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Ask Dr. Mike: November 2012

Topics include electronics habits and sharing responsibilities and love, and dealing with Anorexia.

How Can I Get My Family to Unplug?

Dr. Mike,
I have two teenagers and a 9-year-old and they (and their father) are addicted to their screens. We used to have family dinner and weekends together, but now everyone is behind a TV screen, computer, iPad, gaming system or smart phone. It’s driving me crazy. Any thoughts on how to unplug and reboot my family?

K in Loudoun County

K,
It seems that you are alone in your position that screen time usage is a problem in your family, so eliciting change will likely be met with defense by others. I would start by speaking to your husband about how you feel. See if he can manage your expectations for change and make sure that your expectations are reasonable. Some examples might include: reinstituting family dinners, having a family activity over the weekend and doing homework and chores before screen usage. I would speak to your children only after you and your husband are in agreement and have a united game plan to share with them. Amish Night is a strategy I like to recommend to families who are drowning in screen time. This involves your picking a night once a week where no one in your family uses screens from the moment they walk into the house from their school day or workday. The point of Amish Night is to reconnect and rediscover yourselves again as a family – without any screen activity. You or your husband can check your smart phones in the garage for work-related affairs (if you must) but no screens in the house during Amish Night. Remember, too, that pre-teens and teens rely on screens heavily in our society, so much of what you are probably experiencing is quite normal. Best to you in finding the balance you are looking for with your loved ones.

Seeking More Help With the Kids

Dr. Mike,
I recently had a baby, and while my husband hasn’t been horrible, he also hasn’t been as helpful as I had hoped. He refuses to sleep in our room with me because he is a light sleeper, and I am up breast-feeding every few hours during the night. He tells me “someone needs to go to work and make money.” It also seems like he often puts himself first when the baby and I should be first. For example, the gym and weekend sports TV are way ahead of diapers, meal prep, help with the other kids and me. I can’t do it all. I am physically and emotionally exhausted. Am I being hormonal?

D in Loudoun County

D,
First of all, congratulations on the new addition to your family! Regarding your struggles with your husband, I think you should start by being more sensitive to his needs and position rather than correcting him or pointing out how he is disappointing you as a husband and new dad. As much as you want your husband to be sensitive to your needs, you also need to be sensitive to his. Based on what you wrote, I am assuming that you are not working and/or are on maternity leave. If your husband is a light sleeper and has told you that he needs to be rested for work, I think you should respect his need to sleep in another bedroom for the time being. Also, if your husband needs a little away time for himself over the weekend, that is actually healthy, as long as the time he takes is reasonable. As far as your feelings and needs go, they are also valid, and he needs to appreciate them. I would let your husband know how you are feeling (non-defensively) and come up with some compromises. For example, your husband can certainly help out with things more in the evening when he returns home from work. He can also sleep with you on nights when he does not need to work the next day. And he can also step up his involvement as dad over the weekend with the baby and the other kids, which would give you a break and time for yourself. Are you “being hormonal?” Of course you are, you just had a baby! You have been through a lot both physically and emotionally in recently giving birth … not to mention the nine months up until that moment. Thus, I would also recommend that you turn to family and friends as much as you can for support and help over the next few months. Being tired and stressed is part of being a new parent, but by communicating better and compromising with your husband, things should get a little easier so you can then both focus more on what really matters – the joy of your newborn.

Father Loves Best?

Dr. Mike,
For years now, my husband has treated our eldest son like a super star and our other children have felt the effects. Our eldest is the most athletic and outgoing, which are attributes my husband embodies and encourages. Even extended family and close friends have commented on the attention and preferential treatment he gives our eldest. Recently, I brought our youngest child to therapy for anxiety and behavior problems, and he told the therapist (in my presence and in tears) that his dad doesn’t love him as much as his older brother. Whenever I approach my husband about the topic (even the recent therapy session), he tells me that I am being ridiculous. Help.

M in Loudoun County

M,
The very real idea that as parents we may like one child more than another is rarely discussed, so I thank you for your letter. While as parents we love our children equally, that does not mean we will like them all the same. Surveys on the topic have shown that parents can and do love their children differently but most are ashamed to admit it. As a general rule, moms and dads are going to be more comfortable engaging in gender-geared activities with their same sex children. I suppose there are some moms out there that enjoy playing aggressive first-person shooter games with their son’s online and some dad’s that enjoy getting manicures and pedicures with their daughters. But for the most part, gender differences will contribute to comfort or discomfort for moms and dads with their children. Parent-child personality styles and interests will also motivate parents to spend more time with one child over another. Even age can be a factor. For example, many men are less comfortable with infants and will prefer more verbal and active engagement with an older child. For your situation, perhaps you can encourage your husband to schedule weekly special time with his other children. Whether that time involves kicking a soccer ball, going a on a bike ride, grabbing a Slurpee at 7-Eleven, etc., each child will get a little more one-to-one time with dad than usual every week. This will affirm your other children and hopefully reinforce your husband to want to spread his parental love in the family more evenly. 

Holidays Can Force Disorders to Light

Dr. Mike,
My sister has suffered from very bad anorexia for years. I haven’t seen her in about a year, but she looks horrible on Facebook. Our mother told me privately that my sister presently weighs less than 90 pounds and is not in any kind of treatment for it. She will be spending Thanksgiving week with us this year, and I am concerned that her illness will make my children uncomfortable. It’s not just her appearance but also her behavior that’s a concern for me. She runs something like 10 miles a day and has a very odd liquid diet, which I am sure we will all witness and be part of at the Thanksgiving family dinner. I love my sister, but am worried about her being around my children. I know this must sound awful to you, but it’s how I feel. I also know I need to talk to her but don’t know what to say and am afraid of hurting her feelings.

G in Loudoun County

G,
Anorexia Nervosa can be a debilitating, and even life-threatening, condition. Your sister’s current weight, excessive exercise and restrictive diet, as you report, suggest that she is doing poorly. I agree with you that the topic needs to be addressed but with great care and respect since Thanksgiving is not a good time to confront a family member about their mental illness. Rather than discussing your sister’s eating disorder as her problem, I recommend discussing the problem with your sister as your problem. I would just let her know that she has become very thin and that your children may not understand what that means at their ages. I would then ask your sister what she would like you to say on her behalf to prepare them for her arrival. I would also encourage your sister to, age appropriately, discuss the topic of her weight, exercise routine and diet, directly with your children should any of those topics come up for them during your sister’s visit. There is no reason for you to speak for your sister. This approach will help to normalize things for your kids, and your sister may also benefit therapeutically from her speaking openly about her appearance with your children. I strongly encourage you and your entire family to speak more directly to your sister about her condition after Thanksgiving. Given the seriousness of what you reported, she needs to know that her family is there for her, and that she needs to address her problems with intensive treatment.

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