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The Case Against Perfection

The Case Against Perfection

We all enter parenthood with the hope that we’ll do it right. As our kids don’t come with instruction manuals, we read blogs, buy books, ask questions, and take notes about others’ successes. We catalog the wins and losses from our own childhoods. With a blend of confidence and trepidation, we imagine cheerful, happy children and a joyful family.

Then life happens.

Our babies grow. They challenge us. We make mistakes. We lose our temper. We yell. We worry, feel frustration, and maybe even rage. We’re embarrassed to imagine what others might think if they knew the truth about what happens behind closed doors. We lay awake feeling guilty and wonder where it all went wrong, and why we’re so bad at this.

And yet… what if the point isn’t blissful perfection?

Compassion and hope live in the mending process that occurs whenever we’ve messed up. With each misstep, we have an opportunity to model for our children that we can grow from the stumble. Kids develop a healthier sense of themselves every time they see us fix our mistakes and give ourselves grace. A connection broken and mended is often stronger than a connection never broken.

Not only is the goal of perfection a setup for failure, but its pursuit prevents growth. Our kids yearn to see how we navigate adversity and solve problems. For them, it’s like watching a compelling sitcom. The plot toggles between conflict and resolution in each episode.

Kids only get to witness this when we give ourselves permission to struggle. They learn as we learn. We become authentically human in their eyes. They discover that not knowing what to do is okay because it leads to exploration. They come to see that mistakes are opportunities.

Parenting is hard. There is not a parent alive who hasn’t been overwhelmed by the process. But in the end, when repair occurs, everyone benefits from the growth and closeness that comes from shared experience and understanding.

About the Author

Kerry Galarza, MS OTR/L is the Clinical Director and a pediatric occupational therapist at Elmhurst Counseling. She provides specialized assessment and intervention with children of all ages and their families. Kerry engages clients with naturally occurring, meaningful home-based methods to empower autonomy and maximize functioning.

New Year’s Resolution

New Year’s Resolution

New Year’s arrival inspires us to make hopeful predictions about the future. It’s a curiously strong tradition that most of us uphold – even when our ideas don’t often pan out. So why do we feel compelled to keep doing this?

Our ancestors hardwired us to see the world through an imaginary crystal ball. We can’t help ourselves – the conscious brain’s main purpose is to make predictions. Jeff Hawkins, author of A Thousand Brains, explains: “Prediction is not just one of the things your brain does. It is the primary function of the neo-cortex and the foundation of intelligence.”

To deal with uncertainty, we enlist the neurobiology of prediction. In other words, we assess the environment and guess what will happen next. The brain loves predictability because the threat level is already known, so whatever decisions we need to make require less energy and generate less stress than when the degree of threat is uncertain.

While this function used to keep us safe from wooly mammoths, it’s now about getting us through the day. Simplifying the world through prediction makes our experiences more manageable, takes less brain power, and can make life feel more enjoyable. The trouble is, we can get ourselves stuck in overdrive.

Here’s why: two parts of the brain are always working in partnership: the prefrontal cortex (creative thought, problem-solving, attention) and the limbic system (emotions, memories, survival). When we feel secure that things are under control, we’re operating calmly from the prefrontal cortex. But when things get complicated – unexpected variables, too much environmental stimulus, an onslaught of information to sort through – the limbic system flips us into the dreaded flight/fight/freeze mode.

We’re all living in a period of constant upheaval. The world feels unstable, we’re endlessly busy, and our kids are ticking time bombs of tantrums and out-of-control behavior. When something goes awry, such as getting stuck by a train or not getting a prompt response to an important text, our already heightened state of arousal flips directly into flight/fright/freeze. Everything feels like a crisis – and we’re desperate for resolution so we can calm our system.

We see this same phenomenon in our kids all of the time. The world is still new and often overwhelming. They are operating in a heightened state of arousal whenever events feel unpredictable. Their limbic systems are poised and ready to take over at a moment’s notice. Add a couple of caregivers who are modeling high-stress responses to mini-fires into the mix, and things can spiral out of control quickly.

So this year, consider adding a new resolution to your list on behalf of your brain, and the brains of all the children in your life. As you feel yourself flipping into ancestral fight/fright/freeze mode come January, take a couple of deep breaths to hold the limbic system at bay. Then take a quick moment to assess the scene – is this something I need to predict and control after all? Or will I likely survive (and even thrive!) no matter what comes?

About the Author

Kerry Galarza, MS OTR/L is the Clinical Director and a pediatric occupational therapist at Elmhurst Counseling. She provides specialized assessment and intervention with children of all ages and their families. Kerry engages clients with naturally occurring, meaningful home-based methods to empower autonomy and maximize functioning.

Housekeeping versus Homemaking

Housekeeping versus Homemaking

Question: do you spend more time on housekeeping or homemaking? There’s a subtle emotional difference, and each has its own spin. Although there’s plenty of crossover between the two, the distinction is real. The question already ignites our biases.

So, before we go any further, let’s quickly get an outdated stereotype out of the way. This is not a discussion about Donna Reed-caliber housewives in scalloped aprons and lipstick, vacuuming already-tidy living rooms. What we’re really talking about here are the countless ways we intentionally craft and manipulate our living spaces – in other words, the specific roles we all play in our relationships with our homes. Let’s begin with two definitions:

Housekeeping is creating and maintaining an environment of cleanliness, order, and beauty.

Homemaking is creating and maintaining an environment specific to the needs, comfort, and harmony of your family and friends.

Most of us serve both roles. Knowing which one you tend towards starts with figuring out your central priority. What truly drives you as you clean-up, set-up, and fix-up your home? Are you most excited by having people ‘oo’ and ‘ah’ when they come over? Or are you more energized by arranging things to improve how you and others experience your space?

Beautifying and caring for your home usually has the bonus perk of boosting some family comforts. However, if your main goal is having a magazine-worthy abode and curb appeal that earns long glances from passers-by, you’re likely in the realm of housekeeping.

Homemaking starts from another place altogether. Homemaking is about promoting a welcoming vibe and anticipating people’s needs. It’s about creating ease and facilitating everyone’s well-being. Your home speaks uniquely to everyone who enters or lives in the space. It aims to make the space work for the people’s interests by maximizing the intersection of feeling and function.

Homemaking is personal, and it’s meant to flow with the times. It’s a dynamic and adaptable endeavor that evolves over time based on changing family needs. Even shifts in geography don’t have to alter the homemaking process much. For example, one can execute a near-exact version of it in a vacation rental. The central component of homemaking lives in the family system.

Housekeeping can evolve and be flexible, too, but it’s more often based on routines that depend on external priorities. Housekeeping tends to go on hiatus when there’s a disruption to schedules or you’re on vacation. It can be outsourced completely to professionals. It’s often based on a one-size-fits-most methodology. Homemaking, on the other hand, is as unique as the individual orchestrating it.

This is never an all-or-nothing state of affairs. In reality, we each do both. Mopping the kitchen floor is not warm, fuzzy, or personalized, but it is necessary. Designing a beautiful room, while incorporating the latest decor trends, still requires taking your family’s needs into account.

Whether the scales tip toward housekeeping or homemaking simply depends on where you’re placing the bulk of your focus. This brings us back to our original question: How do you allocate the priorities of your time? And then, a bigger question: How would you like to spend more of your energy going forward? Clean and beautify the space, or create a warm and welcoming place?

Space or place?

About the Author

Kerry Galarza, MS OTR/L is the Clinical Director and a pediatric occupational therapist at Elmhurst Counseling. She provides specialized assessment and intervention with children of all ages and their families. Kerry engages clients with naturally occurring, meaningful home-based methods to empower autonomy and maximize functioning.

Please Sweat the Big Stuff

Please Sweat the Big Stuff

“Don’t sweat the small stuff” is valuable advice. It’s easy to get worked up over little things when stress is mounting. Not sweating the small stuff requires some kind of reset of perspective. But there are two caveats: timing is everything, and the scale is subjective. You have to realize it’s just not that important in the grand scheme of things to avoid ‘overreacting.’

Overreactions are only overreactions after the recognition that they’re out of proportion. Until that moment, the emotions seem scaled to fit the moment. Telling someone to settle down in the midst of their tantrum is only likely to escalate the tension. Yet, there are precisely four situations when a dramatic emotional response is called for. In order of increasing importance, they are respect, trust, health, and safety.

When any of these four are violated, it’s time to pull the ripcord. The reason is simple. What follows an underreaction to them is harmful. More importantly, they are interdependent. A breach of any of the four affects the others. What’s more, if you allow respect, trust, health, or safety violations to go unchecked, there’s a risk of sanctioning the tolerance. Let’s go through them one by one.

Respect

The way people should treat each other is modeled first in the home. Kids observe their caregivers like squeezed sponges near puddles as they soak in childhood lessons. In the mind of a child, whatever they experience is ‘normal.’ So, if dad treats mom like dirt, that’s the way dads are supposed to treat moms. Families are wise to call some kind of a time-out when anyone says or does anything to anyone that is disrespectful. Once the interaction has been frozen in time, make sure everyone knows what the expectations will be moving forward. Then, make sure to behave consistently with this stance in the exchanges that follow.

Trust

Over time, parents put themselves out of a job by empowering their kids to become independent. Autonomy is a developmental acquisition. Yet, parents hold the reins on the timing and degree of freedom allowed. Freedom must be earned by making responsible choices. The more responsible the child, the longer the leash. Of course, the opposite is true. Short leashes are designed as external controls when internal controls aren’t enough. Whenever you show me that I don’t need to track your accountability, I back off. If your behavior communicates that you can’t be trusted, I have no choice but to exert control.

Health

Wellness is the foundation of effective coping. Nutrition, sleep, hygiene, and exercise create a platform for physical, emotional, and cognitive health. We have more energy, feel more balanced, and make better decisions when this foundation is strong. Slippage, however, is insidious. Neglected wellness is often the consequence of prolonged stress. Unfortunately, neglect gets normalized over time, especially if it is gradual. Like the proverbial plates spinning on sticks, keep an eye on the aspects of wellness that are wobbling and give them a spin before they crash.

Safety

Most parents have an urge to bubble-wrap their kids. There is a delicate balance between exposing them to growth opportunities and protecting them from danger. Every developmental stage increases their capacity to make good judgements while, at the same time, raising the stakes of failure. It’s all about measuring readiness accurately and responding resolutely when your assessment misses. Kids never learn to get up if they’re never allowed to fall. Yet, setting limits when they are tempting danger is a message of love.

Respect, trust, health, and safety. Please sweat the big stuff.

About the Author

Steve Ritter, LCSW is the Founder and Executive Director of Elmhurst Counseling. He has served as a teacher, author, consultant, human resources director, health care administrator, and licensed clinical social worker since 1977. A fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives, Steve has provided coaching, therapy and team development services to thriving schools, businesses and organizations.

How to Fight (or: How to Love)

How to Fight (or: How to Love)

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of your last fight? It doesn’t matter if it was an argument with another adult or your child. In either case, your recollection probably starts with all the ways that person wronged you.

We can’t help but cast ourselves as the main character in our personal narratives. We’re each the center of our own universe. The most mature among us can recognize that there are two sides to every story, but when emotion comes into play, that skill usually goes right out the window. Vulnerability equals self-absorption: it’s instinctual and protective.

It’s easy to get stuck when we’re vulnerable. But there’s a workaround if we spend time cultivating it. First, imagine we each incubate seeds of feeling inside us. Seeds of happiness, pain, safety, sorrow, awareness, love, contentment, worry – all within each person, and all vying for time in the sun. If we pay attention, we can see them as clearly as the outfit someone’s wearing.

Next, think about which ‘feeling seeds’ have been fertilized most inside the person you’re facing. It could be that pain grew wild and unchecked for years, and has been choking out the other seedlings. Maybe safety hasn’t been watered very much lately and is struggling to take root. For some, an unresolved trauma might have altered their soil conditions.

It’s very likely the fight was more about the state of their greenhouse than what appeared to be the triggering event. And it’s just as likely that your response was more about the state of your own greenhouse rather than the surrounding circumstances. Both are usually true.

So next time, think about trying something different. Instead of nurturing the defensive seedlings in the midst of a conflict by pouring water on neglect, anger, and inadequacy, look for the positive seedlings that could use more TLC. Giving those helpful seedlings of love, appreciation, and understanding some nourishment will greatly benefit you both.

Because when it comes down to it, we’re all living in the same garden.

About the Author

Kerry Galarza, MS OTR/L is the Clinical Director and a pediatric occupational therapist at Elmhurst Counseling. She provides specialized assessment and intervention with children of all ages and their families. Kerry engages clients with naturally occurring, meaningful home-based methods to empower autonomy and maximize functioning.