family estrangement

Things We Don’t Talk About: Family Estrangement & Cutoff

Content note: This post contains mention of childhood abuse and trauma. Please exercise discretion if this is something that may be triggering or upsetting.

This is part of a continuing series of “Things we don’t talk about,” also known as “Why people are in therapy” and “the elephant in the room.” While many therapists work with people who are estranged from family members. Not as many will acknowledge that there are times and events that make it appropriate to limit or even cut off contact with a family member. With more frequency, I am discussing and hearing about adult children who have experienced this with a parent. More often than not, the estrangement comes after years of verbal, emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse. I often find myself asking the critical question: If you were not related to this person, would you continue to have a relationship with them?

I’m very lucky to have the parents that I have. I would still be friends with them even if I wasn’t related to them. Their parenting wasn’t perfect (no one’s is!). But they learned from their mistakes and tried to repair any tears that happened in our relationship over the years. They set appropriate limits with me and my sister, held us accountable when we broke rules, and raised us with the knowledge that we were loved and cared for.

It is appropriate to set boundaries.

Remember, boundaries are not for the other person! They are for the person setting the boundary, in order to draw the line and set a healthy limit on what is (and isn’t) acceptable. Sometimes cutting off contact is the healthiest thing to do. However, there’s a narrative in our culture that says that children should always love and be connected to their parents. When some of my clients have shared with friends that they don’t speak to their parent(s), they hear the old saying: Blood is thicker than water.

That phrase is often used to force someone to continue a relationship that not only isn’t healthy, but is actively harmful. But that’s not the whole saying. The whole saying is: The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb. Translation: the promises you make to people are more vital than a biological tie. With the help of a supportive therapist, you can start to learn your appropriate boundaries and work on setting them. When people violate those boundaries, they’re showing you who their covenant is with—and it’s not you.

What is Divorce Counseling?

Divorce counseling is different from marital or couples counseling in that it takes place after the couple has decided to split up. (Incidentally, divorce counseling isn’t just for people who are legally married—it can also be helpful for people who have children or property in common.) Generally, divorce counseling can be divided into two parts: pre-divorce and post-divorce.

Pre-Divorce Counseling

  1. What: In pre-divorce counseling, you can expect to learn skills to rationally make the major decisions that have to be made when a couple is splitting assets, determining custody of their child(ren), or ironing out financial details. This is especially important for couples who have a child (or children) together. I have been known to ask parents to put the Three Tenets of Right Speech as the background to their phones: 1. Is it true? 2. Is it kind? 3. Is it necessary? (Or, as Craig Ferguson said in his standup, “Does it need to be said? Does it need to be said by me? Does it need to be said by me right now?”)
  2. Why: Often, by the time people get to deciding to divorce, there is so much animosity built up between parties that having everything becomes even more challenging. The choices that you make following your decision to proceed with splitting up can have an impact that far exceeds the length of your relationship, especially where children are involved. An important question that CoParenting International asks is, “What do you want the legacy of your divorce to be?”

Post-Divorce Counseling

  1. What: In post-divorce counseling, you can work with a neutral party to iron out the sticky situations that happen after divorce, whether that’s a financial change, a move, or a new adult in your child(ren)’s life. One of the things I teach is BIFF communication, which stands for Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm. An example would be a text reading, “Hi Sally. I will pick up Jeremy at 3 pm on Friday and bring him back to your house on Sunday at 5 pm. Thanks.” This is an alternative to the “nastygrams” often sent by co-parents, which may sound familiar if you’ve ever received (or sent) one: “Hey. PLEASE HAVE JEREMY READY at 3 pm Friday. I don’t want a repeat of last week, when you SAID he’d be ready, and he WASN’T. You just want to ruin our time together, don’t you?”
  2. Why: Life circumstances can change quickly, and the former spouse who was able to pay spousal support might not be able to if he or she experiences a job loss. Likewise, when new partners come into our former partners’ lives, re-negotiating can be extremely difficult.

If you need help navigating the difficulties of life after splitting up with your partner, contact us!

The Importance of Ritual in Couple Life

Lately in the office, we’ve been talking about the things that “feed” us—what helps us to be better therapists, better colleagues, and overall better humans. After thinking about this quite a bit, (I’m a ponder-er—I do a lot of my processing internally) I realized that the most important thing to my mental and relational health is the presence of ritual and making time for meaningful rituals. For me and my husband, that means:

Being purposeful about time.

We got married on the 17th of March so on the 17th of every month (or as close to it as possible), we go on a date. Having a dinner that neither one of us have to clean up, going for a walk in one of our local parks, or going to see a movie that we’ve been looking forward to helps us stay connected and have something to look forward to when the work week gets rough.

We also have a shared Google calendar, so we know what each other has going on during the week. Early on in our relationship, we started calling each other on our way to and from work, to share what we’re looking forward to, what was hard, and generally checking in. Now, almost 14 years later, we still do this even though we now live in the same house.

Making room for fun.

We have an ENORMOUS collection of board games and have made a special effort to find board games that are two player-only, or have a decent two-player version. (NOTE: It can be difficult to find two-player games. Many multi-player games will provide a variation for two players, but often the game just doesn’t work as well. There are great guides on the internet that can point you to the best ones for you.)

Setting aside time for silence.

My husband and I are both introverts—he more than I. (He’s an ISFJ, I’m an INFJ.) We set aside time in the evening to just be together in silence, and every Sunday we attend religious services together. With so much noise happening in the environments around us, it’s easy to forget how powerful silence can be.

What rituals do you do to stay connected with your partner? What could you add to your life to improve your connection? Check back soon for a look at rituals in family life!

Living in the Gray Area

Tuesday Thoughts: Living in the in-between

Recently, I’ve been talking to people about the gray area, that in-between where things are both, rather than either-or. In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (or DBT, for short), significant time is given to this subject. In fact, the first word, “dialectical,” means “the process of thought by which apparent contradictions are seen to be part of a higher truth.” The classic DBT example is that you can be doing your best, and want to do better. That AND part is very important, because if it’s changed to a BUT (“I’m doing the best that I can, but I want to do better”), the first part of the sentence doesn’t really matter. All you’re left with is “I want to do better,” which, as a goal, isn’t meaningful, measurable, or specific.

So much of life is lived in this in-between, gray area. As I trained in DBT, I realized that it was a natural fit for me, because I have long been able to see both sides of an argument at the same time. (In college, I had a boyfriend who told me I was impossible to argue with because I “wouldn’t pick a side” and argued all the sides at once. I think of that as a skill, now!) One of the primary tasks of the therapist is to be able to see where others are coming from. Often, this means that I have to understand a viewpoint that is not my own. In the room in couples therapy, it’s very important for the therapist to be able to see both parties sides. The common belief that the therapist is going to tell the other party all the things they’re doing wrong isn’t what therapy is about—I’m there to be on the side of your partnership, not one partner over the other.

Polarization seems to be a common malady now. The gray area leaves room for compromise, whereas the poles just serve to pull us further apart. Compromise doesn’t mean turning away from your values, or abandoning your ideals. It means finding common ground based on the desire to solve a particular problem. And, ultimately, isn’t that what we’re trying to do—solve problems? Whether they’re problems in your work life, your relationships, or with your children, looking for the gray area can open up solutions that would otherwise be impossible to see.

Jennifer Kendrick

AAMFT Approved Supervisor
Kentucky Board Approved MFT Supervisor

Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Clinical Social Worker in KY
Licensed Clinical Social Worker in IN
cell: 502.203.9197

Setting Boundaries

Lately, I’ve been talking a lot about boundaries, especially as people set their intentions for the New Year.

As a refresher, here are some healthy boundary reminders:

  • It is not your job to fix others.
  • It is okay if others get angry.
  • It is okay to say no.
  • It is not your job to take responsibility for others.
  • You do not have to anticipate the needs of others.
  • It is your job to make you happy.
  • No one has to agree with you.
  • You have a right to your own feelings.
  • You are enough, and don’t have to convince people that you are.

It took me a long time to learn that fourth one–not being responsible for others. As a social worker and family therapist, I think it’s common for those of us in the helping profession to feel like we have to do all the things for all the people. As it turns out, that’s not all that healthy, either for the person helping, or for the person being helped! (There’s a lovely poem by Shel Silverstein called “Helping.” It’s one of my favorites, and has adorned the wall in several of my offices over the years.)

do all the things

Here’s some of what boundaries are NOT:

  • Shutting everyone out, and not sharing any information or asking for help.
  • Not caring about the people you love.
  • Ignoring/avoiding your own feelings or concerns in order to “keep the peace.”
  • Rules by which you dictate the behavior of others.
  • A guarantee that everything will be perfect.

I like to use the analogy of a house. Rigid boundaries are a big stone wall miles away from the house. No one gets in, but nothing gets out, either. If there’s an emergency and you need help, no one can assist you without knocking down the wall. In contrast, diffuse boundaries are no barriers between your house and the outside world. Anything and anyone can get in or out. While that may seem fine if you need help, you also have to put up with people peering in your windows, and even potentially walking right into your house!

The ideal would be a fence with a gate. You get to choose what you let in and out. You can see what’s over the horizon, and prepare, if necessary. (One of the downsides to the big stone wall is that you can’t see what’s over the horizon until it’s right on top of you. So if there’s a tornado coming, you won’t be able to see and prepare for it until it has torn down your wall and is coming toward your house.)

If you feel like you need to work on healthy boundaries in your relationships, contact True North Counseling!

Jennifer Kendrick

AAMFT Approved Supervisor
Kentucky Board Approved MFT Supervisor

Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Clinical Social Worker in KY
Licensed Clinical Social Worker in IN
cell: 502.203.9197

Family & Life Hacks for the Holidays

The Holidays are coming and most people have a love/hate relationship with them. We love the food, the lights, and the sentimental feelings that come with them, but hate the stress, the drama, and the sentimental feelings that come with them. Whats more, few things can be more painful than celebrating the holidays without a lost loved one or after a tragedy.

I’ve compiled some suggestions for getting through the upcoming Holiday season. As they say in the many treatment groups, “Take what you like and leave the rest.” I hope they can make these next 6-8 weeks more meaningful and restful.

1. Lower your Expectations

Whatever your thinking about HOW the Holidays should unfold, cleanse your mind of those thoughts.

2. Traditions are Evil

There I said it. More families have more fights over TRADITIONS than anything else. Nothing is worth losing your peace and quiet!

3. Get off the Family and Office Gift Exchange

It’s a waste of money. I have sadly listened to many families that waste lots of money buying gifts for extended families members. I have 8 siblings and 50 plus nieces and nephews. We decided 40 years ago to NOT do the exchange. Best family decision we’ve ever made. I have always opted out to the office “white elephant” exchanges. I have never regretted that decision.

4. Decorate your House For You, Not for Anybody Else

Put your tree up when you want it up. Take it down when you want it down. Keeping up with the neighbors is a trap. Don’t do it.

5. Do not “Charge” the Holidays

If you limit your gift buying to cash, you’ll come out the other end much happier.

6. There is No One Reason for The Season

There are “Reasons” for the season. You get to decide. There are religious reasons. There are family reasons. There are cultural, and personal, and altruistic reasons. It can be whatever you want. I find meaning in the New Year’s Day Holiday. It gives me a chance to reflect on the past year and dream about the new.

7. Make Amends

Do not let another Holiday Season pass, being at odds with a family member or friends. Those hurting relationships will rob you of your joy during this season.

Slow down. Take a Deep Breath. Relax. Do Nothing. Forget the concerts. Forget the scenic drives. Forget the Holiday Party. Forget the Mall. Forget the congested traffic. Forget the holiday movies. Try to do as little as possible this Holiday season. Stay at home and simply enjoy the quiet evenings with your family and loved ones.

Don’t be afraid if you and your kids get a little bored. Boredom can be a motivating force for creativity. Do not feel pressure to entertain your kids every second during the Holiday-School break. Worse-case scenario: They’ll look forward to getting back to school.

Get Outside. Walk, hike, stroll, sit on a park bench, lay under the stars, visit the many parks in Louisville, have a winter picnic. Seriously, get off your butt this Holiday Season! You’re most likely going to eat more. That’s okay! Enjoy the food. Enjoy the Thanksgiving and Holiday meals.

Then get out and walk. Go into the forests. Do a special walk on Thanksgiving morning or New Year’s Day.

Parenting a Teenager

I interviewed Kim Francia, BCBA this past week. She is a Behavior Analyst on our staff. She has close to 10 years of experience working with families and behavior problems. And she is a parent of teenagers.

I asked her to share some strategies for parenting a teenager. We came up with these principles:

1. Make sure you’re in charge when they’re children! This means being consistent. ‘No’ means no. If you ask them to do something, they don’t get away with NOT doing it. This means rewarding good behaviors and punishing bad behaviors. Remember:

All children need to learn two things:

They don’t get what they want all the time.

They have to do some things that they don’t want to do.

2. Transition away from a punishment-based parenting style to a privileges-based parenting style. Think about what you wanted when you were a teenager. PRIVILEGES. You wanted a permit, you wanted to stay out later, to go to concerts and places by yourself, to choose your own friends, and the power to decide if you attended a family outing or not.

The one thing that I have learned, and Kim agreed, was that you cannot punish teenagers into growing up!

3. A Privileges-Base Strategy says, “If you want to be treated like a 16-year old (privileges) then you have to act like a 16-year old (mature behaviors). These might include:

Get yourself up every morning.

Passing all of your classes in school.

Taking care of your hygiene on a daily basis.

Managing your emotions.

Working.

And most important:

Being were you say you’re going to be!

4. This one’s simple: let the “School of hard Knocks” kick in! If they don’t want to work, get used to being poor. If they want a permit, the state has academic requirements.

5. Lastly, Kim and I both agree that you must preserve your relationship with your teen. Parenting a teen can take its toll on the relationship. If you remain upset with them for days on end, then rethink the strategy that your using. We’ve seen parent and teens that, simply put, cannot stand each other, never talk and can’t wait to live separately. It doesn’t have to be that way.

You absolutely need to keep taking!

6. Finally (again), before things get really bad, bring yourself and your teen in for some family therapy. True North Counseling specializes in working with teens and their parents. Honestly, it’s the most fun that I have; helping parents help their teens grow up!

True North Counseling Rememberance Blog

Who Changed Your Life?

Who Changed Your Life? George Flores Changed Mine.

My list is large. Of course, my parents and family are on my list. As a child, my bronchial tubes were closing and my sister, Shirley, put me under a homemade-steam tent. I was able to breathe. I was 8 years old.

Many of you who know me, know that I love hiking and backpacking. I love the Grand Canyon.

The person that introduced me to the Canyon was George Flores. He changed my life.

It was February of 2002. I remember it vividly. All of our equipment was rented from the General Store on the rim of the Canyon. We arrived at our first campsite and realized that we had left one of our tents in the store. There were four of us: two women and a child, and George and me. And now just one tent. We looked at each other and smiled. George and I spent the next 4 nights sleeping under the stars in the Grand Canyon. I’ll never forget it.

George passed away last year and we released his ashes into the Canyon. In between the time that he introduced me to the Canyon and the trip that laid him to rest in there, George helped me develop a hunger for the outdoors, and really, for life.

We fished for trout in the Sierra’s, cycled across the Golden Gate Bridge, backpacked in Yosemite, through the Tetons, up to Thousand Island Lake, and to countless places in California. We photographed at Big Sur, Monterrey, Death Valley and the Canyon. I am a photographer, cyclist, and backpacker in large part because of George.

We had a Victory-Beer outside the Giant’s baseball stadium the year they won the World Series.

All of it changed my life. He was my brother-in-law and a friend.

Was it the Canyon and those road trips, listening to the Eagles? Was it George? He was a teacher and he taught me many things. And I suspect that George learned a little from his friend and brother-in-law, Mark Neese.

Standing at Plateau Point and watching George’s ashes blowing in the Arizona wind, I thought of this beautiful poem:

 

Do not stand at my grave and weep

I am not there, I do not sleep

I am a thousand winds that blow

I am the diamond glint on snow

I am the sunlight on ripened grain

I am the gentle, gentle autumn rain

 

Do not stand at my grave and weep

I am not there, I do not sleep

When you awake in the morning hush

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circling flight

I am the soft, soft starlight, starlight at night

 

Do not stand at my grave and weep

I am not there, I do not sleep

 

I will never be able to look into the Canyon without thinking about George. And for that I am thankful.

True North Health

The Therapy of Hope

Throughout our history, humans have gone through many times of despair. Families have lost hope. At times, people have felt and feel hopeless. I don’t want to sound like a downer, but all of us, at times, have wondered if it’s worth it. We have contemplated giving up on a relationship, a teenage son or daughter, a job, and yes, ourselves.

I have taken many courses throughout my life, and I’ve read many books, but none affected me as much as “A Theology of Hope,” by J. Moltmann. In it he writes,

Totally without hope one cannot live. To live without hope is to cease to live. Hell is hopelessness. It is no accident that above the entrance to Dante’s hell is the inscription: “Leave behind all hope, you who enter here.”

People come to therapy because they have feelings of hopelessness. As a young therapist, I was inspired by Moltmann’s declaration, to be an instrument of hope. At the very heart of therapy is the goal of helping people find hope, because without it they cannot live.

I believe that hopeful people inspire hopefulness in others. A hopeful therapist has many tools and strategies for helping people, but most important they inspire hopefulness. I believe they infect people with their hopefulness. They engage in a Therapy of Hope.

I have often advised that, when people leave their therapy sessions with a therapist, and they do not feel more hopeful, that they should seek out another therapist. It doesn’t matter how many letters they have after their names or books on their shelves, what you need is more hope. Thankfully, there are many, many clinicians that are able to give you this most basic gift.