideas on how to make things right. There–in five minutes, you can be back to Turkey and eggnog, all because you helped each person feel heard.

This all sounds so obvious and common-sensical. Yet we fail to act this way year after year. We have habits of conflict that we carry with us, especially when we are with family or friends who know us best. What we really need are some habits of peace. The quick tips above are some of the habits of an everyday peacemaker. Like any other skill, they will be awkward at first. With a little practice, you will gain confidence that these tips work. Then you will have your habits of peace that you can employ in every season of the year, not just during the holidays.

May you have a beautifully harmonious holiday season as you engage your habits of peace in the company of your loved ones. Happy holidays! 

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

References:

Re-Spark the Flame: Affection

“Sometimes a partner withdraws affection because he or she is struggling with stress, mental health issues, illness, or trauma, and they are inwardly focused and stop paying attention to you.” ~ Brian Jory

In most romantic relationships, physical chemistry usually starts out hot and heavy. The relationship is novel and exciting, and affection and physical touch are likely constant. But as time passes, that consistent craving for intimacy may start to taper off. What can you do if you find your relationship having less heat that you would like? 

By the time you come to the realization that your partner is not affectionate anymore, it may seem like it happened all of a sudden. In reality, the affection has been slowly disappearing for quite a while.  Physical intimacy, like daily kisses, may turn into every few days, hugs happen only when forced, and even sex becomes less and less regular. Relationships naturally go through stages; moving out of the honeymoon stage when your partner and intimacy is all you think about is normal and okay. You and your partner can be completely in love while not having sex every night or touching constantly. 

Why does decrease of affection happen in relationships? There are several reasons; naturally, adding children to the equation can result in a lessening of affection as the demands of childcare become consuming. Another reason is work and financial stressors that emotionally drain you or your partner. Additionally, it is sometimes easy to take your relationship or your partner for granted as other things demand your attention. Many people deal with illness, mental health issues, and all sorts of self-esteem matters that simply require greater amounts of attention than before. Some may become obsessed with a hobby. Others can be abusing alcohol or drugs. Others still are depressed and do not know it. So if your partner’s affection for you has decreased, please do not immediately take it personally or think your partner is being unfaithful.

Whatever the case is for you and your partner, just know this: You can get the spark back! Below I have listed several suggestions that I use with my clients, as well as suggestions from other relationship professionals. These suggestions have been written as if the reader is the one whose partner has rescinded affection. Regardless of whether you are on the giving or receiving end of the loss of affection, here–in no particular order–are several suggestions I would make to turn up the heat a little bit:

  1. Talk. The first thing is to talk about how the lack of affection feels to you. “Do you feel abandoned because of the recent (or not so recent) loss of affection in your relationship? Do you miss their touch or kind words? Express your own feelings rather than blame your partner. This shows that you respect their reason for pulling away from you and are willing to consider their feelings. Blaming them for pulling away may only drive them farther away.
  2. Looks department. It is a special thing to not feel like you always have to look your best about your partner. Your relationship is safe; you feel loved no matter what you wear or look like. However, if you are trying to re-spark affection, upping your game in the looks department every so often might do just the trick. Curling your hair or putting on extra cologne may take you back to the glorious dating days when affection was second nature.  Attraction is easy in the beginning of a relationship because it is all new and exciting, but as a relationship matures, you need to work at it and keep adding fuel to the fire of attraction to keep it burning strong.
  3. Identify Love Languages. I have written at length about Love Languages (links included in the references section below) because I believe they are a powerful key to strengthen any relationship. Know how your partner receives love. Speak his/her love language. 
  4. Give genuine compliments. It is so easy to be critical when you have been in a relationship for awhile. Oftentimes the bad is easier to see than the good, and you have to make an added effort to recognize your partner’s strengths. Though you may assume your partner knows things you like about him/her, I invite you to verbalize these positives to them. Remind your partner why you love him/her by giving sincere compliments. This is a sure way to break down walls and foster closeness!
  5. Express gratitude. In a similar vein, do not assume your partner knows how grateful you are for him/her. Express your gratitude for all he/she does!
  6. Initiate affection. If you are feeling distant from your lover, I recommend getting close…physically. Sit close. Hold hands. Rub his back. Kiss her cheek. There are so many ways to be affectionate without having sex; intimacy can exist without sex, and sex can exist without intimacy. Go back to your dating days when that physical closeness and constant contact was something you sought out. 
  7. Keep promises. It is hard for me to want to be close or vulnerable with anyone if I am questioning their priorities or loyalty. If you are like me, you want to know that you can trust your partner with your affection. Be worthy of that affection by following through, keeping your word, and being honest. 

Loss of affection in a relationship is not the end of the world or your relationship. The good thing about realizing your partner is not affectionate anymore is that it can be fixed. Talk about your feelings, consider getting “dolled up” every so often, speak your partner’s love language, give compliments, express gratitude, initiate affection and keep your word. The final suggestion I have for boosting affection and connection in a relationship would be to seek help from a therapist. I am trained in and passionate about healing relationships and will be your relationship’s number one advocate. Do not hesitate to contact me today to schedule a session!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Self-Care is a Family Matter

“Family is not an important thing. It’s everything.” –Michael J. Fox

When you think of self-care, you might envision yourself with cucumbers on your face getting a massage. Or maybe you think of axe throwing, running several miles, or playing an instrument for fun. Self-care has been in the limelight with endorsements from celebrities and other influencers on their social media accounts. Self-care is important because it helps you maintain a healthy relationship with yourself and others, it produces positive feelings, improves confidence and self-esteem…the benefits to practicing self-care are endless (additional sources on the benefits of self-care are included below). But what about family self-care? What are you doing to make sure your family wellbeing is maintained and functioning optimally?

At the end of September, I wrote about fun family activities to get everyone involved in the nationwide holiday Family Health and Fitness Day. When practiced individually, self care can benefit you and I emotionally, spiritually, mentally, practically and socially. In like manner, when implementing on family self-care strategies, it will greatly benefit you to focus on each of these areas; it will keep your family healthy, happy, and united. The following are some suggestions for each of those areas:

Emotional:

  • Watch a move
  • Write each other positive notes
  • Discuss each others’ talents/gifts
  • Verbalize and talk about feelings
  • Draw self-portraits
  • Say, “I love you”
  • Spend time writing
  • Try a new craft

Spiritual

  • Write a gratitude list
  • Go outside
  • Talk about forgiveness
  • Write thank you notes
  • Volunteer
  • Spend time outdoors in nature
  • Plant a tree
  • Practice positive self-talk

Mental

  • Read together
  • Draw or write stories
  • Meditate
  • Find shapes in clouds
  • Practice belly breaths
  • Go on a walk to find new things
  • Make vision boards
  • Try Headspace for Kids
  • Create mandalas
  • Make mindfulness jars
  • Mind strength games like “Memory”

Practical

  • Clean up
  • Declutter old toys
  • Assign chores
  • Make a grocery list
  • Learn about money
  • Make a weekly budget check-in
  • Make a weekly cleaning check-in
  • Do homework/study
  • Establish a morning/evening routine

Social

  • Play in the park
  • Call or visit relatives
  • Have family dinner
  • Play boardgames
  • Host a sleepover
  • Invite friends over
  • Plan a BBQ
  • Join a team
  • Organize a food drive
  • Discuss friendship and how to be a friend

Maybe by reading this list you have thought of your own ideas for one or more of these areas. Figure out what works for you and your family; what leaves you feeling recharged, connected, and happy? Do those things. And do them regularly. Individual self-care is a daily effort; staying balanced and connected as a family is no different. Carve out time for your family, make it a priority, be consistent, make it fun, and you will find that family self-care is the answer you have been needing for your family. Should you find you need help in increasing your family togetherness, please contact me today to schedule a session. 

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.


Resources:

On Love and Affection: When PDA is Okay

“A healthy amount of PDA allows the couple to express their affection to each other, and also to the world. Best practices include using ‘on and off switches.’ Continual PDA loses its importance, and makes others uncomfortable.” ~ Susan Winter

How do you feel about public displays of affection? Are you the type of person that loves snuggling, holding hands or kissing your lover, no matter where you are and who might be watching? Or does the mere thought of holding hands in public give you actual anxiety? Odds are that you fall somewhere in the middle. It is completely natural and okay to want to be affectionate with someone you love. In fact, when you cuddle with someone you care about, oxytocin–the hormone that fosters feelings of love, bonding, and connection–is secreted, thus earning its nickname as the “cuddle” or “love” hormone. But even though PDA is normal and feels good, just keep in mind that there is a time, a place, and a limit for what is appropriate!

Falling in love is wonderful. When it happens, you may want the world to know. At the beginning of a romantic relationship, you are likely to always hold hands and exchanging loving glances. Most onlookers will admire your newfound love fondly. I have written before about how all human beings have an innate need to be loved and have meaningful physical interactions with others.  But there is such a thing as too much of a public display of affection while anyone/everyone is watching. Here is a safe, and slightly humorous, rule of thumb: Ask yourself if your grandmother would approve. 

Let’s talk about the specific ways to display affection and whether or not they are appropriate in public:

  • Kissing. There are certain times it is completely okay to kiss the person you love–such as when you are greeting someone or saying goodbye. However, long, drawn-out kissing in front of others can make them feel like they are involuntarily watching a scene from a RomCom. 
  • Touching. The resources at the end of this post were unanimous in saying that it is always okay to hold hands with someone. An arm draped around someone is okay when you are sitting or casually strolling through the park. It is never okay to touch anyone in a private area in public.
  • Groping. Groping is never acceptable in public. Certain gestures are even illegal in public.
  • Tasting and nibbling. Reminder: Your face is not a lollipop, and you are not a vampire, so experts kindly ask you to refrain from licking or biting the person you love in front of others.
  • Electronic Affection. You should never text, post, or communicate anything intimately personal in a public forum or on any social media platform. Not only can this make others uncomfortable, but you may also embarrass the person you love.

PDA is commonplace in many places –like during your engagement or wedding day, at farewells and homecomings, at the airport when one is about to be deployed, at the movies (especially romantic ones), on the dance floor, and when the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve. I would venture to say that if you stay within the boundaries for the above actions, PDA is welcomed pretty much anywhere. But remember to ask yourself if Grandma would approve of how you are expressing your affection!

Showing appropriate levels of PDA can be healthy for a relationship. Being affectionate in public strengthens your love, shows a level of comfort with your partner, and allows others to identify you as a unit. Additionally, if things are not perfect in your relationship, PDA might be a way to spark connection again. PDA is really an unconscious form of staying connected; a brief kiss on the cheek, a hand placed gently at the small of the back, and an exchanged glance can get the heart pounding. This might even be the healing touch that can lead to amends or forgiveness in a relationship.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention that not everyone wants to receive PDA. I have written at length about love languages (see sources below) because I believe in them. The fact is that, for some people, physical touch is the last way they communicate or receive love. For these people, touching in public may be very unwelcomed! Certain factors like personality, general comfort in public, safety, and regard for others’ feelings play a role in how someone interacts with their significant other in social situations.  I highly encourage you and your partner to openly discuss to what degree you wish to give and receive touch in public, and then to respect those wishes. That might sound counterintuitive, or even scarier than simply reaching out to hold his/her hand, but figuring out someone’s PDA comfort level is an important step toward understanding their love languages. Unwelcome touching can potentially damage a relationship and push your partner away–especially where abuse or addiction is associated with PDA. 

Even after the beginning stages of a relationship, PDA can help couples reaffirm their love and commitment to each other whether life is breezy or if it is a time of disconnect. All humans need reinforcement. If you and your partner are struggling in your relationship, please contact me to schedule a session. I am here to help. Remember that, when PDA is consensual, well-timed public displays of affection can provide a spark of hope and connection in relationships. 

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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