“You don’t love someone because they’re perfect, you love them in spite of the fact that they’re not.” ~ Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper

Whenever you think of Valentine’s Day, you likely think about a fancy dinner and a bouquet of red roses. While that is one way to celebrate Valentine’s Day, there are so many others. A simple Google search for, “Unique ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day” will bring up a myriad of articles with fun (and even free!) ideas for you. I looked through several of these articles and saw suggestions like, “Have a bonfire!” or, “Go ice skating!” There are infinite ways to celebrate your relationship this Valentine’s Day, you really cannot go wrong! Because many may be single or may have recently lost a loved one this year, I encourage you to think about the holiday differently this year.

Make a paradigm shift away from roses and overpriced Italian food. If Valentine’s Day really is about spreading love, that applies to anyone you may feel love towards or appreciation for–a significant other, a parent, a child, a friend, a neighbor, etc. Instead of celebrating love or a romantic relationship, focus on celebrating someone important in your life. Treat it almost like his/her birthday. Consider–and then tell him/her!–what you admire, appreciate, and love about him/her. Think about his/her strengths, admirable qualities, and how he/she inspires you. Here are some prompts to get you going:

  1. Qualities you admire in him/her:
  2. Important lessons he/she has taught you:
  3. Favorite memory with him/her:
  4. Why or how you were initially drawn to him/her:
  5. A time he/she made you laugh memorably hard:
  6. His/her celebrity doppelganger:
  7. How he/she has helped you in your life:
  8. Where you would be without him/her:
  9. Something fun/exciting you will do in the future together (bucket list item?):

Those ten prompts are sure to give you ideas for how to celebrate that important person in your life. Doing this is step one.

Step two is then to tell him or her! This can be done in so many different ways; I recommend you try to deliver your compliments in a way that your partner is most likely to accept and appreciate. You can simply tell him/her face to face over dinner. You can write an epistle that can be read and reread. You can record a movie, write a poem, arrange a message in your letterboard, write it in chalk on their driveway, include it in a note with a simple gift…there is no right or wrong way. The key is to be direct and sincere in telling him/her what specifically you appreciate in him/her. Regardless of whether you are communicating your love and appreciation towards another adult or a child, everyone receives commendation well. This simple act can go such a long way! Children, especially, thrive on receiving positive affirmations and sincere praise.

Admiring strengths is one way that we can bring out the best in each other and grow together. When you are aware of someone else’s strengths, and communicate your appreciation, you help that person reach his/her full potential. Not only does research prove this, but I have seen it in countless clients! Seeing the good in others not only fosters feelings of love and appreciation, but it also begins a perpetuating cycle of looking for (and seeing!) the good in each other. And that is a wonderful place to be.

If you are feeling stressed by the thought of the impending Valentines Day, take heart. This is a free and easy but meaningful idea that you can implement this V-Day, 2019. Instead of celebrating love or a relationship in a cliché or expensive way, celebrate admirable qualities in someone important to you. This idea may be especially useful for anyone who has an important relationship that has undergone trauma, and who may be feeling unsure whether that bond is even worth celebrating. Regardless of your relationship status, we could all use a little more appreciation. This simple suggestion might be just what the (love) doctor ordered! Should you have questions or would like to schedule a session, please do not hesitate to contact me. My door is always open!

Wishing you and yours a lovely Valentine’s Day!

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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Strengthen Your Relationship With This Simple Checklist

“The gifts of caring, attention, affection, appreciation, and love are some of the most precious gifts you can give, and they don’t cost you anything.” ~ Deepak Chopra

We often think we need to go to great lengths in order to please our significant other. It is not, however, necessary to bring home a bouquet of roses every night, or spend hours perfecting our physical appearance. The truth is that both women and men respond well to small, consistent acts of love that we can literally do every day, and for zero dollars. I give you…the “Triple A Checklist.”

The Triple A Checklist consists of three actions to focus on in a relationship: attention, affection, appreciation. We all need attention, affection, and the feeling of being appreciated. As human beings, we crave meaningful connection with others; it is hard-wired into our DNA. So if we can fulfill those needs for our partners, the end result will inevitably be increased relationship satisfaction for both parties…and who doesn’t want that?!  Let’s look at each “A” in greater detail:

Attention

We all have millions of distractions vying for our time and attention. Giving attention means deep listening, being totally present, having empathy, and trying to see from our partner’s perspective. It means we are not in a hurry to give advice and react; not in a hurry to interrupt; not in a hurry to get back to the Bachelor or our text messages. This means putting the phone down, making eye contact with our partner, and really, really interacting with him/her. Our body language shows we are deeply listening. For those whose love language is quality time, having their partner’s full attention is incredibly meaningful and fulfilling. Giving attention in this manner can do wonders for any and all relationships!

Affection

The literal definition of affection is a gentle feeling of fondness or liking. Affection is deep caring and commitment. There are a myriad of ways to express affection–from a sincere compliment, to quality time spent together, to physical touch, and everything in between. Studies have found that the amount of affection we express to our partners best predicts our commitment; and, conversely, the amount of affection we receive from our partners best predicts our satisfaction. Just give a few more kisses throughout the day, offer a back rub or head scratch, hold hands, cuddle during a movie, or hold on to that embrace a moment longer than normal. Affection is powerful. And it can be so easy to give!

Appreciation

In the beginning of a relationship we appreciate everything about the other person. They seem perfect in our eyes and even those crazy things they do are somehow endearing. But after a few years of leaving the cap off the toothpaste (even after repeated requests to change this behavior), this “cute” behavior suddenly becomes deliberate disrespect. Appreciation means focusing on what they do well or what wonderful attributes they have, instead of the little things we dislike about them. Abraham Lincoln once said, “If you look for the bad in people expecting to find it, you surely will.” Appreciating the good in our partners will overshadow whatever quirks they have that we dislike. This type of appreciation is necessary to ensure relationship longevity.

Giving attention, affection, and our appreciation to our partners can do wonders to a relationship. I have seen it firsthand; these small steps can be repeated daily to communicate love and commitment to our partners. I encourage you to resolve today to do the “Triple A Checklist each day. If we give our significant other the attention he/she needs, the affection he/she longs for and the appreciation he/she deserves, the end result will undoubtedly be happiness!

(As always, should you find your relationship needs a little more work or attention, my door is wide open. Start by scheduling a session today!)

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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Keeping the Peace This Holiday Season

Keeping the Peace This Holiday Season - Cluff Counseling - Lewisville Therapist“Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No. No. We’re all in this together.” -Clark Griswold, Christmas Vacation

The holiday season is truly magical. The snow, the lights, the presents, the carolers, the sightings of Santa Claus himself, and the amount of stress that accompanies such a wonderful time of year!  With the holidays come family meals and gatherings, and–for some–this is not all fun and games. Many families have one (or more) individual(s) who consistently manages to say something rude, spark controversy, offend others, arrive late, act inappropriately, etc. While most people are looking forward to decorating gingerbread houses, others are dreading getting around the difficult family member. If you can relate to this struggle with family, read on.

Regardless of how much you love your family, you are bound to run into an uncomfortable, annoying, or tense situation with a family member at some point during the holidays when so many personalities are congregated around the table. Here are four suggestions to keep the peace this holiday season:

Have realistic expectations. While it is good to hope for the best in people, you need to be realistic. If certain individuals have behaved a certain way for years, do not expect them to be any different this Christmas Eve dinner. When your Aunt Bethany makes her usual comment about your outfit or beard, be prepared to brush it off…because you expected it. Having realistic expectations of others will enable you to maintain your cool when they say something unnecessary or offensive. Because you expected it, you can choose to not let it ruin your evening.

Set boundaries.  This one has several parts:

  1. Conversations: Plan to keep conversation conflict-free by avoiding potentially sensitive topics. Politics and religion are go-to topics for immediate controversy, but each family has specific triggers that can (and should) be avoided at happy holiday gatherings. Get everyone to agree that there are topics that simply will not be discussed because they only bring out the worst in everyone. Setting boundaries like this will hopefully keep the conversation from veering into a minefield of divisive issues. I also highly recommend having a pre-rehearsed line or two that you are confident saying if someone is going against set boundaries. Something like, “This is something I would prefer not to discuss right now, it is too heavy and we should be enjoying the party!” or, “I totally understand you feel that way; even though I have a different opinion, I still respect yours.”
  2. Timing: Be firm with what time you are starting and start at that time. Let everyone know if they are late, dinner and/or the activity will still start on time. There are some people who may consistently late in order to make dramatic entrances, be the focus of attention, and to demonstrate dominance or control. Do not give them that opportunity!
  3. Activities: If a certain game or activity sparks contention, rule it out. I have friends who have decided they simply cannot play basketball on opposing teams because it inevitably gets too competitive and contention ensues. Or maybe for your family it is UNO. Just be sure to avoid activities that do not unite or uplift your family. Also, be sure to avoid excessive alcohol consumption during the festivities; it does not bring out the best in anyone!

Use humor. Everyone has a button that can be pushed to the point of irritation. Whether it is political views, a rough patch at work, a nonexistent dating life, or a slew of other possibilities, no one knows said buttons better than family members. The best way to deflect intentional jabs is with a witty comment. If you take everything seriously or personally, you likely will not even be able to make it through the appetizers and drinks before the holiday dinner is ruined!

Control yourself. At the end of the day, you cannot control your sister, your mother, or your Cousin Eddie. The only thing you can control is yourself. Accept that. You are in control of your reaction, your mood, and your responses. If you have tried all of the above suggestion AND people show up late, engage in controversial topics, or be outright rude, remember that you are in control of YOU. Monitor yourself; if you find you are getting worked up or irritated, physically remove yourself from a conversation, room, or group of people. Take deep breaths. Get active and play a game; it is difficult to be drawn into an argument when engrossed in an activity that requires concentration, physical activity or laughter. Be grateful; think about what you are grateful for to minimize frustrations. Practice tolerance; remember that even you have offended someone in the past. Lastly, forgive your family for not being perfect and for detracting from the festivities and move on.

The holidays come but once a year. Soak these last weeks of 2018 in and do not let any social toxicity get in the way of the holiday cheer. I can assure you that, as you go into your family gatherings having prepared yourself with realistic expectations and set boundaries, you will be able to to control yourself by using humor and monitoring yourself. These are simple, yet powerful suggestions that will equip you with the tools you need to enjoy any family gathering this holiday season. Should you have questions or find you need additional guidance or assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me or schedule a session.

Wishing you and yours the happiest of holidays!

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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Making Room for Grief During the Holidays

This topic of grief and/or loneliness always seems to be increasingly relevant for many during the holiday season. In this post I will focus on these feelings, and how to let your grief have a healthy place in your life“Grief is two parts: The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.” -Anne Roiphe

Last month I wrote about what I referred to as the “trauma of surviving”–or learning to live life after losing someone dear to you. Such loss may be due to divorce, a move, death, or any other change that results in a separation from loved ones. This topic of grief and/or loneliness always seems to be increasingly relevant for many during the holiday season. In this post I will focus on these feelings, and how to let your grief have a healthy place in your life.

A friend of mine recently told me about a movie on Netflix called the Babadook. A widowed mother is plagued by the death of her husband and simultaneously battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house. Although this is supposed to be a scary movie, the ending is applicable and relatable to the topic at hand. As the mother in the film avoids facing the reality of her husband’s death, the presence of the monster grows, and the complications in her life amount. In the end we see the mother well put-together and clearly in a different, more positive state as she takes food down to the “monster” that has been banished to live in the basement.  She is feeding or acknowledging the monster–or her grief–and by so doing, it is appeased. It stops tormenting her. Its malevolent presence diminishes and she is able to figure out how to live a balanced, happy life even after the loss of her husband. She lets grief have a place in her life.

While I have not personally seen this movie, I love the parallels that can be made between the monster and grief. Avoiding grief and acting like it is not there can wreak havoc on our life. It can and will weaken us and our important relationships. We must first, acknowledge it and second, work through it.

Acknowledge it.

The “monster” in the Babadook terrorizes the mother right up until the end of the film. She struggles sleeping, maintaining friendships, holding a job, and even keeping the basic elements of her life together. In the same way, grief can eat away at you if it is given the chance. A person who is dealing with grief will most likely display some of the following emotional symptoms: Increased irritability, numbness, bitterness, detachment, preoccupation with loss, and inability to show or experience joy. While these emotional symptoms are normal in the days and weeks after a traumatic event, they can be indicators of a more serious disorder if they do not fade over time.

Grief is unavoidable after loss; the only way to overcome it is to give it place in your life–face it. Popular blogger Emily Meyers, a young mother of five, lost her husband to cancer and was left to care for their children on her own. She wrote a beautiful post about grief, and I have found great truth in these words:

“There is no ‘other side’ of grief. It’s never going to pass. You don’t ever ‘move on’ from it. You just learn to live with it. You absorb it. It becomes part of you. You simply adjust and change. You slowly but surely find how to navigate through your new normal with it. It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger. I’ll say that again: It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger. You stop waiting for the storm to pass, and instead, learn to dance in the rain.”

I have some clients who, like the mother in Babadook, try to simply ignore their grief and “move on” without facing it. But again, just as the mother in Babadook, this does not and cannot work. As Emily Meyers said, you cannot simply move on. You must learn to live with your grief.  You must acknowledge it. Do not expect to move on from a life-altering loss without allowing yourself to bereave or grieve. Yes, I am telling you to be sad–it is okay!

Work through it.

The loss of anything important to you–a relationship, a job, an opportunity, a loved one– can cause feelings of profound grief. Sadness around the holidays–or any time of year–is okay. It is perfectly understandable and 100% normal to feel like you are not “over” your loss. What is important is what you do with your sadness. Acknowledging it is the first step, and once you have done this, you will need to work through your grief and process your emotions. For some, this may mean crying, writing in a journal, participating in a therapeutic hobby or activity (like exercise), talking with a friend, or counseling with an experienced, licensed therapist. The most important thing is that you take the time to work through your difficult emotions because they do not go away on their own. In my experience, I have seen that simply burying or ignoring grief only exacerbates the problem when it actually does surface. And it is sure to!

If the holidays highlight your loneliness or the absence of a loved one, this time of year can be especially difficult. Many of my clients find themselves in a slump around the Christmas season, and struggle to find something to celebrate. My heart aches for those who are grieving this year. I advise you to take my counsel to heart and acknowledge, then work through your grief. I know that by so doing you will find a place for your grief and will then be able to find a healthy balance of grieving and living life to the fullest. And, as always, if you need help facing or working through your grief, please do not hesitate to contact me today or 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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Hidden (and Not-So-Hidden) Threats to Marriage

Hidden (and Not-So-Hidden) Threats to Marriage - Cluff Counseling, Marriage & Family TherapyIn Western culture, more than 90 percent of people marry by age 50, but then 40-50% of U.S. marriages end in divorce (with the divorce rate for subsequent marriages being even higher). Marriages are being attacked on every side, and I want to help you protect yours. This post covers the three greatest threats to marriage that can exist even before the marriage does.

I recently read an article from the Huffington Post about overlooked threats to marriage. This article resonated with me, and I found its contents to be refreshingly true. I cannot tell you how often I hear couples blame communication as the root cause of their problems in marriage. While there may surely be some truth to that, I have found that there were problems existing even before the couple got married or started communicating about bigger issues. Allow me to elaborate.

As a therapist, I can teach a couple a lot about how to communicate in an hour. It really is not complicated to follow simple patterns of listening, sharing, and responding. The real issue at hand is that we all enter into marriage with baggage–which is normal and to be expected. But then we take that baggage and expect it to either magically go away or to have our spouse wave a wand and fix it for us. When that does not happen, couples begin arguing, and they mistake their baggage as the inability to communicate as a couple. This is why communication in marriage is often seen as the common culprit for hurt or failed marriages. The following are the real threats to marriages today:

  1. We do not account for change.

    Yes, you fell in love with your partner back when he had a perfectly-chiseled six pack, or she had that flat tummy. Or appearance aside, maybe you fell in love with his/her personality 10 years ago, and things have since changed. Not accounting for changes that come with time will inevitably lead to resentment and frustration. We need to remember that time changes people. Think about it. You have almost certainly changed since you got married…and not all of those changes are bad! I would like to suggest that you appreciate your partner for who they are working to become, and not get attached to who he/she was when you got married.

  2. We do not have realistic expectations for marriage.

    I know too many girls who think they will never feel lonely or less-than or discouraged (or anything less than sublimely happy) once they get married. They think marriage is a cure-all. But the truth is that your spouse is bound to be an imperfect person and sure to do something that rubs you the wrong way–and you will certainly do the same to him/her. Life will get hard and you may feel disappointed and deflated with your marriage at times. That is normal! This is one of the biggest threats to marriage, and I will dedicate an entire post to unmet expectations in the future. The truth is that marriage, like any important relationship, takes work! It takes LOADS of work, time, and effort. We cannot expect this rich and deeply satisfying relationship to happen on its own. Expecting marriage to be easy is a sure-fire recipe to wind up disappointed. Plan on it being tough, but worth it, tiring but fulfilling.

  3. We lack problem solving or basic communication skills.

    Early on in life we learn to defend ourselves–it may be from other kids at school, from friends, or from our own family. We practice self-preservation and self-defense. We learn how good it feels to be right and we prove ourselves whenever we get the chance. When we get married, the arguments inevitably come. If we never learned how to practice openness instead of defensiveness, forgiveness instead of vengeance, apology instead of blame, and vulnerability instead of strength before marriage, we are bound to continue that pattern with our spouse. Learning basic problem solving and communication skills will benefit all relationships in your life, but most especially your marriage.

Regardless of our marital status, these are things we can all work on as we strive to be a better companion–whether that is now or in the future. Remember that people change (plan on changes happening in both your significant other, as well as, yourself); remember that no relationship is perfect (have realistic expectations for your relationship); and work on your ability to communicate and overcome disagreements. If you are already married or in a serious relationship, remember–it is never too late to adjust expectations and learn new skills, like communicating, apologizing, problem solving, etc. I can assure you that as you focus on adjusting these three areas, you will be prepared to have meaningful, long-lasting relationships.

These three threats to marriage are common. The good news is that there is hope. It is possible to account for change, to love who your spouse is now, as well as who he/she is becoming. It is possible to adjust expectations (in a healthy way) so that they align with your partner’s expectations. It is possible to learn new communication skills or problem solving strategies that will enable you to be more transparent with your spouse. As you seek to improve yourself and let go of some of that baggage you brought into your marriage, you will see that your marital communication will improve tenfold! You will be able to see eye to eye–or at least hear each other out!–and come to a conclusion that did not require raised voices, slammed doors, or hurt feelings. Your marriage does not have to be at risk. As always, feel free to contact me to overcome these three common threats to marriage today, and you will watch your most valued relationships flourish and exceed your greatest expectations!

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

Resources:

Love Languages: Giving and Receiving Love

Love Languages - Giving and Receiving Love - Cluff Counseling - North Texas Therapist

“Our most basic emotional need is not to fall in love but to be genuinely loved by another, to know a love that grows out of reason and choice, not instinct. I need to be loved by someone who chooses to love me, who sees in me something worth loving.” -Dr. Gary Chapman

For the past six months, I have been focusing on each of Dr. Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages. In February, I gave an overview. In March, I focused on Words of Affirmation. April was on the Love Language of Service. In May, I discussed Receiving Gifts. June was all about Quality Time, and last month we finished up this series with Physical Touch. Each Love Language is unique with its own pros and cons, but all offer us insight into our lover’s expectations, wants and wishes. I am such a firm believer that understanding love languages is powerful, and can have a profound impact on our relationships. Today I want to end this series with a couple of important takeaways.

For which relationships?

When I say relationships, I do not only mean our romantic relationships. Heavens no! I mean that applying our newfound knowledge of each of the 5 Love Languages can affect all of our relationships! This stuff is for real. It will change how you interact with your boss, your mom, your sister, your children, your friends, your neighbor, etc.  I have found that I have been able to connect so much better with my dad as I have come to understand how he receives and gives love, and our interactions are much more meaningful now that I am trying to speak his love language.

Not always bilateral!

Point number two, these Love Languages are not bilateral. Meaning, the way someone receives love may not always be the same way in which they naturally express love. Here’s an example to piggyback off what I just said about understanding my dad better. Because of his upbringing, he is not an affectionate person…at all. He does not say lovey things, nor is he physically demonstrative; he has maybe hugged me five times my whole life. But he expresses his love for me through gifts–he is very thoughtful about my birthday and Christmas gifts, and always nails it by giving meaningful and generous presents. Conversely, he does not receive love through gifts!!  He receives love through Quality Time; he just wants me to spend time with him. So I sit by him when I go visit him, and we chat about life for a little while, or I plan a family get together for his birthday where we eat, laugh and play games. We are able to strengthen our connection that way, and it has done wonders for our relationship.

You may have noticed this about yourself–that you naturally give love differently than you receive it. Or maybe you reciprocate the love language that you like! I receive love by quality time (ex: meaningful conversation during an ice cream outing) and I give it through a mixture of gifts and service (ex: going to the peach orchards and bringing some to a friend). The point is to be aware of the 5 Love Languages and to apply them to your relationships. Explore them, talk about them, practice them! The more you do, the more proficient you will become in expressing love in whichever way your loved one receives love. And you will find that it is incredibly satisfying and effective!

Start today

Remember, all of our relationships (both romantic and not!) can be improved. Again, I am a firm believer in the efficacy of the Love Languages. I recommend reading the book, perusing the website, and/or taking the quiz that will help identify one’s primary Love Language. While I am no expert, I certainly subscribe to the 5 Love Languages, and would be more than happy to answer any questions you may have about them. If you and your partner–or even you and your sibling, parent, or friend–are having a difficult time connecting and having meaningful interactions, I recommend evaluating each other’s Love Languages and coming up with suggestions for how to meet each other’s expectations. My door is always open for a session as well. Understanding and applying the 5 Love Languages to each of our relationships is powerful. I wish you the best of luck as you go and apply what you have learned through this series!

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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How to Talk to Your Child About Porn, Part II

How to Talk to Your Child About Porn, Part II - Cluff Counseling - Lewisville Therapist

No parent wants to talk with their children about pornography. It can seem overwhelming, uncomfortable, and maybe unnecessarily early–depending on the age of your child. While there may be validity to all those feelings, I urge you to communicate openly, honestly, and early with your child about the fallacies and dangers of pornography… before they learn about it elsewhere.

Children are now learning to use electronic devices at a very young age, and often stumble upon inappropriate pictures or videos. Like many others, you may be caught off guard and quite surprised by how early in your child’s life this happens. Upon entering puberty, pre-teens may be curious about sex and sexuality as their brain, body, and hormones change and develop. Your children may hear things in the playground or at a friend’s house. Inevitably, they will want to know more and asking Mom or Dad about sex can be embarrassing. You can be ready for this conversation by preparing some talking points and creating an environment of open communication. You will be grateful you did so!

Last month, I posted the first part in this two-part series on talking with your children about pornography. The world is different than it was 20 years ago; the ease and and convenience of viewing porn at our fingertips–plus the increased dependence on technology–is a recipe for disaster. We must adapt to the pervasive and dangerous drug that is sweeping through our internet, TVs, phones, and homes. It is everywhere. Your children will see porn; it is a matter of when, not if. My wish with this post is to help you prepare for when you decide to talk with your children about pornography. I know it seems like a daunting, horrible thing to need to talk about, and you may want to put it off as long as possible, but I urge you to read this post and mindfully consider what will be best for your child(ren).

Part 1 focused on 9 foundational points that will help guide you as you prepare for this conversation (or hopefully the first of many conversations) with your children. Click here to read that post in its entirety. To briefly summarize, those 9 points are:

  1. Build trust.
  2. Talk about it sooner rather than later.
  3. Prepare for it now.
  4. Explain why porn is problematic.
  5. Teach that porn is inaccurate.
  6. Treat pornography the same for your daughter as you would your son.
  7. Teach them (especially daughters) that their worth is more than skin deep.
  8. What to do if my child comes to me with a porn addiction.
  9. Make it an ongoing conversation.

Again, I recommend reviewing that post because I explained each point in greater detail that will offer clarity and guidance as you apply them. The most important thing about this talk is that you deliver it with the needs/preferences/personality of your individual children in mind. Follow your innate parent gut and speak with love.

What do I say?!

It is 100% natural to have no idea where to begin. Might I suggest that you begin by asking questions and then LISTEN. Encourage two-way conversation. Questions may include (but are not limited to) the following: What do you know about pornography? Do any of the kids at school ever talk about it? What do they say? Have you ever seen it? Did someone show it to you? Or did you find it yourself? You may be surprised and/or horrified by their responses, but try to remain calm. Reassure your child(ren) they are not in trouble. Try to find out how they found it and why they were searching for it. If they have seen it, ask when/where they saw it and how it made them feel. Then discuss those feelings.

Because children are generally pure and tender, they may feel “yucky” for what they have seen.

Explain to them that pornography teaches attitudes towards sex and sexual behaviors that are inaccurate and unhealthy. I highly recommend utilizing the suggestions found in Kristen Jenson’s book Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn Proofing Today’s Kids. She explains how to make it a comfortable conversation about what pornography is, why it is dangerous, and how to reject it. By explaining porn in a developmentally appropriate way (found in the book), young kids are able to porn-proof their own brains. If having this conversation is making you feel nervous, remember that professionals actually encourage parents to have this talk with their children. Avoiding the subject will only lead your children to satisfy their curiosity by searching elsewhere!

You may choose to discuss some of the false content portrayed in pornographic material (such as lack of respect and consent, violence, and dangerous sexual practices) to help them understand why you are concerned about them viewing it. Talking about these feelings will help them understand that this is for their protection and not just another rule you wish to impose upon them.

Then help them prepare for the future. Ask them what they could do if someone tries to show them pornography again and let them suggest options. Discourage them from seeking it out and encourage them to come to you with further questions. Explain that you will put protection up to help avoid further exposure in your home (through parental controls on smartphones, TVs, computers, blocking certain sites, installing filters, etc). You can even work with your child to find ways to protect against pornography! Your children might surprise you by agreeing with or even suggesting certain ‘house rules’, such as not deliberately visiting these sites, avoiding searches with potentially dangerous keywords, using devices in open areas at home and not behind closed doors, being offline by a particular time of night, no sleepovers, keeping phones in mom and dad’s room at night, etc. Together come up with consequences, and then as the parent, enforce the rules.

Okay so at what age do I do this?

This will depend on you. There is no hard and fast rule. Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, says parents can talk about potential issues as early as third grade, because even the youngest children can pretty easily find things like pornography online. I know several families who have this chat as early as eight years old. Basically, follow your gut. If you are thinking about this already, there is probably a reason! And remember my final suggestion from Part 1 of this post, to make this an ongoing conversation. Let your children know that you are always available and willing to continue the discussion, and encourage them to come to you before looking elsewhere. And as they grow and progress developmentally, I invite you to tailor this same conversation to their understanding.

No one looks forward to having the pornography chat with their children. But you must have this conversation in order to protect and prepare them. If you still have questions or concerns after reading this series on talking with children about porn, please feel free to contact me! Please remember–pornography is not just a male or an adult problem, it is a human problem. The children in your life need protection from pornography. They need to understand what it is, why it is harmful, and have a plan when they see it. And they need to have our support through loving, mentoring relationships, and know that we will be there for them when (not if!) they see porn. Keep it short. Be honest. Try to make it part of an ongoing and open discussion about sexuality and sexual development. Let’s have the wisdom, courage, and compassion to face this problem head on so that our youth will not have to face it alone.

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

Resources:

Love Languages: Living the Love Language of Physical Touch

Love Languages - Living the Love Language of Physical Touch - Cluff Counseling - Denton Therapist“It’s not always about sex. Sometimes the best type of intimacy is where you just lay back, laugh together at the stupidest things, hold each other, and enjoy each other’s company.” -Anon

When physical touch is referred to in a dating or marriage context, our minds go straight to the obvious: sex. But in actuality, the Love Language of Physical Touch is so much more than that and sometimes the simplest touch can make the biggest difference to a couple’s relationship satisfaction.

For the past five months, I have been focusing on Dr. Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages. In February, I gave an overview. In March, I focused on Words of Affirmation. April was on the Love Language of Service. In May, I discussed Receiving Gifts. Last month was all about Quality Time, and now we are finishing up this series with Physical Touch. Each Love Language is unique with its own pros and cons; this Love Language is no different. The individuals who receive love through Physical Touch are not oversexed or have an insatiable appetite for sex. In fact, most of the people I know whose primary Love Language is that of Physical Touch simply want to be physically close to their partner–not necessarily through sexual intimacy.

The Love Language of Physical Touch is just that–physically touching. Here are some ideas:

  1. Holding your partner’s hand while you sit and talk. (Try this while talking about bills or a stressful day…there’s something so calming about it!)
  2. Kissing your spouse on the cheek/forehead/nose.
  3. Putting your foreheads together.
  4. Nibbling on your sweetie’s ear.
  5. Sitting on your partner’s lap.
  6. Giving each other a back-scratch, neck, or head massage.
  7. Putting your arm around each other.
  8. Slipping your hand along the belt-line under his or her shirt while you kiss.
  9. Holding on to a hug (and just hugging in general).
  10. Cuddling and talking about nothing.
  11. Slapping his bum while he empties the trash.
  12. Gently stroking his/her hair or face.
  13. Putting your arm on her shoulder as you pass her in the hallway.
  14. Holding your spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend in your arms.
  15. Having a tickle fight.
  16. Touching them in a teasing or provocative way.
  17. And of course…sexual intimacy.

You may have noticed that when you and your partner are in a relationship funk (or fight), you literally distance yourself from each other. There are no hello hugs, goodbye kisses, or pillowtalk snuggles. It is in these moments that you can link arms with him while you walk, or snuggle her at night to signify that you want things to be good. And even when you are not fighting, such simple acts of physical touch can demonstrate your love for your partner and symbolize that you want to be even closer. And isn’t staying close and getting closer to one’s partner always the goal in marriage and relationships?!

Physical touch allows us to keep those “in-love” emotions and makes marriage (and life) much more enjoyable! So if you find yourself farther from your spouse than you’d like to be, try scooting a little closer…both figuratively and literally. Try any of the above methods or go ahead and be creative.

If you are not naturally affectionate in your platonic relationships, it is likely that you are not overly affectionate with your romantic partner, either. But if your partner’s primary Love Language is Physical Touch, you may need to learn a new Love Language! Being touchy-feely may be out of your comfort zone to begin with, but with time you can learn to speak this Love Language and it will become easier. He or she will certainly appreciate your sustained efforts!

Partners of those whose primary Love Language is Physical Touch may feel unloved, unwanted, or rejected if there is a mismatch of libido/sex drive. In particular, much frustration and resentment can result if one person almost always has to be the one to initiate, so making a conscious endeavour to do more of the above would be welcomed. And if you are the partner with Physical Touch as your primary Love Language, please remember your partner is not a mind-reader. You will need to clearly and respectfully communicate what it is you would like more or less of!

Every relationship has areas that work well and areas that could use improvement. Feeling more loved and appreciated is something all of us would like! If you do not know your partner’s (or your own) love language, I highly recommend taking the quiz from the 5 Love Languages website. Understanding love languages will enable you to directly and efficiently communicate how much you care about your significant other.  If your partner is learning to communicate your love language, offer gentle guidance and point out progress. If you are trying to speak your partner’s love language, be patient–it takes time to learn a new language. Learning to express love through Physical Touch can happen throughout the normal course of your day. Should you ever need additional assistance implementing love languages and working towards a more fulfilling relationship, you know my office door is always open!

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

Resources:

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How to Talk to Your Child About Porn, Part I

How to Talk to Your Child About Porn, Part I - Cluff Counselingn - Lewisville Therapist“For some reason, we don’t talk very much to youth and children about one of the strongest urges and biggest temptations they will face. Our reluctance sets them up to be taught primarily by the internet, other children or teenagers, or even Hollywood.” -Joy D Jones

Children are now learning to use electronic devices at a very young age, and often stumble upon inappropriate pictures or videos. Like many others, you may be caught off guard and be quite surprised by how early in your child’s life this happens. Upon entering puberty, pre-teens may be curious about sex and sexuality as their brain, body, and hormones change. Your children may hear things in the playground or at a friend’s house. Inevitably, they will want to know more and asking Mom or Dad about sex can be embarrassing. You can be ready for this conversation by preparing some talking points and by creating an environment of open communication in your home. You will be grateful you did so!

Last month, I posted about how women can also fall prey to the temptations of pornography. Pornography is not just a male problem, it is a human problem. Knowing that women and girls are just as susceptible creates more of a sense of urgency to combat the pervasive nature of pornography. Your children will see porn; it is a matter of when not if. My wish with this post is to help you prepare for when you talk with your daughter or son about avoiding pornography. I know it seems like a daunting, horrible thing to talk about, and you may want to put it off as long as possible, but I urge you to read the following points and mindfully consider what will be best for your child(ren):

  1. Build trust. Your child needs to know that he/she can count on you to talk about the hard things and that your love is unconditional. It is impossible to have influence when there is no trust. Invest time in your relationship with your child to help them feel loved and accepted. Not only will discussions about sexual matters be more effective when you have a trusting relationship with your child, but they will feel safe coming to you with sensitive questions.
  2. Talk about it sooner rather than later. Kids are curious. Be the one to teach your children. If you do not, the Internet, Hollywood, or their friends will do it for you (and who knows how good of a job they will do)!
  3. Prepare for it now. This might entail talking with other moms, reading the latest research, contacting a reputable therapist for guidance, or conversing with your spouse/partner–whatever it is, plan and prepare today for this conversation with your children. It needs to be done correctly or else they may feel shame, guilt, or heightened curiosity–which could lead to further (and maybe secretive) internet searches.
  4. Explain why porn is problematic. For some families, this might include religious convictions. But regardless of your religious views, we can all agree that pornography depicts erotic material unsuitable for young children. It is imperative to help your child understand that explicit material is literally harmful for the developing brain (as taught by Kristen Jenson in Good Pictures Bad Pictures Jr.: A Simple Plan to Protect Young Minds), and that it can lead to unrealistic expectations of oneself, unhealthy relationships with others, and even addiction.
  5. Teach that porn is inaccurate. Children (and adults) need to be reminded that porn stars get plastic surgery, that sex depicted in porn is unrealistic, and that the high porn gives is temporary at best. Having a frank conversation about the mechanics of sex will lead you perfectly into the realities (and fallacies) of pornography. Educate your children on the male vs. female sexual response, and teach them that pornography is a literal production and not a true representative of typical sexual encounters. If you have not yet done so, this may be an advantageous time to talk about masturbation as well.
  6. Treat pornography the same for your daughter as you would your son. Whatever pointers/rules/guidelines/lessons/lectures/rules you have in place for your son, they need to be the exact same for your daughter!  Use the same protective measures with your daughter as you do with your son. Help them to develop an “internal filter” against pornography from an early age by teaching them what pornography is, why it is harmful, and how to reject it with a plan when they are exposed to it.
  7. Teach them (especially daughters) that their worth is more than skin deep. Society will teach your children–daughters especially–that their outward appearance is what really matters, and pornography definitely builds on that. Your children need to know that their worth is so much deeper than what they see in the mirror. Compliment them on their accomplishments or character traits as much or more than their appearance. As I stated in point four, porn stars are not meant to look real; many of their bodies are surgically, hormonally, and photographically enhanced. No one should expect–or expect others–to look that way!
  8. What do I do if my child comes to me with a pornography problem?  It is incredibly difficult to have a child confess a pornography problem. But the very best advice I can offer is to remain emotionally neutral. It is critically important that you not become unglued in front of your child, as this will increase their shame as well as make them less likely to listen and open up to you in the future. Be encouraging and supportive. Remember, porn is the enemy, not your child!
  9. Make it an ongoing conversation. Help them know that while the topics of sex, pornography, or masturbation are certainly not easy things to discuss, that you are always available to talk with them. Teach them that your chat is not a one-time occurrence and that you are and will always be a safe place to ask questions!

These nine points are guidelines for you to use as you navigate the when and the how of talking to your children about pornography. Next month I will share part two of this post, which will include specifically what to say to your children, as well as when–what age–to say it.   

Absolutely no one wants to have the pornography chat with their children. But you must have this conversation in order to protect and prepare them. Keep it short. Be honest. Try to make it part of an ongoing and open discussion about sexuality and sexual development. The children in your life need protection from pornography. They need to understand what it is, why it is harmful, and have a plan for when they see it. And they need to have our support through loving, mentoring relationships, and know that we will be there for them when (not if!) they see porn.  Let’s have the wisdom, courage, and compassion to face this problem head on so that our youth will not have to face it alone.

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

Resources:

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Love Languages: Showing Love Through the Gift of Quality Time

Love Languages Through Quality Time - Cluff Counseling - Dallas Therapist“I encourage couples to make a resolution to schedule 15 to 20 minutes each day for a number of reasons: You have something to look forward to throughout your day. You demonstrate to your partner that they are a priority and the relationship is a priority. You can use this as a time to show your partner care and support. ” —Zufall

This year I have dedicated one week each month to delving deeper into the love languages. This is not only because I profoundly believe in them and their efficacy, but because speaking your partner’s love language is a simple way you can start to improve or enrich your relationship today. This month, I want to focus on my personal favorite, the love language of Quality Time.

Those who receive love through Quality Time really just need you–and they need all of you. By this I mean put your phone down. Turn off the TV. Tell your friends to wait. Spend undistracted time with your partner. Not only will you fulfill their emotional needs, but you will notice that this Quality Time truly enhances the quality of your relationship! It is a win-win for both of you.

How can I do this?

The great thing about this love language is that you can spend quality time together in the normal course of your day; you do not need to go out of your way doing something special, nor do you need to buy anything.  The biggest deterrent from spending time together is getting sidetracked by life’s responsibilities. How can that be overcome? By planning. Set aside a specific time at a regular interval and stick to it. This may mean that you plan on catching up on the day for 5-10 minutes directly after work. Or it could mean that each Sunday you play Uno over hot cocoa or ice cream. Or you could plan on going to bed at the same time and having pillow talk every night. Or one night a week you try preparing a new recipe together. Or Saturday mornings you work out at the park. Whatever the time limit and whenever the frequency, be sure to make it a priority. The time you set aside and plan around will soon become a couple ritual between you and your partner that you will begin to look forward to and cherish.

What are some specific ideas?

You or your partner may be under the false notion that Quality Time is staring blankly at each other or simply just talking. This is absolutely untrue! Although conversating is a great way to reconnect (not to mention easy and convenient!), there are a great deal of activities you and your partner can do to really enjoy whatever Quality Time that you do have together. Dr. Chapman goes into this in greater detail and explains that Quality Time can consist of either Quality Conversation or Quality Activities.

Quality Conversation is not just chatting or surface level dialogue (eg. talking about bills or childcare). It is where you share experiences, thoughts, feelings, and desires in a friendly, uninterrupted context.  It means you focus on what you hear, you draw out your partner’s thoughts, listen sympathetically, ask questions, maintain eye contact, refuse to interrupt, and do not multitask. Quality Activities can include anything in which one or both of you has an interest.  The purpose is to experience something together, to walk away from it feeling that your partner cares for you and vice versa.  It can mean a great deal to your partner if you do something that he/she is interested in that you may not be particularly drawn to. Examples of potential activities for Quality Time include:

  • Making dinner (or any meal)
  • Meal planning (surfing Pinterest in search of recipes to try together can be a fun activity)
  • Folding laundry
  • Playing a game (if you do not own board or card games, play something simple like 20 questions to get to know your partner better!)
  • Cleaning your home/apartment
  • Going through old pictures/journals
  • Being close (cuddling or being intimate)
  • Working on a bucket list or long-term goals
  • Reading a book (Dr. Chapman recommends reading “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” together and discussing each chapter)
  • Working out/exercising
  • Having a relationship evaluation; discussing where you could improve and where you are succeeding

There are infinite possibilities of things you can do during your quality time. It will vary and depend widely on the interests, hobbies, lifestyle of both you and your partner. My friend’s sister and her husband take their time together early each morning as they work out. One of my favorite professors and her husband planned on reading their bible together each night before bed. Another couple plans to go on a long bike ride up a canyon near their home each Friday morning. What matters is that you are spending time together, and that you are focusing on spending Quality Time with your partner. As you make an effort to spend more quality time with your partner, you will find that he or she is more satisfied in your relationship and feels more connected to you. This truly does wonders for a relationship!

You may be wondering how your partner can have your “undivided attention” if you are doing something else together–like playing a game or scrolling Pinterest for recipe ideas. What I mean (and what Dr. Chapman means) by “undivided attention” is that you put the rest of your life on hold. Phone calls, texts, emails, the news, even your children (!) can wait. Your relationship and its health comes before everything else. Some couples choose to put their phones in a basket or in another room while they spend their Quality Time together, so as to not be distracted in any way. If you have children and find it nearly impossible to have a single moment of peace and quiet, plan ahead! Take advantage of whatever time you do have on your own and give some of it to your partner. Yes, life will always be there and you will always have demands pulling you several different directions, but if you can put as much of life on hold as possible, you can focus on the most important thing in front of you–your relationship with your partner. That is what I mean by giving undivided attention to your partner. Pause everything else and physically/emotionally/mentally BE with him or her.

Every relationship has areas that work well and areas that could use improvement. Feeling more loved and appreciated is something all of us would like! If you do not know your partner’s (or your own) love language, I highly recommend taking the quiz from the 5 Love Languages website. Understanding love languages will enable you to directly and efficiently communicate how much you care about your significant other.  If your partner is learning to communicate in your love language, offer gentle guidance and point out progress. If you are trying to speak your partner’s love language, be patient–it takes time to learn how to speak a new language. Learning to express love through Quality Time can be fun because there are so many ways to spend time together. The most important thing is to just be present. That is the best gift you can give your partner! As the old adage goes, “love” is really spelled T-I-M-E. Should you ever need additional assistance implementing love languages and working towards a more fulfilling relationship, you know my office door is always open!

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

Resources: