Tag Archives: Parenting

NEW BOOK: “Parenting Through the Storm – Finding Help, Hope and Strength When Your Child Has Psychological Problems”

 

No, I did not write this NEW book – but I wish I had.

Or, to be precise, I wish it had been written when we first needed it – say, about a decade or so ago.

But, I am VERY happy to let you know that this book is now available in the U.S. and I had a small (very small) role in making that happen.

Parenting Through the Storm” is written by Canadian author, Ann Douglas – an “award-winning parenting writer and the mother of four children who have struggled with a variety of psychological problems – and are currently thriving.”

(Lucky her, I say to myself – re-reading the last clause).

Lucky me too because Ann Douglas contacted me last year to ask if I would assist her in customizing the original Canadian version of her book for American readers.

Big issue there, as you can probably guess, is that Canada has a rather (understatement) different health care system than we have here in the United States. While much of Ann’s amazing guide focuses on parenting  – and is written for parents wherever YOU live – to help deal with and find support for the stress that comes with raising a child, teen or young adult with mental health struggles, many of the topics covered by the book – for example, topics such as:

 

  • Obtaining a Diagnosis
  • Starting Treatment
  • Advocating for Your Child
  • Working with Your Child’s School (& College)

 

.. the information and advice for these subjects needed to be modified to reflect the (IMHO, sad) realities of how mental health care works (and doesn’t) within the U.S as well as the way we do things in our educational and legal systems.

Working with Ann to customize her Canadian-audience book for American readers was a wonderful experience. Can you tell how proud I am just to be mentioned in the Acknowledgements and to be quoted on young adult and college-related mental health on a few of its’ pages?

NOTE: This blog post is NOT meant to promote Ann’s book in any commercial manner. I’ve not been asked to plug it nor do I get any financial benefit if you purchase it. I just admire the heck out of it and am thrilled it is now available here.

What makes it special? It is a nuts-and-bolts guide but also a how-to-help-yourself-guide. Ann addresses not only the specific “What do I do now?” questions –  but also gives solid advice on how to take care of yourself at the same time. And if you don’t practice self-care as a parent of a challenging child, believe me it won’t go well for you or for anyone in the family.

You may not need this book – but my well-educated guess is that you know a parent (or a grandparent!) who does. Or will some day. One in five children and teens are affected by mental health struggles. These kids hurt – and so do their parents.

Please share the news of its’ U.S. publication widely – and if you are the one “parenting through the storm”, as Ann says, you are not alone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Books, College, Mental Health, Mental Illness, Moms, Parenting, Reading, Women, Young Adult Mental Health

Reflections on the Horrific: Thinking of the Parents

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 A quote of which I am quite fond tells us that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

(Thank you, Soren Kierkegaard for this bit of philosophical wisdom.)

Perhaps that was the thinking behind Facebook’s latest gimmick – to offer up “Memories” of posts you have shared from years prior. Mostly you laugh at your old photos or think about how young you once looked (sigh.) But sometimes you think, wow, I was pretty profound.

Last week a “Memory” popped up on FB of a post I wrote four summers ago.

I was deeply upset by the July 20, 2012  mass shooting in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater by a young man named James Holmes. My understanding (looking backwards for understanding as Kierkegaard suggests) is that he acted without cognitive understanding while in a psychotic state due to his untreated severe mental illness.

Here is what I wrote on July 22, 2012:

“The silence of the parents of James Holmes, the Aurora shooter, touches my heart. How stunned, how shocked they must be. Even if they knew that their son’s mind was slipping into delusions and derangement, probably they could not help him or convince others to do so. They join the parents of the young man known as the mass shooter at Virginia Tech as members of a club they never thought they would belong to. They are grieving, too.”

Four years later, and my sympathy is also with parents of adults who take incomprehensible actions.

So many mass shootings have taken place in recent months – with different underlying causes.

  • Some shootings caused by terrorists who did not, as best as I know, have any kind of mental illness, but sought to kill civilians for their own misguided political purposes.
  • Some shootings caused by criminals who did not, as best as I know, act under the influence of mental illness, but instead were propelled by some toxic combination of their overwhelming hatred of others, racism and/or anger.
  • Only a very few of mass shootings are caused by people, often – and sadly – young men – like James Holmes in the summer of 2012, with long untreated extremely severe mental illness whose emotions and thoughts are so impaired by the illness that they have lost all contact with external reality.

(For the record,  people with severe mental illness, especially when it is untreated, are much more likely to be the victims of violent crime, than to be the perpetrators of it.)

Through the media we read tributes to the victims, those who died and learn about their relatives who are left behind.

Rarely, though, do we read about the families of the shooters. Who are grieving too.

They, too, will have an empty chair at the next holiday table. All future family gatherings will be missing the one relative who has become famous for his notoriety, not for his good deeds. I always remember that he was someone’s son, too.  He was once well-loved. He had baby photos taken and admiring grandparents as he toddled around the house.

Then he grew up – and whatever the reason, ended up being one of those young men that we read about only when he does something tragic and terrible.

Try, if you can, when you hear about the latest mass shooting – and no doubt there will be more of them – to consider the parents of those who end up in the news for horrific reasons.

Can these parents ever, looking through a backwards lens, come to understand how their son changed from an adorable child to a very troubled adult?

Soren Kierkegaard had it right –  but perhaps only up to a point. We live forward, yes, but we can not always understand life looking backwards. Sometimes life is just too inexplicable to understand the reasons why our children take the actions they do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Are You Only As Happy as Your…

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Last Friday we had dinner with old friends, Larry and Sarah. Old in that we met them before we had children. Also old in that we are now parents of grown-ups.  We have two, they have two; adult “kids” in their late 20’s and early 30’s.

What was remarkable about our evening was that we did not discuss our kids. No talk about their jobs or lack thereof, or their choice of partners/spouses or lack thereof. Or their latest triumphs or set-backs.

There was – being 100% honest here – a brief intermission where we did verbally acknowledge (a) the existence of our adult children and (b) their general welfare.

But we did not dwell on them.

Only a few years ago we might have filled our dinner conversation with the latest news about our kids – so how is it that now we no longer need – or want – to do so?

Instead we had a refreshingly kid-talk-free, empty-nester-type conversation about food, music, books, travel, politics, current events and then back to food again. (My friend, Sarah is a fabulous cook.)

We are still parents, and will perennially be so, but the needs of our kids are no longer top of the mind, crowding out our own. While I speak to, text, email both our kids – sometimes IMHO too often with one of them, sometimes IMHO not often enough with the other  –  I no longer know what they eat for dinner, when they went to bed or what they will be doing tomorrow.

Their details belong to their own lives now. And that is how it should be. Mostly.

Admitting here that sometimes the challenges of one of our adult kids tends to encroach on this philosophy.

And when these mental health challenges are at a high point (or a low point, you get the idea; many ups and downs) these challenges could – IF WE LET THEM – take over our adult lives too. Which could easily cast shadows on the pleasantness of a nice evening out with friends.

Luckily (and truly not everyone gets this) our friends do let us talk about the unpleasant times we go through. And they can offer advice (if we are in the mood to hear it) or just be sympathetic sounding boards (sometimes even better.)

But as empty nesters we are learning – slowly but surely – to set aside our parenting selves and focus on our adult selves as often as we can.

Are you, as a parent –  “only as happy as your unhappiest child?”

I think I once was. Now I try hard not to be.

There was a wise mom in the parenting group I facilitated years ago who railed against this expression.  One time – and this made quite an impression on me – this wise mom pounded her fist on the table we were gathered around to emphasize that our happiness as parents must be de-coupled from that of our kids. Not everyone agreed with her.

Our adult kids retain their power to alarm, upset and worry us. What we do with that worry is a matter of choice and frankly, very hard work. It is a battle to stay afloat on those days when your child appears to be sinking. Battle on!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Leaving A Support Group After Leading It: Parenting & Young Adult Mental Health

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“If you founded the parents’ group, then why did you stop attending?”

A legitimate question I could not readily answer.

That question was posed to me in the Q and A after a Mental Health talk I gave a few weeks ago.  I had been invited by a Northern California synagogue to speak as part of their open-to-the-community “End The Silence” series on mental illness. They asked me to talk about the parents’ support group I started – and led for 6 years –  at my own synagogue in DC.

If you’ve read this Blog, you may have come across my post from September, 2014 – titled a “Different Kind of Kvelling” where I first mentioned our P/YAWS – short for “Parents of Young Adults Who Struggle.”  The Washington Post then published a version of my post in its @OnParenting section – and word spread.

One of my life goals (truly) is to foster the creation of support and strategy sharing groups for parents of young adults who struggle with mental health challenges such as anorexia, anxiety disorder, bipolar, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and schizophrenia at synagogues throughout the U.S.

So I was thrilled to come to California to explain why I started our P/YAWS group, how we ran our meetings and why our network of parents had been so helpful to me and to many others.

Many hands raised with questions during the Q and A session – most I could easily answer, but when asked if, after I stopped leading the group, I remained a regular participant, I stopped to consider. I gave a short response, which I forget (blame it on the bad cold I was getting over that night).

Now that I’m back home I’ve been pondering the real reason I no longer attend our P/YAWS meetings.

At first – so I tell myself – I didn’t attend because I wanted to give the parent co-facilitators who replaced me some space to develop their own style. Running a group like ours isn’t easy. Parents come with heavy hearts and worried minds. Sharing stories is painful. We support each other, offering ideas for doctors, therapists, meds, local and distant treatment programs and strategies to use with challenging young adults. Tears flow, laughter too; sometimes everyone wants a chance to talk, sometimes people want to talk too much. There is a different rhythm to each meeting. My personal “weapon” of choice was a strong sense of humor – perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea but it seemed to work. The group thrived.

And it continued to thrive without me.

After I stopped going to meetings, I was surprised at how relieved I felt.

For years I had been carrying around in my own heart and head everyone’s else’s stories. I could facilitate the back and forth based on what I knew –  I would ask S. how her son was doing on his new med or remind C. that the last time she came to the group, her daughter had been hospitalized, how was she doing now. Not being the sole person in charge freed me up to let go of the knowledge weighing on me of other participants’ pain.

The more I thought, the more I realized didn’t want to go to the group anymore, even as a participant.

In part because I didn’t want to scare anyone away.  Mental Illness happens on a spectrum. When a new parent comes to his first meeting, it can be because their young adult son has just had to leave college because of a mental health crisis. That parent is confident that there will be an effective medication, a promising therapy and that next semester their child will be back in school. And sometimes it works out that way. Our group has had many successful “graduates.”

But for those of us on the longer-term, “work in progress” path, our stories are more like roller coasters than linear tales of successful coping. I didn’t want the new parent to listen to my longer-term narrative and fear that their trajectory would resemble ours. It might or might not.

P/YAWS has been amazing for me and my husband. We could not have gotten through all that we did without it. From a wisp of an idea to a thriving monthly group for eight years, I’m proud of my role. It was through our group that I learned that a parent can only do so much. Most young adults with mental illness can change, can grow into stability but the parent cannot do it for them. Your young adult child has got to want it more than you do.

For now I’ve facilitated all I want to; I’ve encouraged, I’ve supported, I’ve shared plenty. I’m not letting up on my plan to prod other synagogues to create groups similar to ours. The need is clearly there.  But I’m going to be on a hiatus from participating around the table. Let others speak, share and be comforted. I’ve had my turn, time to sit back for a while in silence (unusual for me!) and apply the lessons I learned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why Colleges May Offer “Parent Only” Dorms by 2025

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Why are we, parents in the U.S., a decade ago and still now, so ridiculously over-invested in where our offspring go to college?

Nearly ten years ago our daughter spent her spring college semester studying in Florence, Italy. Beautiful Firenze! My husband and I visited her in early March.

From my albeit brief experience as a world traveler, I can confidently tell you that parents in other countries may not be quite as invested in their kids’ college acceptance outcomes as we are.

Wrapping scarves around our necks in Florentine fashion to walk around the city every morning, my husband would ask for “caffe macchiato” and I said “prego” to every shopkeeper.  I’m sure we did not fool anyone into thinking we were Italians, but we liked to pretend that we were.

Being on vacation for a week that March distracted me from what was really on my mind. Waiting for college admission news for our younger child back home, then a senior in high school.

So while I was standing in line to get in to see the statue of David, admiring the crenellated tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and discovering the varied delights of crostini and ribollita,  inside my head I was partially back at home waiting for the mail to arrive.

This was in the day before email notifications of college admissions so I was visualizing thick envelopes (yes!) and thin letters (no) –  and worrying.

Whenever we travel, my Detroit-born husband likes to point out what kinds of cars the locals drive. He has gotten me in that habit, too. On our Italy trip that March it struck me what the cars I saw did NOT have.

Not a single car had a college sticker on its’ bumper or rear window!

How was that possible?

And in the other parts of Tuscany that we toured in our tiny rental car, we did not spot a car window or bumper sticker that said “Universita degli Studi di Firenze” or “di Siena” or “di Pisa”.

I remember thinking, if only we could never leave Italy, where there did not seem to be a parental obsession with where their children went to college. Unlike back home where parents wore college identifying caps, t-shirts, sweatshirts and drove cars sporting omnipresent rear window and bumper stickers as if we were the ones enrolled in college instead of our kids.

Our vacation ended, as all vacations (sadly) do, and we had to return to the land of overly-abundant college affiliation indicia.

Why do so many of us point with such pride to our kids’ Higher Ed affiliations in what we drive and wear as if we were the ones who actually did the hard work to get admitted?

Earlier this fall – prior to my recent Fabulous Fibula Fracture  – I had started to volunteer with a terrific college access organization which helps first-generation kids apply to, find financing for, get accepted by and once there, stay in college.

I can’t wait until my ankle is healed enough so I can hobble on back to it.

In this program I work directly with high school seniors. Not that I have anything against parents –  heck, I am one – but having been through the college admission process 2x, I would not want to deal with any parent who behaved as I did.

Thinking back to those past Octobers and Novembers when we were in the absolute thick of the college admission process, when the “C” word was like a curse word at our dining room table, I know that I was not at my best and highest self.

Those fall days when my kids snapped at me if I asked innocent questions such as “Good morning” or “How are you?”  – which my children wisely recognized as Mom code for “Have you finished your applications yet?”

The tension in our house was palpable. Luckily, my kids were accepted at great colleges because of what they, not me, accomplished.

This fall of 2015 the media reminds us that parents are even more involved (if that is possible) with their kids’ college choices. If this over-involvement trend continues, where might it lead to in another decade?

I see the future:

By the year 2025 The National Association of Over-Involved High School Pre-College Parents  (“NAOIHSPCP”) will have successfully lobbied for and won the right to be College Co-Attendees!

  • New “parent-only-variants” of the SAT and ACT will be adapted so parents will be able to submit their own corollary college applications.
  • Parents will be required to write their own “Why I Am Unique and Have Passion So You Should Admit Me” essays.
  • And by the 2025 colleges will have created specially configured dorms so parents may live on campus near their offspring.

Satirical, maybe – but really, if this hyper-pride-in-where-my-kid-goes-to-college trend continues on its current trajectory, perhaps Parent-Only dorms will be the Next Big Thing?

Take it from someone who’s been there, done that -> Rip up your NAOIHSPCP membership card now while your pre-college child is still talking to you.

Remember: Your kid is the one going to college, not you. Repeat as many times as necessary. And one small bumper sticker per family only, please.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Going for the ‘Wow” Factor in College Admissions – From 2001 To 2015

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I often think I am a prescient person. Then sometimes I find proof.

While cleaning a long-forgotten shelf this week, I came across an old folder containing copies of my early published essays.  In my lawyering days I wrote occasional freelance essays, satirical or poignant, or both, on subjects that captured my attention as a parent and was thrilled when I saw them in print.

On May 8, 2001 – 14 years ago!! – if you were reading the Washington Post, you would have seen my article on page C4:

 

Going for the ‘Wow’ Factor”

by Nancy L. Wolf – May 8, 2001

“Recently the University of California proposed to eliminate the SAT as a requirement for admission to college. I have another bold proposal to add to the debate on the college admission process: Start mandatory college counseling in the sixth grade.

What I have learned as the parent of a high school junior is that we have waited far too long to prepare our child for the rigors of the college admission process.

We thought we were ahead of the game. We knew she needed high SAT scores, excellent grades, evidence of as many advanced placement or honors-level courses as she could squeeze into a semester, and leadership in extracurricular activities. But apparently that is no longer sufficient. As the parents of juniors were informed at a recent college night at our daughter’s school, our children must also possess some great distinction, a unique talent or accomplishment to offer to their prospective college.

It is, of course, a little late, to develop a “wow” factor when your daughter is already a high school junior.

On the way home from college night, our daughter berated us for not thinking ahead. If only we had signed her up for advanced pottery classes when she was six or taught her how to fly fish when she was eight, she might have been en route to a national ranking or regional award in the talent of her choice. How could we have been so unenlightened as parents not to know to plan ahead for the college admission process.

Take a look at the Web sites of various selective colleges. Sure, they boast of the high SAT scores and grade point averages of their recently admitted classes. But they point with even more pride to the distinctive, unusual and frankly, sometimes odd accomplishments of next fall’s incoming class. Unfortunately our daughter is unable to contribute to this new diversity.

She is not a tiger trainer, nor a commercial fisherman, nor a champion cricket player. She does not milk cows at dawn on our family farm in Nebraska, or host her own cable television show, or regularly swim across the English Channel. She has not been a master junior golfer, has never been awarded a patent for her own invention and did not win a national Hula-Hoop championship. She is, simply put, a terrific kid. How devastating to find out after all these years that this is just not going to be good enough.

One of the speakers at college night was an admission officer at a university proud of its highly selective admissions standards. He shared with us the profile of a recent applicant – a young woman, first in her family to go to college, a nationally ranked pianist, the winner of numerous math awards, the captain of the tennis team, the highest of scores and grades, who had tutored young children in Chinese.

The other parents in the audience at college night were awed at her accomplishments. I could only wonder – when did she have time to floss?

With all that she packed into her day, so busy was she fashioning her pre-college resume, that she barely had time to say hello to her parents, much less to spend an hour of downtime watching MTV. I suppose that when she gets into that highly selective college of her choice, she can learn to floss there.

Yet, the admissions officer was dismissive of her achievements. He told us that she was too “well-rounded”. What his university was looking for was that special something, that oomph that no one else had. That “wow” factor that only admission officers know when they see it.

The stress on our high schoolers is palpable.

These kids worry that they must begin studying analogies for the verbal part of the SAT I well before they even know what an analogy is.  Now added to the anxiety about grades, scores and accelerated classes, they must also devote hours, beginning at a very young age, to development of their “wow” factor. That one singular talent that will help an applicant stand out from the highly qualified crowd.

The speaker at college night was dismissive as well of the accomplishments of another applicant whose admission folder he shared with us, someone he said was a “borderline” candidate, despite his extremely high SAT scores, grades and records of challenging classes. This young man, the admission officer, told us had been the class president, editor of the newspaper and captain of a varsity team. But, he said, his university gets many of these kinds of applicants – too much leadership! – these days. We parents all slumped in our chairs, racking our brains at this late date for that elusive “wow” factor.

Now I see that we have played this all wrong. As parents,  we could have helped give our daughter the “wow” factor she so desperately needs. But unfortunately, my husband is not a senator and I am not a Supreme Court justice. There are no science buildings at any of the colleges we plan to visit that have been endowed by any of our blood relatives. We have nothing to offer our daughter in the way of distinctiveness. We, too, are normal.

So I propose that mandatory pre-college counseling begin in the sixth grade. No wait, perhaps that is too late; first grade would be better. A sign-up sheet can be passed around in every school with “wow” factors to choose from. Each first grader will meet with the college counselor to decide on what “wow” factor will be his or her special area of expertise. Elementary and middle schools would hire special tutors for afternoon “wow” factor classes.

By the time each child gets into high school, that will be one less thing to stress about. Every kid will have his or her own “wow” factor.

But wait, won’t that make it less distinctive if every child has one? There, that will be our daughter’s “wow” factor – she will be the “normal” one! No one has a “normal” for a “wow” factor these days – she’s in!”

 

(post script from May 14, 2015)

Our daughter graduated in 2006 from an amazing liberal arts college which somehow overlooked her lack of a single “wow” factor, and instead had the wisdom to recognize that having a terrific, well-rounded, smart and thoughtful young woman on their campus would be an excellent fit for both of them. Would that be the outcome in 2015? Perhaps not, the college admission process has gotten even more frantic since 2001.  The pressure on teens and college kids to be distinctive, to excel, to be perfect has reached epic proportions. How can we  – as parents – push the pendulum back to the not so far off good ol’ days when being a terrific, well-rounded kid was actually a sought after quality? For the sake of our kids’ mental health, we must take steps to do this.)

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When Cupid’s Arrows Stray – “Tough Love”

 

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When I was thinking about love during this week before Valentine’s Day, I visualized the greeting card aisle with its many categories. A card for every kind of love.

Sweet cards for child from parent. Sentimental cards to send to grandparents. Romantic cards for new loves. Sexy cards for not-so-sure-we are-in-love-yet loves. Clever cards for the long married. Even valentines for your aunt, your teacher or your best pal.

There is another different kind of love for which no valentines exist. Some of us who are parents may know it as “Tough Love”.

When I first heard about the concept of “Tough Love”, it ran counter to all of my Mom instincts. Rare is the parent that doesn’t want to protect and provide for her child. For as long as you can. And if your child colors within the lines and follows all the rules that society sets, you won’t have to stop protecting your child and providing for him or her until it’s time to leave the nest. All grown up and ready to seek their own loves.

But what if you have a child who not only doesn’t color within the lines but doesn’t believe that those lines apply? And when it comes to rules, decides that flouting them is better than following them? Up to a certain point, independent behavior is to be applauded but when it evolves into the land of out-of-control, then you, the parent, start asking yourself – is the love you are giving the answer or part of the problem?

And that is about when someone told my husband and me about “Tough Love.”

The name sounds like an oxymoron. Love, in the most ideal sense of it, should come easily and feel good. And if and when love becomes too difficult, that is when relationships fall apart and lovers part ways.

But you can’t part ways with your child. While marriage may not be forever, parenthood is. So when positive parenting falls off a cliff, you might have to turn, as we did, to “Tough Love.”

To demonstrate love to your oppositional, willful, non-compliant – you pick the descriptor – young adult, the experts told us, you have to set boundaries. Be firm (but be empathetic.) Stay united and consistent as parents. (Good luck with that one.) Definitely stop solving (or trying to solve) their problems.

And the big one, the first commandment of  “Tough Love”? Let them make their own choices – and, incredibly hard to do, let them learn from those choices or suffer the consequences, no matter the emotional or physical cost.

We tried. It worked some, didn’t work, then did again. Looking back at that period of time, those watchful days and worried-out-of-our-minds nights,  I can’t believe we got through it.

For if “Tough Love” is hard to apply to your own child, it is even harder upon a marriage.

One person in a marriage is always more of the tender sort, the other more able to harden his or her heart as necessary. One person in a marriage says “let’s give in just this once”, while the other says “no, we can’t help with that, we have to be consistent.”  One person in a marriage says “the hell with consistency, this is our child we are talking about” and the other person says “I know, that is why have to set limits.”

So we argued often, pushed and pulled, our marriage had many rocky days and certainly as a couple we won no awards for “most consistent application of the principles of  “Tough Love.”

Yet very slowly and very incrementally, it got better. Our lives now aren’t perfect. Far from it. But this Valentine’s Day, how ironic is that for timing, I am now able to reflect that we are in a better place. We have reached some semblance of stability. Our marriage is strong, our child’s life is more settled, all our lives have calmed down.

Still we are on the rollercoaster of parenting a young adult child who has a fiercely independent spirit – but the rollercoaster is now the kiddie kind, with lesser hills and smaller valleys. And when the bumps come, as they do, and always will, we know how to ride them out.

That is our love. No longer as “tough” as it once was but firm, we have stuck to that. The empathy part, also a daily principle. It isn’t romantic or easy or exhilarating.

But we have gotten through this tunnel of  “Tough Love” and have come out the other end. Intact. Still in love with each other and still in love with our child. What better Valentine’s Day gift is there than that?

 

 

 

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