Category Archives: Family

Parenting and family life. Topics include intergenerational dynamics, sibling behavior, infant care, and parenting strategies.

Family Secrets & Sirens – Is Your Family Too Closed or Too Open?


When I was a kid, there were two kinds of families in my neighborhood, the fun, welcoming, kind who never knew how many people were going to be at the dinner table, and the private kind who rarely invited friends over and bit their tongues when asked personal questions. I considered my own family to be on the former ilk. Back then, I thought this could only be good. At various times in my development, the motley crew at our 5:30 dinner table might include a pregnant teenager on billet from our church, some cousin’s college aged kid who was doing a semester at our house, and an assortment of peer friends. And there were few secrets in that dinner table conversation. All states of the human condition were ripe material for conversational comedy.

Today, family therapists look at a family’s tendency to be more closed or more open as a way to determine how healthy it is for the children in the nest. While there is a huge range of communication styles within a family and styles of inter-relating with the community, a couple of extremes can indicate a family dysfunction. One is too private and the other is too open to outside influences.

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When you think about too private, think of the heart wrenching family structure of Philip Gerrido as the extreme example. His crazy ideas and violent behavior ruled the nest that included a kid-napped and raped “wife.” The family had little input from outside relationships, not even at school because the children were home schooled. This is a rare, extreme example of a closed family system. Another, less obvious, closed family system might be a family who follows a religion that is not represented in the community. Because some of the community’s lifestyle choices might be at odds with their religious beliefs, this family tends to limit social contact and exposure to media. Finally, an even more subtle example might be a family who is just very private. They send overt or silent messages to the children that family matters are not to be discussed outside of the home. They also are reluctant to have too many guests in their home.

There’s another extreme. That’s the family with so many people and ideas filtering through the front door that the family has no compass at all. These families often lack a family code, a set of values to return to when the winds of peer pressure blow too strong. Too many ideas and too much information, when not tempered with sound social structure and family emotional guidance, can make children feel frightened, and also leave them confused when they begin to build their own identity as a young adult.

The key is to find the right balance of open and closed. Having a tight-knit family structure that provides privacy and protection from influences that do not underscore family values is not necessarily dangerous for kids. But having a family system that prohibits exploration of alternative thought and choices, leaves a child unprepared when she/he eventually leaves the nest. Teaching children family values is crucial to their development. I call it, “Instilling The Hopi Way.” But preventing a child from interacting, exploring, and questioning the big, wide, world of ideas outside the front door, handicaps them when they begin the process of becoming individuals.

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How to Criticize and be Heard

criticize_and_be_heard_pm-thumb-270x270There it is. That giant silence between you and your partner. You know you want to tell him what’s bugging you. But will he tune you out, respond with a wall of defenses, or might you actually be heard?

Criticizing in a healthy way is a delicate business. It’s so easy for the recipient of your “gentle shaping” to perceive it as an attack, and shoot back with a strong defense before the full value of the words sink in. It’s also really hard for the communicator of a criticism to use kind enough language. Too often, our criticisms come in the form of an angry explosion after a buildup of irritation. Or, perhaps you have been taught not to express your needs, so that when you finally do, guilty feelings cause a kind of confrontational tone — as if you are trying to convince yourself that it’s okay to criticize.

Continue reading How to Criticize and be Heard

Healing with Love

heart with plaster on greenI had a lovely phone conversation with Eva M. Selhub, MD, a former staff member of Harvard Medical School and author of The Love Response. We began talking about the healing effects on the body that feelings of love can have. Healing with love is a thing. It can actually change one’s biochemistry. Some say that love is the best natural drug we have.  But, eventually fell on the topic of narcissism, those who have trouble finding love.

“It is impossible for narcissists to love because as children they were not loved,” she said.

I agree with the good doctor. A true narcissistic personality disorder, characterized by a grandiose exterior personality that belies an underside of shame, is a tragic, often perpetual  diagnosis. But short of NPD, there are plenty of people who simply feel unlovable.  Even occasional childhood neglect and abuse can create a current of mistrust in an adult mind. Mistrust of love itself when it finally shines on us in an authentic form.

Three Healing Relationships

Psychologists have identified three relationships that have the power to heal the damaged child within us. The most obvious, of course, is a therapeutic relationship. In the safety of a private and confidential dyad, a therapist can become a container for our most shameful memories and thoughts, and a presence whose consistency can help rewire our brain. The infant inside can imagine that “mommy” will always be wise, stalwart and compassionate — every Tuesday at 3 pm. Consistency is one mechanism for healing.

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Another valuable relationship is the one we can have with our own children. If we are able to break the family cycle of family dysfunction and parent our children the way we wished we had been, both parent and child can benefit. Freud called this psychic defense from pain, sublimation. He felt sublimation was one of the most functional ways to deal with emotional injury —  redirecting pain and helping others avoid a similar fate. But the secret mechanism here the very words parents use. Every time a parent encourages, soothes, and assures a young child, words echo in the adult’s head like a long lost parent. Through our ability to give love, we are soothing and consoling ourselves at the same time. It’s really amazing.

Finally, Psychologists give credit to the marital relationship as a powerful healer. If we are fortunate enough to choose a partner who has an ability to fill in some of the gaps of our childhood, we can be fortified. Too often, though, people have a “compulsion to repeat” and we choose the very pattern that injured us in the first place. At other times, even a relatively happy adult relationship can feel absolutely terrifying, especially if happiness and caring is something foreign to the child within us. I encourage you to take some emotional risks in your relationships. To look closely at your tendency to recoil from care or withhold affection — because authentic love can feel scary. Authentic love is not a perpetual happy place, but it is a home for the heart, one that creaks with age, and burns with an internal fire. Love is the thing that makes us whole.

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I’ve lost my way….

BeachLove. It’s the thing I write about and the thing I read about most. I teach that attachment injuries can be healed and most loving behaviors can be trained. I spend a lot of time examining the neurochemistry of love. And, I believe that knowledge about love is the first step toward experiencing it.

But I am wrong.

Understanding love isn’t the first step. Being love is. Love is the essence of who we are. It’s the primal instinct of a newborn baby — to feel peace, love, joy and to reach for safe bonds. It’s the psychological place where humanity begins. Love is your very core.


But operating from a place of love can get really tricky sometimes. Your gentle, trusting nature may have been been beaten down by critical parents, abusive relationships, or even the high-speed shallowness of a world driven by technology. In response, you struggle with your intelligent mind to make sense of things. You read relationship blogs. You buy relationship books. Maybe, you’ve even watched some of my YouTube videos about dating, mating and relating. All good things to do. But this still isn’t love.

It’s time to get back to basics. This morning I was meditating on my beautiful beach in California. The sun played peak-a-boo through my fuzzy eyelashes. The warm breeze tussled my hair and teasingly stroked my arms. Surfers floated on long boards awaiting the next wave and a toddler squealed with joy at the break water. And I felt love. I felt the love of everyone of you who has ever read my words (and especially from those of you who have taken the time to write to me.) I felt the love of my dear intimate friends and family, so grateful for their kindness.  And I experienced the love of the world.

Then I felt it burning inside of me. My essence. My nature. My human desire to be of service and live a life that leads with love first. And this is why I struggle with the fact that love, for me, is also partially commercial. In the next few weeks, you’ll hear a lot about my plans to expand my platform and reach more people with more advice and tools to help them live more loving lives. But don’t get me wrong. Love is at the heart of everything I do. Yes, I’ve been in entrepreneur mode, busy creating online workshops, planning my Love Lab LIVE! event, giving a big offer on one of my books, and building, my new marketplace for relationship professionals, but I haven’t lost sight of my mission. To increase love between people. And it starts by reconnecting with the love that is already in you.  Maybe today is the day to stop, breath, and feel love. I did. And it sure feels good.

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CBS’s Show “Mom” Reveals a Family Secret

imgresSometimes social education is easier to digest when swallowed with a spoonful of comedy. The writer’s of the CBS sit-com “Mom,” (Thursday’s 8:30/7:30 central) are doing it again tomorrow night when a family therapy session provokes the spilling of a big-fat family secret. Hint: Allison Janney’s character lets the cat out of the bag and her daughter, played by Anna Feris, has to do some serious soul searching.

This isn’t the first time that “Mom” has tackled sensitive topics. The show has earned an Emmy a Golden Globe and the Television Academy honored them for “programming that creates awareness, enlightens, educates and/or positively motivates audiences.”  “Mom’s” risk-taking, humorous look at mental illness and substance abuse were only the beginning. Tomorrow evening’s episode looks at a topic close to my heart: the life of a family secret in relationships.

Perhaps the biggest lesson in the episode is the fact that a secret in intimate relationships is never really a secret. The reactions to hidden historic events take on lives of their own and create intergenerational relationship patterns. In other words, the elephant in the living room forces all family members to sashay around the outskirts of the problem without ever confronting it. Subsequent generations just emulate  the reactionary behavior, never knowing why. This is how trauma weaves it’s way through multiple generations.

My favorite way to illustrate intergeneration psychology involves a Holiday ham. A mother is teaching her young daughter how to prepare the family ham. The little girls asks why her mother cuts the end off the ham before roasting it. Her response is “that’s how I watched my mother do it.”

“But why?” says the little girl.

The two decide to call the grand-mother. “Grandma, why do you cut the end of the ham off before roasting it,” they ask. The grandmother, thinks for a bit and then says, “That’s how my mother did it.”

Still not satisfied, the little girl and her mother decide to call the very old great-grandmother. She is living in an assisted living facility but still has a good memory.

“Great-grandma,” says the little girl, “Why do you cut the end of the ham off before roasting it?”

The great-grandmother laughs out loud. “Because I only had one small pan and it wouldn’t fit.”