Positive Thinking or Dissociation? How The Push For Positivity is Doing Damage

Dissociation has been defined differently in different contexts.  Merriam Webster defines it as “The separation of whole segments of the personality… or of discreet mental processes… from the mainstream of consciousness or of behavior”.  Google Dictionary defines it as “The disconnection or separation of something from something else or the state of being disconnected”.  Better Health defines it as “A mental process of disconnecting from one’s thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity.” 

 Most of the time when we get around to talking about dissociation the first thing that comes to mind is trauma induced dissociation where people loose time, loose memory and possibly even have split parts of their psyche that don’t communicate with each other.  But there are far more subtle forms of dissociation and some can be quite toxic.  Dissociation is a way for the psyche to protect itself from emotions that may be intolerable to the system.  And while it is an important defense mechanism for many, the ultimate hope is that we can begin to integrate all parts of us into a united whole—one that can be tolerated by the system and held with compassion and love by the self and others.  The how of this is certainly for another post.  Here and now, my hope is to challenge an idea that has become so popular that it is almost taken as fact- and it’s doing damage.

 

You Choose How You Feel

 The idea here is that we can hand pick which emotions we feel in which circumstances just by thinking about it differently.  So, if you are unhappy, it is certainly because you’re choosing to feel like shit.  You lazy, stupid person, you!  You’re just not trying hard enough to feel good.  There are so many troubling things about this statement “We get to choose how we feel”.  First being that it is simply not true for all people that they can choose their emotions. Our defense structures are like a fingerprint and for some people, turning off their emotions so that they are no longer felt is not part of their defense structure.  Trust me, they try!  So to tell people that they get to choose what feelings to have is deeply invalidating and even shaming. It is the opposite of what people need to feel better.  It is a turning away from empathy when what is needed is connection. 

 The second problem is that we are pedestalizing dissociation.  We are actually saying that those who can turn on and off certain emotions at will are healthier than those who feel all of their emotions.  This leaves people believing they are balanced, healthy, and well when they truly need help to integrate.  They need help to be able to tolerate those feelings that they are disconnecting themselves from. 

 Why is that wrong, Lara?  Isn’t this the ideal… to live in ignorant bliss where we don’t have to experience what causes us pain and suffering?  No, and I’ve seen it too many times to think otherwise.  People who dissociate from their feelings in this way suffer in many ways.  First and foremost, they rarely have deep connections with people because they often struggle with empathy.  If you’re going out for a drink with a friend after your mom died, are you going out with the friend who touts the idea that you can choose your feelings or the friend who will get down in the mud and feel with you?  These folks also often don’t metabolize their feelings properly when they come up.  So when the body experiences anxiety, but the psyche dissociates from that anxiety, the body still knows.  It holds onto this and typically shows up as physical ailments (that are often then treated with extreme diets that become eating disorders or medications that become addictions). These folks are also not exploring their psyche to understand and so they often create damage unwittingly.  The search to change their feelings instead of understanding and feeling them becomes all encompassing.  It becomes a drug that is sought out in spirituality and yoga classes—memes and self-help books.  But they are so unaware of what is really happening for them that they unconsciously wound themselves and others and justify it in the name of “being evolved”

 In short, choosing your emotions is not being evolved.  It is not healthier.  And it will not make your life better—it just may make it seem less painful. But so does heroine.  Choosing to stop and understand your emotions deeply… that is evolution.  That is a search for health.

So Is Positive Thinking Ever Helpful?

Of course, there are often benefits to be found in things that so many people identify as the solution to suffering. Positive thinking is no exception. When we are being truly mindful and noticing all of the things in our environment and feelings in our inner environment, we can experience an emotional change. There is good research that noticing that which is beautiful, inspiring, connecting, or hopeful will change your brain chemistry. But only if it is in an attempt to truly be mindful of your surroundings— pleasant or not. If it is, instead, a way to distract the self from difficult feelings it winds up being a way to dismiss whole parts of ourself.

So when we tell ourselves “I should appreciate all that I have” or “This is hard, but I’m grateful for…” or “At least I’m not…” as a response to feeling really bad, we are not being mindful— we are being dismissive. And when we say those things to others when they are in pain, it is also dismissive and deeply lacking in empathy.

So if you really want to harness gratitude or mindfulness, don’t use it to get out of another emotion. Take time to take photographs of beautiful things. Take a hike and notice what you smell. Start a meditation practice. Write a song… write a poem. Not because it will stop you from suffering, but because it will put you more in touch with everything you feel— and possibly help you to be more resilient when you do suffer. Because life is suffering. It is joy, and grief. It is anxiety and peace. It is envy and pride. It is anger and forgiveness. It is hope and disappointment. It is love and it is heartbreak. The human experience is inescapable, but we can aim to feel alive and connected through it all.

Forgiveness Is Overrated, Empathy Is Not

Somehow forgiveness has become the gold standard of human enlightenment.  We seem to accept the ability to forgive others as a sign of maturity and emotional wellness without questioning if this is actually true.  And while forgiveness can grant us a great deal of emotional relief, it is only able to do that when we are truly ready to forgive.  When we aren’t, this mandate of forgiveness can be truly damaging.  “What’s wrong with me that I just can’t/don’t want to forgive?” So, I’d like to offer a different perspective on this issue of forgiveness and I hope it provides some peace for those of you who are not quite ready to forgive.

To understand forgiveness, we must first understand the opposite. The opposite of forgiveness is holding onto anger and anxiety around a particular relationship. So, what purpose does it actually serve to hold on to this anger and anxiety?  We know we’d rather not feel anger and anxiety.  We know that, most of the time, we’d prefer to feel in harmony in our relationships.  So why hold on, you might ask.  In fact, there are very good reasons. 

Anger and anxiety are emotions designed to protect us.  Both emotions trigger the fight or flight chemicals in our bodies necessary to fend off things and people who have the potential to do us harm.  Without these feelings, we’re toast as a species.  Without these two feelings we die at the hands of an aggressor (literally or figuratively).  So being angry protects us from harm and staying angry continues to protect us from further harm.  It keeps us ready to fend off that which would hurt or “kill” us.  Expressing this anger is also important.  Expression of these feelings in fantasy or words allows for a release of the pent up protective energy that is building in our bodies—preparing us to spring.  So, in short, we must hold onto our protections and express those feelings until we truly feel safe from the hurt. 

How do we begin to feel safe, then?  This isn’t as easy a question as you might think.  Some answers are easier said than done.  Setting boundaries, for example, sounds easy but is often very hard.  For example, if setting boundaries is received by your loved one as a withdrawal of love or an effort to control, it will likely lead to as much (if not more) emotional damage to set a boundary as it would to allow continued unkind behavior.  Another way to feel safe may be to build your own authentic support network that will cushion the blow.  Having a strong support network allows us to feel as if we are not alone in the battle and allows a release of the need to protect all the time.  But this, too, is easier said than done.  Most of my patients report that they don’t feel like they can truly be their authentic self with many of their friends or family (if any).

Another way to feel safe is to have an authentic apology—filled with self-awareness and a plan to avoid future hurt.  In this, we may begin to believe that the person will attend to our needs carefully in the future.  This may allow us to be more vulnerable and experience the person in new ways.  As we can’t control others and so many people lack the ego strength required for a full amends, we can’t count on this one either.  To further complicate things, sometimes the hurt we’ve endured continues to cause pain even when the person is gone.  If someone has accused us of character flaws that don’t match with who we want to be, it will cause ongoing emotional pain until we can resolve our underlying sense of not enough-ness.  So just the memory of the person causes pain and anger. 

So we begin to see why it is so hard for so many of us to forgive those who’ve hurt us.  We need the anger to keep us safe. What is realistic, then?  I’ve always thought a better goal may be empathy.  While you may not be able to forgive your ex-boss for targeting and humiliating you, you may be able to imagine what type of life would lead someone to target and humiliate someone.  You can have empathy for what hurt must have led them to hurt others in that way.  You can remain angry with them, maintain that their treatment of you was wrong, be clear that you won’t allow that treatment of you again and still have empathy.  This act, on a subconscious level, allows you to feel less a victim of someone else’s cruelty and more an observer of their patterns.  This, in turn, may allow for a bit of psychological relief.  This act can also begin to release any feelings of shame that can arise from being treated badly.  Often we wonder what is wrong with us that someone could treat us that way.  To harness some empathy helps to separate their treatment of us from our sense of self.

But in the meantime, it’s okay to not forgive.  It’s okay to fantasize about all the ways you’d love to get revenge.  Just also try to find ways to feel safe enough in your skin that you don’t need to soak in your anger and anxiety forever.  Get a good therapist, invest in friendships where you feel seen and find ways to set boundaries with those who will continue to hurt you.  The anger will release on it’s own when you are truly safe from harm.

Love Is Being Seen (And Other Marriage Perspectives No One Gave Me)

Marriage is tricky.  To assume (oftentimes in our 20’s or early 30’s) that what we need now from a partner will stay the same over the lifespan is unwise.  Developmental changes, alone, will have a huge impact on what is most important to us in a partnership over the lifespan.  Add children (or infertility), potential illness, career changes, loss, house buying etc. and it becomes even more unrealistic to expect that we can predict what we will need in 10, 20, even 30 years.  Now add another moving part—your partner.  While you are going through your own developmental journey, your partner is doing the same—at a pace that may or may not be to your liking (and may or may not be moving in a direction that brings them closer to you). To make things just a bit trickier, let’s add all of our society’s complicated and competing messages about what we should expect from a marriage and how we should go about getting it.  We have messages ranging from “Divorce isn’t an option” to “Only love that makes you feel totally alive and seen is worth the effort”.  And, then, let’s just complicate it a bit more and add our own attachment histories.  With our histories come our own protective walls, unmet needs, reactivity and stories about what marriage means and symbolizes.  I’ll also give a nod to the fact that many of us are terrible communicators who don’t express our needs and frustrations very well at all.  So, it is no wonder that this institution of marriage so often fails. 

As I approach my 5-year wedding anniversary I feel compelled to share some of the things I've learned so far that no one told me before.  Through my own personal depth work, I've come to understand this love thing very differently over the years and what I've learned doesn't show up in the popular marriage blogs.  While none of us have a crystal ball and no marriage is guaranteed, I am quite sure that NO marriage has a chance to truly THRIVE without these bits of wisdom.

·      Your Marriage Path is Not The Same as Anyone Else’s.  Therefore, marriage advice from others may be really off base and it’s important to know what fits for you and what doesn’t.  It is dangerous for someone in an abusive relationship to hear that marriage means never giving up.  That advice just further encourages a victim of abuse to stay married and keep trying when the evidence that further abuse will happen is clear as day.  If you are being emotionally neglected, it is damaging to hear advice that encourages you to ask for less from your partner.  Often people who are emotionally neglected in their marriage ask for too little from their partner and would benefit from fighting harder for their needs. For someone who has an avoidant attachment style, it is not helpful to hear that the only love worth fighting for is one where you feel deeply connected and alive.  That would lead you down the unfulfilling path of serial monogamy. And for someone who tends to become explosive and unfair to their partner it is unwise to “never go to bed mad”.  Sleeping on it and taking space may actually lead to better discussion the next day.  If you’re going to get through this marriage thing feeling seen and alive, you’re going to have to understand the path you’re on and how to travel it your way.

·      Love Is Being Seen.  When patients say that they don’t feel like their partner loves them, what they are really saying is that they don’t feel like their partner KNOWS them.  Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking love is some magical feeling sent from above that we either have or don’t have with someone. But that feeling we most often think of as love is just science—it’s our brains telling us to reproduce. That feeling fades over time and the one that can sustain the test of time is the feeling of being known. The partner that feels known is the partner that will fight for the marriage every time. So our goal must be to figure out how to be truly us and vulnerably allow that self to be seen.  We must also figure out how to hear our partner's truth without taking it personally or being reactive or trying to fix it all.

·      We Can’t Know And See Someone Else Until We Know And See Ourselves.  Know what you need to feel balanced and alive in the world and know when you’re not getting those needs met.  Know what your body does to tell you that you’re not getting your needs met so that you can be proactive instead of reactive. Know your deepest fears so that you know when you’re protecting yourself with emotional knives and guns.  Know how you’ve learned to protect yourself from emotional pain so that you can notice when you’re protecting instead of connecting.  I believe that, for most of us, deep individual therapy work is the key to a thriving marriage.

·      Our Marriage Is Only Alive If We Feel Alive.  Do you know what it means for you to feel alive?  What gives you those feelings in life?  We must feel alive or we are likely to seek out that feeling somewhere outside of the marriage—whether it be an emotional affair where someone stimulates our mind and connects with our dreams or a physical affair where someone stimulates our bodies and activates our libido.  For a marriage to thrive, we need to fight for that feeling of being alive and be creative in finding ways that we can feel alive together or in complimentary ways.

·      We Must Speak Our Truth Without Blame And Judgment.  Radical honesty is key to a truly thriving marriage.  That means saying things that aren’t easy to hear or to say.  While our goal must always be to speak our truth without blame or judgment—our goal cannot be to avoid hurting our spouse.  Growth is an inherently painful process at times and if we can’t grow together we will grow apart (unless neither of us is growing at all).  Many of us never learn how to speak our truth without blame and judgment, which is why I believe so strongly in individual therapy.  You can say it with all the anger and blame and shame and judgment you want in therapy and then find the core truth that can be heard by your partner. 

·      Let The Arc of Time Inform You.  It can be too easy to get stuck in how we feel right now about our marriage.  We do ourselves a great disservice by reacting only to the here and now feelings.  This goes for both ends of the emotional spectrum.  If you are feeling very disconnected and that you are “no longer in love”, pay attention to the emotional arc of the relationship to gain strength from times of connection and perspective on a path back to that.  If you are feeling very connected right now, but the trajectory has been a predictable roller coaster of ups and downs know that it will stay that way until deeper knowing of the self happens in BOTH partners. If your partner rages then apologizes then soothes with connection and then starts the whole thing over again it is not wise to focus on the moments of soothing and connection only.  The pattern is important and it will happen again no matter how connecting and enlightening your make-up conversation was.  That’s because the roots to the pattern are deeper than our cerebral rational thoughts can change.

·      Divorce Is Not Necessarily a Failure.  It feels that way for every single person I’ve met who is considering divorce, but it really doesn’t have to be a failure.  Knowing the self is an evolving process over the lifetime and it never stops and it will inevitably bring with it new challenges and needs.  We can’t rush our own process of self-knowledge—we can only choose to give ourselves the opportunity to start the process.  Sometimes one half of the couple will be further on that journey than the other and it truly impacts that person’s ability to feel seen and known.  Sometimes we realize that the ways we feel alive in the world are not compatible with our partner—making the marriage a tomb.  Sometimes the most important growth in front of us must be done outside of relationship.  Sometimes our wounding is so deep that a relationship is too much for us to manage without further hurt to our partner and ourselves.  Success in life is not always to set goals and meet them.  Success is the ability to set a goal and re-evaluate it’s fit for us over time so that we can feel known to ourselves, known to others and alive in this world.  As long as we continue to know ourselves deeper we are succeeding at the most important life task of all.  

 

 

When You Think You’ve Fallen Out of Love

In our culture we put a lot of weight on the words “In Love”.  We know he’s “the one” because of how he makes us feel.  We know she’s not “the one” because we don’t feel like we’re falling off the side of a cliff every time she walks in the room.  We know the marriage is over when we have “fallen out of love” and we nearly wet ourselves wondering about the couples that say that they are “still in love” after decades of marriage.  And why wouldn’t we?  Don’t we all wish that we could feel just that way forever?  Don’t we all wish that our partner still gave us butterflies when he walked into a room after 20 years?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if those feelings were the crystal clear indication that we’ve met a person we’re willing to fight for through all the arguments and all the struggles?  It’s a natural wish.  Unfortunately, for many of us it is often just a wish.  And to give those feelings so much power is often a very big mistake.

I read an article that I saw on Facebook a few months back where the author talked candidly about how her body knew when she agreed to marry her partner that he wasn’t the one, but she wasn’t listening.  She summarized that sometimes our bodies know what we don’t.  In her case, that meant that her body knew that they were destined to a marriage without emotional or physical intimacy.  I have a great deal of empathy for this writer because she came to this conclusion as a result of the very same information we are all given.  Unfortunately, she was probably wrong.

We’ve learned a lot about how the body and brain process information over the last decade.  We’ve learned a lot about how the body and brain recognize love.  And there’s some good news and some bad news—and it’s all included in the same news.  The brain is trained to release all of those love chemicals when it recognizes patterns in others that remind us of our original attachment figures.  (Yes, this is why we marry our mother or father)  The tricky thing is that the part of our brain that recognizes this is the part that doesn’t know how to make sense of it.  So someone may not appear to be anything like your narcissistic father or your smothering mother… but the part of your brain that primarily manages emotion has seen your mother and father before the rational part ever will.   

So, that’s good news for those who have had pretty great original attachment figures.  For those folks, your brain is likely to recognize love in all the right places.  And, you will respond to love in many of the right ways.  You will, for the most part, have healthy attachment patterns in your adult relationships because that’s the way your brain was wired to accept and give love.  He may still give you butterflies every once in a while when he walks in the room.

Unfortunately, not many folks had ideal attachment experiences as infants and children.  Sometimes this is true even when we feel we had amazing parents.  Many parents didn’t give their kids the “goods” they needed out of not knowing what that looked like or not having the emotional maturity to give what they never received from their parents.  Many parents were under such pressure that they couldn’t possibly manage it all and had no support.  But, in my experience, there are a lot of folks out there who don’t have the greatest attachment patterns wired in their brains.  So, the bad news is that, for those folks, all of those feelings that say, “you’ve found your soul mate!” are quite likely really a sign to run in the opposite direction—fast. 

Of course, we don’t.  I’ll save the discussion on why we don’t do what we know is best for us even when we know it’s best for us for a later blog post.  But today, I want to give a different perspective for those of you who fall into and out of love again and again over the life span—and make decisions based on that. 

If this is you, it is very likely that you may feel utterly underwhelmed when you meet a person you can truly spend your life in healthy partnership with.  Of course, you should be interested in the person.  You should be compatible in values and dreams.  You should trust them and respect them and have fun with them.  You should feel loyalty and joy in thinking about them.  You should be able to talk to them about hard things and feel as if all of you is welcome in the relationship.  But you may not feel the butterflies.  And when that ex gets in touch with you and you say “She was awful and evil to me, but I’ve never felt that way for anyone before or since”, please know that this is not a sign that you don’t love your partner enough.  Don’t take this as a sign that you must end your marriage because you’ve “fallen out of love”.  And if you feel like you and your partner are great partners in life, but it feels like you are more like roommates… know that deeper intimacy can happen if both folks are willing to do their own therapeutic work.

If this feels resonant to you, I strongly suggest that you learn more.  The book Attached is a great and accessible resource for this information.  It will allow you to learn about your attachment style and have more information on yourself.  But while information and insight are helpful starting points, I have come to believe that a long-term therapeutic relationship will help us to, over time, feel as if our feelings don’t control all of our actions.   And this, in turn, may allow for a real and sustainable love:  a love that turns the word “love” into a verb… not just a feeling.

 

 

 

 

Seven Ways To Get Through Intense Emotions

Whether you're going through a break-up, grieving a loved one, feeling shame over an action you took or furiously angry at someone, intense emotions can bring the most resilient of us to our knees.  Because we live in a culture that assumes that intense emotions are pathological and unmanageable, we are rarely taught how to properly ride these emotions and get through on the other side.  Here are seven tools I like to suggest to my clients to get through the most intense emotional moments of our life.

  • Sleep on it.  Something very magical happens to the part of our brain responsible for emotions when we dream.  Believe it or not, the intensity you're feeling today will dissipate after just one good sleep.  Keeping this in mind can help us feel less anxious about how awful we feel. 
  • Try to see this pain as a beautiful, yet dark place (Like a dark, musty forest) Its scary and lonely, but also uniquely beautiful and solitary.  Seeing the pain as exquisitely human and uniquely yours can put things in a new light.
  • Try to remember that even the most intense pain passes over time, like a weather system.  We live in a culture that teaches us that if something is wrong we need to do something to fix it.  But sometimes we just need to feel it and let time pass.
  • Journal...let yourself draw and write with total freedom. I remember, after a particularly difficult break up, nearly breaking through the paper with my pen as I drew a deep and painful spiral and wrote all the words that were coming to my mind on top of it in big, ugly letters.  Putting word and art to our emotions changes the brain chemistry.
  • Avoid fighting the feeling. Fighting the feeling leads to increased anxiety and depression symptoms.  I like to think of intense emotions as quick sand.  The harder you fight, the tighter their grip.  Oftentimes the anxiety about having an intense emotion makes the emotion more intense.
  • Nurture yourself like there's no tomorrow-- without guilt.  If you just don't want to make dinner-- order take out.  If you don't want to go to the gym, sit in a tub.  You need kindness right now and you are fully capable of giving that to yourself.
  • If these feelings are due to loneliness or rejection, I like to remember (even though it can feel like a bit of a dark thought) that there is only one person you can guarantee will be with you the day you're born, the day you die and every day in between. Everyone else is good and important company, but solitude is a gift in the task of knowing and loving the self-- your only guaranteed companion in life.

How To Have Your Emotions Without Shooting Yourself In The Foot

Many of my clients struggle with the same dilemma.  They “feel deeply” and always have.  They’ve been told often that they are “too emotional” or “too sensitive” “too harsh” or “too much”.  But they have found that there is just no getting rid of these emotions and it feels inauthentic not to share them. Many of them have been shamed for their strong emotions and are no longer willing to shove them down.  But then what?  How do we have, honor and understand all of our emotions and maintain a healthy balance in relationship with others who aren’t always so interested in experiencing all of those emotions with us?  How can we be authentic with ourselves without burning every relationship bridge we have?

I wrote up this step-by-step for a client last week and thought it may be helpful to others as well.  Give it a whirl… it’s super handy during the holidays and always helpful in marriages and partnerships!

 

1.     Notice when your body is telling you something is wrong.  (Tight chest, blushed cheeks, rapid heart rate, fidgeting etc.)

2.     Immediately tell yourself to pause.  Either:

a.     Walk away or politely excuse yourself if it will go unnoticed OR

b.     Say, “Hey, I’m feeling a certain kind of way.  I’m going to take a minute to sit with what’s going on for me.”

3.     Take note of the feeling you’re having:  “I’m really angry”

4.     Then ask yourself if there is an underlying emotion you didn’t initially notice:

a.     Guilt

b.     Shame

c.      Violated

d.     Fear

e.     Jealousy

f.      Embarrassment

5.     Ask yourself, “Why is this important to me?”

6.     Ask yourself, “Is this best addressed now or later or never?”  “Will it help me or hurt me to deal with this now?” Typically it’s best to set a boundary in the moment and have a discussion about feelings after you’ve gotten past the rush of emotion.

7.     Decide what boundaries you need to set in the moment so that you are protected by your boundaries—not your rage.  Examples:

a.     “Hey folks, I’m not feeling well.  I think I need to go home.”

b.     “Thanks for your opinion, I’ll think on that.”

c.      “I’d rather talk about something else.”

d.     “I’m not comfortable with the way you are touching me.”

8.     Once you are out of the situation, process through with words (language helps us metabolize an event) in your journal, with your therapist or with a trusted friend.  Give yourself permission for all of the feelings and then decide how you can best protect yourself from whatever was so upsetting.  Sometimes there are better ways to move forward than sharing our emotions with those who’ve hurt us.  For example:

a.     Reducing time spent with that person

b.     Reducing emotional vulnerability with that person

c.      Setting boundaries around behavior vs. expressing our vulnerable emotions.

 

How Do I Know If I Should Share My Emotions?

1.     Is the relationship important to you?

a.     If so, it’s important to really get it right, but likely worth it to express your feelings.

b.     If not, it is only worth it to share emotions with that person if it will help create boundaries to keep you safe.

2.     Is the person likely to receive it openly if you share it without blame or judgment?

a.     If so, and you care about the relationship, you should share your emotions in a non-judgmental way.  Prepare and practice what you are going to say.

b.     If not, you must weigh the therapeutic benefit of telling them against the likely emotional and possibly logistical consequences that will arise.

3.     Is it likely to help you set a boundary, increase connection or feel some type of therapeutic relief to say so?

a.     If so, share your emotions but be ready for all potential responses.

b.     If not you may choose to let it go.  The value in communicating your emotions isn’t really present and so it will likely lead to more harm than good.  Stick to talking about it with your therapist or friends.

 

 

 

How I Came To Believe In Long-Term Therapy

I entered the field of mental health as a 22-year-old-- straight out of college equipped only with my empathy, a few summers as a camp counselor and a Bachelor’s Degree in Experiential Education.  I didn’t know that I wanted to work in mental health, but I did know I wanted a job and these folks were willing to hire me.  My first position in the field was in a group home.  These were the days when we still had group home facilities for children in the foster care system.  Children who couldn’t go home and couldn’t get adopted lived in a big house with adults who came in for a shift and then went home—adults who usually left after a year or two.  We had 16-year-old boys and girls living with us who had been there since the age of 8 with a never-ending revolving door of adults.   

I adored these kids.  No matter how hard they pushed me away, it was always worth it when they returned and tried to connect.  It was the most stunningly beautiful thing I had ever experienced and I knew I would want to help these kids feel good for the rest of my life. 

But this thing happened.  Our helping world changed dramatically and quickly.  Long-term therapy became something we frowned upon.  We started saying things like “We don’t want our clients to become dependent on us” and “Our goal must be to build their natural supports” and “We want to empower our clients to heal themselves” and “Long-term therapy is really therapists taking advantage and wanting to make more money”.  We had bad boundaries if we wanted to maintain therapeutic mentorship relationships outside of the facility.

While I was experiencing first hand the immense healing power of relationship for these kids, I was learning about evidence-based, solution focused, time limited therapeutic approaches.  I remember saying to my peers and supervisors “It doesn’t make sense to me.  These kids start to heal because they finally feel seen, heard and safe and their reward is to loose the people who get them.”  We called it a “successful discharge” or a “successful completion of treatment” as if that would somehow soothe the loss of these new attachments.  Then we sent them home to family systems where they were the “black sheep” and expected our therapeutic results to stick.  Even though it didn’t feel right to me, I was the lone voice in a sea of voices telling me that these ideas of mine were outdated.

I spent the next 13 years being indoctrinated into a philosophy that said that brief solution focused therapy was the gold standard.  I did the training, I practiced the skills and I used the ideas to heal my own wounding.  I found some value in these ideas.  I found temporary relief of my own symptoms.  I decided that maybe I had been wrong all along.  So, when I started my practice I saw myself as a solution focused therapist and advertised myself as such.  But it wasn’t actually working very well for my clients.  It was exactly what they wanted, but it wasn’t at all helpful.  They would make a plan in therapy and go out into the world and do the opposite.  They would come back embarrassed and ashamed that they hadn’t been able to follow through.  They would be ashamed that “thinking differently” wasn’t actually changing anything for them.  They would leave therapy after a couple of months and not come back.  I knew I had to go back to the drawing board.

I was luckily smart enough to have decided that, after 13 years of training and supervision through agencies, I might want to seek out a clinical supervisor who would challenge those ideas and make me think differently.  And it changed everything.  I will never forget the day that, in response to talking about setting goals and working towards solutions she said, “I wonder what it really says when we are solution focused—maybe that we believe the person needs fixing”.  I realized, in that moment, that a solution focused approach was not at all what I believed in.  This was the beginning of a tide shift in me.  I am now completely convinced that a commitment to a long-term therapeutic relationship is the gold standard of treatment.  Here’s why I hope you will begin to believe so too.

Attachment Neuroscience Research Supports The Ideas of Long-Term Therapy:

The neuroscience of attachment and the buzz about that research has been booming as of late.  The cliff note version of the research is as follows:  We attach to a primary attachment figure (usually mom) and if that attachment figure is aware and responsive to our physical and emotional needs we grow to be secure in our world and in our sense of self.  This leads to mostly adaptive and normative behavior in life and relationships.  If our primary attachment figure is not responsive or is unpredictable, we wind up with an “Insecure attachment” type and behave in ways that we are not proud of in life and relationship.  We might self-soothe in unhealthy ways, cling to attachment options in unhealthy ways, push people away to stay safe etc.  This is because our brains learn to wire and fire in ways that would have helped us “get the goods” from our parents when we were infants, toddlers and children.  That wiring is so entrenched that we struggle to get out of those ruts even when we cognitively and rationally understand the ruts.

What neuroscience has helped us understand in the last two decades is that, while our brains may have powerful wiring from our youth, they are “plastic”.  That means that they can change throughout the lifespan.  So, if our brain is wired to experience boundaries as rejection we can, over time, change the way our brain “connects the dots” so that boundaries feel safe and healthy.  But that change doesn’t happen through the rational awareness of these things alone.  Research demonstrates that the primary way that our brains begin to re-wire is through new experiences. 

I have found that most adults have some level of attachment wounding—even when they believe their parents were amazing.  My mother’s generation was equipped with very little information on parenting, but most of the information they did have told them not to attend too much to children when they cried lest we spoil them.  It was also a generation struggling with how to tend to children’s needs while having two parents working outside of the home.  Compliance and good behavior was the goal and the solution, many thought, was to strictly control our children’s emotional reactions with consequences and strongly enforce expectations with punishment.  My parents were raised by a generation that believed that children should be seen and not heard—a generation struck with fear about a lack of resources.  We have generation upon generation of parenting ideas that were detrimental to our attachment needs as infants, toddlers and children. 

So, what type of experience could possibly help us re-wire our brains when we are trying to get at this attachment dynamic?  You got it… relationship.  So then I should be focusing in therapy on building my clients’ relationships, right?  Sure, and I do talk about that with clients.  But for many of us that is easier said than done.  Because our brains are wired to respond to attachment figures in a certain way, we keep doing that no matter how hard we try until the wiring changes.  For example, a woman may have a new partner who asks for some alone time.  Even if she knows rationally that this is a fully acceptable request, her brain will panic because she was left untended by her parents when she felt scared and unable to care for herself.  Her brain is trained for a panic response to this.  She will likely lash out or cling to this new partner even knowing that it’s not helpful in the relationship.  Then she will feel shame at her child like behavior and spiral.  When we do those things over and over again in our relationships we get a similar response of rejection or punishment that we got from our parents.  This reinforces our wiring and our brain says, “See, you can try to believe people are safe all you want, but I know better.”

This is where therapy comes into play.  A long-term therapeutic relationship with a therapist who is skilled at joining with your defense mechanisms instead of tearing them down and who is able to hold space for your attachment patterns without rejecting you can provide you with just the relationship you need to begin re-wiring.  In this way, therapy is less about giving advice or identifying solutions and more about the process of being seen, heard and held safe consistently and over time as you explore all parts of your inner world.  This becomes a safe haven and a place where you are seen—even when everything in your world is wonderful and you feel perfectly happy.  It is the consistency of the relationship that makes the difference, not the solutions you find while you are there.

It Has Worked For Me

I remember walking into therapy with a Modern Psychoanalytic therapist (the husband of my current clinical supervisor/therapist) and saying “I’ve done a lot of work on myself.  I think the only thing I really need to still work through is the grief of this particular relationship”.  I hear some version of this statement from many of my clients in their first session.  Now I can’t imagine those words coming out of my mouth ever again.  The idea that I have “worked through” anything to completion seems completely ridiculous to me now.  My brain still holds it all.  My body still holds it all.  I’ll need to talk about it again and again and again so that the unconscious becomes conscious.  I’ll need to have that experience of being heard and understood and seen for exactly who I am over and over again.  Because that’s what we need.  That’s what we’ve always needed.

I knew, for sure, that I was convinced of long-term therapy when I found myself driving to my therapists office thinking about how truly screwed up I actually was.  I realized I thought I had tricked her into believing I was actually a good person.  (This feeling is reported by almost every one of my clients at some point in the process)  I decided I’d test her.  I decided I would finally tell her how horrible I was deep down inside—I was going to risk her rejection and disgust.  After two years with her, I finally felt that maybe I could put voice to these fears I had about my own brokenness.  And she did not reject me.  She was not disgusted.  It made sense to her and that allowed it to make sense to me.  She saw my shadow side as human, natural and completely justified.  That allowed some small piece of me to be soothed and healed.  That healing allows me to walk in this world without having my damage do damage to others (most of the time). I now look forward to many years of knowing that I can bring in my ugliest self and be seen as human—every week on Wednesdays at 11:45.  I can bring in my ugliest self and be unafraid that she will judge me, talk poorly about me to her peers or get rid of me in her life.  My brain is re-wiring.

So, Give It A Try

Not for me.  While it may be tempting to imagine that I believe in long-term therapy because it keeps me in business, it’s simply not true.  I have the good luck of having enough new client calls each week that I could discharge 5 clients a week and still stay full.  Do it for you.  Give yourself the gift of being seen and heard.  Give yourself the gift of taking up space.  Give yourself the gift of being your ugliest self and not being rejected.  When times are good and when times are bad.  It works if you allow yourself to commit to it and believe in it.

 

 

 

How We Begin To Believe We’re Bad—The Myth of The Manipulative Child

I’ve always loved working with the “bad” kids.  They make sense to me.  They are an inspiration.  They are so very strong- so very real.  So it has come as no surprise that many of the clients who have found me since I started my practice identify themselves as “bad” people-- “broken” people. They believe that it is something within them that is faulty and must be fixed—and that it has always been that way.  While each of my clients is truly unique, the core of their stories is hauntingly similar.  And these stories can teach us a great deal, not just about parenting, but about how we view emotional needs in our society.

“He’s just doing that to get attention” is a phrase I hear all too often from parents, teachers or grandparents.  “She just wants to control us” or “He’s just trying to get his way”.  These phrases are usually followed up by “Just ignore her” or “Don’t give him what he wants.”  It’s common parenting talk—so common that we are often shamed as parents if we actually take time to listen to our children when they are acting out—heaven forbid we spoil our children.  So common that I have adults who come in to my office, filled with shame, saying things like “I’m manipulative” or “I’m selfish”.  These phrases we said when our kids were two are now so much a part of their identity that they live in shame every time they try to get their needs met.

Every time I hear one of those phrases I want to scream as loud as I can “OF COURSE HE WANTS YOUR ATTENTION—WHAT IN THE WORLD IS WRONG WITH THAT?”  Of course your child wants to feel in control of his environment—who doesn’t?  Of course your child wants to get those things that bring her pleasure—who doesn’t?  We all want for connection in a meaningful way with those we love.  We all want to feel like our world makes sense and that we have some control over how it goes.  We all want to have access to things that bring us pleasure.  These needs are real, indisputable and totally normal and healthy. So why is it a manipulation to try to get these needs met?

Think about the last time someone questioned your motives or assumed they knew your intentions without asking.  For most people, this is one of the most triggering experiences they have.  It’s a violation because they are assuming they know your inner world better than you do.  It’s shaming because it assigns dark motives to your behavior and, therefore, character.  And it’s disconnecting because we feel utterly misunderstood.  That feeling is so intense that just remembering a time when it happened can cause a visceral reaction.  And yet, we do this to our kids every day.  Probably because it was done to us our whole life.

In our society, we are taught that needs are a sign of weakness.  If we need for connection, we are “needy”.  If we need for pleasure, we don’t have will power.  If we need for consistency, we are rigid.  If we need for recognition, we are egocentric.  If we need to feel seen and heard we are unstable.  We are taught that the ideal is to be completely independent.  But we aren’t a completely independent species!  We are wired for connection and interdependence.  From an evolutionary standpoint, a sense of belonging is almost as important as food and water.  There was a time, not so long ago in human history, when not belonging was a death sentence.  And in some situations, this is still the case.  When we don’t feel as if we belong, we become very anxious—just as we would if we didn’t have access to food.  We need each other and our bodies and psyche respond accordingly.

When we don’t get these needs for connection met, we act out or we self-punish.  When we feel shame, we act out or we self-punish.  When we are young, that looks like tantrums, defiance or isolation.  When we are adults, it sometimes looks like extreme mood swings or high anxiety.  Sometimes it looks like hurting or even killing others.  Sometimes it looks like self-harm or having an affair.  Sometimes it looks passive aggressive.  Sometimes it looks abusive.  At a time in our history where we are seeking hard for an answer to hate and violence, I oftentimes wonder why we aren’t looking at the way our society deals with vulnerable emotions and the expression of needs.

So, what can we do about this? 

·      First, we can make a decision—right here and right now—to stop seeing our own needs as wrong or bad.  Our needs are our needs…there aren’t right or wrong needs, there are simply needs.  From there, we can begin to figure out a healthy way to get those needs met.  Because our parents often wired us for shame around our needs, it is often helpful to do this work in therapy. 

·      Second, we can stop shaming others for their needs.  Notice when we are questioning the motives of others and stop.  It’s not your job to ever assume what another person is thinking, feeling, wanting or needing and it’s not your job to judge that.  It’s your job to set boundaries when people aren’t safe for you—but not to assume you know what’s going on for them. 

·      And finally—we must start listening to our children’s behaviors as needs and validate the need.  From there we can teach them how to get their needs met and how to sooth themselves when life doesn’t give them those things.  Validation of feelings and needs is not the same as condoning the behavior.  In fact, it’s the only thing that will allow for enough safety in the relationship to learn new behaviors to get the needs met or soothe the disappointments of the world.

 

 

 

 

5 Touchy-Feely Parenting Strategies That Actually Make Life Easier-- And How

I like to peruse the parenting blogs I see on Facebook.  This way I can know what flavor of parenting shame my clients have been faced with today.  And while I agree wholeheartedly with the vast majority of the positive parenting/peaceful parenting/attachment style blogs I am just SO VERY OVER the way the writers approach this topic.  Parenting experts seem to forget the barrier that most parents have to implementing these ideas.  IT FEELS LIKE MORE WORK!  We are asking parents who are already completely maxed out to do things that they believe will take more time, will add more to their to-do list and will be totally ineffective at disciplining their kids.  This is no good. 

So I would like to write about some of these positive parenting/peaceful parenting/attachment oriented strategies and show you how they will save you time, improve behavioral compliance, and make it all more fun.

 

Connect More

This is the one we keep hearing about so I’ll start here.  The idea has been sold to you as “what your kids deserve” or “what your kids need”.  You’re told that your kids will be emotionally intelligent and empathetic and feel safe and secure in their attachment if you connect more.  But to a parent who’s trying to do the dishes, wash clothes, make dinner, vacuum, get a work out in, organize bath time, write thank you cards, remember someone’s birthday and teach the kids that they can’t demand everything under the sun and just get it, it’s hard to know how to implement this without giving up some of those things.  I don’t think you have to.

 

How It Saves You:

Believe it or not, connecting with your child when they come to you for connection will save you a TON of time overall.  How many times have you said “no not now, love, I’m busy doing dishes” and found that within 5 minutes you’re having to drop your chores to deal with a misbehaving child?  How long does it take to de-escalate, re-direct and give consequences for the misbehavior?  I’m going to take a guess that it’s at least twice as long (probably much more than that) as it would have taken to get down on their level and hear what they have to say. I also believe that a good portion of sibling rivalry comes from kids not getting their connection "tank" filled by their parents.  This leads them to feel that their sibling is the enemy-- the one stealing all of the attention.  Being present decreases sibling rivalry significantly.

 

HOW DO I DO IT?

I approach this skill by imagining myself as a Launchpad.  I start the day sitting on the floor with my toddlers and not doing any chores or activities at all.  Most often I pick one spot (bean bags are great for this) to be and let them come to me if they need connection or help.  For little ones, being present often means being down on their level.  I do this also when I return home from work at the end of the day.  Transition times are important moments for this.  I sit in one place and let them flit away to their own activity. I trust that they will come back to their Launchpad as they need to re-fuel with connection.  Typically after 20-30 minutes when they are busy entertaining themselves I get up and go to do a chore.  If they come to interrupt, I give them a bit of fuel by getting down on their level, showing genuine interest in whatever it is that they want and sometimes even putting my chores down to go play for a minute.  When they flit away again, I go back to my chore.  As they are getting older, I add, “Oh, my love, that looks like fun!  I have to finish the dishes, would you like to help me finish up faster?”  This provides for the connection need without “giving in” to their demands of me.  So the chores still get done, but I do them when I know the kids have re-fueled.  And anytime I start to think “I’m never going to get anything done”, I remind myself that correcting behavior takes way more time than preventing it ever will.

 

Avoid “No”

 Again, this is sold to you in terms of how good it is for kids.  But this is AWESOME for you. 

 

How It Saves You:

One thing to know is that when the human brain hears “no” it tends to go into resistance mode.  We know what resistance looks like—tantrums and defiance.  And we know that we hate tantrums and defiance and we know that they take up an enormous amount of time.  So, in fact, I suggest saying it differently.  If we find clever ways to say “no” without saying “no” we save ourselves a ton of time and emotional struggle.

The other thing is that we often say “no” and then realize that we aren’t really willing to stick through with the “no” or that it didn’t make sense to say it in the first place and we back track.  This means “no” is the sign that it’s time to start negotiating.  Negotiating takes a lot of time.  And, it takes a very long time to convince a kid that “no” means “no” when it doesn’t always mean “no”. Plus, don’t forget how frustrating it all is.

 

HOW DO I DO IT?

One of my favorite ways to get around “no” is to say “Yes, when”.  “Mommy can I have a cookie?”  “Yes, after you eat some veggies.”  “Dad, can I go to my friend’s house?”  “Yes, as soon as you’ve cleaned your room”  “Mom can I go to the beach unsupervised with my friends and also get a tattoo?”  “Yes, when you’re 18”.  It may seem a bit sarcastic, but it actually works when you attempt to avoid the sarcasm.  They hear “yes” first and that leaves their brain open to hear about how to get to yes. 

It’s also helpful to give yourself a pause before giving an answer.  In that pause, ask yourself four questions:

1.     Why am I saying “no” and how important is that reason to me?

2.     Is the natural consequence (what will happen if I do nothing) safe?

3.     Will the natural consequence teach them better than saying “no” will? 

4.     Am I ready to weather the storm of their strong emotions if I say “no”.

Some other great phrases are

·      “Hmmm, what do you think of that idea?”

·      “Wow, I bet that will really hurt your brother’s feelings.”

·      “I wonder what might happen if you do that.”

·      “Ouch, that really hurt.”

 

Avoiding Punishment

When folks sell you on this one, they forget to explain the difference between punishment and consequences.  Of course we need to give consequences—life is full of them and our kids need to learn how to deal with them.  But Punishment is something we truly want to avoid as parents. Punishment is an attempt to pair an unpleasant experience with an unwanted behavior.  The goal is truly to make your kid feel awful so that they won’t do the terrible thing again.  A consequence is something that happens as a natural result of the behavior.  Sometimes consequences are natural (you climbed too high and fell and now your body hurts) and sometimes they are logical (you stayed out past your curfew, we can’t trust you to be home on time so you aren’t able to go out this week until you’ve regained trust).  Your goal is to teach with a consequence, while your goal is to inflict emotional or physical pain with a punishment. Sometimes a consequence can be quite enjoyable—as long as it teaches something (Because you and your brother are struggling to get along, you two are on the same team for game night tonight).

 

How It Saves You:

The problem with punishment is that the worse our kids feel about themselves and their relationship with us (and inflicting pain on our kids is a sure fire way for them to feel crappy about our relationship) the more they act up and resist our teaching.  Research is finally getting around to proving that punishment increases defiance and poor behavior.  So all the effort and pain of punishing actually moves you in the opposite direction.  Dealing with defiance can be incredibly time consuming.  It’s also emotionally draining.  

 

How Do I Do It?

·      First, you must internalize this concept:  PARENTS DO NOT CONTROL THEIR CHILDREN’S BEHAVIOR.  There has never been a time in human history when one person has effectively controlled all of the behavior of another human being without creating a great deal of damage to that person’s psyche (think torture).  We humans are built for independent thought and action and we fight against anything that tries to keep us down.  Parents DO control the environment and the consequences.   This is where you have power—not in the immediate ability to control the behavior, but in the long-term ability to shape, teach to and prevent unwanted behaviors.

·      Give yourself space before reacting and responding.  In that space ask yourself these questions:

1.     What behavior do I want to see instead?

2.     Is there a natural consequence that will teach this to my child better than anything I can implement?

3.     If a natural consequence is not forthcoming, what are typical life consequences of this type of behavior? 

4.     How can I connect the consequence I’m giving to consequences that would be realistic in the real world?

·      Understand what is developmentally normal.  It is developmentally normal for my two year olds to push each other out of the way when they are on a mission.  It’s also developmentally abnormal for my 2 year olds to have impulse control.  So I don’t do time out, I just gently remind them “We don’t push” and “I bet your brother is angry that you just pushed him”.  I don’t expect them to be consistently non-violent until they have more impulse control so, right now, it’s just about teaching what I expect and beginning to bring awareness to others and their space.  (And, in case you’re wondering, my boys rarely push, hit or bite each other or us anymore and that’s been achieved without any consequences)  It’s completely ineffective to punish a child for something when they are developmentally unable to do the desired behavior.

·      Make a rule to only deliver consequences when you’re not angry.  Once kids get to be 3 or 4 they don’t need an immediate consequence for the consequence to be helpful (contrary to popular belief).  You’re better off waiting until you know what you want to do first.

·      Get input from the parent who’s less emotional when possible.  They’ll have a clearer head about the logical consequence that fits.

·      Get input from your child when developing consequences.  They’ll usually be harder on themselves than you will be.

·      When possible, create consequences that help them re-build or fix their mistake.  So, crayons on the wall= cleaning crayon marks-- not time out.  Hitting brother = doing something nice for brother-- not getting your cartoons taken away.

 

Limiting Technology/Getting Outside More

 Okay, we all know that technology can rot our children’s brains and turn them into monsters, right?  I’ll be the first to tell you that we let our kids watch TV while Dad is making dinner because Mom isn’t home yet and two 2 year olds make it hard to make dinner.  We used cartoons on our drive to the beach.  I even use TV when my kids are super cranky after a nap so that I can get them changed and out the door without so much drama.  Please don’t take my TV away!!! But, it's absolutely true that it's not great for kids in large doses.  It's also true that kids behave better when we limit tech time. 

 

How It Saves You:

While limiting technology and getting outside may seem like it’s only going to make your life harder, it will likely do the opposite.  Kids tend to struggle more with other activities when they watch too much TV because the other activities don’t feel as stimulating and take more work.  So, while the time with the TV may be a blessing, the time away from it may be harder on you.  And because kids’ brains do so much better with activity and sunshine, keeping them inside is going to increase tantrum behavior and destructive behavior.  It’s also good to have your hands strongly on the reins of technology because there will come a time when it’s one of the only things you have control over that will actually motivate them.  Don’t start giving up your special super power so soon—you’ll want it.

 

HOW TO DO IT:

With little ones, I suggest deciding on some clear limits with your partner.  Come up with a statement that says “We will only let them have ____ minutes of technology a day and we will allow it at ______ time of day.  The exceptions to this rule are _______.”  It is more important that there are rules and limits and that they are consistently enforced than the amount of time or time of day is.  Allow some flexibility for when a show will come to an end 5 minutes later than planned or a game will be done in 5 minutes.  When you allow that flexibility, make sure they know it’s your idea, not theirs.   And, give them time to prepare to say goodbye to their beloved technology.  “It’s almost time to turn off the TV—we’ll turn it off when this show is over.”  When you turn off the technology say something like “It’s time to say goodbye cartoons.”  At first, they will likely have a lot of emotion about this and you can cuddle with them and tell them how hard it is to say goodbye to something we like and let them cry and have all of their feels.  Over time, they will get it that saying goodbye means saying goodbye no matter what their feelings are about it.  My toddlers now join me in saying “goodbye” to their cartoon characters and quickly move on to another activity the majority of the time.

With older kids, it’s important to plan well for any technology gift.  So, when they start wanting a tablet, use it as an opportunity to teach them how to negotiate and petition for their wants.  Ask for an outline that they present to you about how they’ve shown that they are mature enough for the technology, what they imagine the rules would be and what consequences they understand they will accept if they don’t.  Work together with them to develop a technology contract before they get their own shiny new thing.  It is far easier to get investment from kids on rules and limitations when they want something than it is to enforce a technology contract as a result of their poor technology behavior.

There are a few things I suggest for every family’s technology contract:

1.     You hand in your technology before bedtime (or pick a time)

2.     There will be random searches of your technology.  We will be looking for any illegal activity or bullying behavior.

3.     You only get use of your technology once your chores and homework are done.  (I suggest a laminated chore checklist that they hand in to you with dry erase check marks in trade for their technology)

4.     Technology goes in the basket for dinner time (of course this includes parent technology)

 

Avoiding Power Struggles and Yelling

When folks preach this one, they often say “Your child deserves respect” or “You wouldn’t want to be controlled so why are you going to try to control your kid” or “Yelling is abuse too”.  While I agree with those statements, that doesn’t tell you how it makes your life way easier.  Before we move forward, let’s define a power struggle.  A power struggle is when one person is trying to assert their independence (physical, emotional, intellectual, values etc.) and the other person is trying to control that independence. 

You know you’re in a power struggle when:

·      You could define it as an “argument”. 

·      You are saying the same thing over and over again and the voice tone and heart rate are escalating.

·      The other person is escalating or shutting down.

·      You begin to feel like you need to win.

·      You wonder how you will win.

 

How It Saves You To Avoid Power Struggles

I want you to think back and try to remember any time when yelling or having a power struggle actually resulted in your goal.  Now I want you to take those few times and then ask if you saw any lasting change in your child’s behavior as a result.  And, if you still have some times in mind, I want you to ask if you think your relationship with your child improved as a result.  As someone who values efficiency, I pay close attention to what works and what doesn’t.  Power struggles take far more time than other options and tend to set us up as the enemy of our kids.  When we are the enemy, they pick more battles than they do when we are allies.  So from an efficiency standpoint, it’s kind of like trying to tear down a brick wall by throwing cement at it. 

 

HOW TO DO IT:

I would like to illustrate this by using one of my son’s as an example.  This boy is very physically active.  I like to say that he gets his whole body involved in his emotions.  He likes to go for long walks through the neighborhood instead of playing at the park.  Unfortunately, he also gets halfway through the walk and wants to be carried.  I have twins and they are heavy.  This doesn’t often work for me.  I often have to say no when he starts pulling at my finger to go on the walk.  So, when I say “I’m sorry sweetheart, but we’re playing at the park today” he pulls at me harder.  Most parents I see handle this by scolding, raising their voice, demanding and sometimes spanking for defiance.  Instead, I remove his hand from mine, say, “I know it’s hard not to get your way, love” and begin walking in the direction of the park (and yes, I’ve had adults and kids give me the stink eye for this). 

When I first started doing this, he would throw himself on the ground, scream and cry.  Then he would run up to me, grab my hand and start pulling me in the proper direction again.  Then we would repeat.  He would eventually get it that we were not going his way and most of the time he would join us at the park (there were a few never ending tantrums that likely had more to do with food or teething than the event).  When he joined us, I would be happy to see him and say, “I’m so happy you joined us, love”.  Now we have gotten to the point where he will sit down and sulk but pretty quickly gets up and joins us.  So, let me break down the steps to avoid a power struggle.

1.     Set the boundary and make sure it’s one you will stick with AND can enforce.  (I knew that I could walk away from him because it was safe and I knew we could go home if he wouldn’t join us)

2.     Listen and Empathize with the emotions they have about that boundary.  And avoid following up with “but”. 

3.     Enforce the boundary without shame, blame, condescension or yelling.  In this example, I walked away.  Or you can turn off the TV or you can give them the food you are willing to have them eat.  No need for a lot of talk when enforcing a boundary. 

4.     Be Present and Re-connect when they calm down from not getting what they wanted.  Often parents scold or do an “I told you so” here, but that just re-escalates.

5.     Engage Them In Consequence Development if necessary.  So if they broke something when you walked away to avoid engaging, let them come up with a good way to make it better.

 

 

 

 

What The Heck Is Wrong With My Kid?!?! ---- Beyond The Wonder Weeks

When I was pregnant with my boys my mother bought me a book that would change everything for me as a parent.  That was saying something.  I hate self-help books.  I hate how-to books.  I HATE PARENTING BOOKS AND BLOGS.  At first I poo-poo’d the book.  The Wonder Weeks was its name and it was big and full of stuff I didn’t really want to hear.  I expected it would be a pretty doorstop, but not much else.  But then something happened.  My cuddly sleeping, pooping, eating, napping 1 week old babies became screaming, unpredictable, inconsolable 4 week old monsters that I wanted to throw out the window.  When I reached out for help from other new moms, they kept saying, “Have you read the Wonder Weeks?  It explains a lot.”

Fine.  FINE!  I’ll read the darned book already!  For those of you who haven’t heard about it, the authors Hetty Van De Rijt and Franz Plooij, compiled years of study on infants 0-1.5 and found patterns in this “fussy” behavior.  They found that children had these incredible shifts in behavior and mood at pretty predictable times in their development and that these shifts were followed by enormous leaps in ability.  For example, after one of these leaps my boys started to smile, after another they started to walk and the most recent one gifted us with a huge increase in vocabulary.

Unfortunately the Wonder Weeks book stopped telling us when the next leaps come.  Now they catch me by surprise (unless I pay close attention to when other moms start complaining about behavior and reaching out—then I put it on my calendar). But the leaps don’t end and there is still a lot of information that I believe all parents should understand about developmental leaps.  We need to understand what they are, notice when our kids are in one and have guidance on how to handle them.  I believe that if we know these things and understand their life long impact on each of us, we can handle them with a bit more sanity and grace and make things easier instead of harder for us.  Since all of my Google searches about this came up empty, I’ll try to contribute what I can to the discussion.

 

What Is A Developmental Leap?

A developmental leap is basically a huge brain growth spurt that is directly linked to age.  While little ones can’t really explain it to us, you might be interested to hear that teens do a great job of explaining it.  Teens in my practice often tell me that “something changed” and “my brain feels different” and “I’m aware of things I never was aware of a year ago” and even “I think something is wrong with me because all of a sudden my thoughts and emotions are doing really strange things.”  This is not surprising knowing what we know about teen brain development

When we (yes, we—these happen throughout the lifespan) are going through a developmental leap, our brain is experiencing shifts and changes that actually change the way we think and feel and process information.  For children 0-3 and adolescents, this change is so dramatic and fast that it’s overwhelming and scary.  It’s like being drugged and not knowing you were drugged. 

 

How Do I Know If It’s A Leap?

For infants and young children the signs become very obvious once you’ve started noticing leaps.  The interesting thing is that these symptoms seem to follow kids into their teens as they experience leaps so they can continue to be easy to spot if we’re looking.  It may be a leap if:

·      Your child is sleeping abnormally after sleeping just fine for months or years.

·      Your child is eating poorly after eating very well for months or years.

·      Your child becomes clingy after seeming to gain independence recently.

·      Your child is easily irritated and has significant mood swings that feel out of character.

·      None of your behavioral techniques that used to work are working now.

·      Nothing you do seems to soothe them.

·      You are starting to regret being a parent (or maybe that’s just what happens for me).

 

What Do I Need To Know About A Leap?

For folks who are not aware that their kids are going through a leap, they will often “misdiagnose”.  It’s common for parents of infants and young toddlers to assume their child is teething or has a medical problem that requires a Dr. visit.  Once they turn 2, we assume it is the “Terrible Two’s”.  When they are adolescents we say, “It’s hormones”.  Because we misunderstand what’s going on, we often deal with it in a way that creates anxiety and frustration for parents and kids. 

It’s important to know that if your child is in a developmental leap, their teachability is highly impaired.  The brain is too busy reconstructing itself to learn what you want it to learn.  For infants that means any sleep training efforts, efforts to wean or attempts at teaching independent play should take a back seat because it’s just not going to work.  For toddlers, that means any teaching you are doing around following instructions, being gentle or putting things away is probably an act of futility.  For adolescents, that means rational conversation is unlikely to get you anywhere.

Not only is it futile to expect to teach or guide or mold behavior during this time—it will likely backfire on you.  How many of you were told when your kid started acting up around 2 years old that “This is the time to get strict or she’ll run all over you the rest of your life”?  I know I was.  Luckily I knew better and ignored those folks.  Instead of cracking down on the behavior by adding time-outs, raising my voice, and increasing power struggles, I decided to sit my rear end down on the bean bag and hold space for my struggling, very angry little guy.  I increased connection and empathy while doing everything in my power not to scream and slam the door and throw him out the window (I was not always successful, but he’s not yet been thrown out a window so I count that as a success).  I dropped all teaching goals (to get him to hold my hand when out and about, for example) and just focused on getting through the storm.

And to the great surprise of those who thought I should crack down, my little guy popped out of this leap holding my hand without being asked, sleeping better again, eating VEGETABLES (at least some), playing independently and ready to learn.  Once the storm passed, I was able to start teaching.  That’s when I was able to start saying, “No, mommy is eating right now so we aren’t going to the park”.  He still threw a fit, but he was able to self-soothe and recover quickly.

 

What Happens When We Misdiagnose?

A few things happen when we misdiagnose a leap:

1.     We begin to think there is something physically or emotionally wrong with our child.  This increases our anxiety and the likelihood that our child will begin to internalize this message.

2.     We begin to think there is something wrong with our parenting and become inconsistent and unpredictable as we try to change what we are doing to get some sense of control.  This typically leads to troubling behaviors that last past the leap.

3.     We begin to think our child is choosing to be this way since they have shown us that they “can be better”.  This typically leads to punitive behavior that erodes our bond.  The more our bond is eroded, the more likely it is that we’ll see out of the ordinary behavior problems (including defiance and violence) outside of these leaps.

 

What Do I Do If It’s a Leap?

1.     Make sure you and your partner understand what it is.  Misdiagnosis is very problematic.

2.     Make plans for lots of self-care.  Take turns with your partner a lot, ask for help from grandparents or other supports, get a massage, take some Kava Kava, exercise.  Whatever fills your cup, do lots of it because you’re going to need patience until this storm passes.

3.     Give in to the parenting shortcuts.  I let my boys watch more TV when they are in leaps because I can’t possibly be calm and patient for 6 weeks of hell unless I get a break and TV works to shut them up for a minute.  If they do better when they go to Grandma’s house, hang out there a lot more.  If they do better out and about, be proactive and plan gazillion activities out and about.  Let them have the pacifier.  Let them eat granola bars and cereal all day if that’s the only thing they’ll eat without complaint.  You can get back on track when they’re out of it.

4.     Try to imagine if someone drugged your drink and you started hallucinating and had no idea why.  Remember that they are overwhelmed and have very little ability to self-soothe during this time.

5.     Be a Launchpad.  Sit your butt down on their level for regular and predictable periods of time and let them come to you and venture away as they need.  Connection is key for them to pop out of it on the other end stronger and more independent.

6.     Stop teaching.  Whatever goals you have to teach your child, put them on hold.  Pick it back up when you’re on the other side.

7.     Name it.  Name it for your kid too.  “I bet it feels like you’re brain is exploding right now.”  “I know you’re overwhelmed, kiddo, we’ll get through it together.”

8.     Don’t question or change your parenting approach unless it’s moving more towards the connection side of things.  They need a predictable safe landing pad and the better you are at being consistent the safer they will feel.

9.     Don’t believe anyone who says it’s just behavioral.  I’ve found that, for my toddlers, the leaps last about 5-6 weeks.  If the behavior goes on longer than that, you get to crack down again.  For adolescents and teens, these leaps can feel like they go on for years.  Keep your current limits in place, but make sure you give large doses of empathy.

If you have questions, get support.  Parenting is hard and we can all use a good counselor to get through it.  If you choose a therapist, be sure that they are well versed in child development and developmental leaps so that you’re not spending your time educating them on the fact that this is not, in fact, behavioral. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Men…Don’t Wait Too Long to Listen, Women… Don’t Wait Too Long to Talk: Advice From Your Future Couple’s Therapist

I work hard in my practice and in my writing to avoid gender stereotypes.  Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s helpful to avoid them this time.  While this advice is as true for women as it is for men and vice versa, I’m seeing a pattern in my practice that often falls within stereotypically gendered roles—and that matters.  I’m not alone in this observation that men are struggling to listen to their wives.  In fact, research done by the Gottman Institute supports my experience, showing that men tend to be less likely to accept influence (listen, absorb and take action) from their wives than women are to accept influence from their husbands (Gay and Lesbian couples do much better at accepting influence from their partners).  This same research indicates that accepting influence from your partner is predictive of a strong and lasting marriage. 

But my goal is not to share the research with you—you can look that up on your own.  My goal is to warn you.  Men:  DO NOT to wait to listen to your wife, because one day she’ll stop talking and start leaving and by then it may be too late.  And Women:  DO NOT wait too long to identify and speak to your needs or you’ll get resentful and fall out of love with your husband and by then it may be too late.

Two Things That Happen in My Office So Regularly That it’s Cause For Concern... 

First Scenario:

I get a panicked call from a man who is very eager to set up couple’s counseling.  He says something like: “My wife is saying it’s over and I don’t know what to do.”  When they come in for a session, the wife (or female partner) is guarded, cold, resentful and completely unmotivated to work on the marriage.  “I’ve been telling you that I need you to __________ for years and now I don’t even think I love you anymore.”  And the husband (or male partner) says something like “But I provide for our family and I don’t yell at you and I never cheated.  How could you wonder if I love and appreciate you?  I'm here aren't I?  I know I’m not perfect, but man, you’re really going to divorce me over not telling you I love you enough?!”

Second Scenario:

A female client I’ve been seeing individually talks at length about why she doesn't think she can express her needs (I shouldn't have this need, he's so good in other ways, it'll just make him more distant, he won't hear me anyway, he'll leave me).  We finally arrive at a willingness to face the fear and speak the truth.  Now she's coming in week after week telling me about her attempts to talk to her husband (or male partner) about her needs for connection and collaboration and self-care and he either listens and then doesn’t make any change or he tells her she’s overreacting in one way or another.  She asks for ways to begin the conversation and tries new communication techniques.  She invites him to a session and he says he hates counselors.  She tries and tries and tries and then, one day, comes in and says she’s ready for a separation.  She says she doesn’t even know if she loves him anymore.

Here’s What I Think Is Happening:

There was a time in our history when marriage was a legal arrangement that allowed for procreation and child rearing.  It was not expected to be more than that and often was less.  These marriages were often very unhappy and rampant with physical abuse, emotional abuse, rape, adultery, depression, anxiety etc.  This was not the golden age of marriage by any means, but divorce wasn’t really a thing so statistics can fool us into believing that it was, in fact, a golden age.  As time went on two things happened.  First and most obviously, women joined the workforce and realized that they could (quite successfully) support themselves and their family without a man.  Second (probably as a result of the first), men realized that they could raise children pretty darned well without a woman involved.  So we no longer NEEDED marriage to procreate, raise children and succeed in life, but we still WANTED marriage.  Now marriage was expected to offer more.  It was expected to be about love and friendship and partnership.

And yet, men and women were still being socialized in very similar ways.  Men were socialized not to express emotions or vulnerability and women were socialized not to express their needs lest they overwhelm everyone and scare the men away.  Both of these things: expression of needs and emotional vulnerability, are necessary for lasting, rewarding friendships and partnerships.  Without knowing it, we wound up playing the same old tune and expecting a totally different song just because we actually liked and chose this person. 

The same old tune goes something like this (while these gendered roles are not ALWAYS the case,  I find that they are very often the case):  A man pursues a woman, a woman presses for permanence, a man hesitantly agrees and proposes, a woman tries to be the ideal wife without any needs, a man tries to be the ideal husband by providing, a woman cautiously begins to express her needs, a man jokes with his buddies that women are “so emotional all the time” and winds up spending more time away from home to avoid the “demands”, a woman feels unheard and unseen and talks to her friends about how “men just don’t get how hard it is”, a man gets distant as a response to his wife’s requests for emotional connection, a woman gets distant and stops wanting to have sex, a man complains that there isn’t any sex in their marriage and coerces his wife into sex, a woman begins to think she can get these emotional needs met better on her own or in another relationship, a man begins to think he can get his sexual needs met better on his own or in another relationship and BAM—we either have an affair or a separation. 

We Americans have a strong mythology around marriage.  If we pick the person we love and they love us than we will never fall out of love and live happily ever after.  We know it’ll be hard but we aren’t sure what hard looks like so we assume the “hard work” is when we fight or when we give up on something important to us for the other person (which we kindly refer to as compromise).  But that’s not it at all.  That’s the wrong kind of hard work for a marriage.  But we assume it’s what all those older married people meant when they said “marriage is hard work”.  So we resign ourselves to this kind of marriage hard work and don’t think twice about doing something about it until things are broken beyond repair.

The hard work in a marriage is being able to express our needs, hear our partner’s needs and brainstorm on how to get them met as best as possible.  It's turning towards each other when everything in us wants to turn away.  Sounds nice, huh?  It can be when we do it.  But here’s the rub.  We have a million emotional barriers to expressing our needs and a million emotional barriers to hearing that our partner’s needs aren’t being met.  So we get defensive, we stonewall, we become contemptuous and we criticize.  And since we anticipate those responses from our partner (typically because those are the responses we saw in our youth), we avoid being honest and true with each other.

So What Do We Do?

Start Listening.  If your partner is bringing up the same thing over and over again please know that at some point they’ll get tired of not being heard.  If it matters to them enough to say, it matters. If you struggle with active listening get help. If you've heard it before, committed to change and have struggled to make the change, consider that there is a deeper issue at play and please consider counseling.

Start Talking.  If you have an unmet need- speak it.  One of my favorite phrases is “speak your truth without blame or judgment”.  Use your trusty “I” statements and speak to the need (I need to feel as if we are partnering on making decisions around parenting) not the desired outcome (I need you to do more with the kids).

Get Counseling Early.  I truly enjoy helping clients build their relationship from the ground up.  Getting couples counseling when you’re both highly invested in the relationship is the best time to do it.  Don’t expect a therapist to bring a corpse back to life.  Couple’s counseling isn’t a Hail Mary.

Find Out How To Be Vulnerable.  Brenee Brown has many good books, Podcasts and training courses on this topic.  Counseling is another great way to figure this out.

Find Out How To Identify and Communicate Your Needs.  Brenee Brown is another great resource for this information.  Counseling is a better resource if this is a struggle for you.

Learn To Express Your Emotions.  Dan Siegel has great resources on how the brain actually manages all of these emotions (Mind is his most recent) and the book Focusing by Eugene T. Gendlin is also a good resource.  Counseling is better because we get to explore what is so scary and hard about expressing our emotions.

Read The Research:  Gottman’s research is the most comprehensive couple’s research out there.  These folks have identified the things that couples do that predict divorce with almost perfect accuracy.  If you don’t believe me, believe the research—and if your partner doesn’t believe you maybe they will believe the research.

 

 

Managing Tantrums and Escalations and Avoiding Power Struggles

When a child becomes escalated, we often feel like we need to fix or stop the escalation, but Neuroscience tells us that there is a point at which there is not much we can do but wait it out. When children's (and adults') heart rates goes above a certain point in an escalation, they secrete too much adrenaline and cortisol to be able to listen or think rationally.  So everything you say will actually go in one ear and out the other until our bodies calm down. Unfortunately, when a child is least likely to take intervention is typically when we are most upset and wanting to control their escalation. While it's tempting to engage in a power struggle, it will likely make things worse and damage the relationship. Here is a step by step guide on how to handle a child's escalation.

  1. Meet Your Child With Empathy Prior To The Escalation.  "It is so hard to stop doing what you're doing when you're so excited about it.  I bet you're furious that I am asking you to stop playing and come to dinner."
  2. Give Your Expectation And a Rationale.  "I'm asking you to put that on pause and come to have dinner.  Having dinner together is important to our family because it's the one time every day that we get to connect with each other.  It's important to you because you can be sure that you don't get hungry."
  3. If Escalation Happens Create Space-- DON'T POWER STRUGGLE.  "Okay, you're the only one who controls you.  I imagine that Dad and I will have some consequences for not following instructions."
  4. Disengage. 
    1. As long as your child is safe, allow them to have whatever feelings they are having, and behave in whatever way they are going to behave.  Now is not a time to try to control behavior or make threats of consequences.  It will only make things worse.
    2.  If they are unsafe, let them know what you'll need to do if they continue to be unsafe "I need to let you know that if you leave the property without permission, I will contact the police to keep you safe."
    3. If they are destroying property you will need to wait to solve that problem until later. Engaging is only going to make things worse-- I promise.
    4. Disengaging doesn't mean you aren't present or don't care.  Let them know you're ready when they are "I'm going to go into the living room and read a book, but you let me know when you're ready to talk."  This lets them know you are there for them and care about them, but you are not trying to control their feelings or actions.
  5. Wait Until They Make a Bid For Connection.  This is a great time to enjoy time with your other children, read a book you love, drink a cup of tea.  Remind yourself that there is nothing you can do and do something that may bring your adrenaline and cortisol levels down.  This serves two functions.  First, it makes you calm and second it sends the message that everything is okay and the tantrum doesn't control you.
  6. Return The Bid With Love and Connection.  Your child will inevitably make a bid for connection at some point when they are no longer escalated.  This may be the next day-- sometimes for teens it's next week.  It may look like "Mom, can you take me to my friend's house?" or "Dad, can we go out and get ice cream?"  This is not a time to emotionally punish.  Respond with "I'm so glad you're feeling okay enough to connect with me again." 
  7. Provide Empathy.  "Earlier when I asked you to come to dinner you were really angry.  I know how hard it is to get so excited about something and have someone try to cut you off from it."
  8. Ask for Empathy or Responsibility Taking.  "Can you imagine what may have been going on for me at that time?" or "What happened from your perspective and how could we have done it differently?"  Sometimes this can re-escalate the situation.  That's okay, just start again with step 1.  At some point, they will be able to have this part of the conversation.
  9. Brainstorm Consequences Together. "Okay, so next time I can let you know 30 minutes before dinner so that you're prepared and remind you at 5 minutes and you will ask me for your stress ball if you're feeling angry about that so that you can feel calmer about doing something you don't want to do.  While you were upset, you broke a picture frame and made it hard for the family to enjoy dinner.  How do you think you should fix that?  What consequences do you think are fair?"

If you are consistent with following these steps, you will see a decrease in frequency and intensity of escalations unless there are underlying emotional safety needs that are not being addressed.

 

My Thoughts On Personality Disorders

When I first entered the field of mental health I was taught to believe that Personality Disorders were the mental health equivalent of terminal Cancer. The message was that all we could do was manage these clients.  I was told that they would exhaust me and disappoint me and manipulate me and never ever get better.  At that time, there wasn’t much awareness of Personality Disorders in the general population.  It was a mental health insider’s term for “completely crazy”.  I would receive referrals for teenagers where other therapists called them “budding borderlines” (Borderline Personality Disorder).  They were “budding” because it’s not ethical or accurate to diagnose Personality Disorders before age 18.  So adding the “budding” felt like a good way to communicate the same thing while not actually diagnosing.  It made me furious.

The more I got to know these children and adults who were diagnosed with Personality Disorders (or budding Personality Disorders), the more I questioned these diagnoses at all.  I began to see common themes in these clients.  They all had pretty cruddy experiences with their primary attachment figures and/or they were all in the midst of a significant identity crisis.  It felt more like a response to traumatic relationships and an unclear sense of identity than full on “crazy”.  Their responses to their histories and current situations made perfect sense to me.  It seemed to me that if these clients heard that their actions made perfect sense, they might actually get better.  It seemed to me that if we could treat attachment issues, we could treat Personality Disorders.  Turns out, I was right because I have successfully treated folks that others have diagnosed with Personality Disorders and I will happily continue to do so.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of therapists I meet still believe what I was taught all those years ago.  They avoid treating folks who demonstrate behaviors that would fit criteria for a Personality Disorder.  When they do treat them, they take a maintenance approach, assuming the client will never really be well.  They condescend and are cold in order to keep healthy boundaries.  When they treat their partners or family members they tell them to never expect their loved one to get better.  They tell clients that they have a Personality Disorder and that they’ll never truly get better.  And now, with information so incredibly available online, anyone who Google’s Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or Histrionic Personality (HPD) Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) will be told what I was told all those years ago.  Then they decide to go ahead and informally diagnose someone in their lives and then write them off—the opposite of what is really needed to treat attachment issues.

So here are some things I’d like everyone to know about Personality Disorders—not based on research-- not backed up in any journal or peer reviewed paper—just what I’ve seen and come to believe in my 15 years in this field.

 

1.     Personality Disordered Behavior is Never Benefitted From a Diagnosis of a Personality Disorder.  I have never and will never use a Personality Disorder diagnosis.  Because it has been so associated with folks never getting well, it stops the momentum to get well and stigmatizes clients.  I will sometimes talk to partners or family members about Personality Disorder behaviors in their loved ones, but only if they are clear that it is not appropriate to label their loved one and only if they hear my whole spiel on how these behaviors come to be.

2.    Many Personality Disordered Behaviors Are Linked To Developmental Norms, Gender Stereotypes or Systemic Issues.  You’d be surprised how many incredibly stable and successful people have told me that they were either diagnosed with a Personality Disorder or believed they had one at some point in their life.  Our 20’s are a tumultuous time filled with questions about identity, how to get our needs met, how to set boundaries, how to deal with rejection etc.  It is quite normal for folks to act pretty erratically during this time.  I’ve also seen folks who are struggling with their sexual orientation and trying to maintain a monogamous relationship get diagnosed with a Personality Disorder.  They simply can’t pin down their identity and behave erratically in response to their fear of rejection. This erratic behavior is diagnosed when it may be quite normal.  (Think women being locked in an insane asylum for wanting a divorce in the 50’s with a diagnosis of Histrionic Personality Disorder) 

3.    Personality Disorders Are All About Self-Protection:  In essence, every one of the Personality Disorders can easily be lined up with one of the attachment styles identified through attachment theory.  Our brains learn how to get the most connection and the least rejection as we interact with our primary attachment figures as infants.  Over time, our brains tell us to do the same thing in all relationships to get the most connection and the least rejection.  Unless we have lots of new secure attachment experiences, we will just keep doing the dysfunctional thing to get what we need.  So every behavior, from behaving as if you are too good for everyone else (NPD) to moving between idealization to demonization of loved ones (BPD), is an effort to protect the self from rejection while still obtaining connection.  It isn’t until we have consistent, healthy attachments that we can begin to re-train the brain and do it differently.

4.    Folks Who Demonstrate Personality Disordered Behaviors Benefit From Therapy:  I’ve seen it too frequently to believe otherwise.  A long-term relationship with a therapist can begin to support clients in believing a different story about relationships and self-worth.  Folks who struggle with attachment and identity issues benefit greatly from consistency, clear boundaries, compassion and non-judgment.  Because the behaviors they’ve shown tend to push others away, they often get the same information about people over and over again.  Others are not to be trusted to stick around. Others are not to be trusted to love them as they are.  Others are unpredictable and unkind and selfish.  The belief that they are not worthy of real love is confirmed when people push them away or judge their behavior.  A skilled therapist who does not reject, but also does not rescue can support someone in the process of learning how to do relationships well.  It is also incredibly important for these folks to be educated on the reason behind the behavior so that they can have hope for their ability to do it differently.

5.    Loved Ones Need Therapy Too:  If you are in a relationship with someone who demonstrates these behaviors, you need a therapist too.  To have relationships with folks who struggle with connection and attachment you must have good boundaries.  Not many people do, in my experience.  Having a therapist will help you to set appropriate boundaries to protect yourself while also not adding to the attachment issues that your loved one has.

6.    Empathy Goes A Long Way:  Try to imagine what it must be like to be so uncertain of your own worthiness of love that you push people away as soon as they get close.  Or imagine being so unclear on who you are separate from how you can please others that you can only protect yourself by believing you are better than everyone else.  Try to imagine that every time you get close to someone you are so terrified of losing them that you wind up in a panic.  All of these difficult behaviors are a result of something.  That doesn’t mean you have to rescue or fix or submit your needs to make them feel better—but it does mean you can avoid judging or writing them off.

 

These behaviors are hard to deal with.  They are hard for friends and family, they are hard for the therapists that want to support and they are excruciating for those who are ashamed that these are their behaviors.  But they need not be forever and these clients need not be alone in this world.  So the next time you click on a “10 things to know about Narcissists” post, or a “What every child of a Narcissist experiences” post dig a little deeper.   There’s more than meets the eye.

 

 

Lara's Tips For Toddler Behavior

So, my husband and I are about to be in the thick of it with two almost two year olds.  And, inevitably those other lucky new parents who had kids around the same time as we did are beginning to get that deer in a headlight look about them.  Holy cow—now that they can move!  How in the world do we get some sense of control?  How can we get started on the right track so that we don’t have Tasmanian devil 5 year olds?  Believe it or not, there’s a lot we can start doing as early as they start to crawl.  Here are some of the strategies we’re using at home.  I hope they can be helpful to you.

Notice and Praise For What You Want To See More Of:

 Kids begin to understand praise, acceptance and even language far before they can speak in full sentences.  Because they can’t talk I find that many parents don’t think to be praising for specific skill sets this early.  We might say “good job” when they learn a new physical task, but we forget to do the same when they learn a new behavioral task. So pay attention to the following things and praise like crazy:

-       Following Instructions:  This starts happening around 17 months typically when you say “Time for a bath” and they start walking towards the bathroom or “follow me” and they trail behind you like a little duck.  This is a great time to say “Great job following instructions”.  Maybe even make a habit of giving a hi-five or a hug.

-       Asking For Help Instead of Whining and Crying for Help:  Toddlers can learn simple signs as soon as they learn to wave hello and goodbye.  One of the most helpful signs that our kids have learned is “Help”.  In our house we call it “Help Please” and so it easily doubles for “Please”.   Begin expecting that your toddlers use this sign when they need help with something or when you might typically expect a child to say please.  Then praise, hug, hi-five!

-       Accepting No:  It is typical for toddlers to throw a tantrum when they hear “no”.  The cool thing that happens when you are consistent with not giving in to the tantrum is that they begin to accept “no” without tantrums far more often.  When this happens praise, hug, hi-five.  Make a big deal out of it.

-       Being Gentle:  Any time your toddler touches you, the dog, his/her sibling or anything with a pulse (I even do it with my plants), make a point to show them what gentle looks like.  Then praise every time they touch something in a gentle way.  “Great job being gentle”

 

Focused Attention/Quality Time:

 Nine times out of ten when parents tell me their child has begun to act up more than normal even though expectations remain clear and consequences are consistent it can be resolved by consistent focused quality time.  For toddlers, this means that every day you spend focused quality time on the floor following their lead on play.  I like to sit in the beanbag chair and let them bring toys or books to me.  Then I let them grab my hand if they want to show me something.  No phone, no ipad, no laptop--- just sit there and be present.  The more you do this and the more consistently you do this the less they will throw tantrums just to get attention.  Then we can be more assured that a tantrum is really because they are upset.  Then we can be less worried that attending to them during a tantrum will increase tantrum behavior.

 

Connect At the Beginning and End of a Tantrum:

Tantrums are part of toddler life.  Some folks will tell you just to ignore during tantrums, but I suggest a different approach.  Simply ignoring the behavior may discourage them from expressing themselves, but it’s more likely to lead to escalated behavior to be heard and to feel connected in the long run.  If you are attending a lot to the behaviors you want to see, you don’t need to worry that connecting with your child when they are upset will reinforce the tantrum.  In fact, it will calm the situation down enough to give them space to find new ways to say what they need.

First allow connection through reflection and physical touch, then attempt to problem solve with them, give space if that doesn’t help and then re-connect once the tantrum is done.  For example:

“You’re very angry that we can’t go outside right now!  I know it’s hard to not get what you want.  Would you like a cuddle?”

Or

“You want something right now.  It’s hard to tell me, huh?  Let’s try to figure it out together.”

If they escalate or refuse a cuddle or there is clearly no solution that will help them out, then:

“Okay, you let me know if I can help.” And then get involved in something else until they calm down on their own and come to connect again.  When calm, give a cuddle and re-connect.

 

Give Choices:

This is a great time to start the old Love and Logic trick of giving choices.  “Do you want to wear this shirt or this shirt?”  “Do you want this sippy cup or this one?”  “Do you want to go outside or play with your trains?”  The more options you give the less they will feel the need to be in control of things that they don’t get to be in control of.

 

Routine:

Kids are calmer when they know what to expect.  You don’t have to schedule out your whole day, but keep things as consistent as possible.  For example, when we wake up, we do the same thing each time.  We don’t go downstairs until we are in our new clothes.  We take a bath before bed.  We only watch TV in the evening and we always turn it off an hour before bed.  These routines avoid power struggles and give structure to their day.

 

Wise Use of Time Outs:

Time outs are a frequently used tool and not one I’m opposed to, but I don’t think they are often used wisely.  When we use time outs as punishment, we tend to find ourselves using it non-stop and feeling like it’s not at all helpful.  We keep doing it because we feel like we need to set limits and this is the only way we know how.  Time outs are only truly helpful if they give the child space to get their logical brains involved.  For this reason, I don’t really suggest time outs until our kids are verbal and can better make sense of what’s happening. Here are some ways to wisely use time outs when you do:

-       Create a calming space for time out. Cuddly toys, music, dim lights, calming scents.  Free from overwhelming stimulus.  So, a time out chair in the kitchen is not going to do the trick.

-       Do time out with your child if possible.  Use this time to deeply breathe.  Hold their hands if they will let you.  Cuddle if they will let you. 

-       Explain that it’s time to breathe and feel calmer.  Avoid “All right, you’re in time out!”

-       Be excited when they come out of time out to play again and let them know that you aren’t holding a grudge.

-       Model time out for yourself “Mommy needs to breathe for a minute, she’s going to take a time out.”

 

Make it Better Instead of Time Out:

When your child does something that you would typically punish them with time outs for, instead ask them to make it better.  “Yeah, right, Lara, I can’t get them to sit still let alone make it better!”  That’s when you say, “I’m sorry, we can’t play with our toys until you make it better”.  This is where you set limits. This is why it’s helpful to have at least one room in the house where there are not toys.  Sit in that room together with them.  If they have a twin or another sibling who’s not in trouble, let that sibling play with a toy or two in the room or in another room if that’s safe, but then you just wait them out.  Reading a book with the other child is a great plan also.  It’s a motivator to join the crew.  It’s all up to them to get this thing resolved.

Making it better doesn’t always mean saying sorry.  Sometimes it’s giving a hug.  As they get older it could be doing a chore for the person that they hurt.  Sometimes it will be giving someone his or her toy.  As long as they are making it better.

 

Understand Development: 

There are a million books on child development out there—understand the stage your kids are in.  This information is so easy to find, just Google it.  Developmentally, it’s not important for a 2 year old to sit at the table every time their parents eat.  It is developmentally appropriate for them to sit at the table when they are hungry—but expecting that to always be on your schedule is not really necessary at this time.  That’ll come.  So don’t stress yourself on that one.  Try for as many times as you can and praise for it, but don’t force it until they are super stars at following instructions.  Developmentally, it is expected that 2 year olds will explore their world with absolutely no concept of the consequences (with the exception of automatic responses due to experiences like falling a lot).  So, make their space as unbreakable as possible until they are better able to understand consequences.  Don’t hold yourself and them to a standard that’s simply not achievable. 

This is also helpful when avoiding command language.  Developmentally, a 2 year old wants to be close to his or her parents.  So, when I say, “It’s time to go upstairs.” And my little guy is not at all interested in walking away from his toy, it’s pretty darn likely that he’ll follow me if I just start walking upstairs.  That way, I avoid a huge power struggle where I grab the toy from his hands and say, “Mommy said we’re going upstairs!” and drag him kicking and screaming up the stairs.  Instead I get to praise him when he follows me upstairs and act like it was all his idea.  Knowing that he’s likely to follow me allows me to play with both toddlers, by myself at the park with no fences without any concern.  They explore widely and with wonder, and they also follow me like little ducks.

 

Know Why You’re Saying No:

 You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s the thing I find most parents forget about.  If you say no, you sure as heck better stick to it.  So make sure you know why you’re saying no before you do it.  Do you really need to tell your toddler not to put the butt paste in his mouth?  Okay, yes, it’s gross but they’ll figure it out better on their own and they’re definitely not going to get hurt.  Do you really need to tell your toddler that you can’t go outside because it’s cold?  Why not let them go outside and decide that it isn’t very fun?  Get into the habit of waiting 30 seconds before saying yes or no unless there is imminent danger.  Ask yourself the benefits of yes and the benefits of no and choose yes whenever possible.  We learn better from experience than we do from “no”.

 

Be The Anchor:

When your world feels like a tsunami, use this chant “I am the anchor in the storm”.  Toddler emotions can feel like a tsunami, but that’s really normal.  We can’t and shouldn’t control that.  We just need to stay steady.  The steadier we are, the safer they will be.  The safer they are, the more likely they are to use the new skills you teach them to communicate their needs.

 

 

 

 

 

The Art And Science Of Empathy--Healing The Nation And Our Relationships

This election cycle has hit a chord in a way that many of us have never before experienced.  We seem to be more divided than we have ever been.  This week, clients have reported having full-blown panic attacks.  They have come in crying—saying they have been unable to stop crying.  On social media, people are talking to each other with such intense anger and blame that its destroying friendships and family relationships.  We are insulting each other in ways that are completely unfair.  We’ve seen violence and desperate attempts to escape to another country. 

As a therapist, this isn’t a surprise to me.  I understand the science of fear.  I understand how fear gets in the way of true empathy and I understand that empathy is one of the best ways to create enough interpersonal safety to get our rational brains involved in the conversation.  But as I tackle each conversation I have with an eye for empathy building, I realize that many people don’t truly understand how to manage fear while at the same time holding space for empathy.  But indeed, this is exactly what we need in order to heal any relationship.  It is certainly what we need to heal our country.

 

Without empathy there is no safety and without safety there is fear and with fear comes anger and with anger comes hate and with hate comes violence and the deep divide grows. 

 

I hope you will stick with me as I wander down the lane of fear and empathy for a bit.  While advocacy has helped us achieve so many important things in the last generation, I am worried that advocacy without empathy has deepened our divide.  I believe advocacy (on both sides of the isle) without empathy is the reason this election was what it was.  I believe that the best way to take action is to build our empathy muscles.  To do that we must first understand the basics of how we operate. 

 

The Brain And Fear:

We often forget that, as humans, we are also animals.  A large part of our brain is not so dissimilar to the brain of a deer being hunted by a lion—or a lion hunting a deer.  This part of our brain is responsible for making quick decisions about our safety and survival.  This part of our brain is so essential to our existence that without its quick and powerful reactions to threat we would never survive.  It is this part of our brain that sees a snake and startles immediately even if it is a harmless snake.  It is the part of our brain that reaches out to grab our child before we even have time to think about the fact that they are running in front of a car. 

But here’s the thing—it’s also the part of our brain that learns over time (through images, stories and experiences) to fear all black people.  It’s the part that sees videos of brown people in hijabs threatening to kill all Americans and provides a fear reaction for every brown person in a hijab.  Without other experiences to show us that not every snake is poisonous and not every Muslim is a potential threat, our brain does the automatic work for us even if we don't believe we are "racist".  This very important part of our brain doesn’t give us time to assess the real threat of danger—it only has time to respond.  How does it respond?  It responds by fighting, flying, freezing or camouflaging.  It overrides the rational frontal lobe of our brain and focuses on saving the self. 

When we begin to imagine our brains in a desperate attempt to protect us we begin to understand many of the responses we see from others.  If you are truly terrified that one candidate will open the borders and allow rapists and drug dealers into our country with no expectation that they follow our laws or pay our taxes you will likely do anything—fight, fly, freeze—to avoid that reality.  It is unthinkable to imagine our loved ones in danger.  If you are truly terrified that the other candidate will incite and approve of violence against those you love, you will likely do anything—fight, fly, freeze—to avoid that reality. 

This also occurs in our interpersonal relationships.  If your brain is wired to believe that your husband coming home late from work means he is cheating (due to past experiences—possibly in other relationships), you are likely to respond in a way that appears highly out of proportion to the evidence you have about your husband’s very likely fidelity.  If your brain is wired to believe that a person setting boundaries with you is equivalent to you being unlovable you will respond in ways that look “crazy” to others.  The interpersonal threat of abandonment and rejection triggers the same threat response that physical threats do.

 

The Art And Science Of Empathy

With this very abbreviated base of knowledge we can begin to consider empathy.  We are all born with the neurological material for empathy.  Some people appear to have a great deal more empathy than others.  There are lots of theories on why some of us seem to experience empathy more easily (or intensely) than others.  Theories range from the actual neurological differences that we are born with to the attachment relationship with primary caregivers to more spiritual beliefs on empathy and intuition.  Regardless of the cause, it is important to understand that we all have Mirror Neurons.  Mirror Neurons are the things that cause us to yawn when someone else yawns or gag when someone else vomits.  They are also responsible for crying during movies or laughing when someone else is laughing even if you don’t know what they are laughing about.  They are our empathy neurons.  As with most of our brain development, they start out doing pretty simple things when we’re little like yawning and gagging.  As we get older, we either use them for more complex things or we don’t.  If we don’t use them, we loose access to their amazing abilities.

So, if we’ve come to adulthood without giving these neurons much use, we are likely to not have ANY access to them when we are afraid.  Combine an already heightened state of fear with a lack of practice with empathy neurons and you get a zero percent chance of getting there.  What this means is that we are likely to stay in the emotion of a thing without moving into a place of rational thought or empathy for the person or people who we now see as a threat.  And this, ladies, gentleman and gender neutral lovelies, is where we find ourselves today.  So stuck in the emotion that we don’t see or hear each other’s greatest hopes and fears—moving further towards meeting only our own needs.

 

So What Do We Do?

We know that our brains are plastic—meaning we can begin to use these mirror neurons to build our empathy muscles if we are willing to try.  We also know that we can get the frontal lobe of our brain involved in the conversation much sooner than we often do—with practice.  But, as with the learning of any new thing, we must start trying when we are in a calm space.  Below are some ideas on how to better assess your true levels of threat and increase your empathy. Try them out when you are challenged with a small fear or disagreement and then you can build from there.

 

Assessing Your Threat and Responding:

1.     Start noticing how your body feels when it is having a fight, flight, freeze, camouflage response. Most people report tightness in the chest, an increase in heart rate and a burning sensation in the heart area.  Other signs can be sweaty palms, narrowing of vision, shaking, heat in the face etc. 

2.     Name the fear.  When your body starts to feel these things, name it as fear.  We will often say we are angry and that’s true.  Anger is a really important emotion, but it’s not a primary emotion.  Anger is the emotion that allows for an increase of adrenaline to attack the cause of the fear.  The fear is the emotion that typically triggers anger. 

3.     Check the evidence.  If you got to step two, you’re probably not in immediate danger.  So it’s time to get the frontal lobe of your brain in the game.  Did that candidate actually say that they were going to let all immigrants into the country without any process to ensure safety?  Did that candidate actually say that they want to deport your family?  Is this candidate actually capable of what he/she says they want to do?  Has my husband given me any reason to believe that he may be unfaithful?  Is this person really setting a boundary because I am unlovable?  Sometimes the evidence supports your fear, but sometimes it doesn’t.

4.     Decide how to protect.  Sometimes we do need to protect ourselves because we are truly at risk, but most of the time we have time to decide how to with the use of our whole brain.  Possibly your first response was to fight with your uncle on social media, but after engaging your whole brain you decide it may be better to meet him with empathy and ask further questions to uncover his greatest fears and hopes.  Possibly your first response to your husband coming home late was to pack up the kids and run to your mom’s house—threatening a divorce, but after engaging your whole brain you decide it’s better to calmly discuss your fears with your husband and engage a therapist to explore this with you both.  You’re still working to protect, but in a more effective way.

 

Building Empathy:

1.     When You Disagree—Pause and Reflect.  Typically we get the same physical response to disagreeing with someone as we do to feeling we are under threat.  So, when you notice that, pause.  Instead of responding with your point of view, tell the person what you heard them saying.  In this, you will include what you think they said, but also what you think they may be feeling.  “You’re terrified that your family isn’t going to be safe!”

2.     Think of a Time You’ve Felt That Feeling or Imagine What It Would Feel Like If You Did.  When your child is upset that he can’t wear his underwear on the outside of his outfit and you imagine that he is being incredibly unreasonable, think of the last time you wanted to do something a certain way and someone else told you to do it differently.  Call to mind and heart what that emotion felt like.  Just because you don’t have the same response as they do to the exact same scenario doesn’t mean you can’t imagine what it feels like to be deeply disappointed. 

3.     Validate The Feeling. 

“I can only imagine how terrified you must be that you’ll have to live on public assistance forever because you can’t get a job.”

“Feeling like your family and friends are in danger is the most overwhelming feeling a person can have.”

“You love me and you’re scared that I’m going to stop loving you.  I can’t imagine how terrifying that is for you.”

“It’s so hard to not get what you want when you really really want it and you really really want to wear your underwear over your clothes today.”

Validating the emotion is not the same as validating that you believe the fear is real or that you agree with the other person.   It is just saying that you can imagine the intensity of the emotion and you hate that the other person is experiencing that. 

4.    Brainstorm When Possible.  Once we get in touch with the root emotion that is feeding the “irrational” behavior we can begin to brainstorm together on ways to get everyone’s needs met.  When we can’t brainstorm, we can at least acknowledge that there is room to figure this out together. 

 

Yeah, but...

Some of you will read this and say “Lara, that’s really awkward”.  Yes, at first it will be, so try it out on people who can be patient with you.  But I promise you that it can become so second nature that it no longer feels awkward and instead feels incredibly supportive.  Just keep practicing.  Other people will say, “Well I don’t need to be coddled like that, people who need that are weak”.  Nope, you’re wrong.  The toughest of the tough respond better to empathy and validation than an immediate push back.  Look through your social media disagreements if you want proof.  Which ones went well and which didn’t?  I bet the ones that went well included many, if not all, of these steps.  And others will say “If someone is threatening me, I have a right to fight back”.  Yes.  That’s why our brain acts the way it does.  But wouldn’t you rather fight smart than fight hard?  Where has all this fighting loud and without rational thought gotten you in your partnership, in your parental relationships, with your children, in our country?

So if you truly want to make change-- you truly want to heal these wounds, try spending more time in a space of empathy and less time screaming at the top of your lungs.  You may be surprised at how far it gets us.

Six Mistakes of An Attachment Parenting Parent

It’s been a few years since I first heard the phrase “Attachment Parenting”.  I didn’t find myself looking too much into it until so many of my new parent peers began to embrace it with PASSION.  Then I began to see parents in my office who were also strong advocates for this “Attachment Parenting” philosophy.  And then I began to see the intense “mommy wars” associated with this type of parenting philosophy.  I got interested.  I started wondering if I had missed something in my education about child development and attachment.  Were all my plans for parenting shot to hell because of this new, but not really new, philosophy?

As I did my research and continued working with and observing parents who gravitated towards this philosophy I began to realize a couple of things.  I was thrilled that parents were beginning to think about child behavior as a way for children to communicate their needs vs. a way to “manipulate” their parents.  I was also very happy that parents were making a shift from thinking of children as ways to meet a parent’s needs and instead recognizing that parents are responsible to meet their children’s emotional and physical needs.  I was also happy that Attachment Parenting leaders were giving ALL new parents access to tools that would support in developing healthy attachment. 

As with all things, I also had some concerns about the passion with which Attachment Parenting parents embraced this philosophy almost as a religion.  It was unsettling to me that some parents began to say things like “I’m an attached parent” as if those who parented differently were not (all primary caregivers are attached to their children, it’s the quality of attachment that changes—but I digress).  I became concerned when new moms in my office were significantly struggling with autonomy and the many mental health issues that come when we don’t have it.  And I was frustrated when children who were 8 or 9 were struggling with an inability to be independent or soothe themselves due to parents embracing this philosophy without attention to how it must adapt, as children get older.  Finally, I was very concerned about the parent shaming that came as a result of people embracing this philosophy with such vigor. 

As I’ve paid more attention to this philosophy and it’s impact on parenting for my generation, I’ve noticed some mistakes that are easy to make when following the Attachment Parenting philosophy.  When avoided, one can very successfully embrace this philosophy.  But when these mistakes are made they can have a long-term impact on the health of the family and the health of our parent support community.  So I decided to outline what I see here in order to support and remind.  Not all Attachment Parenting followers make any or all of these mistakes and I don’t necessarily believe that the founders of the philosophy are to blame, but sometimes intention and impact don’t meet.  Here are some examples.

Believing that Attachment Parenting philosophy is the same as Evolutionary Attachment Theory and is therefore research based.

 Evolutionary Attachment Theory is evidence based and identifies ways in which humans form attachments.  In this theory, four attachment styles are identified:  Secure, Ambivalent, Avoidant and Disorganized (http://www.simplypsychology.org/mary-ainsworth.html). 

Attachment Parenting philosophy outlines strategies that the founders believe will lead to a Secure Attachment.  The founders have theorized that there is an optimal way to form secure attachments.  When you read through the list of suggestion (http://www.attachmentparenting.org/principles/principles.php) it is easy to see how they could lead to a more secure attachment and, even how it is based on Evolutionary Attachment Theory.  But these are just suggestions, with little research to back up these particular parent behaviors in regards to attachment.  If you like doing parenting that way, great, but it’s not gospel—it’s not science.

The mistake happens when parents begin to believe that children will only form secure attachments if they are born naturally without drugs, co-sleep, nurse until they decide not to anymore and are responded to immediately when they fuss.  This is ABSOLUTELY NOT TRUE and there is no research to support those ideas.  While these tools definitely support secure attachments, there are many ways to create safety, predictability and sensitivity to needs without any of those things happening.  And, yes, even sleep trained kids form secure attachments.  

Misreading Needs

Evolutionary Attachment Theory indicates that the key to a secure attachment is for a primary caregiver to accurately assess the child’s needs and meet those needs appropriately the majority of the time.  That seems simple enough until you remember that babies don’t talk and toddlers rarely understand their needs accurately enough to articulate them.  So we have to guess.  The most common mistake I see made by Attachment Parenting followers is to assume that the need is physical touch or breast milk.  In the first few months, this is probably pretty accurate.  But as they get older, it’s not so easy.  The first unacknowledged need that I see folks miss is the need for sleep.  The next is the need for autonomy.  The reason I believe we miss these is that fussing or crying may increase as we allow space for children to get those needs met.  We assume that if they are upset, we are not attending to their needs and, therefore, they won’t form a secure attachment. 

The mistake happens when we get in the way of children’s expanding needs because we think we need to meet a need with physical touch or food.  For example, it is common for infants above 3 months old to cry and be upset because they are tired and need a nap. As much as we’d like to believe that they will do so without any fussy adjustment, most children don’t.  They cry and cry and cry in your arms until they fall asleep on their own completely exhausted and then they sleep like crap.  This can lead to lots of sleep deprivation.  Attachment Parenting purists might say that they just need to be closer to mom, but what about when they don’t ever get enough sleep that way?  What if they actually would fall asleep on their own if left to do so?  Another example is when a mother keeps responding to their 18-month-old baby by picking him up every time he cries and walks him around the house instead of helping him walk around while holding his hand.  While it resolves the crying in the moment, most toddlers who are responded to in this manner will continue to be upset or angry when mom puts him down and will not begin to explore his world. The need is autonomy with support and it’s scary so he’s expressing his fear through tears.  Misunderstanding these needs can lead to children who struggle with autonomy and sleep on a large scale. 

Not Planning as a Couple

I can’t count the amount of times I’ve heard an Attachment Parenting parent say “he won’t be sleeping in your bed when he’s 18, so don’t worry about it”.  While probably true (hopefully true), this statement sends the message that kids will just magically decide that they don’t want to sleep in bed with their parents anymore and that it will be a very natural transition without stress or hassle.  This just isn’t true the vast majority of the time.  They may decide on their own to move out of your bed before they are 18, but I know plenty of 10 year olds who still haven’t made that decision.  That may be okay with you, and if so, I think that’s great!  The Attachment Parenting founders swear by the family bed and feel that it was absolutely the right choice for their family.  They are not alone.  There is no evidence to say that a family bed, in itself, is bad for a child’s development or sense of autonomy and some would argue that there is evidence that it is very good for children’s sense of autonomy as it gives a stable foundation to explore the world from.   

The mistake happens when you and your partner haven’t planned ahead.  How long do you really want a family bed?  How will it impact your sleep and how big of a deal is your sleep to your mental health (probably a bigger deal than you think)? How will it impact your marital relationship and the intimacy required for that relationship to maintain health?  How will you get self-care time each day if your children share your bed?  How long is it okay to be waking up several times a night? 

What I find are parents who are exhausted, emotionally drained and no longer connected to their partner looking at each other asking “was this really the right choice for us?” More often than not, I see one parent still committed to the family bed and one on the verge of leaving because of the family bed.  Or I see parents kicking their 2 year old out of the bed to make room for the arrival of their new baby and being surprised that it doesn’t go well at all.  I like to tell parents that, like it or not, there will be a day when you’ll have to allow your children to be uncomfortable even while knowing that you could do something to make them more comfortable.  Only you can decide when that day is, but know that there are pros and cons to doing it early and waiting.  Getting an infant to sleep through the night in the crib with sleep training can be the hardest thing a parent will ever do, but getting a 4 year old to sleep in their own room when they’ve always slept with you isn’t a whole lot easier or less traumatic.  So make these decisions with care for what is actually best for your family long term.  Don’t assume that because it worked for Dr. Sears it will work for you.  More importantly, don’t assume that because it worked for Dr. Sears, you are a selfish and weak parent for wanting your bed to yourself and your child will have anxiety and never feel securely attached!  The science really doesn’t support that belief.

Not Allowing Kids to “Feel Their Feels” 

Understanding behavior as need is a foundational step towards a more enjoyable parenting experience and growing up experience for your kids.  Unfortunately, we can take this too far and jump in and fix every time our children feel an emotion that is less than comfortable.  If we use the logic that behavior equals need so a response to behavior must always be to sooth or fix-- we wind up with a big problem on our hands.  The obvious mistake here is when we wind up “spoiling” our children.  When I say “spoiling” what I really mean is that we give them everything they want because we think they need it.  The result is a child who can’t hear no, doesn’t follow instructions, hits, screams every time something doesn’t work out and is incapable of real autonomy.  The other problem, though, is that we have an increasing amount of adults who are so unaccustomed to having uncomfortable feelings and knowing that they can recover from them that they are more prone to substance use, self-harm and suicidal thoughts when they become upset.  Does Attachment Parenting do all of this?  No—of course not.  Dr. Sears doesn’t suggest fixing it every time a child is upset, but many parents read it this way.

The mistake happens when you misread anger as a need to be given something that the child wants.  Instead it is a need to express feelings in a safe space and understand boundaries. Another example is when you misread a tantrum over bath time as a need to be closer to mom when it’s really a need to express feelings and understand boundaries.  Because the need is a safe place to express and recover from emotions with clear and consistent boundaries, you meet the need by staying calm, not reacting, using empathetic statements (“I know it’s hard not to get what you want”) and maintaining an appropriate boundary while they work through their emotions.  You do not meet it by giving them what they want.

Judging Other Moms

There is literally a website called “Smug Mommy” filled with blogs aimed at Attachment Parenting oriented moms.  I’m going to take a moment to remind us all of the definition of “smug”:  having or showing the annoying quality of people who feel very pleased or satisfied with their abilities, achievements, etc. (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/smug).  Please pay special attention to the word “annoying”.  I’m all for parents being proud of their accomplishments—just not when it is at the expense of other parents.  I have heard parents slam other moms for giving up on breastfeeding too early or “making” their kids sleep in a separate room or letting them cry when they wake up at night.  I’ve heard parents call other parents “selfish” for wanting medication during birth.  The insults certainly go both ways and Attachment Parenting moms are not alone—but the mistake happens when Attachment Parents begin to assume that their way is the “right” way because it’s based on “research” and is the “best way to parent children” and they happily say so out loud.  Just a reminder, Attachment Parenting is NOT research based—Attachment Theory is.  So there is no empirical data to support the idea that you actually ARE doing it better than the working mom next door who feeds with formula and sleep trains her baby. But more importantly, one of the core parts of the Attachment Parenting Philosophy is balance and this includes a healthy support system.  When parents treat other parents as if they are making uneducated, ignorant or selfish parenting decisions, they do damage to these support systems for all parents.

Forgetting About Balance

I’ll never forget the day that a self-proclaimed Attachment Parent on one of my social media “support groups” told the group about how she nearly got into a wreck driving her 4 children somewhere because she fell asleep at the wheel.  Why did she fall asleep at the wheel, you may ask?  Because she had all four children sleeping with her in the bed and was nursing her twins every 2 hours with no bottle-feeding support from partner. I promise you that being dead would not be a good outcome of Attachment Parenting practices.  I’m sure she did this because she believed that to be a good parent she had to be a super parent.  And since she was committed to that premise, she figured there was no chance she would actually fall asleep at the wheel. Some other outcomes we think will never happen if we’re excellent parents: 

·    Depression

·    Anxiety

·    Divorce

·    Injury or illness

When we assume that the only way to have a securely attached child is to exclusively breastfeed, co-sleep, never sleep train, hold your baby all the time, rarely hand the baby off to another person and jump to it every time they are upset we wind up in big trouble.  With one very easy baby, this is all still incredibly difficult.  With other children, a colicky baby, a premature baby, multiple babies, a job, postpartum depression or any other added dynamic, this approach becomes debilitating.  And there truly is no solid research to say that these suggestions actually work any better than good old-fashioned attentive, involved and empathetic parenting. 

So, as with all the parenting advice and philosophies out there, take what works for you and leave behind the rest.  And for goodness sake don’t judge yourself harshly against the goals of this philosophy and avoid being smug!

 

 

Dear Teenager

Dear Teenager,

I see you.  This world got so much harder for you over the last few years.  You’re starting to see how imperfect your parents are but they don’t want to change.  You’re stuck in this world, in this house until you’re an “adult” but it sucks—A LOT.  You have to start behaving like an adult but you can’t make adult choices.  You want to become your own person, but you have to live in your parent’s world.  You moved houses- or your mom moved out- or you had to change schools- or you have to share a room with your younger sibling- or your vacation time is determined by someone else’s wants and needs and limitations.  It was easier being a kid who didn’t see things so clearly—because now you see what is possible but don’t have control.  Your parents lecture you.  They tell you how much YOU need to be fixed.  How about them?  What are they doing to “fix” themselves?

I see you.  You’re not the same as everyone else.  You feel awkward making new friends or you feel like you have to “tow the line” with your friends to keep being liked.  You’re too good at school and people make fun of you for that or you’re struggling too much at school and people shame you for that.  There is so much noise and chaos.  So many social rules and they seem to change all the time.  You don’t have friends and can’t make them or you do have friends and have to be someone else to keep them. 

I see you.  Your parents say you need therapy.  You think I’ll try to fix you just like everyone else does.  You think I’ll try to change you or tell you you’re wrong or tell you that what you’re going through isn’t a big deal.  You think I’ll make you more of what your parents want you to be.  You think I’ll talk to you like you don’t get it, but you do.  You think I won’t take your dreams and fears and anger seriously because “you’ve barely lived life—just wait until you’re an adult”.

But you’re wrong.  Some therapists might do that to you and if they do, they stink as therapists.  Being a teenager is one of the hardest things we do in life and these are very often NOT the best years of your life.  You don’t get to be heard ever by anyone—not really.  Let my office be that space for you.  Come here to complain, come here to be mad, come here to be heard about the little things that matter so much.  Come here to feel safe.  Come here to feel accepted.  Come here to know that you are enough.  There is nothing wrong with you—but there are a lot of things wrong with this world.  Let me help you deal with those things and find your way-- because every story deserves to be witnessed and every person deserves to be accepted and seen. 

So take the risk even if it shows your vulnerability to those who you emotionally protect yourself from every day.  Don’t worry about saving face—take care of yourself and get what you need.  You will be happy you did.

Sincerely,

Your Future Therapis

What To Expect: Your Teen In Counseling

I often get calls from parents who are at their wits end with their teens.  They are desperate for some kind of change.  They are hoping that I will create that change.  Unfortunately, counseling for your loved one may not always meet YOUR goals.  This can be very confusing for parents and loved ones who were hoping for some sort of miracle.  You probably thought that the biggest challenge was going to be getting your kid to go to therapy.  Surprisingly, that was probably easier than you thought.  In fact, your child may love going to therapy now.  So why aren’t you feeling better about it?  Below are some things you need to prepare yourself for if you are getting your child into counseling with a good teen counselor.

 

·      My job is to support the client with THEIR goals—not to convince them to work towards YOUR goals.  Imagine going to therapy for your own support.  Imagine the level of trust and rapport you would need to feel safe to consider growth and change.  Now imagine one of your loved ones (someone you’re not getting along with) got to call your therapist before appointments and say, “Hey, I think you should work on my sister’s anger management today”.  Yuck, right?  But your goals for your kids are more mature and informed than their goals for themselves, you say?  Your goals are clearly goals that any healthy adult would want for a child you say?  Yeah—that doesn’t matter so much.  We don’t work towards goals that others set for us.  It’s just not the way the world works.

·      They may seem MORE entitled at first.  I often get calls from parents about a month into counseling with reports that their child is MORE entitled than they were before.  Although not comfortable for you, this is a good sign.  This says that your teen is feeling heard and seen.  Most difficult teen behaviors come from not feeling like they fit or are understood.  It is my belief that none of us are emotionally able to grow and change when we are always protecting ourselves from other people’s lack of understanding (judgment) of us.  In order for me to begin to chip away at some of the things that aren’t working for someone, I must first ensure that they feel understood by me.  This may result in them acting more entitled at first.  If you use this as an opportunity to shape their empowerment into effective communication this can be pretty amazing for your relationship.  If you don’t, it may end up creating more conflict.

·      They may still be critical of you.  I am a counselor AND a mother.  I get how hard your job is, I really do.  I still believe that it is the parents’ job to get the family right.  If you are inconsistent with your teen, I will validate and name their frustration around that inconsistency.  If you lecture and insult your teen, I will validate and name their frustration around that.  If you ask your child to meet your emotional needs or play a parental or partner role in the family with you I will validate and name their frustrations around that.  It is not my role to get them to do what you want and accept you exactly as you are.  It is my work to help clients feel as if their emotions are not crazy and to help them know how to express themselves and set boundaries.  Again, if you use this as an opportunity to grown and listen, it will be amazing for your relationship.  If you don’t it will increase conflict.

·      I will ask you to be involved and be ready for change.  Teens are moody and immature.  They test limits, do stupid things because they think they are invincible and do whatever they can to distance themselves from their parents.  Like it or not, that’s their job.  Your job is to support them through this big developmental milestone in a way that shows you love them unconditionally and care deeply for their safety.  If you want change in the family, you’ll need to be ready to change the way you do your family relationships and discipline. 

·      They may come home saying “Lara agrees with me on this one”.  An interesting thing happens when someone reflects back your feelings and validates your rights to those feelings.  You often believe that the counselor agrees with your decisions.  That doesn’t mean that I do.  I’ve had kids come home and say, “Lara thinks it’s okay for me to get back together with my ex-boyfriend”.  It’s likely that what I really said was, “It’s hard to let go of someone you love even if he hurt you.  This is a very normal part of breaking up with someone.  It sounds like you’re going to get back together with him even if it means risking your heart again.  Let’s talk about what boundaries you want to set.”  Why not just say “You’re crazy, this guy is awful!” you ask?  Again, put yourself in their shoes.  If you went to a counselor trying to save your marriage, how long would you let that counselor support you if they said, “You’re crazy, this guy is awful!”  Good counselors are not lecturers.  Counselors are meant as a support.  We help people make their own decisions and say, “I’m here no matter what decisions you make, and I’ll help you sort it out if it doesn’t work out.” 

·      They may try to use me to get what they want.  Teens love to tell their parents that their therapist thinks you’re wrong on this one.  I promise, I may help a client identify ways that they wish you had done something different.  I may even help them know why their upset with the way you did what you did.  But I am NOT their parent and do not make decisions for your family.  I will never tell your child that your decisions were unfair.  I may agree with them, though, that your approach was not effective. 

·      You may get jealous.  Your baby has grown up and become a monster that doesn’t talk to you.  But they love coming to talk to me each week.  That’s not easy for any parent to take.  Please remember that my role is not to be their parent.  I don’t have to set rules and enforce them with consequences.  I’m not the person they are trying to figure out how to be less like (because that’s what teens are doing).  Try to be happy that they have a safe adult to talk to if they can’t talk to you.

·      Their sessions are confidential.  I will tell you if they came to a session or not.  I will tell you if they are risking their lives.  That’s it.  If you want information from your teen, it must come from them—not me.  Imagine if your spouse or sibling or parent were able to call me up for information about your sessions.  How much would you trust and grow if that were the case?

 

If you’re reading this and saying “Oh, that’s not what I want”, I certainly understand. Sending your teen to counseling will not be as easy on you as you hoped.  It will challenge you.  It will push you to grow and change.  My goal is to support your teen in feeling accepted and seen while working towards their goals and identifying their values.  This will decrease their risk for suicide, self-harm and substance use.  It will increase their chances at being self-sufficient adults.  It will improve their trust for counselors if they need one in the future for any reason.  It will support them in building healthy adult relationships.  But it will not improve your relationship unless you also do the work. 

 

So before you pick up the phone, be ready.  Be ready to work.  For the sake of you and your teen I hope you are!

 

What Feels Nourishing NOW-- How To Make Self-Care Happen

Okay, you know the drill.  We must take care of ourselves before we can care for others.  Repeat after me:  “We must take care of ourselves before we can care for others”.  If you’re in a helping profession you’ve heard this a million times.  If you’re not, I’m guessing you’ve heard it a few thousand times.  It’s a simple enough concept.  It’s pretty difficult to argue against, right?  So why don’t we do it?

Well, there are some underlying reasons for our resistance to care for ourselves.  We sometimes wonder if we “deserve” self-nurturing.  Sometimes we’re told that it is selfish to take care of ourselves during a time when we could be taking care of others (or at least looking like we are).  Other times we find that we get our needs for belonging and love met through self-sacrifice for others.  All of these dynamics are well explored in a trusting counseling relationship.  They are also too deeply personal and complex for me to even try to tackle in a blog post.

But sometimes the issue truly is logistic.  “I don’t have money to go to the gym” or “I work 50 hours a week and then come home to kids who stay awake until I’m so tired I have to crash myself” or “I’m at home with my kids all day and all night and we can’t afford help” or “To further my career I need to be in school while working a 60 hour a week job” or “I own five businesses”.  Life is busy.  Finding time for you is hard. It is hard, but not impossible.  It is hard, but doing so makes everything easier.  It is hard, but it will make your relationships stronger.  It is hard, but it makes you a better parent.  It is hard, but it makes you a better employee.  It is hard, but it makes you a better student. So, it is hard and it is worth it!

So, if you’re really ready to commit to self-care, here are a few suggestions to make it happen.   

1.     Make a Self-Care List:  I like the idea of having this list close by.  So make the list on your smartphone or put it in your wallet.  You never know when an opportunity for self-care will arise so be prepared!  This list should include things that cost money and those that don’t.  It should include things that you can do with others and things you can do alone.  Things that are outside and things that can be done inside.  Things that take 5 minutes and things that take a day.  The longer your list, the better.

2.     Put It On Your Calendar:  Schedule at least 30 minutes of self-care a day.  If you’re response to that is “There is no way I can get 30 minutes a day to take care of myself” then you need to check yourself.  None of us are THAT important that the world can’t move forward without us for 30 minutes.  If the people in your life are truly that dependent on you, it’s time to have a talk with the people in your life.  If you are a single parent and your kids won’t give you 30 minutes a day, you need to get them to go to bed and you need to stay up for 30 minutes.  Please, you have 30 minutes—I promise.

3.     No Excuses:  If you have to schedule over self-care, you must move it on your calendar to another time that day.  This is essential.  Your schedule can be flexible, but this item doesn’t go away. 

4.     Ask Yourself “What feels most nourishing to me right now?”:  Sometimes we avoid self-care because the thing we think we should do for self-care (go for a walk, go to the gym, meditate) doesn’t sound all that appealing in the moment.  Self-care isn’t always about doing something “healthy”.  Self-care can mean that you go get your favorite sweet coffee at the coffee shop and read trashy magazines.  By asking yourself this question, you are giving yourself a luxurious gift every day.  And, believe it or not, if you truly let yourself ask this question—and stick to doing it daily, it will be healthy for you more often than not.

5.     Be Ready:  When a magical hour opens up here and there, think about how you can care for yourself instead of thinking about what you can get done.  As a counselor, I sometimes get last minute cancellations or missed appointments.  When I do fill that with notes and errands etc. it is always because I believe doing so will free me up later for even MORE self-care. 

6.     Engage Your Partner/Friends/Family:  If you have kids, it’s not quite as easy as it is without.  That’s just the honest truth.  Even if you work 80 hours a week as a non-parent, you still have an average of 4 hours a day that are not consumed by caretaking.  When you have kids you may need help making this 30 minutes happen.  So talk to these folks.  Most partners will understand if you say “I need 30 minutes to shower without the kids barging in every day” or “I need to leave 30 minutes early to give myself time for a walk every day” or “I need you to manage bedtime every other night so I can sit on the deck with a glass of wine”.  Just be sure to follow it up with “I think you need 30 minutes a day too—how can I help you get that?”

7.     Multi-Task:  Find little ways to do self-care while you are doing other things.  For example, I always have my favorite coffee with me during sessions.  I drink my coffee throughout the day and it feels very self-nurturing to have it always available.  Or, I love to hike, so we invested in great backpacks for our kids to ride along with.   When you’re doing homework, have your favorite music on and schedule “luxury breaks” where you take 10 minutes to sit in the sun or soak your feet in warm water or play a video game.  Wear comfortable clothes so you feel spoiled while you run errands or answer emails from home. 

Doing these things will increase your sense that there is space and time in the world for just you.  This can be life changing.  If you look at this list, plan to do it, hope to do it, think you will do it and then just don’t, please reach out to a skilled counselor.  It is likely that there is more going on that causes your resistance to taking care of yourself than meets the eye.

 

Enjoy!

Because You Don't Know

Because you don’t know if your acquaintance has struggled with depression for years…  if she has already read every self-help book and heard every darned cliché about happiness and feels like there must be something wrong with her that she can’t get it right… if he struggles to even get out of bed to go for “a nice long hike”… if she is wondering if life is worth living…if he fights depression like quick sand and keeps falling deeper…

Please don’t say, “Just choose happiness”.  Please don’t say, “Just ignore your negative thoughts”.  Please don’t say “Just go out in the sun”.  Please don’t say, “You’re life seems great, what do you have to be sad about?”

Please Do Say…

·      Is there anything I can do to support?

·      Let me know if you want me to pick you up on my way out for a hike.

·      Sometimes all we can do is get through the next hour, or the next day. 

·      Happiness is a complicated thing.

 

Because you don’t know if your friend is paralyzed by anxiety and panic attacks on a regular basis… if he uses drugs and alcohol just to manage a birthday party… if she beats herself up every time for her “irrational fears”…if he stays awake all night, unable to turn off his brain… if she has tried everything possible to find some sense of inner peace…

Please don’t say, “You’re being irrational”.  Please don’t say, “There’s nothing to worry about, everyone at the party is super nice”.  Please don’t say, “Just take a deep breath”.  Please don’t say, “You’re just overreacting”.

Please Do Say…

·      Would you prefer to spend one-on-one time instead of going to a party with me?

·      Sometimes our fears aren’t rational, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel real.

·      I can’t imagine how hard it is to feel so paralyzed by fear.  Let me know what I can do when it happens.

 

Because you don’t know if your co-worker suffers from an eating disorder… if the only way she knows to control her emotional world is to eat everything she sees… if he only feels safe when he significantly restricts his diet… if she exercises to the extreme so that she can keep disappearing… if he just purged his lunch due to deep shame over the meal he just had…

Please don’t say, “Wow, I can’t believe you can eat that much!”.  Please don’t say, “Wow, you’re so skinny, I wish I could be that thin!”.  Please don’t say, “I have a diet I tried that worked great—you should try it!”.  Please don’t say, “Wow, you’ve lost so much weight—good job!”.

Please Do Say…

·      I’m a good listener if you ever want to talk about anything.

·      Sometimes life feels really out of control for us all. 

 

Because you don’t know if the parent you see at the grocery store is struggling with Post-Partum Depression…  if he wants to run away from his life every day when he wakes up… if she has considered suicide just to escape the intensity of parenting… if he hasn’t slept a full night in years… if she spent hours today holding a colicky screaming infant…

Please don’t say, “It doesn’t get easier, just different”.  Please don’t say, “Isn’t parenting the best gift in the world?”.  Please don’t say, “Appreciate every moment, it goes by too fast”.  Please don’t say, “Just wait until they’re _________ (toddlers, adolescents, teenagers, etc.), that’s when it really gets hard”.

Please Do Say…

·      The parenting experience is different for everyone. 

·      There were times I wanted desperately to escape.

·      Let me know if you ever want me to share with you about my experience as a parent.

 

Because you don’t know if the couple next door is struggling with infertility… if they’ve spent thousands of dollars on fertility treatments to no avail… if they cry every month when she gets her period… if seeing a picture of a friend’s new baby causes deep belly sobs as they find a way to be happy for them… if they’ve looked into adoption only to find it’s too expensive and they are unprepared to parent a traumatized child through foster care…

Please don’t ask “So when are you two going to have kids?”.  Please don’t say, “You’re running out of time!”.  Please don’t say, “You’re lucky, kids are so hard.”  Please don’t say, “Maybe it’s just not the right time”.  Please don’t say, “It’ll happen when you stop focusing so much on it.” Please don’t say, “I wish I had the time and flexibility to do that, but I have kids.”

Please Do Say…

·      How’s your cat/dog doing?

·      I saw you working on your garden and it looks great!

·      I’d love to see your wedding pictures sometime.

·      That sounds like an amazing vacation, did you like Belize?

 

Because you don’t know if your new friend has a trauma history… if they believe they are only lovable if they provide sex to others… If physical touch sometimes causes a panic attack… if they dress like that to avoid attention… if the walls they put up are the only things protecting them…

Please don’t say, “I’m a hugger, everyone gets a hug”.  Please don’t say, “You’d look so pretty if you dressed up once in a while”.  Please don’t say, “You should relax more”.  Please don’t say, “Men can’t be raped/abused by women”. Please don’t say, “You should never shut family out of your life—do what you can to rebuild those relationships”.

Please Do Say…

·      I’m a hugger, but I know some folks aren’t, so just let me know.

·      We all do what we feel is best to protect ourselves.  Just know that if you ever want to talk, I’m here.

·      Family is complicated.  None of us know what it’s really like to be a part of a family that we weren’t a part of. 

·      You know yourself better than anyone.