Parenting Blog

The official blog for Ann Douglas, parenting book author and weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio. Ann is the creator of The Mother of All Books series and the author of Parenting Through the Storm. Her latest book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids, will be published by HarperCollins Canada in February 2019.

Back-to-School Parenting: How Self-Compassion Eases Back-to-School Anxiety for Parents + Kids

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The kids are getting ready to head back to school. It's an exciting time of year, but it can also be a stressful time of year for parents and kids alike. If you're looking for a way to ease the pressure and dial down the anxiety that you and your child may be feeling, you may want to tap into the far-reaching benefits of practicing self-compassion.

What is self-compassion?

Not quite sure what I'm talking about when I refer to self-compassion? Here's a quick crash course. 

Self-compassion is compassion directed toward the self. It's about being at least as kind to yourself as you are to other people, as opposed to being harsher, more critical, or less kind.

Self-compassion is deeply rooted in a feeling of connectedness to other people. It encourages you to recognize that everyone makes mistakes and that everyone goes through times of struggle. It's not just you. 

Self-compassion is action-oriented. It's about wanting good things to happen for yourself and being willing to take action to make those good things happen. For most of us, that means learning how to be comfortable with uncomfortable emotions, as opposed to feeling like we need to run away from those feelings. As psychotherapist Jennifer Brighton explained when I interviewed her for my recent CBC Radio parenting column on self-compassion, "The essence of being self-compassionate always comes down to, 'I am suffering and I'm willing to see that -- and now how do I get through this?'" So self-compassion is about really listening to yourself when you're having a bad day, just as you would really listen to a friend who was struggling. And then it's simply a matter of allowing that "conversation" with yourself to guide you in deciding what action you should take to make things better.  

How is self-compassion different from self-esteem?

Self-compassion is rooted in feelings of self-acceptance whereas self-esteem is much more dependent on achievement. You feel great about yourself when you're achieving all kinds of fabulous things  and terrible about yourself when you're not.

People whose self-worth is tied to self-esteem tend to crave a lot of external validation. They need other people to tell them that they're worthwhile human beings as opposed to finding those feelings of worthiness within themselves.

Self-esteem is also related to feelings of competition. You're constantly striving to be the best -- and you're not afraid to do so at the expense of other people, if that's the price you have to pay to get ahead. This can leave you feeling separate from other people (because you see those other people as potential competitors as opposed to potential friends) and it can even promote unkind or even bullying behaviours. 

So, as you can see, self-compassion and self-esteem are as different as night and day, both in terms of how they leave you feeling about yourself and how they encourage you to treat other people. 

How can kids benefit from learning about self-compassion?

Teaching kids about self-compassion can help to counter deep-rooted cultural messages that encourage perfectionism and fuel feelings of anxiety. This is important because there's growing evidence that perfectionism is on the rise. A recent study of over 41,000 Canadian, American, and British college students concluded that, "Recent generations of young people are more demanding of themselves, perceive that others are more demanding of them, and are more demanding of others." That's pretty much the recipe for great personal unhappiness, poor mental health, and poor relationships with others. 

As parents, we need to seize the opportunity to help our kids find a happier, healthier path through life -- a path that includes teaching kids about self-compassion.

Here's why.

First of all, self-compassion encourages emotional stability. Your child doesn't have to repeatedly demonstrate her worthiness by constantly chasing after achievement after achievement. She understands that she is lovable and worthy just by virtue of being herself. Teaching your child about self-compassion means giving your child the precious gift of self-acceptance.

Secondly, self-compassion encourages resilience. Your child is better able to bounce back from life's road bumps. Instead of beating himself up when he fails a math test, he is able to acknowledge what's happened and come up with strategies for dealing with the underlying problem (like maybe getting some extra help from his math teacher). And because he's able to make the shift into action mode, he's less likely to find himself stuck in a downward spiral of negative emotions -- emotions that might otherwise interfere with his efforts resolve the problem of that failed math test. 

Finally, self-compassion encourages learning and growth. Your child isn't afraid to take chances or to try new things because his feelings of self-worth aren't narrowly anchored in any single achievement. Who cares if he tries that new thing and falls flat on his face? He's still a 100% worthy and lovable human being and he knows it.

How can parents benefit from practicing self-compassion?

Self-compassion changes the entire landscape of parenting. It makes everything so much less stressful. 

For starters, it makes parenting easier. Parenting is hard enough without having a self-critical voice in your head constantly telling you that "you're doing it all wrong." Self-compassion helps to silence that voice.

Self-compassion also helps you to become a kinder and a more effective parent. You find it easier to acknowledge and accept your child's struggles and shortcomings, just as you've learned to accept your own. Instead of asking yourself to be perfect and insisting that your child be perfect, too, you recognize that you're both doing the best that you can with the skills and abilities that you have right now -- and that you can build on those skills and abilities over time. It's about learning and growing together. 

How to teach your kids (and yourself!) about self-compassion

The best way to teach kids about self-compassion is by modelling this skill for them. Our kids are always paying attention to what we do and what we say -- so let your child catch you being kind to yourself the next time you forget an appointment, misplace your car keys, or spill a cup of coffee on the couch. 

It's also helpful to talk about self-compassion as a family. When you're watching a movie together, highlight situations where characters are treating themselves with extreme kindness or extreme unkindness. Talk about what motivates these types of behaviour and what the real-life fallout can be of being perpetually mean to yourself.

If you have a child who is extremely self-critical, help your child to change the channel in her brain from self-criticism to self-compassion. The next time you catch her saying unkind things about herself, encourage her to think about what she would say to a friend who was dealing with the very same situation. Then encourage her to say those same kinds of things to herself. 

At first, practicing self-compassion may feel awkward and unnatural — and you might even find yourself getting a little discouraged. What you don’t want to do is to beat yourself up for not getting this self-compassion thing right — or at least not right away. It takes practice to master any new skill, and self-compassion is no exception. the first step is to simply pay attention to the voice in your head — to notice how often that voice is critical as opposed to kind. Then, when you catch yourself saying something harsh or judgmental to yourself, challenge those thoughts. Ask yourself questions like, “Is that really true? Am I actually the world’s worst klutz, just because I spilled a drink on the couch?” and “Would I say something that harsh and judgmental to a coworker or my best friend, if they were the one who spilled the drink on the couch?” (Hopefully, the answer is no!)

If you can remind yourself of the far-reaching benefits to both yourself and your child of mastering this skill together, you’ll be more motivated to keep trying to treat yourselves (and one another) with greater compassion.

You’ll want to do the hard but life-affirming work of journeying to that happier, healthier place as a family. 
 

Want to learn more about getting to that happier, healthier place? Subscribe to Ann's brand new newsletters: Ann-o-gram, Self-Care Buddy, and The Villager.

Want to get the scoop on Ann's forthcoming book -- Happy Parents, Happy Kids -- when it hits the bookstore shelves early next year? You can sign up for Ann's book announcement newsletter here.

How to Get Your Parenting Resolutions Back on Track

Change is possible! Here's how to get your parenting resolutions back on track.

Change is possible! Here's how to get your parenting resolutions back on track.

We’re roughly two weeks into the New Year—which means it’s just about time for even the best-intentioned New Years’ resolutions to start to fall apart. Hey, it happens: enthusiasm fades, reality kicks in, and resolutions end up being forgotten or abandoned.

But what if your resolutions have something to do with parenting? Do you really want to put those resolutions on hold for an entire year? 

The good news is that you don’t have to! I've been reading up on the science of habit change and I've identified four key strategies that can help you get back on track. Here's what you need to know....

Strategy One: Engage in Some Mental Time Travel

The most effective trick that I came across while pouring through the research on the science of habit change literature also happens to be a strategy I stumbled upon on my own, simply by chance. I found that if I was having a really tough day as a parent  (let’s say, I woke up with a headache; and my husband was working midnights; and all four kids were acting up), I could keep my emotions in check and parent in a way that I could feel good about at the end of the day by focusing on the kind of relationship I hoped to have with my kids in years to come.

It was all about engaging in mental time travel—connecting with my future self.

I’d mentally picture my kids when they were all grown up, talking about me with one of their friends, saying things like, “My mom was the kind of mom who….dot, dot, dot” Or  “I grew up in the kind of family where….dot, dot, dot” – and I decided that if I wanted them to have good things to say after the “dot, dot, dot,” I needed to make our relationship the priority in the here and now.

Well, as it turns out, there’s some pretty solid science to support this particular strategy. The science of habit change tells us that you’ll find it easier to stick with a new habit if you make a point of mentally projecting the outcome for your future self (as opposed to giving into temptation in the moment). In other words, parenting with your big-picture parenting goals in mind.

Strategy Two: Make an Identity Shift

As it turns out, this piece of the puzzle is huge. Sometimes the most powerful thing you can do to shift your behaviour is by shifting your identity—or, in some cases, your entire family’s identity.

Let’s say that your parenting resolution is to make the shift from being a family of couch potatoes to a family that is active together on a regular basis. If you start telling yourself “We’re the kind of family of family that does something physically active together every weekend,” you’ll find it easier to make this your family’s new normal. That’s because you won’t have to make the decision about whether or not to be active together each and every weekend: your family’s new identity will simply remind you that being active is what you do because, hey, you’re that kind of family!

Of course, this will feel really awkward at first. You’ll feel like an imposter (“Who us?!! We're the poster family for couch potatoes!”) But, over time, your behaviour and your identity will shift. In the meantime, all you’ve got to do is to heed that old advice to “Fake it until you make it.”

Strategy Three: Anchor Your New Habit to an Existing Habit

One of the most effective strategies for getting a new habit to stick is to anchor that a brand new habit on an existing habit

For example, let’s say that your resolution is to spend a bit of time at the start or end of each day, reflecting on what is (and isn’t) going well in your life as a parent, so that you can learn from that. 

The easiest way to remember to do this thinking is to anchor this thinking habit to something you already do on a regular basis, like brushing your teeth—to say to yourself, “I always reflect on how my day is going while I’m brushing my teeth.” Over time, this moment of self-reflection will become as automatic as reaching for your toothbrush and your toothpaste!

Strategy Three: Seek Support from Your Parenting Village

Don't overlook that fact that other people who care about you and your kids may be able to offer practical assistance or moral support or both.

If, for example, you’ve resolved to make more home-cooked meals this year, you might decide to get together with another family (or even a group of families) to swap recipes and/or to batch cook together. 

Likewise, if your resolution is to be active together more often as a family, you might want to join forces with some other parents you know to plan multi-family hikes, swims, and bike rides.  Or to encourage and motivate one another via text message or social media. Or all of the above…..

Final Thoughts

It can take time—and repeated efforts—for a new habit to stick. So don’t assume that all hope is lost the first time you accidentally revert to couch potato mode or find yourself reigniting your love affair with your smartphone. Simply resolve to keep trying.

And as for beating yourself up for falling short of your lofty goals? That isn’t helpful in the least.

Instead, make a point of treating yourself with at least as much compassion as you would extend to a friend who was struggling to keep his or her parenting resolutions. (You wouldn’t be much of a friend if you browbeat your friend for falling short and yet it’s so easy to adopt that ultra-critical stance with yourself.)

What we’re talking about here is practicing self-compassion – one of the most powerful ingredients in the recipe for lasting change. Resolve to treat yourself to regular and ample servings of it this year.

This blog post is based on my recent CBC Radio parenting column on the same topic. Want to find out more? Listen to my conversations with Fresh Air (Toronto) and/or DayBreak Alberta

Helping Children to Thrive Despite Early Struggles

Relationships serve as the active ingredient in our development, writes Sara Langworthy, author of  Bridging the Relationship Gap.

Relationships serve as the active ingredient in our development, writes Sara Langworthy, author of Bridging the Relationship Gap.

“The beauty of being human is that we constantly evolve and change. We have experiences every day that can alter the course of our lives to help us rebuild what was broken and rediscover what was lost. We, as humans, are never irreparably broken because our brains and bodies are built to change and adapt. And young children are often able to change more easily than the rest of us, when makes the earliest years of life the most full of hope. The key to that hope is in relationships.”
- Sara E. Langworthy, Bridging the Relationship Gap: Connecting with Children Facing Adversity

Not every child has an easy start in life. Bad things can and do happen—and often despite the best intentions of those who care about that child.

The good news is that a warm relationship with a caring adult can make a world of difference for a child who has faced early struggles.

That’s a message that comes through loud and clear in Sara E. Langworthy’s practical and hope-filled book Bridging the Relationship Gap: Connecting with Children Facing Adversity (St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press, 2015): a guide to fostering recovery and resilience in children who have experienced trauma or other adverse childhood experiences

Langworthy has a gift for choosing the perfect analogy to bring complicated and abstract concept to life. Consider, for example, the way she explains the transformative power of relationships on the life of a child. Just as baking powder is “the active ingredient in cake batter that is necessary for your cake to rise properly…relationships serve as that active ingredient in our development,” she writes. 

While this book is intended for early childhood educators and others who work with young children, many of the messages will resonate powerfully with parents as well, thanks to the tone of acceptance and compassion for parents and for children that permeates every page of this book. “Begin with the assumption that every family is doing the best they can given the context in which they live,” Langworthy tells her readers. Likewise, treat children who are struggling as “resilient, active creators of their own lives” rather than “passive, needy receivers of assistance.”

Langworthy has written a practical and compassionate guide that is deeply rooted in messages of hope and possibility: “Despite living in a world fraught with the pain and suffering of trauma and loss, we must cling to the hope of the possibility of change,” she tells us. The book then spells out the recipe for change -- one that is powered by the ultimate "active ingredient": relationships.

Q & A with Sara Langworthy

I recently had the opportunity to connect with Sara Langworthy by video conference. I found her to be every bit as warm, caring, and genuine in conversation as she is in her book. Our conversation inspired me to want to explore a couple of the issues raised in her book in greater depth, so I followed up with her by e-mail, asking her if she’d mind answering a couple of additional questions for me. What follows are my questions and her answers.

Your book really emphasizes the potential for early childhood educators and others working with young children to transform children’s lives through the power of relationship. What do you want these professionals to know about their impact and importance? 

I think this question raises such an important point about the hard work of early care providers: They are often forgotten. Because children are so young when they are in early childhood settings, they often don't remember their teachers in the same way that they'll go on to remember their teachers later in life. It's also tough because early care providers don't often get to see how their kiddos turn out when they grow older. Providers don't get to know if the children they cared for went off to college, got an awesome job, or had families of their own. They don't get to see the effect they had on those children blossom over time. 

But we know from the research on early relationships that those connections are some of the most formative and important for later health, achievement and wellness. The multitude of hours care providers spend working hard to connect with and teach young children - even and especially those children who are hard to work with - are hugely important for setting kids up for success later on. Even though children may not remember you, your care, attention, and teaching have long-lasting effects on who they grow to be. 

You also talk about the importance of self-care. What advice would you offer to professionals who are tempted to put self-care on the back burner?

Self-care can be so hard! I'm no expert in effective self-care myself, but one thing I hear over and over again is that it's impossible to care well for others if you are not caring for yourself first. But even if you agree with that sentiment, it can be really hard to operationalize self-care in your own life. It can feel selfish or indulgent to take that time to care for your own needs, be they physical, emotional, intellectual, or social when there are so many others in need your care and attention. But truly, you are only able to be your professional best when you give yourself the time and attention you need to be your personal best.

One important point about self-care: it looks different for everyone. The self-care activities might be different (time with friends, getting a massage, taking a night off, watching a movie, going for a run, seeing a therapist, etc.). But also the amount of time you spend on self-care to feel at your best might be different from other people. That's okay! I tend to think that I actually need more self-care time than a lot of people to remain balanced. I have a hard time not feeling guilty about that, but I'm learning that taking that time for myself makes me more effective in my work AND in my play. 

You're also never going to get it right all the time. That's okay too! Give yourself permission to fall down and mess up sometimes. Despite feeling like I was pretty good at maintaining balance and taking care of myself, I learned in a really big way recently that I needed some recalibration of my own. I wrote about it over on my blog on Medium, but essentially it took falling into a pit to realize that everything was not okay. I'm still working my way out of that pit, but I'm learning so much about myself and what I need in terms of self-care because of that experience. Know that just because you mess up (and you will mess up), it doesn't mean you're a permanent failure, or that you're not worthy of the care you need to feel better in your own life. Take that time in the ways you need. That is MORE than just okay. It's essential. 

 

Reviewed by Ann Douglas, author, Parenting Through the Storm.

It's Okay to Say No -- or "Not Right Now"

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Feeling maxed out? Wish someone would write you a permission note that you could politely present to anyone who even dares to think about demanding anything more of you right now?

Consider this blog post that note of permission: confirmation that it's okay to say no or (at a minimum) "not right now."

You're not being selfish.

You're engaging in self-preservation.

And that's one of the least selfish things you can do as the parent of a child who is struggling

I got to thinking about these things after speaking to a friend this morning -- a friend who is having a really hard time. The load she is carrying at the best of times is a heavy one -- and her load just got a whole lot heavier. The only way she's going to get through the next few weeks is by saying "no" vehemently and often.

But, here's the thing: sometimes we default to saying yes even though we need to say no, both for our own sakes and for the sakes of other people we love.

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I recently had the opportunity to discuss the how and why of saying no with another friend of mine, Susan Newman, psychologist and author of The Book of No.

I asked her to talk about why it's so important to master the art of saying no when you have a child who is struggling. 

Here are the highlights of that conversation.

Why is it so critical that parents who have a child who is struggling master the art of saying no?

So much of your time, worry, and emotional energy automatically focus on a child who is struggling with an illness of any sort—be it physical or mental. Saying no for a parent is a form of self-protection and psychological survival…and ultimately a boon to your child’s wellbeing. 

There are times when even you need a break—a few hours to spend with friends, to connect with your partner, or to be with yourself quietly. A no to whatever the demand or request often gives you that time to decompress, think through problems and essentially shore up the inner resources you need to handle whatever comes next and make good decisions for your child. 

A further benefit of saying no specifically to your child is that you gain the child’s respect and eventually his trust. A no tells him, especially when the outcome is positive, that you have his or her best interests at heart.

What happens when we don’t say no often enough — or we talk ourselves into saying yes, even though our heart is telling us we really need to be saying no?

When you don’t say no as frequently as you should or would like, you begin to feel as if you have no control over events or your child. That can begin to feel overwhelming and all consuming. More often than not a parent’s instincts are correct. If you feel you should be saying no, then you probably should.

By avoiding nos you run the risk of losing yourself and feeling trapped, at the mercy of your child who is dealing with her own problems. You could find yourself unable to cope and being out of control yourself can leave you unable to manage the situation, be sympathetic, or clear-headed enough to find the resources you need or make good choices for your son or daughter

What are our biggest fears about saying no — and what can we do to address those fears?

One of the biggest fears is that a no will make the situation of the moment worse or that your child will be upset and resort to the very behaviors or feelings we are trying to avoid. When your nos are used judiciously and couched in terms of what might be a solution or comfort or empathy, the nos will likely be more accepted without a long lasting downside.

Perhaps the biggest fear for all parents is that our child will not like or love us. When you factor in that most parents don’t want to disappoint their children—common thinking today—refusing a child becomes all the more difficult. The reality is that whatever you say no to will probably be forgotten in next hour or so—even a few minutes later with younger children. Nos said kindly while acknowledging a child’s disappointment or anger, will not jeopardize your relationship with your child. 

In what ways is saying no an act of kindness to yourself — and to others, too?

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Each of us had only so much physical and emotional energy. Well-placed, strategic nos help to conserve energy so it’s available when you need it. Saying no to a request or conduct you disapprove of will hopefully keep you calm and better able to address and cope with your child’s issues. 

Amazingly, the word no is freeing: it “buys” you precious time and keeps the boundaries you set for yourself, for your child and others secure; it teaches children, especially those with a mental challenge that there are rules that need to be followed, conduct that is expected. No is powerful in the positive developments it often helps to create, allowing you to work toward the solutions you seek. That can only feel good. Being kind to yourself is in the end the same as being kind to and supportive of your child.

Looking for additional insights into the joys and challenges of a parenting a child who is struggling? Find out more about my book Parenting Through the Storm.  

Mindful Parenting

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Ann Douglas, author of Parenting Through the Storm, explores the mental health benefits (to you and your child) of making conscious and deliberate parenting choices.

Your four year old is having a meltdown in the cereal aisle at the grocery store. You’re feeling frustrated and embarrassed. If only there were an escape key you could hit to remove yourself from this situation just long enough to regain your cool….

Guess what? There is a way to hit the parenting pause button before you say or do something you might regret later on. It’s called mindful parenting and it is one of the most powerful and effective techniques I know for dealing with the day-to-day frustrations of parenting.

Mindful parenting is all about making conscious and deliberate parenting choices—as opposed to reacting without thinking (something that can happen pretty easily when your mind is being flooded with emotion). 

According to a group of psychologists from the University of California, San Francisco, and Pennsylvania State University who have researched mindful parenting extensively, mindful parenting involves listening with full attention; practicing non-judgmental acceptance of yourself and your child; being aware of your emotions and your child’s emotions in the moment; and having compassion for yourself and your child. 

Let’s consider how each of these four pieces fits into the mindful parenting puzzle and what this means to you, in practical terms, as you’re trying to make peace with your child in the cereal aisle.

  1. Listening with full attention. Listening with full attention means really tuning into what your child is saying: listening to what she is saying and how she is saying it. Tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language are key. What you want to do is figure out what your child is trying to tell you and what she needs from you so that you can figure out what to do to help her to manage her out-of-control emotions. It’s important to look beyond the obvious. Your child may be asking for a particular brand of cereal, but she may actually be telling you something else entirely: perhaps that she’s had it up to here with running errands this morning. (That long line at the bank may have maxed out her patience an hour ago. Likely, yours, too.)
  2. Practicing non-judgmental acceptance. What you’re trying to do here is resist the urge to judge yourself and your child harshly—something that only serves to ramp up the amount of negative emotion you’re experiencing (making it even more difficult for you to respond rationally to an already tough situation). So, instead of telling yourself that you’re the worst parent in the world or that your kid is a spoiled brat, simply observe (non-judgmentally!) what’s going on: “We’ve had a busy morning. My child needs a break and so do I.”
  3. Acknowledging what you and your child are feeling. It’s important to acknowledge and accept your child’s emotions as well as your own. You may find it works well to work through this process with your child, if only to verify that you’ve read her emotions correctly. For example, you might say to your child, “It looks like you need a break. Know what? Me, too! We’ve been running around all morning and we’ve both tired and hungry.” Your child is likely to respond well to what you’re saying. Having your emotions validated by another human being always feels great—and, if it turns out that you’ve misread what she’s feeling, no worries: you’ve given her the chance to set the record straight.
  4. Treating yourself and your child with compassion. Treating yourself with self-compassion basically means treating yourself with the same kindness that you would extend to a friend who was struggling. You wouldn’t tell a friend that she was a bad parent because her child was having a meltdown in the cereal aisle. You would acknowledge that she’s doing the best that she can in a difficult situation—and then you would encourage her to take action to make the situation better. So be your own best friend and cut yourself some slack. Not only will you feel less stressed and less judged (that critical voice in our own heads can be pretty nasty): you’ll feel greater compassion toward your child, something that makes parenting immeasurably easier.

So what are the benefits of taking a mindful approach to parenting? 

There are plenty, for both you and your child.

You’ll feel like a more competent and in-control parent. Because you’re making conscious and deliberate parenting decisions (decisions that support your big-picture parenting goals), you will tend to make better parenting decisions and to feel better about those decisions after the fact.

Your child will feel cared for and heard. She will feel reassured that her feelings make sense, she will be encouraged her to turn to you for support the next time she’s feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, and she will learn to treat herself and others with self-compassion (a powerful lesson with far-reaching consequences).

It’s important to know upfront that mindful parenting can take a bit of practice. When you first start to implement these principles, you may find yourself becoming acutely aware of those times when your parenting efforts miss the mark. You’ll hear yourself saying something harsh and judgmental about yourself or your child in your own head—and then you’ll have to remind yourself that you’re trying to remember to suspend judgment and to treat yourself and your child with self-compassion. This is a good thing (although it can feel kind of rotten in the moment). Recognizing where there’s room for improvement means that you’re well on your way to understanding and implementing this new approach to parenting—and that it won’t be long at all before mindfulness becomes second nature.

This article originally appeared in Local Parent magazine.

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