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.

References:

The Link Between Mood Disorders and Addiction

About 20% of Americans with an anxiety or other mood disorder (like depression) also have an alcohol or other substance use disorder.

Do you get anxious when you have to speak in front of an audience, take a test, or talk with a superior? Or maybe when you are facing debt, in an argument with someone you care about or at the precipice of a potentially life-altering decision? Every human being faces experiences that cause anxiety, but some feel it more than others. Research indicates that there is a genetic predisposition to anxiety; some of our nervous systems are more prone to anxiety than others. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 40 million people in the United States have suffered from some kind of anxiety disorder, including panic attacks and phobias. When you face anxiety, how will you handle it?

(Note: While this blog post focuses primarily on the link between anxiety and addiction, I have witnessed, with my clients, that this information can be generalized to other mood disorders as well.)

Individuals who come from unstable families and lack secure attachment often experience generalized anxiety; they may turn to drugs to calm themselves down. Many teens begin to abuse alcohol in their adolescence; it is their way of managing social anxiety.  A friend of mine abused prescription medications after her brother’s suicide; it was her way of muting her overwhelming feelings of loss. Many addicts relapse; it is their way to escape reality. Several of my clients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experience major anxiety; they have a difficult time regulating their nervous system responses and often turn to addictive substances for comfort.  Some people, however, face anxiety head on with exercise, self-care, hobbies, a balanced diet, etc. While everyone experiences some form of anxiety or a mood disorder (like depression) during their lives, only some individuals combat their anxiety with addictive substances.

The question begging to be asked is–does a mood disorder like  anxiety or depression cause addiction? No. So is there a link between anxiety and addiction? That answer is a resounding yes. Can it lead to it? Absolutely.

Anxiety consists of the excessive need for control; ignoring psychological and physical signs of stress; the unending need for approval; perfectionism; and strong reactions within the body and mind. The physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety are similar to withdrawal symptoms from drugs and alcohol. An addict will turn to substances, or other addictive behaviors to calm an anxious state. The avoidance of uncomfortable physical agitation and painful emotions are some of the key components that maintain the connection between addiction and anxiety. Both anxiety and addiction strengthen as the addictive behavior continues. Substance abuse can mask anxious feelings preventing the addict from receiving proper treatment for anxiety.

People who experience anxious moments, but who do not have anxiety disorders, will be able to go about their day when the crisis passes; people with anxiety disorders cannot stop the effects of their anxiety disrupting their everyday life. Professional, social, familial, and academic obligations will be interrupted and damaged by the sense of panic, stress, and foreboding that comes as a part of the condition. Social anxiety disorder frequently “travels in the company” of alcohol or drug abuse, as people with social anxiety disorder might try to make use of alcohol or cocaine to help make them feel more comfortable and less inhibited in social settings.

For individuals struggling with anxiety, substances offer an escape. For others, substances bring a feeling of relative normalcy (self-medication). For some, anxiety is a factor of their personality that also includes aspects like impulsivity that make the anxious person more likely to use substances.  Although not entirely understood, there is a connection between anxiety disorders and substance abuse. About 20% of those with an alcohol or substance use disorder also have an anxiety or mood disorder. In fact, many of my clients with an addiction (mostly sex addiction) are self-medicating their anxiety and depression with their addiction! It is also important to note that addiction can happen without any substances; you can be addicted to an eating disorder, gaming, sex, exercise, etc. The point is that mood disorders can either reinforce or be reinforced by addictive substances.

Treating substance abuse without treating the anxiety that causes it is a fruitless endeavor. 

Treating substance abuse without treating the co-occurring disorder can lead to higher rates of relapse. Due to the similarity of drug and alcohol withdrawal symptoms and anxiety symptoms, both need to be treated at the same time. The treatment for anxiety and addiction is referred to as dual diagnosis and it is important to find an addiction treatment facility, or a therapist, that can address both the addiction and the anxiety.

It is only through therapy that clients can make tangible strides towards restoring a sense of balance and stable mental health to their lives. Simply walking away from treatment after detox is ineffective…and might even prove more harmful. Now is the time to address the symptoms of anxiety and addiction that feed off of each other and keep you in the self-defeating cycle. Allow me to help you break the dependence on the substance or behavior, you have used to manage your anxiety and distress, as well as provide sustainable ways to cope with your mood disorder. Happiness is possible. Healing is possible. Contact me today to get started.

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


References:

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:

Bulimia Nervosa at a Glance

“For me, the bulimia was about stuffing my emotions. So I stopped suppressing my feelings.” ~Cheryl James

My friend’s dad is a dentist; within the first minute of looking into someone’s mouth, he can tell if the person struggles with bulimia nervosa. This is because bulimia–the binging and purging of food–wreaks havoc on a person’s teeth. The acid from the stomach visibly destroys the enamel of the teeth and causes noticeable discoloration. But this particular side-effect of bulimia is only the tip of the iceberg among much more serious consequences that come from this eating disorder and mental illness. Continue reading to learn what it is, what causes it, as well as the symptoms, consequences, and recovery options for bulimia nervosa. 

Even though Derek Zoolander downplays the significance of bulimia nervosa, it is a very serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder. People with bulimia secretly binge and then purge to get rid of extra calories in an unhealthy and unnatural way. Binging includes discretely eating a large amount of food, within a small amount of time, accompanied by a lack of control during this episode. Purging methods vary from regularly self-induced vomiting, misusing laxatives, weight-loss supplements, diuretics or even enemas after bingeing. Other ways include denying calories to prevent weight gain through fasting, strict dieting or excessive exercise.  The severity of bulimia is determined by the number of times a week that a person purges, usually at least once a week for at least three months. 

The exact cause of bulimia is unknown. Many factors could play a role in the development of eating disorders, including genetics, biology, emotional health, societal expectations and other issues.  Women are more likely to struggle with bulimia than men, but the latter are still susceptible. Bulimia typically begins in the late teens or early adulthood.

Bulimia shares several symptoms with other mental illnesses: Negative self-esteem, problems with relationships and social functioning, difficulty concentrating, poor sleep patterns, withdrawal from friends, etc. Symptoms specific to bulimia nervosa include extreme preoccupation with self-image, body shape and weight; fear of gaining weight; feeling uncomfortable eating around others; trying to “fill up” by ingesting unsubstantial food (ie. condiments), drinking excessive amounts of water or non-caloric beverages, or trying to chew food for an unnecessarily long amount of time; hoarding food in strange places; disappearing after eating (often to purge in a private place); frequently using mints, mouthwash and gum to cover unnaturally bad breath; and maintaining a rigid exercise regimen to “burn off” calories ingested. 

Bulimia nervosa affects far more than how an individual perceives him- or herself or what he/she eats. This eating disorder truly harms a person’s body in the following ways:

  • Unusual swelling of the cheeks or jaw area  
  • Calluses on the back of the hands and knuckles from self-induced vomiting 
  • Bloating from fluid retention  
  • Stomach cramps and other gastrointestinal issues (constipation, acid reflux, etc.) 
  • Abnormal laboratory findings (anemia, low thyroid and hormone levels, low potassium, low blood cell counts, slow heart rate) 
  • Dizziness 
  • Fainting/syncope 
  • Feeling cold all the time 
  • Dental problems like enamel erosion, cavities, and tooth sensitivity 
  • Dry skin 
  • Dry and brittle nails 
  • Swelling around salivary glands 
  • Thinning of hair on head, dry and brittle hair (lanugo) 
  • Muscle weakness 
  • Yellow skin (in context of eating large amounts of carrots) 
  • Cold, mottled hands and feet or swelling of feet 
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Poor wound healing 
  • Impaired immune functioning
  • Dehydration (leading to kidney failure)
  • Heart problems, such as an irregular heartbeat or heart failure
  • Severe tooth decay and gum disease
  • Absent or irregular periods in females
  • Digestive problems
  • Anxiety, depression, personality disorders or bipolar disorder
  • Fertility issues (in women)

Many people with bulimia nervosa also struggle with co-occurring conditions, such as self-injury (cutting and other forms of self-harm without suicidal intention), substance abuse, impulsivity (risky sexual behaviors, shoplifting, etc.), and even diabulimia (intentional misuse of insulin for type 1 diabetes). 

While bulimia nervosa is a very serious mental illness, the good news is that it is not a life sentence. There are many options available for treatment, including medication, support groups and group therapy, and individual therapy. By identifying your triggers, I can help you manage stress and avoid the cycle of binging and purging. Getting support and help often gives you extra strength to fight your eating disorder.  Because bulimia is related to self-image–and not just about food–bulimia can be hard to overcome on your own. Effective treatment can help you feel better about yourself, adopt healthier eating patterns and reverse serious complications. Contact me today to get started.

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.

Resources:

Beware the Sting of the Internet: Simple Ways to Protect Your Home from Porn

“There is no dignity when the human dimension is eliminated from the person. In short, the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of the person, but that it shows far too little.”  ~ Pope John Paul II

Every second…

  • 28,258 users are watching pornography on the internet
  • $3,075.64 is being spent on pornography on the internet and
  • 372 people are typing the word “adult” into a search engine.

Every day…

  • 37 pornographic videos are created in the United States
  • 2.5 billion emails containing porn are sent or received
  • 68 million search queries related to pornography (25% of total searches!) are generated, and 
  • 116,000 queries related to child pornography are received.

In addition to these frightening numbers, 40 million Americans regularly visit porn sites; 35% of all internet downloads are related to pornography; 34% of internet users have experienced unwanted exposure to pornographic content through ads, pop up ads, misdirected links or emails; and 33% of porn viewers are women. There is no doubt, pornography is everywhere. It is accessible just as it is addictive. So how can you protect yourself and your home from pornography? Since the web is accessible on so many devices nowadays, I want to go over some free and relatively easy ways to block pornography in your home.

DNS

The Domain Name System (DNS) is the Internet protocol that converts website names (domain names) to IP addresses. Filters at this level prevent the DNS resolution for the blocked sites, so their content never loads. This is the fastest way to block sites. Every device needs DNS to connect to the Internet, so this type of filtering works everywhere. All you have to do is open the device Settings, look for Network Settings or Wifi Settings and change the DNS servers (also called NameServers) to the IP address provided by your Internet Filter. Click here and refer to step one for specific instructions on how to open the settings, get to the appropriate filters, and block the known IP addresses. This article also has incredibly clear and helpful steps for setting up “clean” server providers on each of your devices. (It is important to note that if you are using your phone’s internet, versus wifi, you can bypass any filtering settings on DNS.)

PARENTAL CONTROL

When you make changes or set up filters on your device(s), you will need to set up parental control options that will disable your children from altering any of your settings or removing the filters you have put in place. This can be done on most TVs and devices like Roku, Amazon Fire Stick, and Chromecast. Each device might have a different name for Parental Control, but it is generally called Parental Control or Restrictions. On IOS (iPhone/iPad), you can do it by going to Settings-> General-> Restrictions and filtering the content you do not want to allow your children to see. On that page, if you scroll down to Allowed Content, I would recommend setting:

  • Movies: PG-13
  • TV Shows: TV-14
  • Books: Restrict explicit content
  • Apps: 12+
  • Siri: Explicit language filtered
  • Websites: Restrict adult content

ROUTER

Too many families miss the significant step of controlling their wireless router. You are responsible for every digital click that occurs on your WiFi network–every babysitter, every relative, every friend. Please make sure you have eliminated the bad stuff before they even decide to connect their device to your home’s network!

BROWSER HISTORY

Once you set up a filter to block pornographic content and enabled parental control, I recommend doing spot checks every day or every couple of days to see what online sites are being visited in your home. Older kids will learn to clear their browser history, but younger kids are not aware of that trick. Some devices (like Mac), even allow parents a way to prevent browser history from being deleted! Be aware of “incognito mode,” which is an internet browser setting that prevents browsing history from being stored. If you want to prevent this and have iOS, delete the app store to prevent more apps from being downloaded and ensure Safari is the only browsing app–Safari does not allow private browsing.

SPONTANEOUS FOLLOW-UP

Every few days, go through your children’s messages and social media apps like Instagram, Facebook, Whatsapp, etc. Look at the photos they are viewing and sharing, as well as with whom they are talking. Scan the photo library on your child’s cell phone as well; although younger kids may not be sexting yet, by the time they hit their tweens they may begin participating in this type of behavior. Be sure to look at your children’s deleted photos and messages because kids these days are smart! 

USE YOUR WORDS

At the end of the day, parents ultimately want their children to make good choices on their own–without filters or blockers or any kind. No parent wants to feel like a bossy, overseeing nag. Having a solid foundation where mutual trust and communication are employed will be the best way to help your kids be open with you. If they know they can come to you with questions, concerns, or mistakes without you getting upset, they will be more likely to be honest and open. So start today. Talk with them. Be real with them. Tell them that you will always be there to help them in any way you can.

Other practical tips include paying for ad blockers that potentially have offensive material, limiting or disabling data on your child’s device, restricting the YouTube app on your/your child’s device, enabling the PIN and call your Cable provider to block porn pay-per-view, and being sure to report offensive material if you do see it in a browser search (this will help improve their filtering). Be sure to keep in mind that whatever filtering tools you choose to go with will need to be installed on every device your child may use to go online: game consoles, cell phones, tablets, Kindles, personal laptops, computers, etc. 

One final tip: Lean on the many available resources to protect your home. Though the internet is full of pervasive material, there is also so much information on how to avoid and protect your family against it. You don’t have to do this alone; feel free to contact me with any questions, or to schedule a session. My 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.

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Family Fun Day

“When planning family activities around movement it is important to make fun the overriding factor. In fact, don’t even use the word exercise. Think of using games, competitions, etc.” ~Gregory Florez, the senior adviser on workplace leadership and vitality for the American Council on Exercise.

At the end of every month, I do a post on self-care. I have covered self-care topics such as: why it is important, how it is not selfish, how self-care can mitigate anxiety, help us forgive, and boost self-esteem. I have even given some zany ideas for out-of-the-box self-care. These posts have primarily focused on the individual nature of self-care. This month I want to start taking self-care a different direction; I want to focus on family self-care–why it is important, and what it looks like. 

As a short reminder, self-care is any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health. Viewed through the lens of family self-care, this is any activity we purposefully do to better our family in general–to strengthen relationships, to deepen trust, to build strength (literally and figuratively), and to have fun. Individual self-care puts you in a better place in your relationships; imagine doing self-care activities together as a family unit. It is essentially relationship maintenance and will function like an oil change or tune-up on your car. In future months, I will write more about various emotional, spiritual, mental, practical, and social activities families can do for family self-care, but today we are going to focus on physical activities because Family Health and Fitness Day is TODAY!

I feel confident in saying that each parent wants to teach their children healthy habits. What better way to teach them than by being active with them–as a family? One of the goals of the U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health is to get the entire family involved in exercise. According to the report, Americans–especially those between the ages of 12 and 21–are not active enough. Let’s change that!

Since the 28th (and the last Saturday of September each year) is designated as National Family Health & Fitness Day, I have been thinking about encouraging my readers to participate. Yes, this is a day to get up, to get out, and to exercise (read: PLAY) together as a family, but I hope we all are doing this more than just once a year. Let’s make a habit of exercising together as frequently as possible. Jennifer Hopper, director of Employee Wellness, Worklife and Fitness at Piedmont recommends aiming for 30 minutes of family movement every day…then everyone wins!

National Family Health & Fitness Day will prompt families to be more active. On the 28th, local organizations throughout the country will host family-related health and fitness events at schools, park districts, hospitals, YMCAs/YWCAs, malls, health clubs and other community locations. Local family health and fitness activities will vary widely based on the organization hosting the event and the interests of local families. Activities will be noncompetitive and may include walking events, low-impact exercises, health screenings, open houses, games and health information workshops.

Seeing as how the point of this holiday is to be healthy and active, there are many ways to achieve that goal. Many family-friendly fitness activities are free. You may want to ask each member of the family to propose an activity (only rule out ideas that are truly dangerous) so everyone can be on board. Whether you want to stick close to home or are looking for an adventure, the following are some ideas for you:

  1. Wash the car together.
  2. Host your own family Olympics. Pick activities your whole family enjoys, such as kickball, hopscotch or hot potato with a Frisbee.
  3. Rake leaves together…and feel free to jump in the pile when you’re done!
  4. Plant a garden. You can make it kid-friendly by using planters rather than planting directly into the ground.
  5. Get moving for a good cause. Sign up for a fun run or charity 5K. Almost every event has an abbreviated race suited for a variety of age levels, from toddlers to adults.
  6. Go hiking, biking or walking at a nearby state park.
  7. Visit a corn maze.
  8. Take advantage of your local community center’s pool and playground, even if it’s just for 30 minutes.
  9. Window shop at the mall.
  10. Play a fitness game on a Wii or video game that induces activity.
  11. Take a bike tour of a historical part of your town.
  12. Go rafting.
  13. Squirt gun wars.
  14. “Slip-n-slide” contests.
  15. The old favorites: Kick the can, kickball, capture the flag, etc. Simple yet so fun!
  16. Flag or touch football.
  17. If you have access to a swimming pool, “Marco Polo” and other water games.
  18. A hiking treasure hunt (pick odd shaped rocks, roots, beautiful flowers, etc).
  19. Frisbee football.
  20. Badminton.
  21. Sidewalk chalk.
  22. Chase your pup until someone captures a ball or toy in his/her mouth. Keep score.
  23. The time honored tire swing.
  24. Go on a hike. 
  25. Family yoga! Ommmmmmm.

Remember to try to pick activities that keep everyone moving as much as possible. Keep it fun!

If you do not have a family or live far from them, create your own family group by inviting friends, neighbors or coworkers to get outside and get active with you. And if all else fails, get outside yourself and enjoy some nature’s cure for self-care! 

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 Self-Regulation Seems Near-Impossible: Borderline Personality Disorder

Nearly 75% of people diagnosed with BPD are women. Recent research suggests that men may be equally affected by BPD, but are commonly misdiagnosed with PTSD or depression. 

We all have mood swings, and some are more intense than others. As a therapist, I teach my clients how to self-regulate, or soothe, when a strong emotion washes over them; I have to practice those same techniques when I feel an especially heavy emotion. Although many of us are able to regulate our thoughts and emotions with practice, others struggle with it. The diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder may shed light for those struggling in this area. My wish is that by introducing this disorder, I may bring hope to those who want to understand and correct the cycles they find themselves stuck in.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a condition characterized by difficulty regulating emotions. People who experience BPD feel intense emotions for extended periods of time, which makes it difficult to return to a stable baseline. Ordinarily, people can tolerate the ambivalence of experiencing two contradictory states at one time. People with BPD, however, feel emotions so strongly that they cannot see past whatever they are currently feeling. If they are in a bad state, for example, they have no awareness of the good state. They view things in extremes–all good or all bad. This includes their opinions of other people; an individual who is seen as a good friend one day may be considered an enemy the next. This unpredictable pendulum of emotions affects how they see everything, including themselves and their role in the world, resulting in impulsivity, insecurity, changing interests and values, and self-image issues. Difficulties with self-regulation can also result in dangerous behaviors such as self-harm and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.  

Listed below are the symptoms of borderline personality disorder. While this list is fairly comprehensive, it is important to remember that not everyone with BPD experiences every symptom. Some individuals experience only a few symptoms, while others have many. And these symptoms can be triggered by seemingly ordinary events and then be otherwise dormant.

  • An intense fear of abandonment, even going to extreme measures to avoid real or imagined separation or rejection
  • Unstable personal relationships that alternate between idealization (“I’m so in love!”) and devaluation (“I hate her”).
  • Distorted and unstable self-image.
  • Risky and impulsive behaviors (excessive spending, unsafe sex, substance abuse or reckless driving).
  • Self-harming behavior (including suicidal threats or attempts, often in response to fear of separation or rejection).
  • Long periods of intense depressed mood, irritability or anxiety.
  • Chronic feelings of boredom or emptiness.
  • Dissociative feelings—disconnecting from your thoughts or sense of identity or “out of body” type of feelings (severe cases of stress can also lead to brief psychotic episodes).
  • Wide mood swings lasting from a few hours to a few days, which can include intense happiness, irritability, shame or anxiety
  • Inappropriate, intense anger, such as frequently losing your temper, being sarcastic or bitter, or having physical fights

The causes of BPD are not entirely understood, though scientists believe that this disorder is caused by a combination of factors. First, genetics: although no specific gene has yet been directly linked to this disorder, research has found that people who have a close family member with BPD are at higher risk of developing the disorder themselves.  Secondly, environmental factors like abuse or parental separation from a parent during childhood. Third, the neurological makeup is different in individuals with BPD than those without–particularly the parts of the brain which control emotions and decision making. This disorder commonly makes itself manifest by early adulthood.

Borderline personality disorder does not have to dictate your quality of life. Only 20% of the most serious cases necessitate psychiatric hospitalization and the vast majority of those stabilize and lead productive lives after their hospitalization. Please do not get discouraged if you have been diagnosed with BPD; you can learn to live a satisfying life with rewarding relationships. Help is available. Recovery options include therapy, medications, and group, peer and family support. The ultimate goal is for a person with BPD to self-direct their own treatment plan and to learn to regulate their emotions. Contact me to today to get started on the road to healing and recovery.

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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Reconnecting with Reality: 10 Tips to Kick A Phone Addiction

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

A survey was recently conducted where participants were asked, “If you had to break a bone or break your phone what would you prefer?” The results were astounding: 46% percent of people would prefer to have a broken bone than a broken phone! Before the smartphone era, the average American spent just 18 minutes a day on the phone; today that figure is up to three hours. Three out of 24 hours of our day is being spent staring at a tiny screen…that is 1/8th of our day! Is that how we would prefer to spend our time or would we like to break that cycle and spend our valuable time on something more productive and satisfying?

The urge to pick up our devices is similar to other forms of behavioral addiction. Like gambling or shopping addiction, a small shot of dopamine is released in various regions of the brain through phone usage. That is what keeps us coming back for more, even when we know it is not in our best interest to do so. Instead of improving our lives, technology is actually getting in the way of us living and enjoying our lives. How can we overcome our addiction to distraction so we can focus on the things that actually matter? Here are ten practical suggestions we can implement immediately:

  1. Scheduled screen time. Set a timer for 15 minutes. When it goes off, spend a quick minute checking your phone’s notifications and be done. Push back the alarm to go off every 30, 45, or 60 minutes. You can even ask for help and accountability from your friends and family; tell them you will not be responding to messages as frequently as you used to.
  2. Remove distractions from the home screen. Most of us have Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc at the forefront of our screens. If we make those apps less accessible, we will not use them as much. Keep the apps that you want to encourage yourself to use (like those for reading or learning a new language) front and center, and banish anything you want to limit your time with to folders on your second page of apps (or if you have an Android phone, off the screen entirely).
  3. Disable push. An incredibly simple way to cut down on distractions is to turn off “push” notifications for as many apps as you can. Just head to Settings > Notifications to control your preferences. 
  4. Moon mode. On iPhones, there is a little icon of a moon if you swipe up to control brightness and wifi and whatnot. That little moon represents “do not disturb,” and it is kind of magical. It is a glorified silent mode, ideal for nighttime settings or undistracted time at work. Use DND and airplane mode to silence incoming distractions. 
  5. Use a filler. Instead of opening social media to scroll aimlessly, open a different app and be productive. Replace bad habits with good ones like learning a new language through Duolingo, creating flashcards for anything with Anki, self-reflection journaling with Vertellis, or using any number of apps to read or listen to a good book.
  6. Go old school. Many people use their phones as an alarm clock. But because the phone is easily within reach while in bed, many people find themselves scrolling right before bed and first thing in the morning. Cut that bad habit by reinstating your old-school alarm clock.
  7. “Alexa, do what my phone used to do for me.” You can ask these smart devices to play music for you, to check the weather, to read you a text,…the list goes on and on. Use Alexa instead of your screen!
  8. Grayscale. Time Well Spent, a nonprofit focused on changing our relationships to technology, recommends switching your phone to grayscale to make it less appealing. On an iPhone, find “Display Accommodations” and then turn on “Color Filters.” On a Samsung device, find “Vision” and then scroll down to “Grayscale.”
  9. Put it away. Unless there is an important phone call we are waiting for, we really do not need our phones within arms reach at all times. My dad leaves his phone on top of the refrigerator unless he needs it. Think about it–a smoker trying to kick the habit will still reach for a cigarette if it is sitting right in front of him. Ditto for phones; remove the temptation by stashing yours in your bag while at work or in a drawer when you want to have a real conversation at home.
  10. Don’t stop! Keep trying. Stay accountable. iPhones come with a built-in tracking system so we can see just how much time we have spent on any given app each day. There are also apps like Freedom, Moment, and Space that can help us see where we are spending our time and help us set limits. 

No doubt, Steve Jobs’ inventions, in the field of technology, have changed the world. But what most people do not know is he would not even let his children use an iPad. He told The New York Times, “We limit how much technology our kids use in the home.” Steve knew the power and addictive nature of these devices. So let’s be like Steve and limit our use of technology and break the cycle of addiction. The ten suggestions above can get us well on our way to getting off the phone and back to real life connection. If you are reading this on your phone, text or email someone you are thinking about. Let them know you care. Set a time to see them.  And then put the phone away.

(As always, if you find you have questions or would like to schedule a session, please do not hesitate to contact me today!)

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