Sarah Wilson

Understanding the Importance of your Family of Origin

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By Sarah Wilson, PhD

Your beginnings matter.

The who and how of your initial life experiences made lasting impressions that ripple through your life today. For better or worse, your family of origin is the place to start for key information about who you are and how you relate to others.

For all of us, the family dynamics in our original family system impact our values, core beliefs, and our self-perceptions.

Long after childhood, how we were once socialized and nurtured continues to guide us. Moreover, the traumas and challenges we navigated within our families at a young age deserve careful exploration. It is an integral way to improve self-awareness and internal understanding.

For some of us, our “family of origin” is simply the family we grew up with. For others, your family of origin includes important caretakers or may even include a first social group, depending on aspects of your culture, social class, and other societal factors that affect who was responsible for raising you.

Overall, the family of origin relationships are profound, initial influences on your decision-making, investment in relationships, and overall sense of well-being.  

Let’s consider in more detail, the importance and impact your family of origin may have on you:

The Importance of Family of Origin

Exploring your family of origin can improve understanding of how your family impacts your relationships now and how to make important changes. Though highly influential, early problems do not have to continually impact your current and future relationships in a negative manner.

Optimally, on a basic level, members of a family should expect that they are worthy of positive and respectful interaction and encouragement. When this works well, the following dynamics are also common:

  • An expectation of physical, emotional, and psychological safety are givens.

  • Each member is empowered to identify as both a family member and an individual.

  • Each family member is empowered to grow into adulthood, with all the responsibilities and consequences that accompany adult choices.

  • Manipulation, aggression, and violation of relationship boundaries are not tolerated or supported.

  • Each family member has a voice, even if a member’s voice is a dissenting one.

However, families rarely execute all of this perfectly.

Depending on how far your caregivers or parents fell short of providing a beneficial environment for your emotional and social development, you may be suffering from issues connected to relationship attachment, emotional safety and expression, anxiety, and beyond. In essence, your family of origin is the standard by which you measure your relationships.

For example, a cycle of neglect and anxiety early on, makes it feel natural to read withdrawal or abandonment into adult relationships later. Unhealthy coping behaviors must be unlearned. Healthy perspectives must replace them.

This isn’t easy. However, it’s worth the work to avoid repeating the negative patterns of your early life.

The Impact of Family of Origin

Still unconvinced that family of origin has such a long-term impact on adults? Let’s consider how the problems below link to early socialization.

Enmeshment Stifles and Suffocates Your Personal Growth

Some families of origin are too close. You may have grown up in a family that brooks no movement away from the family traditions, culture, religion, political beliefs, or resources. You may feel resentful but unprepared for life away from your family. This can lead to depression, broken relationships, and a lack of personal motivation throughout your adult years.

Early High-Conflict, Unstable Relationships Impact Your Ability to Communicate Now

If you grew up exposed to yelling and intense interaction, you may feel that sort of communication is normal or acceptable. Unhealthy relationships and conflict may result in damage to your marriage, work relationships, and friendships. Perhaps, all relationships feel unsafe and untrustworthy to you.

Childhood Trauma can Disrupt Self-perception & Socialization

The after effects of abuse or tragedy are varied and often deeply rooted. Low self-esteem, intimacy issues, depression, and anxiety are common. Working with an experienced therapist is very important for understanding the core beliefs and defense mechanisms activated and affected by physical and/or psychological trauma at an early age.

Experiencing Neglect, Indifference, or an Absence of Love

Did you grow up physically cared for but emotionally neglected? Then you likely made assumptions about your worth. You likely wondered if something was wrong with you, if you were unlovable, or whether you even had a right to love.

As an adult, you may struggle to accept love or trust affection from others, especially a significant other. Or, you may swing hard the other direction. Perhaps you are clingy or demanding, attempting to secure the love you never had.

Awareness through examination of your family of origin gives perspective. Also, you gain the ability to be less reactionary and more intentional about love and relationships. It is critical to get a handle on how your experiences have impacted you. Learn how to create new beliefs, adjust thought patterns, and change behaviors where necessary.
If you’re struggling to determine why you feel a sense of being stuck in your life, professional support can make a difference.

Healing the Past and Creating a New Path

Finally, addressing family of origin issues can help you to live a richer, more deeply connected life. Patterns that negatively impact your relationships and self-image deserve your attention sooner, rather than later. Understanding and resolving your early wounds can help you to gain the internal peace and freedom you long for.

Moving forward with support and the proper tools can bring healing and emotional well-being.

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If you are ready to address your family of origin problems or concerns, please contact Dr. Sarah Wilson, LMFT Associate, at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin at (512) 270-4883, ext. 104, or by requesting an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling page.

Relationship Recess: Why Playing Together Promotes Staying Together

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By Sarah Wilson, PhD

For most kids, playing together at recess is the best part of the school day.

They can let down their guard, give their brain a break, and allow their muscles to work out pent-up tension.

As an adult, you don’t have recess like you did when you were a kid. But you can still steal away from life to enjoy a little playtime. Especially with your partner.

In fact, making “recess” a part of your relationship routine can actually strengthen your bond.

Here’s how.

Keeps You from Getting Bored

Couples often report that they divorce or end their relationship because they have grown apart or have gone in different directions. Relationship boredom may play a big role in this distancing.

Boredom often leads to dissatisfaction and dissatisfaction can lead to breaking up.

To safeguard your relationship from the downfall of boredom, infuse some pep into your routine.

For example, consider trying a new restaurant, maybe an ethnic food that neither of you have tried before. Or, plan a miniature golf outing with your partner. You can even go all-in and learn a new hobby or skill by taking a class together. How about dance lessons, a new language, or an exercise class?

The goal of trying new things isn’t to win or be the best, even if you’re super competitive. It’s to laugh and have fun together. Plus, the actual activity isn’t nearly as important as the attitude in which you participate.

Helps to Bridge the Good Feeling Gap

Humans work in a unique way, associating feelings with things and activities. You might associate grocery shopping with the feeling of urgency. Or, connect contentment to watching your favorite movie.

Playing together with your partner will provide the same sort of connectivity.

When you enjoy the activity you’re doing together, you experience good feelings. Your amazing brain will connect those good feelings to your relationship in general.

Essentially, doing fun and novel things together gives you both a rush of positivity. In turn, this positive rush washes over your relationship and covers you both in optimism and good feelings and emotions.

All these good feelings can help you resolve conflict more effectively, too.

Promotes Happiness in General

Trucking through the same routine day after day can eventually wear on you. Routine is good, and you may thrive on it, but everyone needs a bit of variety in their lives. Especially in our relationships with our partners. We need arousal and stimulation.

Not only can a new activity stimulate brain cells that are stuck on autopilot, but it can make you feel genuinely happy.

You might not be absolutely enamored with the activity itself. More than anything, though, a new activity can spark a flame that is at risk of fizzling out.

Unsurprisingly, this overall feeling of happiness often spills over into your relationship. When you are a happier person, you tend to be more pleasant and more satisfied with your partner.

It’s a Win/Win for Both of You

Starting out, establishing a fun relationship recess might seem too activity-focused. Meaning, you are both more concerned with enjoying the activity than enjoying each other.

Here’s the thing about a relationship recess, it has little to do with the actual activity. As mentioned before, it’s not the activity that makes the difference. It’s the spirit behind it.

Ultimately, it’s a win/win for both of you. Even if one of you isn’t a huge fan of the activity. And although your partner may “win” in convincing you to try something new, and vice versa, both of you are champions.

By playing together, you’re creating emotional intimacy and cultivating an intense connection.

You might even find yourself saying, “I never thought I’d be doing this!” And in the next breath, discovering you’re really having a great time.

Plus, the beaming smile on your partner’s face will be worth it.
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Do you and your partner need some help putting the "fun" back into your relationship? Dr. Sarah Wilson, LMFT Associate, can help you develop strategies and goals to bring the spark back to your relationship. Contact her at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin at 512-270-4883, ext. 104, or request an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling page.

6 Off The Wall, Fun Things You Can Do To Express Your Love

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By Sarah Wilson, PhD

Trying to think of a unique way to express your love to that special someone? Consider these creative off the wall ideas to tell your partner that you care.

1. Use Your Talents

Are you skilled at creating art, writing, or photography? Why not put your talents to use to express your love? However, to make the experience truly off the wall, think bigger. Try the following:

  • Create an oversized or mural painting.
  • Make a three-dimensional poster.
  • Instead of writing a song, why not compose an entire album?
  • Don’t just write a note, how about a series of short stories, E-book, or graphic novel?

Harnessing your own talents is not only a meaningful way to express your love, but a chance to truly think outside of the box.

2. Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

Another way you can step outside the box to express your love? Get out of your comfort zone. For example, let’s say that you want to plan a day at the amusement park. Your partner loves roller coasters. You want to love roller coasters, but they are just not your cup of tea. Why not take the risk and share with your partner in that experience? It will show that you are willing to push yourself for your partner and impress them with your willingness to try.

3. Do Something Spontaneous

Is spontaneity usually not your thing? Do you plan every outing and activity down to the last detail? Try something new and throw caution to the wind. Let the day take you where it will. For example:

  • Throw a dart at a local map for a driving destination.
  • Pick an activity of your partners’ choice out of a hat.
  • Jump in the car and just start going somewhere.

The fun thing about spontaneity is that it helps you stay more in the moment instead of worrying about planning and preparing. This also means that you can better focus on your partner.

4. Surprise Your Partner with a Trip

Why not surprise your partner with getaway? Think of someplace they have mentioned or wish to go. Then, make all the arrangements ahead of time. This could be a day trip, a weekend escape to a cabin, or a weeklong trip to the Caribbean. Of course, be sure that your partner would enjoy being surprised this way. Otherwise, the idea will backfire. You could compromise by asking your partner to be packed for a trip by Friday but surprise them with the details of the destination.

5. Express Your Love with a Meal

Do you enjoy cooking? You can also express your love with a well-prepared meal. Go all out to make it something special. For example:

  • Come up with a detailed menu, including appetizers, a main course, and dessert.
  • Prepare foods that require thoughtful and unusual flavorings and pairings.
  • Serve an adventurous beverage that goes well with the meal.
  • Consider your presentation. Try blindfold taste-testing or eat each course in a different locale or room of the house.

Take the experience of eating at a world-class restaurant and bring it into your home.

6. Create a Coupon Book

Want to spread out the love to more than one event or activity? Create a coupon book full of ideas that your partner can redeem throughout the year. It can include some of the ideas listed above, as well as your own creations. The idea is that love isn’t restricted to one day a year or even an occasional treat. Instead, it is something that exists creatively all-year round.

When you want to express your love, the sky is the limit. When thinking about how to be “off the wall,” just remember to express love meaningfully, in ways you’ll both enjoy. Ultimately, your partner will see that whatever expression you choose comes from the heart.
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Sarah Wilson, PhD, is an licensed marriage and family therapist associate with the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin. If you need help to get back on track and find the fun in your relationship again, contact Dr. Wilson at 512-270-4883, ext. 104, or request an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling page.

Raising Teenagers: Find the Balance Between Too Much and Too Little Control

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By Sarah Wilson, PhD

The teenage years are hard – on the teens, on the parents, on the entire family. After years of being your kid’s trusted confidant, you start getting put on the backburner as they begin claiming their independence. Raising teenagers is a new adventure filled with curfews, driving lessons, dances, and those notorious mood swings. A new territory is thrust upon you all at once. So how do you modify your parenting approach to match the needs of your teen? How do you find the balance between being a helicopter parent and the cool parent?

Remember your teenage years

It may feel like ages ago, but remember that you were once an angsty, know-it-all, teen. Try putting yourself in your kid’s shoes and remember what it feels like to be a teenager. The societal pressures, friend drama, family dynamics, and school stressors – all of this is new to your teen, just as it was once new to you. It’s important to remember though, that while you were once a teen, you were not your teen. Don’t project onto them. Raising teenagers is not parenting as you would’ve parented yourself. Unless you have evidence that your kid is sneaking out at night or skipping school, don’t assume that just because you did it, they are too. It’s important that you parent according to the unique needs of your teen.

Set clear boundaries

As your teen seeks freedom, it’s crucial that they receive enough to feel like they have a social life, but not too much where they believe they can get away with whatever they want. For example, raising teenagers means letting them go to that party, but defining the rules that go with it – set a curfew, require them to text you when they get there, and make sure their phone is on in case you need to get in touch with them. This is a good balance of control because by forbidding your teen from going altogether, they’ll only want to go more (and may even find a way). By sending them off with a “have fun! See you tomorrow”, you’re inviting a lack of boundaries. Test the waters the first few instances and if they respect your boundaries, you can become more flexible with time.

Provide reasons when you can

As you’re raising your teen, it’s vital to remember that they are beginning their transition into adulthood. Teenagers are inquisitive; they are no longer six years old, where the answer “because I said so” will suffice. When you set boundaries with your teen, explain your reasoning behind them. They may not always like or agree with your reasons, but you are the adult and you still have the ultimate authority. By giving them an explanation, you’re showing them respect and inviting them to do the same.

Give them an opportunity to practice independence

Relinquishing control is hard, but your teen will find ways to be independent whether or not you let them. They will, however, be less likely to rebel or experiment on their own, if you give them an area of their life to take total control of. Allow them to play that sport, join that group, have that side job, or get that pet they’ve been wanting. Give them permission to take something on, and ensure they remain accountable for the hard stuff too. If you agree to give them the dog they’ve been begging for, make sure they take responsibility for it. This might require them to stay in on weekend nights because the puppy still needs to be housebroken. Your teen needs to learn by experience that with independent decisions comes independent responsibilities.

The teenage years can feel especially difficult because, during a time when your child still needs you most, they act like they don’t. Remember that even as they push you away, they still crave your love and attention. Continue developing a healthy and balanced relationship with them by navigating this process together.
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Dr. Sarah Wilson is a marriage and family therapist associate at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin. Working with families and teens, as well as couples, are her areas of counseling specialty. Dr. Wilson can be reached for scheduling at 512-270-4883, ext. 104, or request an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling Page.

When Trauma Touches Your Child: How to Care, Comfort, and Support

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By Sarah Wilson, PhD

As a parent, you want to protect your child from everything. But the sad and unfortunate truth? They will likely be exposed to far more than you could ever want them to be. Trauma can touch your child through an array of situations – death, natural disasters, a car accident, illness or anything else that is a threat to their emotional and physical safety and well-being.

When adults experience trauma, they have challenges and difficulty navigating through it; thus, when children experience trauma, they will feel even more lost, scared, confused and helpless. While there’s no way to erase the trauma from your child’s life, there are plenty of ways you can be there to care for them.

Be physically present

As your child’s caregiver, you are the person they trust most in this world. To feel emotionally safe, they must first feel physically safe. For your child to feel physically safe, they need to know that you are available to them. Depending on the level of trauma experienced, you may need to take time from your usual schedule, so you can be there to comfort and console them. It’s crucial that your children aren’t left feeling alone during a traumatizing time.

Encourage your child to talk about it

Don’t force your child to talk about the traumatic experience they encountered, gently encourage them instead. Let them know that it’s healthy to discuss the event and their feelings surrounding the event.  Remind them that their feelings are valid and important. It’s okay to be upset, angry, sad, scared, stressed, or frustrated. Unfortunately, we live in a society that encourages us to suppress “negative” feelings, so it’s important that your children know that all emotions can be expressed and processed in a safe and secure environment with someone they trust.

Be honest

Trauma leaves children feeling confused, so they’ll most likely come to you with the hard questions. It’s important that you don’t blatantly lie to them or alter the facts greatly – kids are smarter than we give them credit for, so they’ll pick up on the truth regardless of if you give it to them. They need to trust you.

There is, however, a fine line between honesty and over-sharing. Your kids don’t need to hear any graphic descriptions or event details that will only confuse them further. Trust your gut with what you choose to tell your children. In-depth discussions may be mitigated by or depend on their age, their maturity level, the specific situation, if there will be any media exposure, etc.

Live a normal lifestyle

Putting your child’s life on hold for too long after a traumatic experience will only hinder them in the long run. Kids thrive off schedule and routine, which has already been interrupted by trauma. As soon as possible, it’s important to reintegrate your child into their normal lifestyle. Send them back to school and sports practice, engage in family activities you did prior to the trauma.

Like every other part of parenting, there is no fixed way to deal with the aftermath of trauma. If you’re unsure of what to do, seeking professional help is always a good option. It’s normal for your child not to act like their regular self immediately after a traumatic event, but don’t ignore any major warning signs. If your child isn’t functioning well at school, is having nightmares, exhibits symptoms of PTSD, is withdrawing from family and friends, or manifests stress physically, it’s time to seek professional help.
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Dr. Sarah Wilson is a marriage and family therapist associate at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin (RCC Austin). Teen counseling is a specialty area of her practice. Contact her at 512-270-4883 or request an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling page.

Communicate Better With Your Teen ... Beyond Huh? What? I Don't Know

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By Sarah Wilson, PhD

“How was your day?” – “Huh?”

“Did everything go well at school?” – “What? Why?”

“I heard there was some problem.” – “I don’t know…”

By this time, you may be ready to pull out your hair. Or you may be so irritated that you just want to scream at your teen.

Would it make a difference? Probably not.

But having to deal with an unresponsive teen can certainly test every bit of your parenting skills and patience.

So, how can you communicate better with your teen, especially during this time of their life when open and frank discussions are needed more than ever?

Ways to Communicate Better with Your Teenager

Use casual moments to your advantage

Whenever possible, take advantage of informal settings—at mealtime, riding in the car, taking a walk together, or shooting hoops. Physical activity combined with talking keeps your teen engaged and gives them a chance to casually chat about the things they like.

Plus, your teen may be more inclined to open up and talk to you when you’re side-by-side, not face-to-face. When they feel comfortable talking to you about everyday matters, they may open up much easier about more difficult things.

Draw them out by example

Instead of interrogating your teen like a prosecuting attorney, be peaceful. It’s important that they feel they can hang out with you and share experiences without worrying about a ton of intrusive questions.

If they’re not inclined to share much with you, shift focus away from them and try drawing them out by telling them how your day was.

Give them opportunity to respond

Don’t ask one question after another, or keep talking about yourself without end. To have a dialogue—not a monologue—your teen must have ample time to reply. Asking them why they feel one way or another and then waiting for their answer will help you gain insight into their thought process.

If you have a difference of opinion, show them that you can respect their point of view even if you don’t agree.

Listen attentively and without interrupting

Allowing your teen to respond freely, gives you the opportunity to listen carefully. Take in the whole scope of what they’re saying and reply showing reasonableness.

The more time you can take to just sit back and listen, the more understanding you will acquire. Your teen may communicate better and be much more open if they don’t feel pressured by you to share information.

Stay calm, don’t take offense

If your teen speaks to you in a disrespectful tone, stay calm and don’t respond in kind. Instead, show empathy and try understanding the message behind the words.

If your teen disagrees with you on a matter, don’t overreact or take offense. Yelling, screaming, or belittling their viewpoint will only make them feel attacked. Instead, acknowledge their opinion. And if they experience a disappointment, don’t downplay their feelings. Instead, validate their emotions by reflecting back their statements.

Guide them, don’t control them

Allow them to develop their own abstract thinking abilities when they encounter problems. Discuss the problem, brainstorm some options, and then give them the chance to come up with their own solution. Showing trust in their ability to handle the matter will boost their confidence and help them see that you’re on the same team.

Praise them for their efforts and thinking ability and help them reasons matters out. Be positive and encouraging. Your teen may act like they don’t care about what you think, but in reality, they want your approval.

Be assured, you can communicate better with your teen. It is not impossible. Always remember: be quick to listen, think before speaking, and—no matter what—stay calm.
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Dr. Sarah Wilson is a marriage and family therapist associate with the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin (RCC Austin). If you need help with parenting and communicating with your teenager, Sarah's training and experience working with parents and teens can help. Call her at 512-270-4883, ext. 104.

The Honeymoon Phase: Why Does It End and What Happens Next?

By Sarah Wilson, PhD

The heady stages of a new relationship are among life’s more exciting moments.

You feel like you’re living in a real-life fairy tale. You idealize your partner and think he or she can do no wrong.

This is called the “honeymoon phase.” It’s fun and romantic.

It usually occurs in the early stages of a relationship and can last anywhere from 6 months to two years. But sooner or later, it comes to an end.

Here’s why it ends—and how it can be replaced with something even better.

Why the Honeymoon Phase Eventually Ends

1. You’re Discovering Something New

Part of the appeal of the honeymoon phase is that it’s one long period of discovery.

Of course, you want to know everything there is to know about your new love. You want to become intimately acquainted with their body, their history, and their personality. You feel like you just can’t get enough of them and may not feel like keeping your hands to yourself.

But inevitably, you will reach the point where you feel like your partner is no longer a mystery.

2. It’s Science!

If it feels like you’re under the influence of substances when you’re in the stages of new love, there’s a reason: your hormones experienced a big spike. Specifically, you’ve been flooded with elevated levels of nerve growth factor, which increases your feelings of bonding and connection.

This is like the equivalent of wearing rose-colored glasses. But sooner or later, you have to take them off.

That’s when you start to see things more as they actually are. You suddenly start to notice your partner’s annoying quirks. You may still think they’re pretty great, but your view is a lot more realistic.

3. Moving to a Mature Stage

While the rush of new love is heady and thrilling, it’s also hard to keep up that pace forever. The reality of bills, health problems, and commitments to family and friends can all intrude on your pink-colored bliss.

The good news is that the end of the honeymoon phase can give way to a deeper, more mature love. You may come to view your partner as someone you can depend on and trust. It may not be as sexy or exciting, but it can ultimately be much more rewarding and fulfilling.

What If You Didn’t Have the Honeymoon Stage?

Fairy tales are a big deal in our society. We love fantasy makeovers, dream vacations, and rags-to-riches success stories.

So, if the honeymoon stage in your relationship was short or even non-existent, you might question whether you made a mistake by not holding out for the magic.

Although you should talk to a therapist to sort out any serious doubts, it’s also very possible to have a good and solid relationship that’s based more on mutual respect and friendship than on sparks and fairy dust. You can still develop a deep love with a strong foundation even if it didn’t begin with a whirlwind romance.

Where to Go Next

When the honeymoon phase of your relationship is officially over, you don’t have to resign yourself to years of boredom and evenings spent hanging out in your sweatpants. You can still keep flickers of excitement and happiness alive in your relationship with a bit of mutual effort.

Be sure to schedule regular date nights for just the two of you to get a chance to really connect with and focus on each other.

Keep doing the nice and thoughtful things for each other that you did when your love was new. Your partner won’t get bored of your appreciation.

Love doesn’t have to end just because the honeymoon phase does—instead, it just develops an additional, deeper dimension.

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Dr. Sarah Wilson, LMFT Associate, is a couples, family, and individual therapist with the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin (RCC Austin). Her work with clients focuses on building healthy relationships for couples, families, and individuals. Sarah can be reached at 512-270-4883, ext. 104.