How to have a Happy New Year

It is a few days after Christmas, and for most people that usually means the start of thinking about resolutions for the new year. New years resolutions are a double-edged sword: it is great to set positive and uplifting goals for yourself, but un-kept resolutions can often be a huge let-down and hurt the self-esteem. The biggest disappointments often arise from setting unrealistic and unobtainable goals, and so this article offers a few suggestions about how to set realistic resolutions to help have a Happy New Year.

  • Keep the resolution SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound. (For more details click here)
  • Set resolutions that will be of benefit to yourself and to others. The research on charity work and volunteerism shows clearly that giving of your time and energy to a cause has positive benefits for you and the recipient alike. These activities are often meaningful, making a contribution to your own wellbeing, and helpful, making a contribution to the wellbeing of others.
  • Set new years resolutions aimed at bringing your life into balance. Spending too much time at the office? Involve yourself in an ongoing activity with your family. Watching too much TV? Make it a goal to go for a walk outside during your lunch break at least three times a week. Can’t remember the last time you sat and simply let your mind unwind? Research some Mindfulness Techniques and implement these.
  • If you aren’t exercising hard for 30 minutes at least three times a week, then make it a resolution to do just that. Exercise provides probably the most accessible boost to your mental and emotional health that you can get (not to mention the physical benefits). There are so many fun and accessible exercise options available that there are very few excuses not to be active. Try gym classes, running with a colleague after work, joining a squash league, mountain biking, rock climbing, or getting a fun set of workout DVDs to use in your own home with your partner and kids.
  • Write your resolutions down and tell someone about them. Spend time thinking about doing them. You’re more likely to do something that you have committed to paper, and further more likely still to take action when you have shared your commitment with others. When you visualise yourself taking action, you actually prepare your mind and body to do the thing – in effect you are practising. (This is why just thinking about hitting a squash ball will improve your game.)
  • Persevere. Keep it up. Notice the positive benefits and receive them with gratitude.
  • Make an effort to make a new friend this year.

Happy New Year, everybody!

Raising Superkid

It might seem a strange thing to say, but you know that you’re doing an outstanding job raising your child when they turn out to be pretty ordinary. Ordinary, from a developmental psychology perspective, is a pretty good thing. Children progress through developmental stages – physically, emotionally and cognitively – and there are no benefits for getting through them faster than usual. In fact, very often the opposite is true: if a child is rushed through their developmental stages, they might not become the masters of each stage that they would need to be in order to cope at the next.

Imagine being made to swim a whole length of the school pool at your first swimming lesson, or being expected to solve a quadratic equation when you are still learning to count to 10.

For many parents who bring their children to my practice, however, excellence is the expected norm and ordinary is considered sub-standard. Apparently, some children routinely walk at 3 months, are talking at 6 months, and very often are cooking coq au vin and showing promising wine-pairing skills by their third birthdays. Every parent believes that their child is special, and takes an enormous amount of pride in seeing their children do things well, but I sense that there is a fine line between healthy parental pride and placing unfair and unrealistic expectations on a son or daughter.

These parents are trying to raise Superkid. Superkid is more intelligent than average, is popular with all the other kids, was reading way before he went to school and is bound to be a movie star and/or cure cancer when he grows up. Superkid is the very opposite of ordinary. After hearing a few of these parental accounts, I have begun to believe that Superkid is largely a figment of the parental imagination.

I have sat through numerous parent intake interviews which are completely absent of the stories of struggles, mistakes, and tantrums that characterize early parenthood (and I am talking about the parents here!). Never mind the child’s struggles, frustrations and shortcomings. Why are these things hidden from child therapists, as if they are things to be ashamed of? Two reasons, I think: the first is to do with parents’ own sense of inadequacy about raising a human being (normal and understandable to feel this way); and the second is to do with the high standards set by society for perfection and achievement, and the myth that success arrives from being better than everyone else.

To expand a little on the first reason: Often parents who don’t realize that their uncertainty about raising a child is normal will desire an exceptional or perfect child to compensate for their own sense of inadequacy. They hope (often unconsciously) that if they raise Superkid they will be proving to themselves and others that they are good parents (and not the confused and battered neophytes they feel like). Their Superkid becomes reassuring proof that they are not failing, which tremendously helps the ailing parent’s self esteem.

Unfortunately, the effect on Superkid is often the opposite. High parental expectations often create an anxious child, uncertain of their self worth outside of their capacity to please others, and unable to engage in activities for their intrinsic worth. Self esteem thus becomes contingent on external accolades and awards, and the same child returns to the therapist’s office at age 30 to talk about how much of a disappointment they are, and how disappointing their life has been.

Here’s the reality: Children need to experience failure, defeat, frustration, loss, sadness in order to grow. The best thing that parents can do in these situations is to be there to support, console and encourage the next attempt. Ordinary kids learn to deal with defeat and tolerate frustration. They set attainable and optimistic goals, and have a realistic sense of what they can and can’t do. They are free to learn and grow in an environment that expects of them to do what they can do well, and to extend themselves just a little bit more to learn to do what they can’t. Best of all, they feel supported and loved by their parents for who they are (warts and all).

Success isn’t about excellence. Success is about doing the things you love mindfully and with enthusiasm, and doing the things you don’t like, but that need to be done, with perseverance and diligence. It’s about rolling with the punches and celebrating the successes. It’s about recognizing that the Ordinary is truly amazing.