Permission Granted

I was talking with a friend yesterday about some difficulty she was having with a family member. Seems the other person had made some rather snide remarks on the phone, and my friend was evaluating whether she wanted to continue to invest her energy in keeping that relationship active, or whether it might be best to just sort of let it wither away by attrition. I thought there had to be some middle ground, and so we looked for it together. We came up with something we thought was pretty pithy:

If you give yourself permission to leave the conversation, you may not feel the need to leave the relationship.

Granted, maybe eveyone but me and my friend had this figured out a long time ago. But on the other hand, maybe not. Because there seem to be a lot of conversations that continue far past the point of productivity, or even civility, and trespass into the territory where permanent damage occurs to the relationship.

Here's how we thought it might sound after a snide remark or an outright attack:

"You know, I just realized that I'm feeling sort of defensive right now, and I think I better hang up to take care of that for myself. Let's talk later."

Fill in the blank if defensive is not the right feeling - angry, frustrated, sad, etc. And if you are in person, not on the phone, then take a walk instead of hanging up.

Isnt' that elegant? Rather than defend or justify or even counter attack, you just take a break.

I'm impressed with this for two reasons - one, the other party is forced to take a break too, because you just removed her target. She can't go on to say something she regrets.

Two, the last thing she remembers from the conversation is that something she said triggered you. If she's interested, she can give some thought to what might have happened. If she's not, that's fine too. But at least you have not cluttered up her ears with a bunch of defenses or counter-attacks that divert her attention away from her words and onto yours. I betcha, nine times outta ten, you'll end up hearing an apology when you finally do reconnect. Okay, maybe eight times. But those are still pretty nice odds.

As an added bonus, if you notice yourself spending an awful lot of time hanging up or walking, the relationship is likely dying by attrition anyway, and you will not feel confused about the whole "stay or go" decision.

ps: Hey, I don't think I've mentioned yet that I have a new blog! check it out at that's where you'll find future posts about parenting issues ... well organized by topic and easy to access. I'm posting daily responses to questions from readers right now, so if you have any parenting questions, let me know.

notes to a parent

Just came from a parenting consultation home visit. As I was summarizing some key points from our session to email to her, it occurred to me that even though it's out of context, maybe other parents might benefit from reading it. So here it is:

- It's okay for you to have needs!! Needs are part of the human experience.

(In our Connected Parenting classes, we teach the ABC's of Five Core Needs: Autonomy, Basic Essentials like food, water and safety, Connection, Contribution, and Creativity.)

We all get snarky when we go too long without getting these core needs met, and then we aren't the kind of parent, spouse or friend that we want to be. Therefore, consider yourself Permitted to find ways to meet those needs! (And there are plenty of ways to take care of yourself without compromising your values as a parent, so it's not an All or Nothing situation. There's quite a range of possibilities between having baby in bed with you and letting baby cry it out alone for hours.)

- Parents are giving their children a powerful gift when they acknowledge their own human needs, as well as their children's, with neutral matter-of-fact acceptance, rather than hiding them because they seem like weaknesses. Modeling has a greater impact than anything else we do as parents. It's wonderful for our kids to experience the joy and connection that happens while we brainstorm creative ways for both parties to get their needs met. That's a major life skill that will serve them well.

- Baby steps! Big changes can happen in small increments. When you want to make a change or try a new experiment, it's okay to take it slow. Look for the smallest possible step, one that is so small that it almost doesn't even register on your radar screen as a change. A step that makes you say, Sure, no problem! I can do that easily!! For example, if you want to help the baby start learning to soothe himself a bit, wait just 3 seconds longer than you usually do before going to him when he starts fussing. Try it out, and see how it goes.

When it feels like you are ready for more, look for the next smallest possible adjustment and make that one. Maybe try waiting 4 seconds. And continue on in this effortless way until you are where you want to be.

My friend has a needlepoint on her kitchen wall of a saying that's been in her family for generations: Yard by yard, life is hard. Inch by inch, it's a cinch! I find it strangely comforting in a cheesy sort of way.

- Work your way up to full contact. Start with the smallest intervention when wanting to soothe your child. Rather than immediately picking him up when he fusses a bit, first try talking or singing, moving yourself within view so he can see you, looking into his eyes and smiling, a gentle touch, and rubbing his back or feet or head. And then go right ahead and pick him up if none of that has helped to soothe him. Being present for our children in these progressive steps is a wonderful way to foster healthy attachment - your child experiences you as available, attentive, and responsive, and he also gets the opportunity to gently expand his self-soothing abilities.

- Remember to breathe deeply. Allow yourself at least one calming deep breath before taking a soothing action for your child. Actions are more effective when they spring from a place of inner alignment. (and oxygenation!)

- It's all yoga. Kids bring us to our edges every day. Parenting is the ultimate asana! When we are at our edge emotionally or mentally -- the place where we think we can't stand it a second longer -- we don't always have to run away. Sometimes we can stay there and breathe a bit, and we may find we can go a little deeper, or we may decide to retreat. Either choice is okay. It's the deep breath that allows us to decide rather than react.

- You are the expert on your child. No author, professor, therapist, or consultant can trump what you know about yourself and your children. Consider what you hear or read and see if it resonates with your own inner guidance and intuition. If it makes it through that filter, then experiment with it. If it is not effective, or the price you or your child pay feels too high, then pitch it out and try something else.

I hope this has been helpful! I work with parents all over the country via telephone consultations, so please keep me in mind if you know a parent who is seeking some assistance. There's more information on my website:


relationship life preservers

I just finished writing a marathon email to a friend whose husband has more or less checked out of their marriage and is ignoring her. I wanted to share it with you, too, in case it resonates with anyone.


Now that I'm back at my computer and thinking clearly, I wanted to share one more relationship idea. It's radical, and you may feel kinda repulsed by it, so I'll just throw it out there trusting that you will either pitch it out or experiment with it as you see fit.

I guess it's based on a few premises which might seem really silly when you first hear them. Even if they sound like crap, it might be worth an experiment. At the risk of dangerous oversimplification, I'll try to describe them briefly.

Most men need a mission in life. They are wired to feel good when they make a difference or accomplish something. When they feel aimless or useless for whatever reason, and that reason might have nothing at all to do with their relationship, they can sort of implode into depression.

This might sound really stupid, but I haven't yet met a man who did not thrive on feeling like his woman's hero. Of course that has nothing to do with income, competence, or anything material. It's emotional. They want to know that they have something unique and powerful to offer to their lover. And they do, or we would not have chosen them. Sometimes they need to be reminded about what that is when they have lost sight of it.

The woman who loves him can sometimes offer a temporary lifeline into feeling like a hero again with two strategies: speaking only gratitude, and asking for their help.

These are sort of "medicinal" strategies; applied in specific doses to support a healing from within. You are right that we cannot truly bring anyone out of depression or change them.

These are just life preserver rings that we throw out into the water. We feel better having something to try, and he may just grab hold of one and pull himself to the side of the boat.

So the life preservers might look like this: when he gets home, the first thing he hears is that you are happy to see him. If that's not even true at this point, then maybe it's true that your daughter is happy to see him, so you say that with sincerity.

Then you might ask for his help on something for dinner. The request is really straightforward. "Honey, will you mash those potatoes for me?" If he does it, great. You don't help him or make suggestions or comments, even if he does it completely wrong.

When he's done, you say a warm and simple thank you. All the better if it is accompanied by a kiss, a gentle touch on the shoulder, or at least eye contact.

If he doesn't do it, that's fine too. You were planning on doing it yourself anyway, so you just take care of it.

The rest of the night goes this way. Mostly gratitude and appreciative comments, sprinkled with an occasional request, which is offered in complete neutrality only one time. If he does it, he hears more gratitude. If not, you just do it with no comment.

If you honestly can't find one thing to appreciate, then don't say anything until you can. If you have to dig, you could look for something he did around the house back when he was feeling good, like, "Wow, I feel so lucky to have this terrific deck that you made for us,"or whatever.

The whole time you are taking care of yourself emotionally, listening to yourself, acknowledging your feelings internally, and doing whatever it takes to unilaterally calm your own anxiety or anger. When you need to vent some steam, do it with girlfriends.

A few days of this might help him to let his guard down a little bit and show some vulnerability or emotion. If he does, you'll want to meet his disclosures with as much understanding as you can. One way to do that is to simply repeat what you think he is expressing back to him, and wait for his confirmation, and ask if there's more. Then ask if you can share your feelings about it before doing so.

Even if he does not open or soften, it might be good medicine for you, anyway. We always feel better when we focus our attention on finding things to appreciate, and it takes our minds off of noticing what is so painfully wrong.

Yes, it can take a LOT of discipline to do this. And if I know only one thing about you it's that you are a powerful woman! Even if all you can muster is one appreciative comment in an evening of otherwise gentle and accepting silence, it's still something.

so anyway, sorry, that was pretty long. I'll shut up now and just say that I am wishing you both all the best.

Karen Alonge
720 771 8915
Contact me to schedule a parenting consultation by phone,
or to register for Connected Parenting classes near Boulder, CO.

fathers and sons

Thought you might enjoy reading this summary of a telephone parenting consultation I did for a divorced dad who was angry, bewildered, and upset that his six year old son was having physical symptoms of anxiety.

Although my advice was specific to this father/son dyad, I thought some of it might be relevant for other fathers too. As always, please take only what seems helpful to you and disregard the rest. Each parent must decide for themselves what approach will be most appropriate for their unique family situation.

Your son might prefer to communicate with you while doing a physical activity side by side rather than just sitting across the table while you ask him questions. Try inviting him to shoot hoops or play a video game when there is something you want to discuss with him. You might be amazed at how much longer he will talk with you while his body is otherwise engaged.

Pay attention to which activities seem relaxing and fun for both of you – and plan to do more of that together. Expand upon what is already working well.

What many boys want more than anything from their dad is approval. He hopes you see him as strong and capable and smart. You are his hero, so he takes your opinion of him very seriously. Don't take that responsibility lightly. Notice and comment on his strengths at every opportunity.

Decide carefully what messages you give him now, because your voice is so important to him that he will carry it in his head forever. One day, he will share it with his own son.

When he gets anxious, the best thing you can do for him is to keep yourself calm. If you start to feel upset, or an internal pressure to make him stop feeling anxious, take a few deep breaths or a drink of water or a bathroom break to settle yourself down before you try to be there for him. When you show him that you can calm yourself down at will, you are setting a very powerful example for him.

After you are calm, then just be there with him. You don't have to fix the source of his anxiety - sometimes he won't even know what triggered it. Just be there with him, sort of like a big strong calm rock in a stormy sea.

Being strong and calm yourself shows him that you are not worried about him, that you trust that his anxiety will pass, and that you are not going to leave him all alone to cope with it. It also makes it easier for you to listen to his feelings without judgment if he wants to talk about them.

And as you mentioned, your anger at his mom could easily pollute your relationship with him if you let it. So find some other way to deal with your thoughts about her. Challenge yourself to never speak negatively of her when you are with your son. She has no power over your relationship with him - that's all up to you. Be the best dad you can be, and leave her out of that equation.

copyright 2007 karen alonge

Sometimes, big changes can happen when we hear just the right advice in just the right context. I agree wholeheartedly with Hazel Hawke's statement:

A mixture of empathy and brainstorming can move mountains.

If you know any parents who are tired of struggling with their kids or would just like to learn an easier way, send 'em my way for a free 15 minute telephone conversation to sample my work. Consultations take place by phone and email, as well as face to face for parents living near Boulder, CO.