• Wednesday, December 09th, 2015

As Christmas season explodes again, I find myself thinking of a trend I’ve noticed over the past several years.
Those of you who know me, know I am a Social Worker, and, for almost 30 years, have counseled children and adolescents. Conversation with these groups, especially the ones that aren’t exactly willing participants, is, at best, a challenge. So I fall back on “ice-breaker” questions, anything to get the conversational ball rolling…

After the holidays, I always ask two questions: “What was the best gift you got?” and “What is the gift you gave someone else that you were the most excited to give?” I have vivid memories of my very first paying job. My job was in a small woman’s clothing shop, next to two of the largest department stores in town. I had to wait inside one of them to catch the bus that would take me home, and I used my “wait time” to window shop. One evening after Thanksgiving I was browsing, turned a corner and saw the Perfect gift for my mother! It was big, bigger than I’d seen, and cost more than I’d ever thought to spend on any one person. But this was PERFECT. And, with my new wealth, I could pay for it! So the enormous spice rack went home with me, and I watched with delight my mother’s pleasure when she unwrapped it on Christmas morning. Now, 43 years later, I can still remember how it felt, and how my anticipation of her response totally overrode thoughts about what Santa had hidden for me under the tree.

It had been a tradition in our family that we children were expected to get our own gifts, and every year, I went to Woolworth’s with a $20 bill, with which I bought gifts for siblings, parents, and grand-parents. Make-up for my sister (sorry, sis!), chocolate-covered cherries for my dad, pipe tobacco for Grandad, and a game for my brother and little sister. I would plan, and budget, and then carefully wrap each one, and was proud when they were opened and I was assured this was “exactly what I wanted!”

When I first started working with kids, this seemed like a safe question-and it is one I still ask. Over the years, though, I have noticed that the answers have drifted. Initially, more often than not, I would get a story of how they had made something at school (school art classes often had special holiday projects). Sometimes, I’d have someone who painted, knitted, or crocheted- and they happily described what they’d done- sometimes bringing the “work in progress” for me to see

Gradually, however, that has changed. Over the past several years, I am increasingly answered with a shrug, an “I dunno- my folks get them gifts and put my name on it”, or a flat, “I don’t give to my family, but I bought my friend a really nice cd”. Not only that, but their recitations of the gifts they received have become more and more expensive and detailed. The sense of entitlement is very high- and these are often kids who are seeing me because they are acting out and/or not compliant with their parents’ expectations.

I don’t know exactly WHY I’m seeing this… only that I am. And I am, at the same time, seeing and hearing reports of how young people struggle with significant and deliberately malicious bullying, role models who exploit and abuse trust and power, and increased violence and depersonalization in the media and their communities. Also, I don’t believe this is the result of bad parenting-I have yet to meet a parent whose goal is to raise a selfish child, and the act of parenting has never faced the myriad of challenges it does now. I do believe this to be influenced by technology, years and years of media advertising focused on selling the “good life” and specifically target the group with the strongest “buying power” (adolescents), the increased pressure on parents to work harder to survive, let alone thrive….there are as many “reasons” as there are opinions/prejudice. But they don’t address the concern I have: that at a time in their development when a child is becoming aware of the bigger world around them, they are increasingly focused on things they are going to GET, with little thought to others.

So, having identified this, what do I think? What can parents do to help their children be more empathic and compassionate? Frankly, I think one answer is relatively easy and costs nothing. It doesn’t involve taking up a hobby, or giving up your family holiday traditions. It is, simply, to engage them in the gift planning and giving. Talk with them about what they think they would like someone to have as a gift. Ask them why they think someone would be pleased to have that particular gift. And watch as the person opens and thanks them for it. And focus just a little more on the act of giving pleasure and how that feels inside. Children love to make other people happy- feed and nurture that spirit. I have had many clients who loved going through their toy boxes and selecting toys to send to charity-clients who taught me that the act of giving was about more than the cost, but about the simple of act doing what they could. This development of empathy-the ability to understand and share the feelings of another-is important and will have long-standing effect on future relationships.

In closing I invite you to close your eyes and ask yourself…what is the gift you are most excited to be giving this year?

Happy Holidays!

• Saturday, October 18th, 2014

Well, it has been interesting several days. This conference has been pretty intense, and at first, pretty overwhelming. Sitting for the first, very long, day, discussing the massive disruption of lives, hearing first-hand stories of people who were tortured, children who had guns put to their heads, who witnessed atrocities that no human being should ever experience. It was so intense that I couldn’t/can’t write about it until I process it a bit. The first thing I started writing got deleted-it really only served to vent some of my own horror and feelings of helplessness. Good thing that George was home when I called in a panic and helped me re-ground. Yesterday I did my own presentation (which, frankly was a significant contributor to my stress! Come on…my first International conference presentation!!).

Anyway, my presentation was on how trauma impacts teens and then there was a group discussion on intervention. Funny, but when it was over -and it went well…), I could relax and have fun- and I did! This conference is facilitated by a wonderful group of University students, and last night they arranged for a group of us to go to a local venue for music. The fee-really reasonable-was entry, an entire evening of music by a local study who is also a friend of theirs, and a choice of either a drink or a hookah! I chose the drink (soft drink- no alcohol!), and we all had a wonderful time. Slept well last nite!

Two other people and hope to do some sightseeing tomorrow-if we can pull it off, we’re going to try to get to Petra (you’re on your computer-Google it!) If it works out, the picture will be posted.

Update: leave at 6am for Petra and the Dead Sea!! Pictures for sure!

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• Sunday, October 12th, 2014

Working on Active Listening Skills with wonderfully dedicated people!

Working on Active Listening Skills with wonderfully dedicated people!

Wow-today has been great! Spent the day with some of the trainees from our first class and the staff of SAMS- the Syrian American Medical Services- these incredibly dedicated men and women are providing support for the Syrian refugees- and doing so while carrying their own grief, as many of them themselves are Syrian and are re-weaving their own life’s story. It was an honor to spend time with them, and I love, love, love talking about helping people! We return tomorrow to spend more time with them, and then our last day before the conference begins we will spend the day in the actual clinic. That should be interesting-the population they serve is seriously stressed-as I listen to them, I try to make connections with points of reference from my own life. That’s how I work in therapy, too, and it helps me conceptualize the story as well as the direction of my work. Well, as they talked, very matter-of-factly, about the conflict, leaving their homes, their lives, physical injury and torture survivors, it was almost surreal. There were some parallels I could draw: rioting and aggression, personal losses, life plans going totally off track and giving up on dreams, losing cherished items….even being fearful for my life….but not all at once. The sheer magnitude of their experiences at a single point in time….

Amman itself is a fascinating city- OLD, and, as in many OLD cities, the mix of old and bright-shiny-new comes as a visual treat. Lots and lots of construction going on…When we were on our way to the mall, we drove past what looked like an enormous quarry- right in the middle of town! And the traffic is amazing- street “lanes” seem to be more of a suggestion, and crossing the street is a wild adventure! We’ve been taking taxis to and from-today I at with my eyes closed, going around one of those”roundabouts” my Wisconsin family is so find of….all I can say is they’re not my favorite thing!

The people are warm and welcoming, and very willing to help. The food has been oh-so-good, and today one of the people we meet with brought in homemade cookies stuffed with dates…yummy! Yes, I’m so glad I came, and so glad that my husband didn’t hesitate to support mewhen we first talked about it!

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• Saturday, October 11th, 2014

view from my hotelGot into my room about 5 am and after a couple hours’nap, I’m ready to face the world! I’m thinking I’d better make the most of it, cause I’m likely to crash and burn early this evening…
First-hours get money and then an international cell phone so I’m available/and can reach my backup here if I need to…
Palm trees…riding in from the airport-Palm trees were the thing I noticed most. Not like the cheesy ones the city imported every year to let slowly die outside the baseball stadium, but real honest-to-good Palm trees, happy as crickets and lining the road. Where I’m used to oaks and maples—Palm trees!!

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• Friday, October 10th, 2014

Well, flight was good- seats comfy and my seat mate was genial. However, the leg room was less than desirable and I left my new and spiffy pillow  at home so had to make do with the one the airline gave out. So, sleep was interesting and punctuated by urgent MOVE messages from the knee mashed against the seat in the row ahead of me. But I did get some, and expect to sleep on the next leg, which should get us into Amman at 3am…..bleh!
We’ve been here for a couple hours- long enough to eat, walk around, and be totally charmed and overwhelmed by the sheer sound! Lots and lots of people, all speaking in their own languages, and all at the same time. It’s auditory chaos! 😉

• Wednesday, October 08th, 2014

Well, I leave in two days…I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. Plan right now is to pack and do my dithering tomorrow, then head for O’Hare on Thursday…

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