Unconditional Love

By Jan Hittelman

There has never been a doubt in my mind that becoming a father was one of the most profound experiences of my life. In a moment my world vision changed forever. Current events were suddenly so much more important because they would impact what would become my daughter’s life. As a young man, if it didn’t affect me directly, I didn’t give it much thought. Everything changes because of that unconditional love that is born in your heart when your child’s heart starts beating. This is a pure inborn love that is likely genetically predetermined to ensure the survival of the species. Either way it is clear, strong and lifelong.

During infancy and the first years of life, we develop a deep bond with our children. A bond that is usually impossible to break. When this process is disrupted early in life and there is an ongoing absence of caregiver warmth and nurturance, there can be significant psychological and even physiological trauma. The resulting psychological condition is referred to as Reactive Attachment Disorder. This can result in lifelong social and emotional challenges.
As parents we may occasionally stray from that initial pure love and get distracted by the details of life that get in the way; everything from dealing with our own issues to getting our children to do their homework. Before you know it, we may be contributing to our children’s disappointment in being denied that unconditional love. It can be difficult, if not impossible, to sustain over time.

I wonder if we all secretly wish to experience that unconditional love from our children, parents, family and friends. Is it unrealistic to expect this level of pure love from others? Unfortunately it probably is. If we’re lucky, we experience these precious moments from time to time in our relationships. The more frequently this occurs, the more fortunate we are.

There are many theorists who believe that in order to truly experience unconditional love, you must first provide it to yourself through self-acceptance. Too often we beat our selves up and become highly self-critical, carrying the weight of guilt, shame and self-blame. By becoming more self-accepting and self-nurturing, we can more easily give and receive love unconditionally. Consider going easier on yourself; try to hit the brakes when you’re being self-critical. Allow yourself to focus more on what you’re doing well and take a moment to experience that feeling of satisfaction. Even if our parents did not always provide us with the love that we desired, we can still be that loving parent to ourselves and fill that void.

All-encompassing ongoing unconditional love is an ideal that perhaps can never be fully realized. What is possible, however, is to make a more conscious effort to give unconditional love to others and be more self-accepting of ourselves. All that is necessary is a true awareness of this process and the motivation to put some effort into it. Now that you know, what will you do?

Mentoring: The Power of One

 By Jan Hittelman

In the counseling field there are numerous schools of thought regarding the most effective therapy techniques. While the specific strategies utilized are of great importance, the success of any therapeutic approach is primarily a function of the underlying relationship between client and therapist. More specifically, the client knowing that the therapist genuinely cares.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the dedicated and talented staff of September High School. I asked them about their core beliefs regarding their work. They all agreed that the most important ingredient to success was the quality of the relationship with their students.

All human beings have an instinctual need for warmth, nurturance and support from at least one other human being. This begins on a tactile level at birth. Infants (and young children) who are persistently denied caretaker attention invariably develop emotional difficulties and abnormal behavior patterns. These children often display a lack of social responsiveness. They often apathetically stare into space, lacking social interest, curiosity and spontaneity. In severe cases, these children also fail to thrive in terms of weight gain and motor development.

As a parent it’s easy to get consumed by the myriad tasks and issues that come with the responsibilities of raising a child and lose sight of the importance of the underlying relationship. It often involves the simplest things, like conveying a sense of love and caring, as well as simply having fun together.

It is not widely known, but one of the most effective interventions for young children and adolescents is something that you don’t need any graduate training to provide. It should be no surprise, with what we know about the importance of relationship, that this powerful experience is the gift of mentoring. Studies reveal that youth who are provided with an effective mentor often demonstrate significantly improved academic, social and emotional functioning and are at a reduced risk for substance abuse, criminal and violent behavior. Mentoring is a unique way for one person volunteering a limited amount of time to have a powerful impact on the life of a child. Research has shown that it is specifically the quality of the relationship between mentor and child that dictates its success and why mentor training is such an important component of any mentoring program.

There are many agencies in our community that match at-risk youth with mentors. Several of these mentoring programs have formed a collaboration called MentorsMatter. This service helps to match potential mentors with programs based upon their interests and time availability. Typically time commitments vary from a few hours a week, to a few hours a month. Too often we feel helpless in the face of challenges in our society. Mentoring is an opportunity for individuals to make a real impact.

The Between Years

By Jan Hittelman

Most parents see adolescence as their greatest challenge. Until then, we assume we can comfortably rely on the parenting strategies that have worked in the past with our younger children. This faulty logic often leaves us unprepared for the challenges of the teenage years and results in our parenting approach being more reactive than strategic. In fact, we need to dramatically shift our approach and begin to do so several years before our children become teenagers. The critical window of opportunity is during the preadolescent or “Tween” years when our children are between the ages of 9 and 12.

There are several reasons why this is a critical developmental period and a time of opportunity for parents to positively impact their children in ways that will then make it easier to continue to stay connected when they become teens. The first reason comes from what we know about adolescent brain development. During adolescence there is a dramatic level of neurological development that begins just before puberty (age 11 in girls, 12 in boys). Much of this development occurs in the Prefrontal Cortex, which is responsible for functions like impulse control, judgment, and decision-making. There is a lot that we can do to potentially help our children maximize this developmental opportunity. We also know that a significant number of children begin engaging in a variety of risky behaviors prior to the age of 13. The local Youth Risk Behavior Survey has shown this consistently regarding smoking cigarettes, sexual intercourse, and drug/alcohol use. For example in 2007, over 22% of local high school students indicated that they began to drink alcohol before the age of 13. Knowing how to communicate effectively with our children early on about these issues can make a big difference. Another disturbing statistic is the significant rise in suicidal behavior in children 10-14 years of age. Just within the last month, we have had national news reports of two middle school boys who took their own lives. As parents we need to be more aware of the emotional challenges of our preadolescents and what to do about it. Finally perhaps the most compelling reason to make this parental shift during preadolescence, is that middle school children are much more receptive to adult discussion and feedback than their high school counterparts. As parents we need to take advantage of this critical window of opportunity.

The Between Years: Effective Communication

A key component to effective parenting during the pre-adolescent or Tween years (ages 9-12) is the way we communicate with our child.
The core issue at the heart of most parent-child conflict during the preteen and teen years is that children want to be treated like they’re two years older and parents want to treat them like they’re two years younger. As parents it can be difficult to see that our Tween is actually beginning their journey into adulthood and we tend to use the parenting strategies that have served us well in the past. Developmentally, preadolescents are beginning to go through a profound metamorphosis and we in turn need to metamorphosize our approach as parents.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T: It is important to treat our children with the same level of respect that we want them to show others. Instead of simply telling them what to do as we have in the past, it is now time to first ask for their input and include it whenever possible. By doing so, your child will take more ownership of these decisions and assume more responsibility for their behavior.

Ongoing conversations about safety and wellness issues: If we haven’t started already, now is the time to begin discussing risk behaviors (e.g. cigarette smoking, alcohol/drug use, sexual behavior, bicycle helmets, etc.). Research consistently shows that parents who regularly have these discussions have children that engage less frequently in high risk behaviors. These discussions should not be lectures, but more a sharing of views and information. Attempt to have your child do most of the talking. Start by asking their opinion and what they see among their peer group. Ask neutral follow-up questions. The time to impart your advice is at the end of the conversation. If you find your child is not ready to discuss a specific subject, bring it up again at a later time. These conversations need to be ongoing and continue throughout their adolescence.

The shift from control to advice: A great place to practice this is with their schoolwork. For example, instead of telling your child when to start their homework try having a two-way discussion about homework and time management in order to help your child develop a schedule that makes sense for him/her. Consider giving their suggestions a try, with the understanding that if it doesn’t seem to be working out you can always revisit it together. Being a trusted advisor is a role that you will want to have with your child throughout their lives, especially during their teen years. Now is the time to start building that foundation through mutual trust and respect.

The Between Years: Discipline Strategies

Preadolescence (ages 9-12) is an ideal time to rethink our approach to discipline. It is important to do so in anticipation of the teenage years when there is often a significant increase in defiant behaviors. Parents who have relied predominantly on punishment are well advised to reconsider their approach. Consider that the definition of “discipline” is not to punish but to teach appropriate behavior. As our children turn the corner into adolescence, they will need to learn a lot about behaving safely, intelligently and successfully. Effective discipline for the tween years will help them to do so. Here are some specific strategies to consider:

Use Your Child as Copilot. Now is the time to start giving your child more ownership of his or her behavior by including them in the discipline decisions. Initiate discussions regarding major behavioral expectations (e.g. school work, chores, respectful communication, screen time, substance use, etc.) and look to your child to take the lead on the consequences of appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. Whenever possible, put it down on paper and have everyone sign at the bottom of the agreement. Always allow for revisiting and revising these agreements as needed.

Have Productive Discussions Before Negative Consequences. The key word in the definition of discipline is “teach”. After your child has misbehaved and after everyone has had a chance to calm down a bit, create an opportunity to first discuss what happened, what mistakes were made, and what your child needs to do differently next time. Look to your child to do as much of the talking as possible, offering advice only afte they have had the opportunity to process the situation. If your child has genuinely learned from their mistakes consider a less harsh punishment.

When considering consequences, use your child as a copilot and include their input.

Remember That Learning Requires Trial and Error. Whether it was learning to write your name, interact socially, or drive a car, you first had to practice and make mistakes. No matter how well we parent, our children will make mistakes as well. The best way we can help them minimize their mistakes is by making sure that we’re not shut out and that we have an opportunity to mentor them based on our experience.

Utilizing these strategies now will increase the likelihood that your child will learn how to behave appropriately and benefit from your advice on their journey to adolescence and beyond.

The Between Years: Keeping Them Safe

While the teenage years are often seen as a time of experimentation and turbulence, the degree to which preadolescents (ages 9-12) are at-risk is often underestimated. These risks include: early drug and alcohol experimentation, stress/anxiety issues, depression, and suicide. There are several simple steps that parents can take to reduce these risks. Here are some suggestions:

Encourage participation in after school activities. Research shows that children are at greatest risk between 3pm and 6pm Monday through Friday. While it is common to involve elementary-age youth in after school activities, this often shifts in middle school. Many tweens are left unsupervised, often hanging out with their friends and bored with “nothing to do”. This is a potentially dangerous scenario that can lead to a wide range of risky behaviors. In addition, it is very difficult to engage high school students in after school activities unless they are continuing an interest from their earlier years. Thus it is important to encourage middle school children to participate in some form of healthy, fun, and supervised after school activity.

Provide healthy ways to deal with stress. Adults often underestimate how stressed youth are. In response to numerous local focus groups regarding substance abuse, depression, and other risk concerns, middle and high school youth consistently identify stress as a common precipitating factor. It is important that your child knows how to effectively manage stress. The first step is providing frequent opportunities for your child to talk about the things that are stressful in their lives and to simply be an attentive listener. Additional stress management techniques include: reducing over-scheduling, learning relaxation techniques, exercise, reducing negative or perfectionistic thinking, and simply prioritizing having more fun.

Be attentive to your child’s emotional life. We all understand the importance of periodic physical exams to ensure that our children are in good health and not in need of any medical follow-up. Unfortunately we don’t monitor our child’s mental health with the same vigilance. If you have concerns about your child’s emotional well-being, consider getting an assessment by a licensed mental health professional with expertise in treating children and adolescents. This is often a one-time visit and can give you the peace of mind of knowing your child is doing well or provide you with a course of action to address any concerns that arise.

As outlined in this series, by strengthening our discipline strategy, communication techniques, and focus on safety, we can maximize our children’s successful transition from childhood to adolescence.



The Power of Parental Love

 By Dr. Jan Hittelman

As parents we are always looking for effective strategies to deal with the many challenges that we face. Due to our busy harried lives, we often lose sight of some very basic yet critically important parenting responsibilities. Our most important responsibility as parents is making sure that our children know how much we genuinely care about them and how much they’re loved. We often assume that our children know how we feel and therefore it is not really necessary to let them know in intentional ways.

Several years ago the National Parent Teacher Organization did a study that found that the ratio of negative to positive statements made by parents to their children was 18:1. That’s eighteen negative statements to every positive one! This dynamic is more common in our own homes than we might like to think. As a result, our children may not be as clear about our unconditional love as we may like to think.
Strengthening our children’s sense of our parental love during the elementary years can have a very positive impact on their emotional well being, self-esteem, and our relationship with them during the teen years.

As we decompress from the school year and find opportunities to relax with family, this is a great time to reconnect with our children in a positive way. To purposely schedule time to go for a walk, share a meal, go out for coffee, or go on vacation, and make a real effort to simply share and catch up. To discuss and heal from the challenges of the past, while beginning to brainstorm ways to increase our successes during the next school year. To make sure our children know how much we love them and to provide genuine praise for the very many things that they do right. To let our children know that we will always be there to support them and welcome them to seek us out whenever they’d just like to talk. To let them know how honored we are to be their parents. While we often assume that our children know that we love them, it is important to try and balance the necessary negative feedback that our children require, with the unconditional love that they need most of all. Make this summer a time of rejuvenation and strengthening of the relationship that you have with your child.

Mothers & Daughters

By Dr. Jan Hittelman

A lot has been written about the relationship between mothers and daughters. It can be one of the closest relationships a woman has and also the most challenging. Generally, females are much more emotionally expressive than males. Consequently, women tend to have much deeper conversations emotionally and share more regarding their secrets and struggles. This dynamic can both strengthen and strain the mother-daughter relationship. It also appears that when mothers give what they believe to be caring advice, daughters often hear criticism. This can be especially true when the conversation is about their daughter’s physical appearance, choice of clothes, etc. Dr. Deborah Tannen, author of Your Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation suggests, “Not to offer advice or criticism-especially about appearance-unless you are asked. And even then, be careful. And don’t forget the power of praise.” She also advises mothers and daughters to spend less time talking and more time doing things together. Finally, while it’s important for mothers to be positive with their daughters, mothers are needy of approval from their daughters as well. Investing in a strong mother-daughter relationship will not only improve your current interaction with your child, but lead towards a lifelong best-friend relationship.

While most daughters idolize their mothers as young children, things can change during adolescence. Once perceived as super woman, mom is now seen as controlling, intrusive, embarrassing and unreasonable. The teenage years can be especially challenging for moms and daughters. Having strategies to strengthen that relationship can be very valuable.

The Magic of Mentoring

 By Dr. Jan Hittelman

Adolescence is a turbulent time and as parents our high school and middle school children constantly challenge us. While we know it’s a time of experimentation, we want to keep our children safe from drugs, alcohol and other risk behaviors. Even though they may lack focus at times, we want our children to achieve in school. Perhaps most importantly we want our children to learn the skills necessary to become healthy, happy and successful adults.

One way that we can help protect our youth against risk behaviors, while at the same time helping them to develop positive self-esteem is through connecting them with an adult mentor. This can be through formal programs as well as informal mentoring. Informal mentoring involves adults that are already in your child’s world; a neighbor, teacher, relative, parent’s coworker, one of their friends parents, etc. It is a trusted adult who can be a source of support and guidance for your child at a time when they are more resistant to guidance from Mom and Dad. This is no surprise because their developmental task is to separate from parents and become more independent. A mentor can fill this critical void.

Instead of traditional counseling, many psychotherapists are no offering mentoring as an alternative; instead of sitting in an office and talking for an hour a week, they get together and do activities together. This is often more comfortable for adolescents and they may open up more about themselves and their challenges.