Does your relationship need the “Anti-Corrosion Treatment?”

by John Hoffman

In my last post I started looking at conflict between parenting partners.

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Corrosive conflict is like rust.  It can gradually damage a relationship that once was strong.

This time I want to talk about what some experts call corrosive conflict. That’s the ongoing, unresolved conflict that poses the real danger to relationships. Corrosive conflict is like rust. It can gradually damage a relationship that once was strong.

Travis (not his real name) and his wife used to have these repeated arguments about him not cleaning up after himself.  Here’s how he described it.  “We have different schedules in our heads about when cleaning up should be done. She wants it done sooner. So she jumps in and cleans up after me before I get to it. She’s resentful because she had to clean up after me. I don’t think it’s fair. It really bugs me that instead of giving me a chance to get to it, or asking me to clean up she does it and acts like a martyr. Then she’s so angry we can’t talk about it. So I walk away. Then she gets even madder. And I get mad. But I have to suck it up because she feels I have no right to be angry.”

Now, the simple fact that a couple argues repeatedly about a topic does not mean the conflict is corrosive. But it could be. How do you know?

Ask yourself these questions. Do you:

  • fight with your partner about the same things over and over again without any sort of resolution to the conflict?
  • always defend yourself and act like the issue has nothing to do with you?
  • often resort to name-calling, shouting or being hostile?
  • end up fighting about accusations and name-calling rather than the original issue?
  • stay angry for a long time after these conflicts?

If you’re doing these things frequently you and your partner need do something about it, not just for the sake of staying together, but also to make your relationship more enjoyable. Conflict is not fun!  And corrosive conflict can have a negative effect on your children (but perhaps we will discuss that at another time.)

Here’s the “anti-corrosion” treatment as outlined in Dad Central Ontario’s Dads! Renovate Your Relationship.

  • Identify one issue you repeatedly argue about.
  • Talk about it at a time when you are both feeling good and calm (and not under the influence of alcohol).
  • Speak to your partner without being demeaning or intimidating.
  • If you feel the need to be critical, criticize what your partner does, not her character.
  • Listen – really listen – to your partner’s viewpoint, without cutting her off the first time she says something you don’t agree with or think is unfair.
  • Accept responsibility for what you can change. If you want her to change her behaviour, tell her what you can change about yours.
  • If a conflict can’t be resolved agree to leave it alone, at least for awhile. But agree to come back to it at a time when you are both calm and ready to talk peacefully. In the meantime, think about what you can do to not make things worse than they already are.
  • Remind yourself what is good in your partner. Tell them.
  • Don’t lose your sense of humour!

Even if you can’t solve the problem at first, taking this approach shows your partner that you care about your relationship. That’s a good first step and it might help your spouse be more open to hearing your concerns and ideas.

Dads! Renovate Your Relationship is a 20-page booklet full of ideas to help fathers maintain and strengthen their partner relationships.  The full booklet can be downloaded from the Dad Central Ontario website.

Love and Conflict Part 1: How the stress response can make conflict worse

by John Hoffman

First the bad news.

Conflict is inevitable; even in love relationships, if you didn’t already know (which you probably did). It makes sense that partners would have conflict. You spend a lot of time together. You have high expectations for each other. You have the classic issues to butt heads about – money, housework, sex, and, of course, leaving the toilet seat down. Having children expands the areas for potential disagreement: child-rearing philosophies, sharing the work of parenting and, of course, discipline.

Yikes! This is getting to be a downer, so let’s have some good news. Conflict need not be destructive. In fact, we can even learn and grow closer from it. But – and it’s a big but – the good things can only happen if we handle conflict the right way more often than not. So dads who want to keep their relationships strong are wise to think about how they handle conflict. And conflict can be handled well – but it’s not easy. Conflict is a big topic, so it may take a couple of blogs to touch on the key issues.

I want to start with how our bodies react to conflict. This is particularly relevant to guys because our gut reactions can often sabotage the brainpower we need to handle conflict well. Here’s why.

Conflict is stressful. And when we’re subject to stress our brains and bodies respond in ways that were designed to help us deal with a threat – you know – like being attacked by a predator. Obviously, conflict with your partner is not that kind of threat. But it can sometimes feel like a threat. And when that happens, certain parts of the brain and nervous system that we don’t consciously control respond as if we were faced with a serious threat. The nervous system releases certain hormones like adrenalin. Our heart starts beating faster. That moves us towards what stress scientists call fight or flight mode. We feel all jazzed up, tense and ready to react. That’s good when you’re dealing with danger, not so good when you’re trying to negotiate a disagreement with your partner.

It’s important to remember that a certain level of stress response can sharpen our thinking and alertness, which is a good thing. But when we’re more highly stressed, for example, dealing with a very angry spouse or when we’ve already used up a lot of energy dealing with other stressors we sometimes slip into fight or flight mode. When we’re in fight or flight the reasonable, thinking parts of our brain don’t work very well, or even shut down. That makes it much harder to see another person’s point of view and respond to criticism without being defensive or angry. And it’s almost impossible to think productively about how to resolve the problem that is causing the conflict.

So, if we’re going to avoid nasty conflict that keeps getting worse and worse we need to:

  1. stay out of fight or flight mode as much as possible
  2. recognize when we do get into fight or flight mode
  3. do something about that

It is possible to get yourself out of fight or flight, often by doing something physical. A bit of exercise, like going for a short walk or run often does the trick. Deep, slow breathing (i.e. yoga or meditation breathing) or even taking a shower can also help. Laughter can also turn down your stress system, that is, if you can find the humour in a situation without making your partner even angrier. What all of these things do is change the chemicals and hormones that are working in your brain and body in ways that help shut down the fight or flight response.

What works best for you is something you’ll have to figure out for yourself. The point is to find a physical activity that changes that jumbled up, anxious, alarmed inner feeling that often pushes us to do or say things that make conflict worse. At risk of stating the obvious, when you’re calm you have a much better chance of resolving the conflict in a way that doesn’t damage your relationship. It’s important to understand that this is not just a question of self-control or willpower. Sometimes you need to do something physical to help yourself.

Next time, I’ll talk about how to give your relationship the anti-corrosion treatment.

When Big Days Blow Up on You: Preventing holiday meltdowns

by John Hoffman

Not that I want to be a Grinch during the season of good cheer but…

Here’s one of the less pleasant realities of being a parent of little kids. Sometimes the days that you really, really want to go well are the ones that really, really, really don’t go well. You know, like Christmas.

Everyone is looking forward to the big day. It’s supposed to be a happy time. And sometimes it all works out. But other times things don’t go so well. One of the kids gets over excited, or has a little disappointment that gets blown out of proportion. Or maybe she can’t sit through a long family dinner, or whatever. Then, boom! You’re dealing with a meltdown. And to make it worse, you’re extra upset about having to deal with a tantrum on Christmas Day. So now you’re mad about being mad. Not what you had in mind for the holiday season. But it’s a normal parenting experience.

Big days (not just Christmas) are the perfect breeding ground for tantrums. Kids are out of their normal routine. They are often short of sleep. They don’t eat normally. They are revved up emotionally. Sometimes  they spend a lot of time either cooped up in cars or having to control themselves in situations that are not kid-friendly. That burns up their inner energy. And when little kids’ inner energy is gone, that’s when tantrums happen.

The good news is that you can do something about it. The best strategy for tantrums is prevention. It’s not foolproof, but it often works. Basically, preventing tantrums boils down to reducing the amount of stress your child experiences and helping them recover from small stresses that can’t be avoided.  Virtually all tantrums are cases of stress overload. How do you prevent stress overload?  Start by looking after your child’s basic needs: sleep, nutritious food, physical activity, time for play and one-on-one time with you (or your partner or other adults who care about them).

Sleep

Children often go short of sleep on Christmas Eve or night. You can help them get a little more sleep by spending extra time with them at bedtime, reading more stories than usual, playing quiet music or lying down with them after lights out. I remember lying down with my 5-year-old son one Christmas Eve. His body was literally quivering with excitement and tension. Who could go to sleep when they feel like that? I spent much longer with him than usual that night, but he eventually fell asleep. It would have taken much longer if I’d left him on his own.

Food

Lots of little kids don’t eat much at big family dinners. I’m not sure why, but I’ve seen it happen over and over again. Often the child not “eating his dinner” becomes a source of tension. My answer? Give your kid a healthy snack  (something they like) in the late afternoon and don’t worry about what they eat at dinner. Cut-up apple, cheese and whole wheat crackers were my families go-to healthy snack. The healthy calories give them a bit of inner strength to help them get through the rest of the day.

Physical Activity

It is becoming clearer and clearer that, along with all its other benefits, exercise and physical activity can prevent behaviour problems. That’s because physical activity does good things for the brain as well as the body. It’s a stress reliever. So do something active with your kids at some point on big days. I know anfamily who always took their young kids for a hike in the woods on the afternoon of Christmas day. Smart.

Time-in

You’ve heard of time-out. I’m a big fan of time-in. This means spending time where you focus on your child – no texting, no multi-tasking, no conversations with other adults. Just you and your kid, doing something your child wants to do.  This kind of one-on-one time helps kids feel good inside – not just emotionally, but also physically. It can also prevent the build-up of little stresses that often leads to meltdowns. One dad I know told me a story about leaving the table with his two-year-old in the middle of a Christmas dinner. It wasn’t a punishment. But he could see that his toddler starting to lose it. So this wise dad ate his dinner quickly and then took his son upstairs to a bedroom. They read stories for a while and then came back down. Good move. Long, big dinners with lots of people are not toddler-friendly.

Look after yourself

All the things I said about looking after kids? Apply them to yourself.  That puts you in the best possible frame of mind for looking after your children’s needs, enjoying them and, if it comes to that, responding in a reasonable manner when something goes wrong. If you can respond calmly to a child behaviour crisis, you’ll have the best chance of resolving the situation quickly and then helping your family’s mood get back to where you want it to be.

I wish you all the best for the season and your family’s “big days.” Just remember that a little attention to prevention is your best friend.

Holiday Thoughts for Single Parents

by Barry Lillie

The holiday times are often moments where single parents struggle with sharing time, memories of holidays past, and ensuring their children  how to The following are guidelines for newly separating or changed families during this joyous but often difficult season.

  • Guard against any erratic behavior by yourself or your former partner. Your children need to be children- not spectators or referees.
  • Make sure that a parenting plan for the holidays is understood and followed. Few separated parents can negotiate on the fly. Given the preceding, try to be flexible at a time when spontaneity and children go together.
  • Reach out to friends or relatives and ask for their support. Many of us find that ‘reaching out’ to be difficult. Be honest with what you need from your family and friends and don’t be afraid to ask for their support.
  • Focus on making your time with your children the best possible. Depending on the time and place of your family in the separation process, many children of all ages (toddlers to adults) are going to be struggling with two Christmas homes, divided families and loyalty tug-of- wars. It is a time to build a new normalcy and calm for everyone.
  • Don’t spend more than you can afford. Older children know your reality- younger children enjoy simpler things. Partner up with other family members for larger purchases.
  • Children from blended families notice disparity in gifts. Try to balance whenever possible.
  • Blended families may have to deal with a disparity because the other parent has different means available to them e.g. no other children to buy for. While this is life and difficult to control parents need to be sensitive to the problem and try to work it through with the child if necessary.
  • Children are not the sole possessions of one parent or one side of their extended family.  A parent can be the best parenting model through their generosity of spirit.
  • If you have a new partner and family, enjoy and appreciate their gifts of love, support and family. Blend old and new Christmas traditions.  (see attached article)

And send your children to the other parent’s Christmas celebration with your love!


 

Barry is the Executive Director of Kids’n’Dad Shared Support.  You can see more at http://www.kidsndad.com.

First-time Dads-to-be Wanted!

FIRST-TIME DADS-TO-BE WANTED FOR A STUDY!

Healthydads.ca a new website being developed for first-time dads-to be. This self-help website has information and strategies to help dads adjust to parenthood.

What is involved?
Screening to check if you are eligible to participate. Men will be eligible if they are at risk for depression, expecting a first child and if their partner is between 14 and 28 weeks pregnant.

If eligible, you will be assigned by chance to use the HealthyDads.ca website or to a Control group.  Regardless of your group, all participants will be asked to complete online questionnaires (30min each) again at 6 weeks following group assignment, 2 and 6 months following childbirth

Compensation will be provided upon completion of each on-line questionnaire.

Please send us an email or call us with your contact information so we can help you enroll in the study.

To sign up, click here: www.healthydadsstudy.ca

Healthydads@clinepi.mcgill.ca

You’re Not the Most Important Person Right Now . . . But You’re Still Important

by John Hoffman

People sometimes talk about new fathers being “jealous of the baby.” I’ve never liked that. It paints fathers as self-absorbed and immature. And it pits Dads and babies as competitors. Ick. But most of all it oversimplifies some issues that we really should talk about.

Obviously, having a baby brings big changes to a partner relationship. There’s a new little person in the mix. That little person is very dependent, needs a lot of care and takes up a lot of time. So new parents aren’t going to be spending time together exactly the way they did before. I would guess most men understand that.

But there is something else. It’s not just that the baby takes up Mom’s time. It’s the way the baby fills up her world – her consciousness, her being. Fathers can become entranced with babies too. But most of the time, there’s more intensity to a new mother’s focus. This is an important difference between new moms and new dads. And I think we have to understand it because it affects the partner relationship.

In my first year of fatherhood I felt like I was very involved and tuned-in to our baby. But my wife experienced this at a whole different level. I can remember having conversations with her and suddenly something about the baby would grab her attention and she’d just be gone. Not physically, but social and emotionally gone.  It was disconcerting at times, even though I sort of understood it. The baby could certainly draw my attention too, but not in the same abrupt and sweeping way.

(I have no idea how, or if, the dynamic I have described might play out in same-sex parent families. So I won’t try to talk about it. But I’d love to hear from parents about their experiences.)

Eventually Holly and I talked about it. She explained it in terms of the baby taking up more space in her psychological and emotional world than mine. She was right, at least for us. I could walk between the “baby world” and the rest of the world fairly easily. But when Holly was in the rest of the world, a big part of her was still in the baby world. This was a difference in our experience of new parenthood and I had to get used to it. One of the things that helped was being involved in baby care. I understood what it was like to care for Riley, and to be constantly trying to understand how he was doing and what he needed. That kept me in the loop and helped me appreciate Holly’s experience.

This, more than anything else, is the reason I have been a passionate advocate for hands-on father involvement with babies. It can help partners stay connected.

So, new dads, maybe you’re not the most important person to her right now. But you and your relationship with her are still very important. That relationship needs to adjust to the new normal. Being an involved dad can help you do that.

I spoke with one new dad recently who told me that, while he expected to love his child, he was amazed at the sense of a bond that he felt so soon. “I thought the father-child relationship wouldn’t really come into its own until you could physically play together,” he said. “Nobody talks about the joy of simply holding a baby,” he said. “I was amazed at how good that felt.”

Yes, yes, yes! And I believe those feelings are good for all the relationships in his household.

Experts often say it’s important for new parents to have couple time – as in, away from the baby. Sure. Everybody needs couple time. But I think the best way to for a dad to remain a crucial person in his partner’s life is to connect with her around the baby, not just apart from the baby.

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For some more thoughts on this, check out Dads! Renovate Your Relationship.

What Do New Dads Want to Know? (spoiler alert: it’s how to soothe a fussy baby)

by John Hoffman

A Canadian research group surveyed 174 expectant and new dads.  One question they asked was what information dads were looking for.  I was a little surprised to see that the top answer was how to soothe a fussy baby.

I’ve done my share of soothing fussy babies and I’ve done lots of research and writing on the topic. Here’s my two cents’ worth. But first:

Uncle John’s Rules of Baby Soothing

Rule 1.  Nothing is foolproof. Even the most tried and true soothing methods don’t always work.

Rule. 2.  What works with one baby won’t necessarily work with others.

Rule 3. Babies can’t calm themselves. They sometimes fall asleep in the middle of crying.  But that’s more of a stress response than anything else. Babies need our help to feel soothed. Being soothed by us (over and over again) helps babies’ stress response systems to develop properly.

Rule 4. That stuff they say about checking to see if the baby needs to be changed is vastly overrated. Obviously babies do need to be changed. But don’t expect it to work like magic with a very fussy baby. Same thing goes for burping.

Here are some things that work sometimes. 

Nursing (feeding) is often the answer. You may know this. But I’d say two things.

Breastfeeding is not just about nutrition and hunger. It’s also about comfort, a deep down, primal kind of whole body comfort that is a baby’s favourite way of feeling better. Secondly, newborn babies need to nurse a lot, more often than some people think. Frequent nursing helps breastfeeding to work. So don’t be afraid that your baby is nursing too often, and don’t think you’re “giving in” by giving the baby to Mom to nurse.

Nursing problems can contribute to fussiness. If you think that might be the case, get help from someone who knows a lot about breastfeeding.

Bottle feeding? I don’t know much about it, so I can’t say if it comforts babies the way breastfeeding does. But one thing is s very clear. Babies are comforted by sucking. That’s why pacifiers often work. Some babies won’t take one and breastfeeding pundits worry that pacifiers can interfere with breastfeeding. That can be true, especially if the pacifier is started before breastfeeding is well established. However, I’ve known a number of well breastfed babies, including one of ours, who used pacifiers in their spare time. Babies can suck on your little finger too. One of mine used to suck on my wrist when I held him belly down along my forearm (sometimes called the football hold).

However, feeding is not always the answer. I’ve seen babies who acted like they wanted to nurse and then fussed and sputtered at the breast as if they hated it. This is a really, really good time for Dad to step in and try his luck.

Beyond feeding the chief soothing tools are physical contact and movement.  People have been using physical contact and movement to soothe babies for centuries. Try using a carrier. Walk around the house carrying the baby while listening to music. Jiggle her a little bit.  Try going outside. Sometimes a change of scenery or temperature seems to distract fussy babies a bit.

Skin-to-skin contact is especially good for really young infants. It has a proven biological impact. It’s not always an instant fix for a really fussy baby, but it’s worth a try. And it’s a good prevention strategy.

Speaking of which…. The ideal soothing tactic is to prevent your baby from getting into that ultra fussy state in the first place. If your baby is, say, very fussy each evening, start carrying her around in a carrier at 5:00 pm. This can sometimes prevent that ultra fussiness which is really hard to fix.

Swaddling has been used in a lot of cultures over the centuries. Some experts swear by it and others disapprove. Most of the concerns have to do with safety and they can be addressed through proper technique. Here’s a link to a Today’s Parent article that will show you how to do it.

Saying “Shhh, shhh, shhh, shhh” into your baby’s ear as you walk your baby around, including the well-known American pediatrician Harvey Karp. Sounds odd to me but some people say this works. It’s supposed to simulate the sound babies heard in the womb.  Just remember it’s also supposed to be soothing and not irritating (ie, too loud, to forceful, etc.).

Baby swings and car rides. Physical contact is really important for babies. So I’m not a huge fan of soothing techniques that involve putting babies in “containers.” Not as a first line strategy anyways. But desperate parents need all the tools and tricks they can get. Lots of guys have put their babies in the car and driven the streets, even in the middle of the night.

If you’ve tried every trick you can think of, take a break, and then go back to the beginning and try everything again. Something that didn’t work the first time might work the second time.

Beyond that, the sad truth is that there are times when nothing works. Some babies cry a lot in the early months. Research has shown this time and time again. There are various theories as to why this happens, but nobody really knows for sure.

So, if you have one of those babies it’s not your fault. Uncontrollable persistent crying should always be checked out by a doctor. But usually there’s nothing wrong medically.

Just do your best. Take breaks when you need it. I’m not a fan of leaving babies to cry, but if you’re at the end of your rope, put the baby down somewhere safe. Some parents have lost control and hurt their babies, which you obviously don’t want to do. What’s more, if you’re really riled up you’re not going to be at your soothing best.  Let some one else take over. And take turns with your partner. Watch for signs your partner is at the end of their rope.  Get other people to help you when possible. Persistent baby crying is really tough. But it always ends sooner or later.

What soothing techniques have worked for your family?

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