Archive for Author John Salmon

Your Popsicle-Toed, Cover-Stealing Spouse & Sleep

I love my wife… but when we go to bed, she has the coldest feet, real “popsicle toes.” She steals the covers too… and makes snoring sounds from time to time.  Of course, to be fair, she accuses me of “twitching” and moving too much all through the night. (I try to deny it, but my brother told me the same thing in high school. And, come to think of it, my grandmother told me she could hear me “kicking around” in my sleep as well. And my college roommate…well, I guess it’s hard to deny the truth with so many witnesses. Anyway….) So, when my wife went on an overnight trip with her sister, I envisioned a blissful night of sleep—no cold feet, no stolen covers, no alarming sounds. But it didn’t work out that way; it never does. In fact, it seems I sleep worse when my wife is not home to share the bed with me, not better…always worse. Talking with my wife, she has the same experience. What’s the deal? Well, I finally found an explanation.

A study analyzing the data of 1,007 working age adults confirms my experience…and more. This study found that people who share a bed with their spouse reported less severe insomnia, less fatigue, and more time asleep than those who report never sharing a bed with their spouse.  In addition, they fell asleep faster and had less risk of sleep apnea. In other words, people sleep better sharing a bed with their spouse than they do alone.

But wait, there’s more. Sleeping with one’s spouse was also associated with lower depression, less anxiety, and less stress as well as greater satisfaction with life and relationships.

As I read the study review, I thought, “Maybe it’s just sleeping with a family member.” As if they read my mind, the researchers compared sleeping with a spouse to sleeping with a child.  Those who slept with their children most nights reported greater insomnia, exhibited a greater risk of sleep apnea, and had less control over their sleep (that last one is a “no kidding” one, right? Who has any control over their sleep with a child in the house, let alone in the bed?).

And, sleeping alone (the blissful moment of rest I had awaited) was actually associated with higher depression scores, lower social support and lower life and relationship satisfaction. Apparently, sleeping without my spouse in the bed is not what I had it cracked up to be.

Overall, this study suggests that sleeping with your spouse—cold toes, twitching, cover stealing, and all—results in greater emotional health and greater life satisfaction. All kidding aside, this fits with my life experience. There is comfort and peace in sleeping next to the one you love and to whom you’ve committed to sharing life.  It helps us connect and puts our “life rhythms in sync.” In the long run, I’m grateful for those popsicle toes and cover-stealing roll-overs. They let me know that the one I love is lying next to me and sharing life with me.  I’ll sleep better knowing she’s next to me, even as I pull the covers back over me in the night.

Children’s Chores Do What?

Every parent knows that children benefit from doing chores to learn basic household skills as well as responsibility. Research also suggests children benefit from chores. For instance, research suggests that children who do chores have a greater sense of autonomy, improved prosocial skills, and greater life satisfaction.

A study published in the Australian Occupational Therapy Journal suggests in even more intriguing benefit for doing chores. This study, completed by a PhD candidate at La Trobe University, suggests chores may even benefit a child’s brain functioning. Wait…what? Chores might improve brain function, really? That’s right. In this study, the parents of 207 children between the ages of 5- and 13-years-old completed questionnaires assessing their children’s involvement in household chores and their children’s executive functioning—which includes their cognitive ability to plan, self-regulate, remember instructions, and similar mental tasks. Household chores included self-care chores (like making themselves a meal), family-care chores (like helping prepare the family meal or weeding a family garden), and pet-care chores. Here’s the kicker. A child’s engagement in self-care chores and family-care chores predicted their working memory and their ability to act before thinking. Specifically, children who engaged in age-appropriate chores also exhibited better working memory and a better ability to think before acting. Better working memory and a better ability to think before acting translates into better problem-solving, improved academic achievement, and even greater career success.

What does this mean for your family and your children? You guessed it. Engaging your children in age-appropriate and ability-appropriate chores can facilitate their cognitive development. It can improve their brain functioning. So let your children help you with household chores and involve them in independent household chores. Encourage them to join you in cooking meals, cleaning, or yard work. When appropriate to their age and ability, let them have the primary responsibility of sweeping, mowing, or dishwashing. Give them the responsibility of keeping their room clean. They may not know it, but you’ll be helping their brain grow and function even better.

Thanksgiving Dinner? What’s the Big Deal?

Norman Rockwell captured the iconic moment of Thanksgiving Dinner in The Thanksgiving Picture. But really, what’s the big deal about a family dinner? Who cares about family dinners anyway?

Family dinner is about so much more than simply sitting at a common table to eat food. We learn important lessons at the family dinner. It is during family dinner that we learn we belong. As we pass the potatoes and negotiate who gets the turkey leg, we learn that life is shared. We are not alone; and we have to think about the “other guy” and his welfare, not just ourselves. We have to listen to learn what others have to say, to learn about their wants and desires. And we learn to leave enough of the “good stuff” for everyone to get some.

At the family dinner table, we also learn that we have something to say, and that others will listen to us. We have needs and desires to express and others will not only hear us tell of those needs and desires but will graciously adjust their behavior to satisfy our needs and desires.

We also learn that manners and civility are important while sitting around the dinner table. We learn that respect leads to greater generosity and that moderation is important to fairness.  And what better place to practice respect, generosity, moderation, and fairness than at the dinner table.

Why have Thanksgiving Dinner? Because our families and our children need to learn these important lessons of belonging, listening, sharing, respect, generosity, moderation, and fairness. Our communities are crying out for these virtues. Why celebrate with a Thanksgiving Dinner? Because changing the world starts with how we share Thanksgiving Dinner with our friends and family. (For more, read Everything I Needed to Know I Learned at Dinner.)

Will You Commit to Gratitude

It’s Thanksgiving. We’re nearing the end of “30 days of gratitude.” Most of us will enjoy a wonderful Thanksgiving turkey as we sit around our tables and declare what has made us thankful this year. It’s easy to be gratitude for a day or a month, but what about the rest of the year. After all, we will experience difficult days in which we just don’t feel grateful. We will have days in which we struggle to even muster words of gratitude, let alone feel it. The world will press in and stress will overwhelm. The moments in which we don’t feel gratitude may even grow exponentially at times.

Fortunately, gratitude is not just a feeling. Gratitude is a choice, a hard choice but a choice, nonetheless. And this year I am choosing to make gratitude a practice. This year, I am going to choose to exercise my muscles of gratitude even when the feelings of gratitude are not present. 

I will choose gratitude when tempted to complain. Complaining focuses on what we don’t like and brings greater frustration. In choosing gratitude I will recognize what I don’t like while still giving thanks for the inherent blessings of the situation as well. Rather than complain in traffic, I will focus on the blessing of having a car…the employment to afford a car…the manufacturers who made the car…the air conditioning and heater that keep me comfortable in the car…the opportunity to visit with the passenger in the car…. I will choose gratitude and gain greater peace.  Rather than complain about the burnt toast, I will give thanks for the wealth to purchase bread…and the toaster to toast it…and the electricity that powers the toaster.

I will choose gratitude rather than pessimistically think the worst of mankind. I will recognize the complexity of people, their mix of positive and negative qualities. I will give thanks for the unbelievable strengths of people while recognizing their blind spots. I will give thanks for acts of exquisite beauty and grace while recognizing the ugliness of a fallen world. Through gratitude I will invest in the value of the people around me and perhaps nurture their better self.

I will choose gratitude to combat discontentment and counter envy. I will allow gratitude to open my eyes to the abundance I have received and the abundance around me. With gratitude for the abundance I enjoy, I will rejoice and be thankful for the gifts another receives. In a spirit of gratitude, I will find contentment in my life. 

I will choose gratitude in an effort to rise above the worries and momentary anxieties of this life. I will express gratitude for the support, love, and resources available to accomplish whatever task is arousing worry and anxiety.

I will choose gratitude even in the face of anger. Doing so will keep me aware of the many gifts the one who has aroused my anger has given in the past. In giving thanks for the blessing received from them in the past, I will not let their current “mistakes” take on apocalyptic proportions. 

I will choose gratitude to protect my relationships from the tyranny of callousness, ingratitude, and entitlement that leads to resentment and bitterness.

I will choose gratitude to elevate life and encourage love.

It may prove the more difficult road to travel. It may require practice. But I will choose gratitude because it will bring the greatest joy, the greatest growth, and the greatest opportunity for healthy relationships.

I will choose gratitude. Will you?

Help Your Children Get “Ready to Learn”

Learning can happen anytime and anywhere…not just in school. In fact, most learning probably occurs outside of school. Our children learn by watching us. They learn while playing. They learn everywhere. But if you really want to get your children “ready to learn” in more formal settings like school, a series of five studies out of Ohio State University offers a simple, yet powerful suggestion. In this series of studies, participants played a simple computer game in which one group saw “colorful images of unfamiliar creatures” later identified as “flurps” and “jalets.”  They received no information about these creatures in the first phase of the study. They simply saw them. A second group played the game and did not even see the creatures.

In the second phase of the study, both groups received explicit instruction about “flurps” and “jalets.” The researchers measured how long it took participants to learn the difference between them. The first group, who had previous exposure to the creatures, learned the differences between “flurps” and “jalets” more quickly than those who had no exposure to them. Simple exposure prepared them to learn.

In another study, participants would see the creatures in the middle of the screen and have to push a one button if the creature jumped to the left or a different button if it jumped to the right. No one told them that one category of creature always jumped left, and another category always jumped right. Surprisingly, participants did not recognize this difference while playing the game. Mere exposure did not teach them which creature jumped in which direction. But, that exposure did allow them to learn the differences between the creatures more quickly than a group who had received no exposure to the creatures. In other words, the exposure did not teach them about the creatures, it simply prepared them to learn about the creatures.

What does this mean? It means that merely exposing your children to new places and things prepares them to learn about those places and things. They may not learn from simply experiencing the new object or place, but the experience prepares them to learn about it more quickly when they receive actual teaching. In other words, you can prepare your child to learn by simply exposing them to new things. Here are some ideas to prepare your children to learn.

  • Go on vacation. When you go on vacation, your children encounter new places, new people, new foods, new ecosystems, new animals, new history, and more. Simply experiencing these things prepares them to learn about them in their school studies, readings, or family talks.
  • Listen to a variety of music. Don’t get stuck in one style of music. Let your children experience a variety of music. Also, buy some toy instruments and let them play with them. Let them bang on the Tupperware, shake the toy tambourine, hum in the kazoo. As a result, they will be better prepared to learn about rhythm, melody, harmony, and instruments.
  • Play with sports equipment. Toss a ball around. Play catch. Swing a bat or a tennis racquet around. Run. Have fun. It will prepare your child to learn about sports when they get more serious.
  • Play board games and card games. Games can expose children to the concept of “chance” and numbers as well as strategy and more. Counting dice, counting moves, deciding if it’s worth the risk to ask for another card…all these prepare a child to learn math and science skills.
  • Cook with your child. Measuring ingredients for pies or cookies prepares your child to learn about math.

These are just a few ideas. There are many more. Take the time today to engage your child in something new and get them “ready to learn.” What activities can you think of that will expose your child to a skill that they will later learn as part of life?

Strengthen Your Family in 3 Words or Less

Want to build a stronger family? Of course you do. We all do. We want a stronger, more intimate family. A healthy family. A connected family. Sometimes it sounds like hard work to “build” a strong, healthy family. But you can do it in three words or less…as long as you use those words often. Let me share some examples.

  • You see your spouse washing dishes. Now is your chance. Build a stronger relationship with these 3 little words: “Can I help?” Then follow through when she says “yes.”
  • Your parent is washing the car or raking leaves. “Can I help?” are the perfect 3 words to strengthen your connection with your parent.
  • Your child is frustrated with their homework. Now is not the time to lecture about waiting until the last minute. Instead, strengthen your bond with these 3 simple words: “Can I help?”
  • Your spouse asks for help cooking dinner or putting the summer porch furniture away. They ask for your help. I know. You’re busy. You have your chores too. But they’ve asked for your help; and you want to build intimacy, strengthen your connection. So, three simple words will help: “I’d love to.”

You can strengthen your relationship in less than three words too. Take these examples.

  • You ask someone in your family to pass the salt at dinnertime and they do. Reply with a simple “Thank you.” Two words, that’s all. But those two simple words strengthen the bond in your relationship.
  • You just finished putting away the clean dishes. You do it almost every day so it’s no big deal. But your spouse thanks you. You could minimize their gratitude; but then you would miss the opportunity to build the relationship. Instead, you say “My pleasure” –two words that deepen your spouse’s appreciation even further.
  • You said something mean in the midst of an argument. It just slipped out. You know it was wrong and you don’t really mean it. Nonetheless, it hurt the other person and erected a barrier between you and them. “I’m sorry” begins to repair the breach. “I’m sorry” accepts responsibility and opens the door to restore the intimacy lost.

These are only 2-3 word phrases. But, when shared generously, graciously, and authentically in our family, they will strengthen your family, increase the intimacy in your relationships, and bring greater health to your family relationships. What other simple 2-3 word phrases can you think of that will strengthen your family?

It’s NOT All About You…or Me

My wife asked me a question, a simple question. “Where’s the cinnamon?” But there was an edge of irritation in her voice that sent “my mind a wandering.” Why does she sound irritated? Does she think I stole it? Why would I steal cinnamon? She is probably accusing me of putting things in the wrong place or not even putting them away at all. What’s the big deal with cinnamon anyway? Why does she always think the worst of me? On my mind ran, escalating my fears and defensiveness. You can imagine my response was less than ideal.  

Have you ever had a similar experience? Your spouse asks a simple question and sounds slightly agitated. The agitation strikes a fear within you. You jump to a conclusion and assume the agitation is pointed toward you. You personalize it and think it’s all about you. It’s a common response, but not the best response.

When we take our spouse’s agitation personally, it almost always makes the interaction go south. When we personalize their agitation, we tend to respond with defensiveness. They hear our defensiveness and feel misunderstood. And so begins a downward spiral of communication that began when we personalized our spouse’s mood and thought it was all about us.

But I have a secret for you…and for me. It’s not all about you…or me. Most of the time it’s about something totally unrelated to you…or me.

What can we do instead of personalizing and getting defensive? How can we nurture a better response and interaction? Good question. Here are some suggestions (given in no particular order).

  • First, take a deep breath. Let the breath out slowly as you start talking to yourself. Begin with statements of curiosity: “Hmmm. I wonder what’s going on here.” Then offer yourself soothing internal thoughts in a calm tone using calm words. Remind yourself of the love you and your spouse share.
  • Second, believe the best about your spouse. Practicing a calming internal dialogue, leaves space for alternative meanings to your spouse’s behaviors and words. It allows room for a compassionate interpretation of what your spouse said or did. Look for those compassionate, loving interpretations and let your mind dwell on them.
  • Third, acknowledge your spouse’s feelings in a calm, non-defensive way. Simply reflect back the emotion you perceived in what they said. This opens the door for clarification and communication. It provides space for your spouse to clarify what’s going on for them and for the two of you to come together in a common understanding.

These 3 simple steps can help save an interaction from the downward spiral of personalizing, defensiveness, and feeling misunderstood. They will help you create a calm interaction of clarification and support instead. That will go a long way toward building a more intimate, loving relationship. And it all begins with realizing that “it’s not all about you.”

Let the Adventures Begin…To Prevent Anxiety

We have witnessed a dramatic rise in children with depression and anxiety that began even before the COVID pandemic. In fact, anxiety among children increased 27% from 2016 to 2019. Depression increased 24% during the same time period. In 2020, about 9.7% of children carried a diagnosis of anxiety and 4% had a diagnosis of depression. (See Research Update: Children’s Anxiety and Depression on the Rise.) I don’t know about you, but I find this very disturbing. So, you can imagine how excited I get when I find research suggesting a simple way to potentially reverse this alarming trend.

A study led by the University of Exeter offers a perfect example. In this study, researcher surveyed nearly 2,500 parents of children 5- to 11-years-old. The surveys asked parents how often their children engaged in “thrilling and exciting” play that might arouse “some fear and uncertainty” as well as their child’s play in general and their general mental health and mood. They discovered that children who spent more time playing outside had fewer of the “internalizing problems” associated with depression and anxiety. In other words, they were less likely to have symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Playing outside provides greater opportunity for “thrilling, exciting” play. It gives children the opportunity to experiment with and safely test their limits. It is adventurous, rewarding… and free. Experimenting with their ability, experiencing adventure, and feeling rewarded combine to increase a child’s confidence, ability to plan, self-awareness, and positive sense of self. And, because it’s fun children will do it often.

So, if you want to decrease the chances of your child experiencing diagnosable symptoms of depression or anxiety, take them outside for some adventurous play. Give them the freedom to encounter challenges and risks in their daily play. If you’re looking for some adventurous activities to try…

  • Go for an overnight camping trip.
  • Go for a hike.
  • Go swimming, paddling, or rafting on a river or lake.
  • Create an obstacle course in your backyard…or living room.
  • Explore the woods with a friend.
  • Let your children walk to the store alone.
  • Try out new skills like skateboarding, jumping on a trampoline, or rock climbing.
  • Climb a tree.

What other adventurous activities have you engaged in with your children? Or allowed your children to engage in with other children?

The Threads that Bind Us Together

I really like this quote from Simone Signoret, a French actress: “Chains do not hold marriages together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads, which sew people together through the years.”

This quote expresses a great truth. First, “chains do not hold marriages together.” Marriages are not supported and given life through demands and obligations. And yes, there are many demands and obligations that enchain our marriages.

  • Our identity as a couple enchains us. As our relationship grows (even before we are married) our friends begin to think of us as a “couple.” When one is absent from the “couple,” our friends ask about the “missing piece.” Our identity as a “couple” binds us together. To separate means breaking the chains of our identity as a couple.
  • Shared possessions. Buying a house together. Renting under both our names. Getting a pet together. Purchasing a car in both our names. These shared possessions and others like them become chains that bind us together. They make separating more costly as well as more complex and difficult.
  • Having a child together binds us to one another. When a couple has a child, they share the responsibility, the joys, and the struggles of raising a new life. They both feel love for their child. And the love each of them feels for their child makes separating much more complex and difficult.

As you can see, these chains are not necessarily negative. An identity as a couple, owning possessions together, and having a child are wonderful, joyous experiences. But they also make ending the relationship more costly, more complex, and more difficult. In that sense, they bind us together. They represent the “chains” that hold our marriages together.

But chains, in and of themselves, are not enough to create a healthy, lifelong marriage. In fact, these “chains” can either nurture a stronger marriage or further weaken a struggling marriage. We need something more. We need “threads, hundreds of tiny threads,” to sew us together into a healthy, lifelong marriage. What are those threads?

  • Admiration and adoration. Healthy marriages grow stronger when each person voices their admiration and adoration of the other on a daily basis. Healthy couples express their admiration through words of encouragement, compliments, praises, and more. Each time you recognize and comment on your wife’s beauty, your husband’s work ethic, your wife’s unending work, or your spouse’s contribution to the house becomes a thread sewing us more tightly together. Each compliment and praise, each recognition of a task completed, and each vocalization of admiration for your spouse’s character or appearance will become a thread that sew us together into a healthy, lifelong marriage. (Here’s a math equation you love to help you do this on a daily basis.)
  • Gratitude. Every expression of gratitude becomes another thread sewing a marriage together for a lifetime. Daily expressions of gratitude for cooking, cleaning, working, mowing lawns, picking up groceries, passing the salt, taking out the garbage…the list goes on… become tiny threads sewing us together into a healthy marriage.
  • Acts of service become threads sewing us together. Service does not have to be extravagant. Simply pouring your spouse a drink, running the bathwater, completing a chore to make their day easier, warming up the car…they all become the tiny threads of a strong intimacy.
  • Responding. Each time our spouse speaks offers us an opportunity to sew another tiny thread in place to strengthen our marital bond. Simply responding in awareness and love, being responsive, sews our marriages together. To sew the thread of responsiveness demands sewing another thread, the thread of listening.
  • Physical affection. I’m not talking about sexual affection, just simple nonsexual physical affection. Holding hands, walking arm in arm, a loving hug goodnight, a gentle caress of the back, a little kiss goodbye for the day…they all become tiny threads holding our marriages together.
  • Apologies. Every couple will experience disagreements and misunderstandings. Every person will do something they wish they hadn’t done in their marriage. Mistakes will be made. However, the thread of apology will repair the breach created by that misunderstanding or mistake. The thread of apology will strengthen your marriage.

As you can see, the tiny threads that sew us together in a healthy marriage are the daily actions of love. They are often small but, taking together, they sew together a bond that will last a lifetime.

My Teen Doesn’t Listen Anymore

Did you know that fetuses recognize their mother’s voice? That’s even before a child is born. It’s true. They do. And from birth, children prefer their mother’s voice. A study using MRI technology has even shown that the brains of 7- to 12-year-old children respond differently to their mother’s voice than to other women’s voices. In response to their mother’s voice [but not in response to another woman’s voice], the 7-12-year-old’s brain lights up in brain areas associated with emotional processing, reward processing, and the processing information about the self. In other words, a child’s brain is uniquely attuned to their mother’s voice even before birth.

But something happens around the age of 13 years. If you’re a parent, you probably noticed it. Our children turn 13-years-old and suddenly they become deaf to their mother’s voice. They appear to quit listening. A 2022 study published by the Stanford School of Medicine reveals that this change is not necessarily a willful choice to disregard their mother. The change is deeper than that. It’s a change reaching deep into the brain itself.

Researchers utilized data from teens who were 13 to 16. 5 years of age for this study. These teens listened to recordings of their mother and two unfamiliar women say 3 nonsense words. Researchers used nonsense words to avoid meaning or emotional content eliciting a response. They also listened to recordings of random household sounds. While listening to all of these voices and sounds, brain activity was recorded using MRI. Not surprisingly, teens easily distinguished their mother’s voice from the other women’s voices. All the voices elicited greater activity in several brain areas when compared to younger children. Interestingly, researchers could even predict the teen’s age based on this increased brain response.

But, and this is the kicker, unfamiliar voices created greater activity in the area of the teen’s brain associated with reward-processing and the area involved in determining the value of social information. In other words, our teens’ brains biologically responded differently to unfamiliar voices than they had prior to 13 years of age. For teens, the brain areas associated with reward processing and determining value light up for unfamiliar voices more than they do for their mother’s voice. All the voices were heard (even your voice, Mom) but the unfamiliar voices were more rewarding and valued.

What does all this mean for the parent of a teen? Teens are naturally moving toward individuation. They are preparing to move away from home and into the world. As a result, they are becoming more attuned to those voices outside of the family. Ironically, they still need a parent’s guidance and wisdom. So here are some tips to help you maintain effective communication with your teen, even has they become attuned to the “outside world.”

  • First, don’t take it personal. It’s not about you. Your teen is maturing and preparing to leave the home. As a result, they are becoming attuned to the world outside the home. Don’t take it personal.
  • Trust what they have learned from you and your home over the last 13 years. They have internalized a great deal of knowledge, values, and even a family identity. Trust the time and love you have invested in your teen over their childhood years. You would be amazed how many times a parent brings a child to therapy and says, “They just don’t seem to listen.” They explain things they have told their teen that they fear their teen has not hear. Then, I meet with their teen who tells me, many times word for word, what their parents have said. And the teen voices these statements as their beliefs, not their parents’ beliefs. Our teens are listening. Our children have learned. Trust the love you have invested in your teen already.
  • Remain involved. This begins with listening. Give your teen your full attention when they want to interact with you. Listen intently and deeply to your teen. Sometimes parents have a difficult time learning that the art of listening is more than simply responding. Your teen will more readily hear you when they know you consistently do your best to listen intently to them.
  • When you have something to tell your teen, make sure you get their attention first. Address them by name, with kindness. Look them in the eye. You might gently put a hand on their shoulder or their arm. Don’t interrupt them unnecessarily. And if you need to interrupt, do so politely and respectfully.
  • Involve your child in other community groups with like-minded adults. You might involve your teen in youth groups, drama groups, sports groups, dance groups, academic groups…whatever group might spark your teen’s interest. Meet the adults who manage these groups. Sometimes our teens will hear advice from a coach long before they hear the same advice from their parent. I used to laugh (or, more honestly, boil with frustration) when my daughter would come home and tell me this amazing piece of wisdom she had learned from a teacher or music instructor. Why? Because I knew I had told her the same thing many times over the last several years. But she needed to hear it from another adult.

Our teens are maturing. They are preparing to leave home and make their mark on the world. That’s what we have worked for…but it comes with some sorrow, doesn’t it? Part of that “letting go” involves realizing that our voices take on a different meaning to our teens. Don’t take it personal. Listen to them deeply. Love them with your presence. And watch them blossom into adulthood on the other side of the wilderness of adolescence.

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