Will You Challenge Yourself to Identify ‘Unspoken’ Family Rules?

There are rules and then there are rules. Some rules are explicitly created with the expectation that they would be adhered to with fidelity. Then, there are those ‘under the radar‘ rules-never actually spelled out, never spoken about, and rarely successfully challenged-not while we are children. These types of rules have a significant impact on the relationship dynamics in a family, and can define the boundaries, and expectations of what characterizes everyone’s individual role in the family…. That is, if one is to be considered  ‘valued’, by thinking and behaving within its narrow confines. For children, dysfunctional rules of engagement, by which they have no power to change, can significantly influence well-being and have life-long effects on the ways they navigate future relationships.

There was a time when conventional wisdom among adults and families, regarding children, was that, “Children were meant to be seen, not heard.” In other words, children had no say in most aspects of family life, and their place within that family was to be silently complacent. There was no such thing as speaking up for oneself. In fact, it was called, speaking ‘out of turn’. If a child were to interject his or her thoughts in some matters, they were told to  ‘stay in your place’ or ‘stay out of grown folks business’.

By today’s standards, that may seem archaic and fuel for dysfunction and leaves a child to learn about life, relationships and their own sense of self via trial and error or following old learned  patterns. Being prepared for life did not include developing one’s personal voice        . Children’s roles were clearly defined, and depending upon race and culture, some more rigid than others.

Dysfunctional family definitions often are characterized as having 8 general rules of engagement. Not every rule applies to every family, but every dysfunctional family operate and relate to one another within the dynamics of at least one of the following rules:

  1.   CONTROL- one must be in control of one’s feelings, relationships and behaviors. It is unacceptable to ‘lose yourself in love’ or even act spontaneously at any time.
  2. PERFECTIONISM- one is required to be right at all times and must be right about everything. There is a deeply psychological aspect indicated that most likely stems from the imposed demands from parents onto a child.   Children are taught that their value comes from what they do or produce.                      This unspoken rule teaches you that academic achievement, financial success, Christian service, or some other measure of external success is what makes you worthwhile.  You might feel like you have to be a “good kid” at the expense of being able to make mistakes.  As an adult, you begin to question your value when you make mistakes or fail.
  3. BLAME-SHIFTING-one either blames yourself or blames someone else. Anyone who breaks unspoken family rules becomes the scapegoat, taking on the blame.  If you speak up as a child against these family rules, you get targeted.  Parents may punish severely and blame the child, for example, for the problems the parent now faces. The thing is that children are great observers, but awful as interpreters. When you’re told there’s something wrong with you as a child, you believe it is true, even when clearly, it is not.  Others who break the rules are blamed as well, such as extended family members who attempt to change dysfunctional family dynamics into more healthy patterns.
  4.  DENIAL–Deny one’s feelings, thoughts, perceptions, wants and imaginings.  It is the most extreme refusal to admit or acknowledge dysfunction, abuses and existing problems. Change is therefore a great challenge to this family. Everything is hidden under the rug as there is collective pretending going on that nothing affects you. Children learn to minimize their parent’s drinking when the other parent covers it up, even when it leads to abuse or other problems. Or, imagine domestic violence situations. Children may learn to lie about any injuries they sustain.                                                                                         In adulthood, this can lead to dissociation, where you cut yourself off from any negativity in your life and compartmentalize to avoid distressing thoughts or feelings. You might doubt your perception of reality because it had been questioned for so long as a child.
  5. APPEARANCES ARE EVERYTHING– focus more on the external than the internal. You might learn to put on a good face even when there are problems at home. Body image issues can arise from this rule. You might be taught to wear makeup or be a certain clothing size to hide any emotional distress. You are taught to pretend all is okay on the outside when your emotions are raging on the inside.
  6. GENDER-BASED LIMITATIONS– You are taught that boys should be or girls should be…. Phrases like ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘girls should be bows and lace’ are often used to direct behavior. These gender roles can be exacerbated by Christian values that often have little basis in biblical truth.
  7. DON’T FEEL– An analogy to this can be seen in the movie, Frozen. In this movie, Elsa has magical powers that get out of control when she has negative emotions. To manage these powers, her parents isolate her and tell her ‘don’t feel’.                                                                                                                                         It is impossible not to experience negative emotions. They are unacceptable in your family-of-origin, you don’t learn to manage them properly. You might become numb to certain emotions or struggle to control them. Emotions may be seen as a sign of weakness. Another way a child can absorb this unspoken rule is by observing parents’ strong reactions to negative emotions. If a parent becomes abusive while angry, you’re likely to avoid anger out of fear of losing control.

There are more unspoken rules in families. What are the unspoken family rules you experienced growing up? How can you name these rules today so that you can break the patterns?

  •  What were the topics that were off-limits for discussion in your family?
  • What emotions were unacceptable?
  • Where did you tend to place blame when things went wrong? Yourself…others?
  • Is it okay for you to make mistakes? Where does your value come from?
  • What gender roles did you learn from your family?

Personally, I am sure that I learned that there was a certain way to dress when going out. In my family, value was placed on designer clothes, being ‘well-dressed’ and dressing up. There was meticulous care in wardrobe decisions. Today, it is completely internalized. This finds me with ‘champagne taste and beer money'[not completely true] but you get the idea. I am totally obsessed with quality clothes, unique yet timeless. Even at my age, I can admit that much of my sense of self derives from my wardrobe.

There are many problems there, yet some aren’t all bad or unhealthy. On the one hand, taking care about what one wears is a positive. It does indicate a sense of self-pride and a level of standards. On the other hand, I shop too often, collect clothes and they now overflow my closets. Yes closets, plural. Many days, I find myself standing mesmerized, for far too long, confused as to which outfit to wear. As a matter of fact, I have been known to make numerous outfit changes before walking out of my front door. I have even gotten into my car, looked down at myself, and unsatisfied, returned indoors to change clothes. That is a  pattern that I work on breaking [almost] every day. But, how I love classic quality clothes!

Actually, my assortment of denim pants has increased. Rarely seen in blue jeans in my adult life, my wardrobe largely consists of suits and skirts, flats and heels [Stuart Weitzman], and [Dooney & Bourke] handbags.[That’s another story to tell, originating from my growing years]  Now, I have about 6 pairs of jeans and will actually wear them outside, not just when cleaning and gardening around the house.

As you reflect on your unspoken family rules, are you becoming more aware of any dysfunctions? Can you identify how they may have impacted your life today?  Let me know how you manage them! If you are a parent, it is important that you become cognizant of your own lived childhood experiences, and the unspoken rules that existed within your family. Once identified, seek to mindfully parent in healthy ways. If you must, find someone to talk to about those old patterns and work to free yourself from imposing the same kinds of demands onto your children. Once again, you are invited to share your own epiphanies here!

The Emoji: Is it Conversation Hell or Heaven?

Everyone is texting, not to mention the numbers of young people […and adults, too. if you will admit it!] who are also sexting these days. In a time where cell phones have replaced landline phones, you can take these with you wherever you go. Right along with this new cell phone generation, is the text message. Everyone is texting. No phone calls- just text messages.

Gone are the days when if we wanted to have a conversation, deeply private talks or just checking in with another person, we would actually pick up a landline telephone and speak real English. If you are old enough to remember, most of those telephones had authentic rotary dialing-no tones. In fact, the expression, “hang up the phone”, originated out of the fact that the earpiece had to be hung up on top of the phone base. Today, when we wish to do the same thing, it is via text messages on mobile devices, mostly smartphones

.amelia future pc

The thing about text messages though, is that they are rarely written in grammatically-correct sentences. It is all in shorthand. Fragmented sentences. Abbreviations and acronyms like, ‘WTF’ and ‘lol’ are used to express our innermost thoughts. We ask others ‘wyd’ instead of ‘What are you doing?’ or ‘Are you busy?’ What about the ABC network TV show called, ‘WWYD'[What Would You Do]! It has gone viral- and oh so mainstream.

It seems that just as I am beginning to understand these abbreviated terms, they’ve gone and added a new layer of difficulty to the equation. We now see emojis….everywhere. These emojis are images that are used to convey some type of emotion or behavior as an expression of our reactions to some external stimuli. When something is funny to us, we say ‘LMAO’, or has that changed to something new already? 

I ask the question about learning new words to increase our vocabulary. Is it relevant any more? How does this new lingo impact schools and Language Arts instruction where students are given weekly vocabulary words to spell and use in sentence format? Is it still relevant? What about the art of the written word, storytelling, and the ability to communicate our thoughts and ideas on paper or via a word processing program? Will books morph into continuous emojis as a means to creating prose or literary works?

Emojis have advanced and expanded. In fact, they have exploded, going from a simple, :), the smiley face, to everything under the sun. It has become a language all by itself. It is possible to use images alone, no words at all, to convey full messages. For parents who are basically ‘old school’ such as myself, these damned things represent a real generation gap.

woman in teal white and black plaid dress shirt standing beside brown wall

Emojis can be likened to my speaking in Pig Latin when I was growing up. Pig Latin was used among kids when parents were around, in order that they didn’t know what your conversation was about. Emojis are cryptic in a similar way. Remember when they were called, ‘emoticons‘?? Your kids can now have fully cryptic conversations without you understanding one word or image, as it were. It is like a secret language, and almost hieroglyphic in appearance. Parents,  with the help of technology and creativity, the times have demanded that you ‘get with it’, if you want to know what your children are saying and doing. Your awareness does not constitute spying, either. It’s simply called ‘parenting’.

But, the thing is that not only are teens and tweens using emojis  in text messages. Adults are using them, as well. You now see them in online posts and messages on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and professional networking sites like LinkedIn. In a lot of ways, it is unbelievable and somewhat counter-intuitive to professionalism itself, that career-minded professionals in all industries communicate with them, too. At one point, I thought that these expressions were too casual to be considered appropriate for a professional networking platform, such as LinkedIn.

To my surprise, they are normalized and totally acceptable.  These damn millennials have taken the art of communication and the rules of engagement to a new level. When are they appropriate and inappropriate? What I do know for certain is that I must raise my level of awareness. I must step up my game. I suggest that all parents and grandparents read the emoji dictionary and keep up with your kids. Ageism is real and the inability to comprehend or communicate with emojis does nothing more than scream out that you are ‘irrelevant’, out of the loop.

I decided to write about this because a friend, a male suitor, sent a text message to me with the last one being a blue heart. I had to check with Google to decipher its meaning. Wow! I feel old.  Learn to speak Emoji, and become fluent in it. It is clearly here to stay, and either we are relevant or we fade away. For myself, I often feel as though this is purgatory-neither heaven nor hell- until I consult with an Emoji dictionary. Yes, that’s a thing, too. 🙂

You Can’t Be Anxious AND Relaxed at the Same Time

During COVID-19, so many of us have been anxiety-ridden. Our children, too. We have experienced anxiety surrounding our health status,  the future of work, learning at school and navigating life as we once thought we knew it. I know for certain that I am one of the many people whose heads have been spinning around in the midst of the uncertainty at this time. Trying to adapt, recover and respond to stress in healthy ways.

With social distancing and the wearing of masks and gloves, being social beings has operationally morphed into unfamiliar territory for which we have little personal reference. If the rules have changed, what are the new rules of engagement? How do we maintain or, for young people especially, establish meaningful relationships with others? Everyone seems to be on edge.

With social distancing, we have to practically yell at one another to have conversations. With masks covering our faces, which can disguise the visual cues that we use to decipher communication or decode verbal messages, how are we sure about what people really mean or feel when speaking to us? How are we supposed to go to work, if still employed at this time, and leave our children at home alone all day, when most childcare facilities are shut down?

The anxiety can be quite intense. How do the bills get paid, so that the electricity and the gas stays on? What about the mortgage or rent, car payments….groceries? Stimulus payments have been temporary band-aids, lasting but a few months during this pandemic health crisis. We have all been surviving in our own common, but uniquely stressful situations. These myriad of concerns all intersect with one another, and can work us down to our ‘very last nerve’.

Then, when someone notices your stress, you are told that “you should relax”Have a drink.” That approach can backfire, become problematic, and produce even greater stress, if it becomes our automatic ‘go-to’, as a means of daily coping or escaping the ‘noise’. blck girl

Relaxation can sound like a luxury, but it is a necessary state of being. It is unhealthy to spend most of our waking hours in a constant state of hyper-arousal. On edge, body tense. The impact on the physical body, triggers our brain to operate in what is called, our ‘fight or flight’ response mechanism. It is our body’s way of responding to ‘anxiety’- those external factors[like stress] that disrupt our internal balance[‘homeostasis]. In 1956, Hans Selye described three stages in this stress response, as the General Adaptation Syndrome. The stages are: alarm, resistance and then exhaustion. Think about it and the way we feel when we are stressed. When we do emerge from it, we are exhausted-spent.

So, how do we disrupt anxiety? Behavioral breathing techniques is one way.

Behavioral breathing techniques can reduce stress and focus our attention on the present. Not the external factors that cause our stress. Rather, the enhancement of our ability to focus attention on ourselves, our internal processes. Even before you can feel gratitude or count your blessings, you have to be present first. Relaxed, without distraction.

As an alternative to your fight or flight response, activate your relaxation response. Reciprocal inhibition tells us that we can’t be anxious and relaxed at the same time.

When we are anxious, you notice that you will breathe through your chest, thus allowing less oxygen in the bloodstream to circulate our body and  into the brain. The key is to breathe from the diaphragm– deep and slow breathing from your belly.  The diaphragm is the largest muscle separating the lungs from many other internal organs, and makes the lungs contract and expand.

Combining diaphragmatic breathing with other relaxation techniques, like mindful relaxation, we can become less anxious. It is at that point of relaxation and full presence, in the moment, that we can begin to make more sense of this ever-changing world. We can then mindfully tackle the uncertainties and put things into perspective. In fact, once relaxed, we can count our blessings and feel and express gratitude.

photo of woman laying on ground

The most basic way to do mindful breathing is simply to focus your attention on your breath, the inhale and exhale. You can do this while standing, but ideally you’ll be sitting or even lying in a comfortable position. Your eyes may be open or closed, but you may find it easier to maintain your focus if you close your eyes. It can help to set aside a designated time for this exercise, but it can also help to practice it when you’re feeling particularly stressed or anxious. Experts believe a regular practice of mindful breathing can make it easier to do it in difficult situations.

Sometimes, especially when trying to calm yourself in a stressful moment, it might help to start by taking an exaggerated breath: a deep inhale through your nostrils (3 seconds), hold your breath (2 seconds), and a long exhale through your mouth (4 seconds). Otherwise, simply observe each breath without trying to adjust it; it may help to focus on the rise and fall of your chest or the sensation through your nostrils. As you do so, you may find that your mind wanders, distracted by thoughts or bodily sensations. That’s OK. Just notice that this is happening and gently bring your attention back to your breath.

Try doing this:

  1. Find a relaxed, comfortable position. You could be seated on a chair or on the floor on a cushion. Keep your back upright, but not too tight. Hands resting wherever they’re comfortable. Tongue on the roof of your mouth or wherever it’s comfortable.
  2. Notice and relax your body. Try to notice the shape of your body, its weight. Let yourself relax and become curious about your body seated here—the sensations it experiences, the touch, the connection with the floor or the chair. Relax any areas of tightness or tension. Just breathe.
  3. Tune into your breath. Feel the natural flow of breath—in, out. You don’t need to do anything to your breath. Not long, not short, just natural. Notice where you feel your breath in your body. It might be in your abdomen. It may be in your chest or throat or in your nostrils. See if you can feel the sensations of breath, one breath at a time. When one breath ends, the next breath begins.
  4. Now as you do this, you might notice that your mind may start to wander. You may start thinking about other things. If this happens, it is not a problem. It’s very natural. Just notice that your mind has wandered. You can say “thinking” or “wandering” in your head softly. And then gently redirect your attention right back to the breathing.
  5. Stay here for five to seven minutes. Notice your breath, in silence. From time to time, you’ll get lost in thought, then return to your breath.
  6. After a few minutes, once again notice your body, your whole body, seated here. Let yourself relax even more deeply and then offer yourself some appreciation for doing this practice today.

This can be your much needed “Calgon, take me away!” break each day; to be totally present, mindfully relaxed, focused on you and your well-being. Make it a daily habit! Once again, you can’t be anxious and relaxed at the same time!

Try it and tell me what you think.

Recognizing The Impact of Grandfamilies

For a big part of my childhood, I lived with my grandparents. My mother’s parents were my ‘surrogate’ parents in my mother’s absence[and in her presence]. While she was pursuing her college degrees, and establishing herself as an independent and newly single parent, my grandparents were there as her loving and totally willing backup. In fact, they were quite eager to do so. I was their first-born grandchild of their first-born child. The general thought was that I would also be a welcome source of help to my grandparents as they were also helping my mother and me, too. We were a grandfamily.

As a child, one doesn’t realize the impact that raising the child of an adult child has on a grandparent. It is a safe environment, for most children, but there are still concerns and worries that both child and grandfamily have to reconcile with. Besides worrying about whether your parent is going to be okay without you, or wondering whether the parent still loves you, transitions such as these can also bring up worries about whether the child is somehow responsible for the parent or parents’ absence.

Grandparents’ love and reassurance can erase these worries, as did my grandparents for me. There was incredible pride felt by them to have me there, and I always knew that I was wanted. My mother’s absence was an issue for me, but we always communicated over the telephone, via letters, and visits throughout the year. My mother was up North and I was in the South. Every school break or holiday, I traveled by air back and forth. I was a ‘frequent flyer’ before the age of 12, usually with an assigned airline employee as my companion.

I had grown so close to my grandparents, and connected to the school community, that even when my mother had begun her career as an educator and purchased her first co-op, I didn’t want to leave my grandparents. I knew that they needed me, and I was also used to being royally spoiled. All I had to do was ask, and I got what I wanted- well almost everything. My needs were already being met. For myself, either way, an only child, I couldn’t imagine life being much better anywhere else.

After my parents were divorced, my relationship with my father was distant until I was 17, and about to graduate from high school. In his absence, my grandfather was my father figure, which was a little weird looking back. I called him ‘daddy’, as did my mother, naturally. Except for having blue eyes, I looked like him and many people, at first encounter thought he was actually my father. I didn’t mind; I adored him so.

While parental substance use seems to top the list of circumstances that place children in the care of grandparents, my situation was far from that. In fact, when I was a child, this was practically unheard of in families. Military deployment, incarceration or mental and/or physical illness are also other reasons that children come to live with their grandparents. Whatever the cause, grandparents do step in at critical times to care for their grandchildren. The perception of children in the care of their grandparents is often characterized by a sad or tragic backstory. In my case, my grandparents were caring for me to support the successful career pursuits of my  mother and ensure my own healthy development, as well.

man in blue polo shirt

No matter the backstory, grandparents who become primary caregivers for their grandchildren, do so with a pure sense of love for both the child[-ren] and parent at the core. That is the most important takeaway regarding perspectives on grandfamilies.  It is estimated that over 7.9 million children in the U.S. live with a relative who is head of the household. Here are a few more statistics on grandfamilies:

  • Over 6 million of these children live with grandparents, and another 1.8 million live with other relatives such as aunts or uncles
  • About 2.7 million children are being raised by a grandparent or other relative or close family friend and don’t have a parent living in the household.
  • 139,004 children are in the legal custody of the child welfare system with relatives providing the care, representing almost 1/3 of all children in foster care.
  • The percentage of children in foster care with relatives has increased from 24% in 2008 to 32% in 2018.
  • For every child in foster care with a relative providing the care, there are 19 children outside the system with a relative.

Over 2.4 million grandparents are responsible for their grandchildren, spanning the racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and geographic spectrum. Grandfamilies are racially and ethnically diverse. About 58% of children whose grandparents are responsible for them are white, 27% are black/African-American, 3% are American and Alaskan Native, 4% are Asian and 20% are Hispanic or Latinx.

Because of the diversity of families, programs and policies need to be culturally sensitive, language specific and multilingual staff is essential.

Children in grandfamilies are more likely to be poor than those in other families. I guess you can say that I was the exception. We were far from poor, underprivileged or disadvantaged. I was fortunate. I had access to almost everything I could possibly want….except of course,  my mother and father’s uninterrupted physical presence. My parents separated, then divorced, and the adjustment period for me was not as significant as it could have been.

I was too young to have bonded deeply with my father before the separation. At that time,  bonding between mother and child was the expected dynamic in families. There was scarcely a murmur of stay at home dads or ‘house-husbands’, either. Men went to work outside of the home. Women were expected to be in the home, thus spending more time with their children. It was my mother who had to make a real adjustment, in order to be able to stand on her own as a single parent and future career woman. My grandparents, the best support system, enabled her to do so, absent much worry about who was caring for her child, in a manner close to the way she would want.

My grandparents were financially secure. My grandfather was a military veteran, a bricklayer and real estate investor. My grandmother was a stay at home woman, who ran a convenience store, while also a landlord. I was an only child and the only child in the home. I was secure, well cared for, well loved and tremendously spoiled. But, that is what grandparents love and want to do, when they are financially able to do so, right?

Statistically, about 30% of children whose grandparents are responsible for them without a parent in the home are living in poverty, as compared to 18% in the general population. Almost half, 48%, of children who lived with a grandmother-only and no parent in the home, lived in poverty in 2012, and of that number, 42% were disproportionately black.

Grandfamilies are all ages. 37% of children living with grandparents are under 6 years old, 34% between the ages of 6 and 11 and 29% are between 12 and 17. About 46% of all grandparents responsible for their grandchildren are age 60 and older, and about 54% are between ages 30 and 59.

Policies and programs designed to support grandfamilies need to be appropriately designed for families of all ages. There is such diversity within the definition of a ‘grandfamily’, that there cannot be any one-size-fits-all framework design of services in place in any system or setting.

Over 55% of grandparents responsible for their grandchildren are in the labor force. Given that most are age 60 and under, childcare and both before and after school activities and structured programming must be considered and planned for these families.

Grandfamilies live together for a long time. I lived with my grandparents from age 5 to about age 17, when leaving for college. Over 60% of grandparents have raised their grandchildren for at least 3 years and about 45% have raised their grandchildren for 5 or more years. I fall into that latter group. Because it is a long term relationship, stable housing, educational access and other services must be developed and delivered with them in mind.

Grandparents often serve as the glue that holds families together.Even if not system-involved, grandparents are, in and of themselves,a strong support system for parents and children in their care. Engaging families is not to be approached as though the caregivers are the actual birth parents alone. They can’t be approached from a perspective of a deficiency model either. These family units are assets to be partnered with and supported by agencies, systems and service providers. They deserve full consideration and appreciation for what they bring to us and the children in their care.

There is tremendous strength in families and possessed by caregivers themselves, to just be able to navigate parenthood a generation after raising their own children. The diversity they represent challenges service providers to seek respectful, responsive and research-based strategies to build relationships that empower them to successfully navigate their daily lives, as individuals and caregivers. Grandfamilies represent reality and intergenerational frameworks acknowledge this by creating inclusive spaces where they are supported and valued, and their needs are addressed as partners in raising healthy and well-adjusted children.  

 The systems with whom grandfamilies engage in their daily lives should be advocates in ensuring  their wellness and help support and train grandfamilies to advocate for themselves. In this period of uncertainty and unforeseen changes in society, it is critical that caregivers are armed with tools and skills to positively parent the children in their care, and help them thrive in spite of the uncertainty. Once again, grandparent head of households are undisputed as the ‘glue’ that holds many families together. The influence they possess and power they wield have kept and continue to keep so many children and youth out of the child welfare system and close to home. 

The Coronavirus pandemic has affected every American in different ways, but it’s stacking unprecedented turmoil on top of already-unique challenges faced by grandparents raising grandchildren, according to this year’s State Of Grandfamilies report released this week by Generations United. Read the full report.