Wednesday, November 14, 2012

I can learn to be me?

by Chris Shaw, MAMFT

Lack of love fuels our search for identity.  When humans feel valued, they seem to build bonds with those who love them and emulate what they see and hear.  However, if an adult is not secure with who they are, they will have a difficult time when their child becomes like them.  Social learning theory teaches that we learn by observation.  Children are apt to do as their role models do; parents are key role models. Parents and children can easily find themselves in similar situations simultaneously.  When we as adults are not valued in our career or in our intimate relationships, how can we provide care and love for our children?  How do we identify ourselves as “adults” now and not as the child that we used to be?  I believe that it is important for us at each successive stage of life, to revisit the question of who we are in light of our experiences and redetermine which factors we choose to let describe us.

Our identity is our choice. How we interpret the events in our life matters.  It is easy to recall our stories and lose sight of the larger narrative that our lives play a part in.  Despite our best attempts to base our value off of others' opinions, human lives do not need the approval of others to have value.  Our irremovable image of God is the imprint of worth, despite our own perception of what we consider to be “successes” or “failures.”  I believe that the life that we live is best lived within this context.  Maybe we have made mistakes and we regret our choices.  We can feel like we are living under the constant weight of them. Yet these choices are superseded by the love of God.  Each of us has certain co-dependent-like tendencies so that unless others love us, we cannot be okay with ourselves.  Yet when we are able to experientially know that we are valued by God, we also begin to build bonds with him and become like him.  The need for acceptance from others loses importance.   

A child will also desire to fit in and gain the acceptance of their peers as well as their adult relationships.  They want to know that they have value.  Lest I communicate that human love has no worth, it is important that both children and adults experience love from their key caregivers in life.  Despite your best efforts to reassure them of their self-worth, children may still be hesitant to believe parents since the draw to be acceptable to their peer has immense importance to them.  Children need genuineness from us.  They draw much of their identity from caregivers, not only through verbal communication, but also in the way we communicate to them by tone, and non-verbal cues.  How do you show with your full self, that your child is important?  Unconditional love speaks volumes. Communicating to them their value despite grades, their behavior and your own life struggles, teaches them that negative statements of peers have little meaning.

If we teach our children that they need to be “fixed” in one way or another, they will likely assume that they are inherently flawed.  It is challenging to help children develop into themselves rather than molding them into who we desire them to be, or who we think they are.  Take the time to care about who your child is and who they are becoming.  Instilling in them pride for effort, regardless of outcome tells them that it is the heart which matters.  This also shows them that their worth is not based on appearance, achievement or number of friends; not that these things are unimportant, but that they are secondary, not primary.  Too often we miss the most important things by focusing on the small things.  It is good for us as adults to remember this for ourselves as well.  Keeping our own priorities in order models for our children better than words can ever do.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

"Mom, why don't others like me?"

by Chris Shaw, MAMFT

The wounded child cries out this question as they look for affirmation.  It has a profound depth that the child does not yet understand; for what human being exists who does not want to be loved?  I don't know why, exactly, but knowing that we are loved gives us peace.  It doesn't objectively change us, but it does affirm for us that we matter and have value to the world around us.   Maybe this objectively changes us: having an internal sense of peace and believing that we are acceptable to others.  Isn't that what children do when changing hair color, adding a new wardrobe and becoming like a certain sub-culture.  Are they seeking after that internal sense of peace and security which tells them that they fit in or trying to find the answer to their identity.

Adults also often look for the answer to who they are.  Maybe as a child they came to a sense of self, but as they have grown up, they reflect upon their path in life, and where they are today looks different than what they had imagined for themselves.  We wrestle between our perceived identity and who we really are.  Two major stages identified by Erik Erikson occur from the ages of 12-18 and 35-55.  In many households, these two periods of life intersect with one another and provide challenges for both parents and their children.

In adolescence, the developing child is seeking to discover who they are. Erickson postulated that the major challenge for adolescents during this time was to discover their personhood or else remain in a continual state of internal flux.  When other children do not accept a child, they can be left wondering how they will fit in.  They then tend to seek avenues to make themselves acceptable.  Can a parent help their child see themselves as loved and can that be enough to overcome the pull from peers?  A significant limitation on this is that at the same time, according to Erikson, parents are often in their own struggle to find themselves.  Parents are still discovering what it means to be “in charge.”  They are attempting to balance work, family and friends.  Career struggles, marital problems and feelings of inadequacy as a parent can override helpfulness to children.  Many of us thought life would get easier when we “grew up,” but instead, the difficulties outweigh ease.
Both of these seasons of life seem to deal with similar issues yet with different circumstances.  Whether we can admit it or not, in we all need the sense of security and peace which comes along with knowing who we are.  Adults need to know they are loved regardless of perceived successes or failures in life.  Children are in their early struggles to believe the same thing.  We shame ourselves with who we should be rather than resting in who we are.  During each successive stage of life we must continue to find ourselves and rediscover who we are in light of who we want to be.  In the next article we will look more specifically at the ways in which we can both as adults and as children come to experience this state of self-understanding and internal security.

Monday, September 10, 2012

It’s All in the Family: The Impact of Parental Health on Kids

by Alyssa Hasson, MAMFT

Kids are like mirrors… they reflect the emotions of the adults they live with. Take a moment to consider the implications of this statement. If the emotional health of your children is so closely connected to your own, it’s worth evaluating your own emotional health and exactly what you are sending out to your child.

If you were to pause right now and think of three words to describe your emotional state over the past 12 hours, what words would you use? Do your words have happy undertones, like the words joyful, refreshed, relaxed, inspired, and confident? Or have you chosen words like frustrated, anxious, irritated, stressed, and discouraged, which reflect sadness, anger, or fear? Whichever set of words you have chosen, chances are high that your child is experiencing those same things!

Research in neurobiology (the workings of the brain) has revealed that our brains are equipped with mirror neurons. According to Daniel Siegel, author of Parenting from the Inside Out, “Mirror neurons may also link the perception of emotional expressions to the creation of those states inside the observer. In this way, when we perceive another’s emotions, automatically, unconsciously, that state is created in us.” This means that when your children perceive emotion in you, their brains automatically create the same emotion in them. This is great when you’re feeling happy and relaxed. But it’s not so great if you’re in a chronic state of stress or anxiety. Parents who are experiencing chronic or acute stress, like job stress, financial/economic stress, and/or family stress (including situations like a divorce or marital strain, the loss of a loved one, the addition of a new family member, or even the behavioral problems of a child) should be especially mindful that this stress is being picked up by the mirror neurons in their children. It’s important to note, also, that such stress and anxiety is being communicated even if you think you are hiding it.

Stressful situations seem to be a fact of life. While you may not be able to change the situation, you do have the power to change the way you are internalizing it, and thereby the way it is affecting your children. Keep yourself healthy and balanced by practicing self-care. Self-care is an important, and often overlooked, part of parenting. Simply put, it means taking care of yourself. Self-care is different for each person, but generally speaking, it should include meeting your physical needs (like regularly eating healthy meals and getting enough sleep) and managing your emotional needs by doing things that help you release and relax. I like to think of self-care as getting back to who you are, apart from the roles you play and the stresses that claim your time. It can be tempting to put self-care on the back burner, but remember the benefits that come with being balanced and having stress and anxiety under control. Children can only be as healthy as the family that they live in. Your own emotional health is an important piece of the puzzle!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Many Myths of Divorce: Part 4

by Emily Suggs, LPC

Myth #4: "A stepfamily is basically the same as a nuclear family."
Most children of divorce will experience a stepfamily or " blended" family within the first five years after their parent's divorce.  Even though the parent who is remarrying may be excited about the future with their new spouse, children usually are not welcoming of their parent's remarriage. They may fight against every effort you make to include your new spouse into the family. For children of divorce, their parent's remarriage is shattering the dreams of biological parents reuniting.   It is important for parents to acknowledge that stepfamilies are very different than the nuclear family they may have experienced. Therefore the expectations and rules will need to look different. It is as different as football is from baseball. Can you imagine if you used the rules of football to play a game of baseball? Or vice versa? It just would not make sense, and it would be pretty chaotic. Stepfamilies can be very chaotic when operating under the impression that blending a stepfamily occurs quickly.

Stepfamilies need time to adjust to all the new changes. There will be new rules, new expectations, new responsibilities, new living conditions, new parenting styles, and many new relationships (step siblings, step grandparents, step parents).  Patricia Papernow in her book Becoming a Stepfamily shares that it takes an average of seven years to blend stepfamilies together. On occasion, when the children are young and the adults work at connecting the family, this process of blending your stepfamily can occur as quick as 4 years.  However, stepfamilies facing various conflict and turmoil can take as long as 9 years to blend. 

Most couples do not enter the marriage believing it will take this long to build a healthy stepfamily. They usually are looking for a "quick, painless blending process" says Ron Deal , author of The Smart Step Family.   Deal compares blending stepfamilies to cooking in a Crockpot. It takes "time" and "low heat (intentional efforts)."

One of the greatest challenges stepfamilies face is the role of being a stepparent. Stepparents often expect their stepchildren to respect them as a parent immediately. Yet children may resent their new stepparent.  In order for a stepparent to build a healthy relationship with a stepchild it requires  spending regular time one-on-one. This more effectively addresses insider/outsider tensions and children’s losses as well as loyal binds the child may feel .   

In Deal's book, The ReMarriage Checkup, he reminds couples it is essential to be on the same page when it comes to stepparenting. The following are the three key guidelines he gives to stepfamilies:
  1. Biological parents must pass authority to the stepparent.
  2. Biological parents should build trust in the stepparents.
  3. Stepparents should move into the relationship and discipline gradually.

Even though children may be resistant at first, a strong stepfamily can be very beneficial to children over time. It can teach them that even though their parents' marriage did not work out, there are second chances in life. The key is to keep the long-term goals for the family in perspective by exercising patience, understanding, and communication. The following are a few helpful resources for stepfamilies:
The ReMarriage Checkup by Ron Deal
The Smart StepFamily by Ron Deal

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Many Myths of Divorce: Part 3

by Emily Suggs, LPC

Myth #3: “If a new significant other makes me happy, it will make the kids happy too."
Despite how difficult the marriage or the divorce may have been, most divorced parents feel remarriage or a long-term relationship will be a part of their future.  Sometimes this happens sooner than later after the divorce is final. Family and friends may even encourage you to start dating and meeting new people. It appears to be a good idea and may even feel like the right thing to do. Yet for children, there can be some long-term effects to bringing a new person into your child's life too quickly.  

Research has indicated that children of divorce need approximately 3-5 years to heal and adjust to their new life.  But studies show that often men remarry within one year and women within three years after the divorce is final. When this occurs, a child has more life changes and hurt to balance. Following a divorce, children need their parents like never before. They need time to cope and adjust to their new lives. They need support and encouragement that things are going to be okay. They need protection and guidance from additional stressors. "Refraining from serious dating or relationships in the first year after separation gives children and parents the minimum adjustment period. If your breakup is extremely troubling to your child, you might consider waiting even longer" (Neuman, 359).

Even though parents may be excited about the possibility of finding new, affirming relationships, children do not usually share the same excitement.  Some parents even believe that whatever makes them happy will make their child happy too. It sounds good, but it is not true. Despite the age of your child, chances are your child will view your new friend as a replacement for the other parent. Such thoughts will usually trigger significant feelings of loyalty to other parent, anger towards the new friend, fear of the future, and sadness that their parent is moving on in life.

A child's perspective is often very different than what a parent's perspective is when it comes to dating.  Children tend to struggle with four specific areas when they find out their parent is starting to date or wants to introduce them to a new friend.
  • When a parent announces they are dating a significant person, children often are faced with the shattered dream that their parents will not get back together. Many children hang on to the hope and dream of their parents' reconciliation even years after the divorce if final. But it is usually when the parent starts dating that the child is faced with the finality of their dreams.
  • Often children feel closer to their parents after the trauma of a divorce.  Engaging in a new relationship takes time and energy. Children may lose some of the time they have been able to experience. They may also feel that you are more excited about spending time with your new friend or may even be jealous of the time and attention the new friend is receiving.
  • There is a hurtful message children may assume when parents date: "I am not good enough to make my parent happy."  When parents seek companionship, children often feel rejected. After a divorce, the parent-child relationship commonly changes developing a new dynamic.  Even when the child understands the difference between the parent-child love and romantic love between two adults, it still is difficult to not feel good enough when parents start dating again.
  • Lastly children struggle with the fear of future rejection. Children of divorce experience several losses. It is difficult enough to heal from the changes that have occurred. When another person becomes a part of their life, it is common for kids to fear the loss of that relationship too.  It is important for parents to be careful when and how they introduce significant others to their children. It is dangerous to introduce every person you may date because children may quickly get attached. Even though adults understand the difference in what constitutes a serious relationship, children are seldom able to understand this.

Now you are probably wondering how to find future happiness in a relationship when it can be so difficult for your child to accept.  There is hope if things are handled slowly and delicately.  Here are some guidelines to making dating after divorce a healthy experience for both you and your child.

  1. The first thing that should be done long before you begin dating is to openly dialogue with your child that a time will come when you will starting dating again. Explain to your child that just like she enjoys making new friends and spending time with them, so do you.
  2. Timing is everything. Be careful not to introduce your child too quickly to someone you are dating. It is common for children to not know who their parent is dating until the relationship gets more serious. When the time is right for your child to meet the significant other, remember they do not have the same feelings or attachment that you might have. Give them time to get to know the person like you have had time to do.
  3. The where, when, and how is a very important thing to consider. When you decide it is time to introduce your child to your new friend, be sure your child is not tired or distracted (at the end of a busy day or after a soccer game). It is best to take place at a pleasant, neutral location. The first meeting should not take place at your home. The meeting should not exceed an hour and a half. For young children, 30-45 minutes is usually all they can handle. If the child is older, choose something age appropriate and centered around doing things they enjoy. It is best not to use family gatherings or special events (birthdays, recitals, etc.) as a first meeting place.
  4. Remain sensitive towards your child's feelings when it comes to bringing a guest into the family home. Children need your friend to respect the boundaries of their time with you. It may produce stress and strain if your friend begins stopping by every day after work or spending long periods of time in your home. This can produce uncomfortable feelings of anxiety in children, but they may fear they will hurt or upset you so they will not say anything. Overall children desire for their parents to be happy, but this does not mean children do not have strong emotions or opinions about the changes that are taking place. By recognizing and acknowledging such feelings and thoughts of your child, he stands a greater chance of adjusting in a healthy way to these changes that are occurring in his life.

Neuman, M. Gary. Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastle Way.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Many Myths of Divorce: Part 2

by Emily Suggs, LPC

Myth #2: “If my former spouse was a “BAD” parent, there won’t be any sense of loss for the kids.”
In families experiencing divorce, the term "bad" parent is often subjective. Usually there is so much hurt and anger between parents they tend to point fingers and bring to the surface the downfalls of each other.  For children, they do not need to be subjected to their parents disagreements and anger. However, children often feel the tension and see themselves caught in the middle.

Both consciously and unconsciously,  parents attempt to pull children closer to them by either becoming overly involved, over- indulging their children, or communicating  negatively about ex-spouse.  Sometimes parents even go as far to share too much information with their child. The boundary between adult information and child appropriateness can get blurry when a parent's anger and hostility towards the other parent takes over.  Some parents can expect their child to take on a surrogate spouse role. This is especially true when the parent feels abandoned or rejected by their ex-spouse. Such dynamics can  lead to emotionally unhealthy expectations placed on the children.

In working with children of divorce, one of the biggest stressors that children face is the feeling of being caught in the middle of their parents. It is very common for children of divorce to feel they need to choose one parent over the other. They struggle with which parent they should pledge their loyalty. By sharing too much information with children, parents are only hurting their children.  Such communication leads to children feeling confused, angry, and overwhelmed.

 Sometimes there already exist a strong middle ground between a parent and their children. If there is a parent who has spent more time with the children prior to the divorce, then children may have a stronger, closer relationship with that parent.  During the divorce, children may feel a closer tie to that parent because of that "middle ground" or connection that was already established prior to the divorce.

Children can be very perceptive. They recognize discrepancy between what one says and what they experience. Divorce is an adult problem between the parents, and children should not feel responsible for adult problems. When asked directly, parents will respond that they do not want their children to experience such feeling, yet the parents' behavior communicates otherwise.

Below are some important tips for parents of divorce to remember in order to help prevent children from being pulled in the middle of their parents' conflict.

  • Avoid making negative comments about your ex-spouse to or around  your children.
  • Remember most communication is nonverbal and children watch how you communicate about their mom/dad.
  • Don't ask children to carry messages to ex-spouse.
  • Don't argue or fight with ex-spouse in front of the children.
  • Be careful about asking nosy questions when children return from visits.
  • Respect your child's feelings towards their parent (positive or negative feelings) and do not attempt to tell them what they should feel.
  • Respect your ex-spouse in front of your children!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Many Myths of Divorce

by Emily Suggs, LPC

Unfortunately the word divorce has become common in the homes of many families.  Perhaps because of the rise in divorce, our society has become desensitized to the lasting effects of divorce on children. Often parents have preconceived ideas about how children cope with their parents' divorce.  I like to call these ideas myths. Over the next several weeks I plan to address some of these common myths that I have seen families of divorce struggle through.

Myth #1: "Divorce will not affect the kids"
Children of divorce face many losses as they go through the changes that come with divorce.  For many children,  divorce causes the same distress as the death of a loved one. They grieve the loss of their family as they knew it, as well as the change in their safety and security.  By the time many parents share with them about the divorce, the parents have accepted the reality of divorce. However for children of divorce they are for the first time faced with the initial feelings of shock and disbelief that their parents are divorcing.  After the initial feelings of shock, they usually experience numerous feelings ranging from feelings of denial that their family is actually changing to feelings of confusion of why their parents have made this decision. Fear, anxiety, blame, and sadness are some of the other feelings that children feel.  Children of divorce also deal with feelings of rejection and anger, especially towards their father.

Adults have been known to say "children are resilient" minimizing the distress divorce causes for children. During the initial stages of separation/divorce, it is important to acknowledge the feelings children are experiencing. Rather than attempting to change the feelings of children, it is best to listen and accept the feelings they are experiencing. As they grieve the loss of their family, they are faced with the reality that they do not have control over the decision of divorce.  When children feel it is safe to share their feelings with their parent(s) about the changes the divorce brings, then they have a greater chance of healthy healing from their losses.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Reconnecting our “plugged in” youth: Communication and Empathy

by Melissa Reynolds, LCSW

Contact is the process of transmitting meaningful information through touch, emotions, nonverbal gestures, and positive energy. To do this we must know how to communicate.  To communicate effectively, there are several objectives to consider.  Surprisingly there are more non-verbal than verbal forms of communication.
  • Eye contact
  • Language
  • Tone of Voice
  • Body Language
  • Facial Expressions
  • Gestures

The GOAL to communication is MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING.

It is obvious that many of these cannot be accomplished when texting or e-mailing.  Talking on the phone at least allows for tone of voice.  Many times when communication is only through words, there can be a lot of miscommunication.  I’m certain each one of you can recall your own experience with reading an e-mail or text message the wrong way and perhaps ending up in tears over it.  I believe our youth are losing these skills and it is important for parents to model these non-verbal forms of communication and help their children to become aware the importance they play in communication.

Once an individual can learn to become mindful, engage their five senses, label their feelings, and communicate then they hold all of the skills necessary to achieve empathy. 
Empathy is the feeling or capacity for awareness, understanding, and sensitivity of another person’s experience.

The answer to violence lies within each one of us.

“Our bodies carry the potential for self-knowledge, self-healing, love and compassion.  By reawakening our perceptive skills of feeling, sensing and initiating, we allow the wisdom of the body to emerge, to guide, and inform us.”

“PEACE begins where we live, in our bodies.  By working sincerely and directly with our present bodily felt condition, we can begin to affect our life as well as the lives of others.  When we heal our self, we heal others.” Janice McDermott

  1. Janice McDermott, M.Ed, MSW and Joan Stewart, MSW, Grand Ideas from Within, 2009.
  2. Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl and Molly Stewart Lawlor, “The Effects of a Mindfulness-Based Education Programs on Pre- and Early Adolescents’ Well-Being and Social and Emotional Competence”.
  3. Aysha Schurman, “Ten Effective Communication Skills,”
  4. Elizabeth Scott, M.S., “Communicate: Improve Your Relationships with Effective Communication Skills,” December 10, 2010,

Monday, April 16, 2012

Reconnecting our “plugged in” youth: The Five Senses and Feelings

by Melissa Reynolds, LCSW

Reining in the Senses

“Just as the body is made of food, the mind is made of the sense impressions it takes in.  And just as there is junk food, there are junk experiences and junk thoughts – attractively packaged, but most debilitating for the mind.  Training the senses means that we need to be discriminating about what shows we watch, what music we listen to, what kinds of books and magazines we read, what kind of conversation we listen to.  Every day the senses give the mind a ten-course dinner, and we can add to our energy, our health, and our vitality by not serving it junk thoughts.” Eknath Easwaran

Presence is when we are completely focused in our bodies.  To do this we must engage our 5 SENSES.  It is important that we teach our children about their five senses and assist in helping them become aware of their senses and use them on a daily basis.  This must be achieved before they are able to label their feelings.


How do you teach them to engage their five senses?  It is actually quite simple.  Here are some examples for each sense that you can do with your child.

Sight: Have them describe what they see when they are looking at a painting or photograph.

Hearing:  Listen to music together and ask them if they can tell what instrument is being played in the background.  Another example would be to go on a nature walk in silence and then discuss what sounds they heard.

Taste:  While eating meals, have them describe the different flavors and talk about which they prefer.

Smell:  Have them recall a smell that triggers a happy memory or perhaps a sad memory.

Touch:  Read a book that is a touch and feel book and have them describe in their own words what they feel.

The most important thing to remember about feelings is that they are broken down into four groups – happy, mad, sad, and afraid.  The other is that there are different levels of feelings.  “Good” and “bad” are not feeling words so try to correct your child when they say, “I feel good” and remind them “good” is not a feeling word and perhaps they mean, “I feel happy”.  Here are some feeling words under each category to illustrate the different levels to describe feelings.

HAPPY                        MAD                           SAD                             AFRAID
Cheerful                      Annoyed                      Blue                             Tense
Delighted                    Irritated                       Defeated                      Nervous
Overjoyed                   Outraged                     Miserable                      Alarmed
Ecstatic                       Fuming                        Helpless                        Terrified

Encourage your child to use feeling words and then incorporate the five senses component by asking them, “Where do you feel happy?” or “Where do you feel angry?”

Monday, April 9, 2012

Reconnecting our “plugged in” youth: Mindfulness

by Melissa Reynolds, LCSW

What is mindfulness?  Mindfulness is achieved when we are in a state of complete awareness in the present moment paired with the ability to observe our inner experience without judgment.
  • Hindu mindfulness: 1500 BCE
  • Daoist mindfulness: 6th c. BCE
  • Buddhist mindfulness: 535 BCE
  • Christian mindfulness: 530 CE
  • Jewish mindfulness: 10th c. CE
  • Gestalt Therapy: 1940’s
  • Modern Clinical Psychology/Psychiatry: 1970s
    • treatment of chronic pain, stress, depression, substance abuse, suicidal behavior, and   family therapy
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Center at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center: 1979
At this point, you may be thinking that this seems “religious” or too “weird”.  Let’s challenge these thoughts.

Myths: Mindfulness and Meditation
  1. It is a religious activity and will conflict with my religious beliefs.
  2. You have to sit in lotus position and say “Om”.
  3. I’m too busy to be quiet.
  4. It will put out the fire of my creativity and ambition.
  5. It will surface upsetting information from my subconscious.

Studies on the Effects of Mindfulness
  • Improves concentration
  • Elevates perceptual acuity
  • Decreases stress and anxiety
  • Increases academic performance
  • Cultivates creativity
  • Enhances EMPATHY

So how exactly do you learn to achieve a state of mindfulness?  Learning how to breathe is the first step for many.

Objective: To calm one’s self through proper breathing
  • Our muscles HOLD ACCUMULATED STRESS-INDUCED TENSION, the result of our daily environments.
  • The FIRST STAGE OF STRESS the body responds with a PANIC, a “FIGHT OR FLIGHT” reaction.
  • Shallow breathing patterns trigger the STRESS RESPONSE cycle (similar to a FEAR RESPONSE), within the sympathetic nervous system, which transmits more stress signals to the breathing mechanism.
  • WITH TRAINING in breath awareness and special breathing techniques, we can begin to bring our breathing patterns out of our unconscious and into our conscious control.

Copyright 2009, Janice McDermott, M.Ed., LCSW & Joan Stewart, LCSW

This breathing lesson was taken from Grand Ideas from Within which is a guided imagery program with pre-recorded CDs.  Other examples of guided imagery exercises can be found on Health Journeys website.

  1. Ronald Alexander, Ph.D., “Four Myths about Mindfulness Meditation,” in The Wise Open Mind, December 2, 2009.
  2. Shamash Alidina, posted  in Blog, “History of Mindfulness,”
  3. Bodipaksa, “The top ten myths about meditation,” May 18, 2007,
  4. Tobin Hart, “Opening the Contemplative Mind in the Classroom,” Journal of Transformative Education Vol. 2 No. 1, January 2004.
  5. Janice McDermott, M.Ed, MSW and Joan Stewart, MSW, Grand Ideas from Within, 2009.
  6. Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl and Molly Stewart Lawlor, “The Effects of a Mindfulness-Based Education Programs on Pre- and Early Adolescents’ Well-Being and Social and Emotional Competence”.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Reconnecting our “plugged in” youth: Eye Opener

by Melissa Reynolds, LCSW

Imagine that you have a sixth and eighth grade son and you have made a commitment to be a chaperon for the middle school mission trip at your church.  The students will be performing concerts with song and dance to the homeless and other groups.  They will sing contemporary Christian songs not the traditional music you listened to in church.  You walk into the choir room for the first practice session and there are well over 200 sixth, seventh, and eighth grade boys and girls in one room.  This in and of itself is overwhelming and you begin to wonder what in the world have you gotten yourself into.  The students are on built in risers so they tower over you.  There is a hum of conversation and laughter along with a lot of movement.  The youth pastor addresses the group that it is time to begin.  Practice starts with prayer.

You begin to notice the students are having trouble settling down.  They seem to be distracted and you begin to observe that some are still texting, others are listening to their i-pods, and there is one boy who is actually playing a video game on his phone.  It occurs to you that these kids are having a hard time disconnecting from their outside world.  For the most part, the students were there because they wanted to be and they were “good kids”.  You have two children who are part of this group and had not noticed this behavior before, but now you realize how this age group is so disconnected.  You think to yourself something must be done!
This was actually my own personal experience.  My eyes were opened!  I began to realize this was not good and a bit scary.

Reconnecting our “plugged in” youth
I-pods, cell phones, text messaging, e-mails, facebook, and video games keep us from connecting.  Our youth are so “plugged” into the world that they are disconnected from each other.  Now more than ever they need lessons on how to turn inward to calm the body – to disengage from their busy world and open their MINDS to unlimited possibilities through creativity and their imagination along with finding the PEACE that lies within them.

Communication is not just verbal.  It is also non-verbal including eye contact, tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, and gestures.  Full communication cannot be achieved with text messaging and e-mail.  The ability to have Empathy is acquired through the process of communication.  Empathy is the feeling or capacity for awareness, understanding, and sensitivity of another person’s experience.  Do you wonder if we are not creating a generation who will not have the ability to communicate effectively therefore the possibility of little or no empathy.

Where do we begin?  I believe the answer lies within “Heightened Awareness”.  I like to think of it as a pyramid effect similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  You have to start at the bottom to make your way to the top.

We shall climb this pyramid together over the next three weeks.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Boosting EQ

by Alyssa Hasson, MAMFT

While it is debatable whether IQ can be changed, it is clear that EQ can be changed. EQ is built and developed through teaching of specific skills, including self-awareness, self-regulation, social skills/awareness, and empathy. Parents are the ideal teachers of emotional intelligence since they walk through so much of life with their children. Here are some ideas for building EQ skills into everyday life.

  • Help your child understand his feelings. Ask your child to label what he is feeling in a variety of situations. For younger children, attempt to label what you think they are feeling based on facial expression, body language, and verbal content. Use language like, “It sounds/looks like you are sad/angry/excited/happy.”
  • Model good emotional management. Remember that you are a powerful model for your child, and your child is more likely to do as you do rather than do as you say. Step 1 is labeling your own feelings in any given situation, which conveys to your child that you have feelings, too, that feelings are okay, and that they are manageable. For older children, it’s also important for you to identify how their actions affect you; understanding the relationship between their actions and others’ feelings helps develop empathy. Younger children will have difficulty understanding this connection because it’s too complex for their developmental age, so use it sparingly with children under age 5. Step 2 then, is working your feelings out in a healthy, acceptable way. (“I’m feeling frustrated right now and I’m going to take a quiet time in my room to help me relax.”)
  • Help your child problem-solve acceptable alternatives to unacceptable behavior. When you set a limit on unacceptable behavior associated with your child’s upset, always provide an alternative that is acceptable to you. If your child is hitting his sister, who took a toy away from him, it’s not enough to simply stop him from hitting her. He needs to learn (and practice) managing his upset in an acceptable way. Show him that it’s okay to hit his pillow, jump on his bed, etc. Older children can, and should, be involved in finding acceptable alternatives. Remember that the time for engaging in logical conversation about acceptable behaviors is not when your child is overcome with emotion (experiencing high amounts of emotions shuts down the logical part of them brain). Instead, problem-solve acceptable alternatives during calm, non-stress times so you’ll be prepared when emotions hit.
  • Role play it out. Role playing is particularly good for building social skills and assertiveness. Use puppets, stuffed animals, or even your own bodies to role play upcoming social situations or to “re-do” situations that weren't handled in an acceptable way the first time. Make sure to help your child identify his feelings about the event you are role playing.
  • Play emotion games. Try involving the whole family to play games that build emotional awareness. If you have younger children, have each family member take turns making a “feeling face” while the other members make the face themselves and guess what the feeling is. For older children, provide a short situation (be creative, they can be funny) and then have the child identify how he would feel in the situation.

The ideas above not only build emotional intelligence, they also build the bond between you and your child. When your child knows and experiences that you accept him and his emotions, he is more likely to share them with you, which builds a closer relationship.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Becoming an Emotion Coaching Parent

by Alyssa Hasson, MAMFT

Last week I highlighted the 4 parenting styles noted by John Gottman, Ph.D.: dismissing, disapproving, laissez-faire, and emotional coaching. This week is focused on how to become an emotion coaching parent.

Gottman identifies 5 steps for becoming an emotion coaching parent:
  1. Recognize the emotion
  2. Increase intimacy with the emotion
  3. Listen for and validate the emotion
  4. Label the emotion
  5. Set limits with emotion

For parents who are currently operating out of a non-emotion coaching style, there is one more step that I believe needs to be added in, and it actually occurs before any of the 5 listed above. Parents who are currently using dismissing, disapproving, or laissez-faire styles are almost certainly doing so because that was the style demonstrated by their own family of origin. Dismissing and disapproving styles in particular tend to have difficulty tolerating emotion, thus the desire to ignore it or cut it off. In such cases, it is important that the parent first ground himself and separate emotionally from the situation in order to achieve the correct perspective. Separating emotionally simply means recognizing and laying a boundary between the child’s emotions and your own so that your child has the freedom to feel the emotion and you have the freedom not to take it on yourself. Without this important step of caring for yourself, you may have difficulty acting as an emotion coach.

The adjusted steps would look like this:
  1. Separate yourself emotionally
  2. Recognize the emotion
  3. Increase intimacy with the emotion
  4. Listen for and validate the emotion
  5. Label the emotion
  6. Set limits with emotion

Imagine your five-year old daughter begins to cry when you tell her it’s time to leave the playground, then begins to hit you. Here is what it might look like to act as an emotion coach in that situation.

Separate yourself emotionally. You use self-talk to get grounded and realize her emotional upset is her own and that you are not going to take it on yourself, that all emotions are acceptable, and that you can coach her through this.

Recognize the emotion. Acknowledge to yourself that your child is overwhelmed by emotion, and try to guess what it is. Try to imagine what you would be experiencing if you were in the same situation. It’s okay if you come up with multiple ideas; we often experience a mixture of feelings at any given time. In this example, your daughter is probably sad and disappointed about leaving the park and her friends. She may even be angry with you for making her leave.

Increase intimacy with the emotion. Use the situation as an opportunity for strengthening your relationship by connecting on a deeper level. “It’s so hard to leave when you’re having so much fun.”

Listen for and validate the emotion. Use reflective listening to confirm that you’ve heard what your child is saying. Validating emotions does not mean that you agree with them, it simply means you understand how your child is feeling. “You want to stay and play longer. You’re not ready to leave your friend or the slide yet.”

Label the emotion. Use the feeling word(s) you identified above to verbally acknowledge how your child is feeling. “You’re sad that it’s time to leave already.”

Set limits with the emotion. While all emotions are acceptable, all the behaviors that accompany them are not. Acknowledge your child’s feelings and desires but set limits to ensure that safety of the child and others. Try to provide an acceptable alternative when you set a limit. “You’re angry that I said we have to leave the park and you want to hit me, but it is not okay to hit people. You may jump as hard as you want on the ground.”

Becoming an emotion coach takes time, emotional energy, and practice. You will have times of success and times that need improvement. Remember that your ability to act as an emotion coach to your child depends on you successfully managing your own emotions through the process. Consider seeking your own emotion coach if you feel stuck in this area.

Monday, March 12, 2012

What is Your Parenting Style?

by Alyssa Hasson, MAMFT

Authoritative. Indulgent. Authoritarian. Disengaged.  Many people are familiar with these descriptors of parenting style, which evaluate the degree of control (high or low) and the degree of acceptance (high or low) that exist between a parent and child. Seemingly less known are the categories of parenting style noted by researcher John Gottman, Ph.D., which evaluate how a parent interacts with the emotions of his child. Focusing on how a parent interacts with his child emotionally is smart because it targets emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence, sometimes referred to as EQ (emotional quotient), is the ability to accurately identify emotion in yourself and others, to manage it appropriately in yourself, to respond to it appropriately in others, and to use information about the emotional climate of situations to inform future decisions. Emotional intelligence is important not only for an individual health, it’s important for relational health. Healthy, satisfying relationships and interactions depend on the ability to understand your own internal world as well as your ability to key into the other person’s. Since familial/parental relationships are the first relationships that children experience, it’s important to assess the extent to which you use EQ in your parenting.

Which of the following of Gottman’s parenting styles describes you?

The Dismissing Style
“Get over it!”
Dismissing parents ignore, avoid, or dismiss emotions that are considered to be bad or messy, such as anger, sadness, fear, and grief. Dismissing parents may also:
  • Want the child’s negative emotions to disappear quickly
  •  Distract the child from his feelings
  • Think the child’s emotions are not important
  • Be unsure of how to help the child with strong emotions
  • Feel uncomfortable when the child is experiencing strong emotions

Children of dismissing parents learn that their feelings are wrong or bad and that their feelings need to be fixed or covered up. They have difficulty regulating their emotions.

The Disapproving Style
“Stop feeling that way!”
Disapproving parents believe that the expression of negative emotions should be controlled, limited in time, and that such expression communicates weakness. These parents may also:
  • Criticize the child’s strong emotions
  • Discipline the child for emotional expression
  • View emotional expression as a means of manipulation
  • Are concerned about obedience to authority 

Children of disapproving parents lack the ability to manage their emotions and may internalize the messages of criticism, weakness, and manipulation that they receive, which could result in shame.

The Laissez-Faire Style
“Anything goes!”
Laissez-faire parents communicate acceptance of all forms of emotional expression, regardless of behavior. These parents may also:
  • Comfort the child during negative emotions
  • Believe negative emotions need to “run their course”
  • Avoid setting limits or providing guidance on behavior

 Children of laissez-faire parents lack the ability to regulate their emotions and may have difficulty returning to a calm state when they are upset. They may also have difficulty with social cues and social interactions.

The Emotional Coaching Style
“I understand…”
Emotion coaching parents value and validate emotions but also guide behavior. Characteristics of these parents include:
  • Viewing emotional expression as an opportunity for connection and closer relationship
  • Ability to tolerate negative emotions
  • Respecting the child’s feelings
  • Helping the child to problem-solve acceptable alternatives to unacceptable behavior during emotional expression

Children of emotional coaching parents learn to trust and accept their feelings while also learning that there are limits on their behavior. They learn how to safely work through their emotions.

Which type of parent are you? If you’ve read through the descriptions above and realized that you are a dismissing, disapproving, or laissez-faire parent, tune in next week to learn how to change your ways and work toward becoming an emotional coaching parent.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Bullying 400: Reaching Out to Parents

by Chris Shaw, MAMFT

Parents both of bullies and of victims can be left feeling helpless, unsure of how to best help their children.  Maybe you are losing touch with your children and they don't seem to want to talk to you as much these days.  Children are masterful at hiding what's going on, so many parents are left unaware of the problems that exist in their children's lives.  Here are a few things to look for which may be indicators.1

Is my child a victim?
  • are they withdrawn at home?
  • have they complained of no friends at school?
  • is there a decreased desire to go to school?
  • have you noticed a significant decline in grades?
  • do they make negative or suicidal statements about themselves?
  • are they excessively temperamental?
  • do they often complain of having headaches, upset stomach or “just feeling sick”?

Has my child become a bully?
  • are they currently a victim of bullying or abuse, or have they been a victim in the past?
  • do they deny wrongdoing and shift blame to others?
  • are they touchy or irritable?
  • have they had consistent problematic behavior at school?
  • are there high amounts of household stress or marital troubles?
  • are they argumentative and defiant?

Although these factors do not necessarily mean that your child is either a bully or has become a victim, they often present as warning signs to consider, rather than ignoring or minimizing them.  Parents play a critical role in the development of their children's view of self.  You can help them to figure themselves out in the midst of a confusing and difficult time. 

What you can do to help

1. Acknowledge your child's emotions.

A parent can benefit their child by helping them to understand their emotions. “You seem angry, I know that is unpleasant” Simply by acknowledging their emotions, you can help them to feel understood.  Knowing that their parent can understand how they are feeling bridges a chasm of communication difference.  Victims can believe that their emotions are insignificant.  Bullies often act aggressively because of low emotional awareness.

2. Encourage them in developing positive characteristics.
Parents can get stuck only seeing the bad. Take the time to notice your children and what makes them uniquely special.  Small comments like: “your hair looks nice today,” or “I love the way your smile brightens a room up.”  When your child has worked hard on something take the time to let them know that you notice their efforts.  Look for positives wherever they are.  The both bullies and victims have difficulty seeing positive things in themselves.  Positive reinforcers are actually much stronger than punishments.

3. Talk to the counselor at your local school. 
Make them aware of situations that exist and ask for their help.  Often the school officials are unaware of the problems that exist in their own schools.  Open communication and collaboration between teachers, parents and school counselors can be a powerful positive force for effectively dealing with bullying.  If your child is the aggressor, be firm and consistent with them in applying rules also at home. Let them know, lovingly, that this behavior will not be tolerated and set specific consequences for continued behavior.

4. Help them figure themselves out within the family context.
Both bullies and victims suffer from lack of clarity about who they are.  The bully, as we mentioned last week, is often a natural leader using their gifts in a negative way.  Take the time to listen to your child.  If your child believes that you care about them and are willing to empathetically listen and get to know how they see themselves more disposed they are to open up.  This takes maintaining an attitude of curiosity and wonder about who your child is, rather than dictating every aspect of who they must be.  The hope is to enable them to develop in a God-glorifying way, both as a member of the family and as an individual with particular gifts and abilities, and interests. 

5. Seek professional help.
When bullying behavior is allowed to continue for extended periods, children are at an increased risk for criminal and self-destructive behaviors.  Victims of bullying, too, can show increased symptoms of depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies.  Parents , themselves, can feel overwhelmed with their own problems which makes it even more difficult to attend to their children's lives.  If you feel helpless, it is okay to ask for help.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Bullying 310: Getting to the Heart of the Issue

by Chris Shaw, MAMFT

Confronting the current situation of bullying in schools is becoming increasingly difficult.  The movement seems to be away from direct interactions to indirect bullying means.  There are, however, common threads that exist among bullies.  The important question for us today is: why bullies engage in the behavior that they do?  Though there are many different causes and interrelated factors, this week's blog will briefly at two significant reasons.  Despite the way the victims tend to perceive bullying, the causes often have much less to do with them and much more to do with underlying causes within the perpetrator.

Bullying to gain social acceptance and attention
Bullying is systemic. It is not just a dance between two persons.  Our  basic human needs include human interaction and acceptance.  A child who receives the message of worthlessness, verbally or through non-verbal interactions at home or from peers, develops a deficient view of themselves.  This is evident both in family life, but also in the peer group setting of school.  Children desire attention and will do whatever it takes to receive it. Here the cycle of bullying/abuse easily repeats itself.  Those children who are bullied or abused often become perpetrators, themselves.

A wide variety of means to garner appreciation and attention exist.  Some children will isolate and take on the victim role to receive “mercy attention.”  Others push themselves academically, musically, or athletically to receive “accolade attention.”  Still others take on negative attention building roles to receive “punitive attention.”  Bullying is one form of this.  Each of these developed coping mechanisms begins to shape children's identities.  Hence, the bully builds a reputation for being a “bad kid” and comes to figure out who they are in their social world.  For them, having an identity and attention through bullying, is better than being a nobody.

Dr. Dan Olweus identifies a bullying circle that exists, which includes not only the bully and the victim, but the bystanders in school as well.  People inevitably choose sides to one degree or another.  Some children become supporters of the bully, either by silent consent or by active participation.  Some remain silent but side more with the victim.  Others may verbally and physically stand up for the victim, yet this seems to be more often not the case.  Intimidation becomes the socialization mechanism for the bully.  Supporters are gained and the bully takes a central role in the social system.1

Bullying as a position of power
Sometimes the best defense is a strong offense. In order to protect oneself from perceived negative image, the bully will act first to disprove fears about themselves.  This negative view of self is often buried in the subconscious; the more the bullying takes place, the further the negative view of self can be submerged into the subconscious.  The bully repeats aggressive behavior to reinforce this redefinition of self and further distance themselves from their own fears.  All of this is based on a misunderstanding of the concepts of fear and respect, loyalty and leadership.  Often bullies are naturally born leaders without anyone to teach them how to be a leader. 

In a Machiavellian manner, they believe that if others fear them, they have gained respect. This is a means of gaining the loyalty of those around them and promoting their position of power.  However, if we look under the surface of things, fear is driving the car.  By striking fear in others, the bully is able to compensate for themselves. They can have a sense of control over their victim when they feel out of control themselves.  Bullying forms a set of conditioned responses in the victim, so whether their victim responds with passivity or by reacting back, the bully assumes a means of controlling the response of their victims and taking their voice from them.

Children have emotional processes running in the background.  When they are tied to their subconscious understanding of self, those emotions have a powerful force.  Children, just as adults, who are unable to put words on their emotions are much more susceptible to being led by them.  By identifying their emotions and finding appropriate outlets for them, a child gains a clearer understanding of themselves and an increased ability to regulate their behavior. 

Meeting the child's needs
Children need to be met where they are.  Erik Erikson identified the developmental task of children between 6 and 12 as industry or inferiority.  Between 12 and 18, children are trying to develop ego identity.  It is important for parents and teachers alike to recognize that throughout both of these periods, children do not yet know themselves.  Indeed, this is truly a life-long process.  Parents, teachers and peers all play a powerful role in child development.  With this in mind, the question becomes not “if,” but “how” we will help them develop their identity.  To the extent that adults facilitate peer group interaction, they should be aware of the group dynamics and how each child fits into the system.  At this point, the adult is best able to positively direct group interactions for the best interests of each child. 

Combating the bullying child's fears and push for power is difficult, since what needs addressing is being buried consistently deeper by the child.  The bullying is their means of avoiding a painful confrontation of personal thoughts and feelings.  If, as a parent, you begin fearing the development of bullying behavior in your child, take the time to listen to them.  Parents often fail to realize the amount of influence that they can have with their children simply by being a safe person for their child, being trustworthy for their child and taking the time to hear them.  For some children, therapy can be a good opportunity for them to get to their underlying fears and consequently be able to build up, in a positive way, their God-given leadership abilities.   Again, the key to remember is that children are often looking for guidance and are trying to figure out who they are in the world around them.  As adults, we  have the difficult task of helping them develop and finding out who God is molding them to be.