Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Factor to Consider with ADHD Treatment

I see parents frequently who are wondering whether to have their child assessed, believing he/she might have ADHD. The parents who do go on to have their child assessed and discover their child does meet criteria for the diagnosis of ADHD also wonder about whether to treat it primarily with behavioral approaches or whether to consider stimulant medication. This headline was all over the place recently and is worth considering when weighing all the important variables in an important decision. Study Finds Slower Brain Maturity in ADHD Kids

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Crucial Confrontations

I'm in the middle of a book called Crucial Confrontations about how to directly confront peers, supervisors, spouses, anyone when agreements aren't upheld, promises are broken, etc. I'm about half way through with it. I'm finding it quite good, the recommendations specific and realistic and the authors well versed in both psychology and social psychology. I'm already playing with a couple of the ideas. I'll provide a more thorough review soon. The tag line on the cover is "Never walk away from another conflict again."

Happy Halloween. Have fun and be safe out there tonight.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

WILD Adventures in the Portland Area

My friend Ronan McCann has been working over the past eight months on launching an innovative non-profit called WILD Inc. (Wilderness Introductions for Learning and Development). The mission is getting city kids out into the wilderness, especially those who don't often have the opportunity. Check out this page to learn a bit more about WILDs goals and what had already been accomplished by the six-month mark—getting kids out in the wilderness, initial partnerships with Portland businesses and organizations, etc.

WILD's website is also a handy resource for Portland families. Practical Adventure Reviews of local hikes rate their difficulty level, provide a photo or two and tips for how you might want to be dressed and prepared. For those hikes that are close enough to bike to or ride Tri-Met to there are links that will take you to ByCycle or Tri-Met trip planning sites that work like MapQuest. There are also links to Google Maps for each of the hikes. The Tri-Met links are a nice touch for making it more practical for families that have transportation challenges to get their kids out to have an adventure once in a while not to mention for families that just like to leave the car behind when they can.

There is also an Adventure Map that has been set up through Google Maps so you can take a quick look at where the reviewed hikes are located. WILD's site really is nice if you find some time where you want to get in a weekend hike and you want to use the internet to plan a trip. Take a moment to bookmark it at ChildrenOutside.com and check out the features when you have some time or as soon as you get the urge to get the family out on a path. WILD will undoubtedly enrich the lives of all sorts of Portland families.

While We're At It: Praise that Doesn't Help

Since that sleep article of Po Bronson's was so good I checked out some more of his pieces. This previous one from New York Magazine on "How Not to Talk to Kids" is very solid as well. I have a lot more thoughts on what sort ways of talking to kids are helpful and which are counter productive that will show up on here eventually. But for now Bronson's piece nicely takes us through how our attempts to praise often end up getting in the way of our kids succeeding. For those of you who don't have time to read this now, I'll just say that it focuses on being specific and on praising effort rather than "being smart". There are measurable differences in the way kids respond to these ways of interacting with them. A focus on effort rather than on "innate intelligence" equips kids to keep at it when things get difficult. Kids who hear a focus on how "smart" they are rather on how hard they worked tend to give up when faced with a task that is challenging. This is even true of very intelligent kids. They are more apt to conclude that if they don't succeed right off the bat, it is evidence that they aren't all that smart, and it becomes too risky for them to persevere.

I recall an article from years ago that highlighted this difference between American and Japanese students. American students who ran into challenges were more likely to conclude they weren't smart enough, whereas Japanese students tended much more often to come to the conclusion that they needed to roll up their sleeves and work harder. And their tendency to move toward harder work translated into more academic success.

Photo by Phillip Toledano is from the New York Magazine article.

Monday, October 8, 2007

How to Help Kids Get The Sleep They Need

Both this side bar and the recent New York Magazine article are worth checking out. If your time is limited just take a look the sidebar for the practical tips on helping your kids to get enough quality sleep. If you've got some time to read the feature article by Po Bronson you can get the gist of some recent research that shows some of the more severe effects of kids getting too little sleep. It turns out that not only problem behaviors can result from being under rested, but even significant cognitive declines that really add up.

Thanks to Heather Decker for passing this article along.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Beyond Lectures, Part 2

We looked last time at how lecturing, though it comes to us easily, isn't all that helpful to helping kids along the path to responsibility. In fact, I would agree with several folks in the business of working with families that kids who receive a lot of lectures actually tend to be less responsible. We also looked one of the best ways to avoid lecturing when we're frustrated with our kids' behavior, which is to wait until a time when we're both feeling calmer. Jim Fay's mnemonic suggestion for this is "Save the words for the happy times." I would add that just going for a more neutral time is often enough. Once you've used a little shared control to set up a time to talk, there are lots of alternatives on how to have a helpful conversation.

We know that it usually helps and almost never hurts to use some empathy. When someone has demonstrated that he can see our situation the way that we experience it, it is a human tendency to be more open to accepting influence from that person. This makes a good deal of sense. When we're pretty sure that someone has next to no idea what an experience is like for us, it simply wouldn't make a lot of sense to take advice from that person. Some empathy might sound something like this:

I'm guessing that getting chores done isn't one of the things that you look forward to when you get up...not one of the highlights of your day.

It probably isn't much fun having me getting cranky with you about your not getting them done.

Initially when we think about using empathy as a parent, it can arouse some resistance on our part. "Why should I be empathetic? He's being whiny and irresponsible. I work all day, and I get my share of the housework done. Why should I be having to come up with empathy?" My main response is that it is important to keep your goal in sight. If the goal is to get the chores done, equip your child with the skills to be responsible, and to maintain a sense of connection with your child, it is useful to begin with empathy. If Dr. Phil agreed with my suggestion on empathy and he were to respond to our natural resistance to this idea, I could just hear him say in his drawl, "Look someone's got to be the adult around here. Looks like you're the only likely candidate"

In addition to empathy, something else that can be helpful is to use questions that elicit how our kid sees the situation. "So what are some of the challenges in getting your chores done?" This can help kids to become involved in the conversation. Instead of feeling criticized for their lack of responsibility they might be more likely to help identify what they problem is, which by itself will make it more likely that you'll be able to come up with some sort of workable solution.

Now that you've got your kid closer to being on the same wavelength, one way to proceed is to use collaborative problem solving. This sort of approach to finding solutions actually works much better if it is done visually on paper, or ideally on a big white board or butcher paper up on the wall. Step 1) Define the problem. Step 2) Brainstorm a lot of possible solutions to the problem, with everyone involved contributing ideas. It important at this stage not to edit ideas. We come up with much more creative ideas when we aren't simultaneously editing or critiquing thoughts as we're coming up with them. Step 3) Circle the solutions that seem most helpful. Step 4) Identify one or more possible solutions and give them a road test. Finally, Step 5) evaluate how it went and revisit the process as necessary.

So when you're tempted to lecture, wait to have the conversation until you're calmer, use some empathy and give collaborative problem solving a try. This is certainly not the only way to avoid the erosion that lectures can have on responsible behavior and on your relationship with your child, but it can be one effective route.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Beyond Lectures, Part 1

We often find ourselves talking most to our kids when things are going poorly.

Why can't you remember to do your chores on your own. You're 12 years old now. You've got to start taking some responsibility. Do you think that a boss would put up with always having to remind you what you're supposed to be doing? It's about time you start pulling your own weight around here.

The words have a way of flowing right off our tongues in these situations, don't they? Charles Fay of the Love and Logic Institute has quipped that there is a part of the brain that contains lectures that lies dormant until we either become parents or teachers. Suddenly the words come just like magic.

But in the chores example above just how much of that lecture is the kid likely to retain? Practically nothing. Do kids ever respond by saying, "Hey Dad, thanks for the wisdom. I was getting a little lazy, but now I can see that I do need to take on a little more responsibility for my own good. Not to mention that I need to be doing more of my share around here out of respect for the family"?

If that paragraph makes you chuckle it's because it is so unlikely. After delivering that lecture you're more likely to see are a frustrated, resentful or hurt look coming over your kid's face.

You can think of it this way. Any positive effects we hope that our lectures are going to have tend to ricochet off our child's cranium, but any potentially negative effects of having a way of seeping their way right through to the brain. Some of these negative effects include poor self-concept and less connection with the adult giving the lecture.

Another way of remembering this is to bring to mind the words of the wonderful child psychologist Haim Ginott, "When a person is drowning, that is not the time to try to give them swimming lessons."

So realizing that lectures don't work very well, and are even counter productive, what is it that we can do instead? The main thing is to talk at a time when we're feeling pretty calm, and when we're not in the middle of the problem. Right when we come across the problem is almost never the time to either talk about it or to invite our child to talk. Take some time until you have a sense of what you want to say, and until you have some perspective (this may involve some breathing).

Once you're ready, a good way to start off is to give your child some say in when you're going to talk. "Hey Chris, I'm going to need to talk with you a minute. When would be a good time for you?"

Now that we have a bit of a sense of the downside of lectures and how to get a conversation set up, we'd better take a look next time at how we might go about this sort of conversation.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Couples, Part 2, Inside Look at the Way a Top Couples Therapist Works

In Part I of this post, I looked last time briefly at the work of couples counselor Dan Wile, whom John Gottman has said he believes is the most effective marital therapist on the planet. What I want to do in Part II of this post here is to get across the essence of the statements that Wile uses in his work..

Wiles statements on behalf of his clients tend to communicate two pieces. The first is describing something with positive intent. It could be what you would like to do, or what you hope for that would support your partner or that would show that your connection with them is important to you.

I really wish we did more things together like we did before the kids were born. We used to go for walks, get coffee together, go to movies. I miss that...

The second part is about why it is that you feel stuck, what your worry is about how things will go if you make yourself vulnerable and go for what you identified in the first part of the statement.

...and I'm reluctant to bring up that I want to, because when I do it seems that you experience it like I'm nagging you or blaming you that we don't do it more often.

Again, the first part (positive intent):

I have something that is bothering me, and I want to talk about it, because I want us to enjoy the time we spend together, and instead I'm tense and probably not much fun to be around...

And the second part (the worry):

... but I feel like if I do bring it up, we're just going to get into a fight, which feels even worse than feeling annoyed at what I want to talk with you about.

In describing his method, Wile says that he tries to say something on behalf of one member of the couple (at a time) that gets everyone in the room empathizing.

From looking at the examples above it is probably easy to see how just altering them a little can throw change their character altogether. The second part of the statement (the worry) can easily shift into blaming the other. "But I feel like if I do bring it up, we're just going to get into a fight," can easily shift into, "But I know you're not going to listen. You always just get defensive," which is unlikely to get anyone empathizing and more likely to backfire.

Wile's strategy is to get your partner to see your positive intention, and put into words how despite your intention for things to go well for you as a couple, you're in an uncomfortable position. He tries to do this in such a way that your partner can picture what it is like for you, to get them empathizing. And then, of course, he moves to the other side and tries to do the same on behalf of your partner.

It is worth pointing out that Wile is the first to say and understand that most of the time, as a member of a couple, we're not going to come up with this sort of statement in the heat of the moment, and he's right. We're not, which is why he does this in therapy sessions. On the other hand, there are times when we've got something on our mind that we'd like to get across and we give it thought before we raise it. It is at these times that I'm proposing that thinking about how you could form your concern in the manner described in this article that might make the difference between just another evening of mutual irritation (or worse) and getting your partner to see what it is that you are getting at that is important to you.

Also note that Wile's work is not the common version of "teaching communication skills". It involves communication skills, but is more subtle than simply teaching "I messages" for instance. So next time you find that you've got something that is bothering you about your spouse, boyfriend, etc., instead of swallowing it, which usually ends up coming out in some other manner anyway, give one of Wile's statements a try. You might be pleasantly surprised by how your partner responds differently.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Couples, Part 1: Inside Look at the Way a Top Couples Therapist Works

It goes without saying that being part of a couple is hard work at times. Even when things are going smoothly, studies show that each member of the couple will estimate that their success as a pair is due to their doing relatively more for the relationship than their partner. How about when things are going less smoothly? John Gottman, the kingpin of research on couple interactions and author of Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work has found that of the problems that are a source of continuing disagreement for couples, 69% of them fall into the category of irresolvable problems. That is a sobering statistic. While Gottman is the premiere researcher on couples, one of only two couples therapists whose work Gottman gives a nod of approval to, is Dan Wile, the author of After the Fight: Using Your Disagreements to Build a Stronger Relationship. Wile's take on these perpetual problems is that it is not having the problem that is the problem, but rather each member of the couples inability, when things aren't going well, to recruit the other as a resource for dealing with that problem. Gottman is in complete agreement with Wile on this. One factor that makes a big difference between couples whose relationship is headed for the rocks, and ones that end up together years down the road is their ability to talk about those problems that aren't ever going to be completely resolved.

Dan Wile believes that the key to dealing with these problems is very elusive for us in those times when things aren't going smoothly. His entire approach to couples therapy is about helping each person to express what it is that is eating at them in a way that enables their partner to experience empathy for them. Wile's approach is similar to other couples therapists in taking turns trying to understand each person. Where his approach becomes unusual is that he then tries to speak to the other partner on their behalf, putting their concern, and their dilemma into words that might help the other see the difficult position their partner is in.

His version of speaking for them varies greatly but it might sound something like this. Picture Wile kneeling beside one partner speaking to the other on their behalf, saying, "There is a big part of me right now that wants to reach out to you and comfort you, but I'm afraid if I do, you're going to push me away again, and I just don't think that I can risk that right now." He then checks in with the person he's speaking for and asks how close he was, and what they might add or delete from what he said. When Wile does this with his clients, on those occasions that he gets it right, clients experience this as being very powerful, really capturing how it is that they are feeling stuck and misunderstood. When they have something to clarify, to add or something that they'd would take out altogether, they end up bringing the discussion closer to what the issues really are. One way to put this together is to say that Wile sees the goal as connecting around the difficulty rather than focusing therapy on solving the problem. Given Gottman's finding that 69% of ongoing couple problems are irresolvable, this makes a lot of sense.

Now hiring Dan Wile as a therapist would be a nice luxury that hopefully some Awareness * Connection readers will experience. But what about those of us who won't be able to, or who might not even have the opportunity to see a therapist trained in his approach? In the next installment of this post, I'll break down how and why Wile's statements work, and I'll show how in our better moments we can tap into them to connect with our partner when a perpetual problem comes up and those familiar feelings of tension creep back into our lives.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Coming Soon: On Couples

When things are going less than smoothly in your relationship, it can be even harder than usual to put your concerns into words that your partner might be able to hear. It is human nature to get caught in a cycle of feeling stung and stinging back, or of withdrawing and acting like you don't really care about something that is actually sticking in your craw. My upcoming post on couples will look at one way to up the odds that your partner will be able to "get" what it is that is "getting to" you. Check back soon.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Pause and Breathe, Part II

I wrote a while back about the power of tapping into the simple practice pausing and breathing. This is a topic worth coming back to a few times to fill in details, because it can be so essential to living in today's world.

Our autonomic nervous system is divided into two branches. One of the branches, the sympathetic nervous system, is basically the accelerator for the fight or flight response. When we encounter stressful situations this portion of our nervous system is engaged. Parts of our brain out of our conscious control begin the chemical cascades that pour adrenaline and cortisol into our bloodstream preparing us for action, as if we were going to be doing actual fighting or running for our lives. This is exactly what is needed to either fight off an attacker or run until we're out of immediate danger. It is far less helpful when our sympathetic nervous system is aroused by a looming deadline or by the frustration of arguing with your child over chores that aren't done. In fact our sympathetic nervous system being "on" over time, as in unmanaged stress, is a known slow but predictable killer.

Fortunately we have another part to our autonomic nervous. If you have an accelerator to propel the car you've got to have brakes to slow or stop it. Just like the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system has connections all over the body (pupils, blood vessels, heart, lungs, etc), but its function is to slow our body systems down. So when you're really relaxed, your parasympathetic nervous system is the one running the show.

Pausing and breathing deeply and slowly can be like our secret dimmer switch to the autonomic nervous system. Whenever you find yourself edgy, nervous, cranky or anxious that can be your cue to do some breathing. You might want to road test it right now. Get comfortable where you are sitting, and take some nice slow, deep breaths through your nose. As you settle in to the breathing, each breath will tend to come a bit more slowly and last longer. You can put one hand on your chest and one on your belly to monitor which area is moving most. You want your belly to be moving at least as much as your chest if not more. Chest breathing is like pressing on the accelerator where belly breathing the way to ease on the brakes.

This is worth experimenting with for two reasons. First it is good to try this out and actually experience how your nervous system, and your body is able to slow itself down. There is no replacement for actually feeling yourself what it is like to breathe your way from a state of agitation to calmness. Second, by getting experience with deep breathing, you also train your body to get to a calm state more reliably, and more quickly. The main point is that you don't want to wait until you are in the middle of a very stressful situation to think about using that dimmer switch. You want to have some experience with it ahead of time.

Many find that breathing combined with mindfulness practices can be an even more effective route to becoming calmer, but if that's not your cup of tea, the breathing works fine on its own for purely physiological reasons. You don't have to buy into any particular world view to enjoy the benefits of pausing and breathing.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Thought: Learning How to Make Decisions is Like Learning a Language

Learning how to think about choices and make decisions is also a lot like learning to play a musical instrument, like learning how to do woodworking or how to ride a bicycle. The common connection with all of these is that we don't learn them primarily by having someone lecture us or tell us about them. We learn decision making skills by actually doing the messy work of making decisions...and then by enjoying, or coping with the results.

Mark Twain wisely said, "Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from bad decisions."

It can be hard for us to let our kids have experiences that result from us supporting their developmentally appropriate decision making. We badly want our kids to do well. This can be a very tough world. We have tons more experience than our kids do. It is hard not to want to jump in and do the decision making for them so we can ensure that it gets done right.

The trick is to find things that our kids can handle making decisions about on their own and can handle living with the consequences of. We, of course, can't in good conscience give kids decisions about whether or not to go to school or whether to have vegetables or Skittles as a side dish. An appropriate decision for a four year old might be, "Would you like to wear your coat or carry it?" For a teen it could be "Would it better for you to have your chores done by Wednesday night or by Friday night each week? For all kids above four years old, it can be about how they spend their weekly allowance. Allowance is a wonderful teacher about decision making. You can see how this concept overlaps nicely with shared control.

Another important piece is how we respond when they've gotten themselves into a problem with a decision they've made. Here we can link back to a previous idea. This is a great time for us to show some empathy. The bigger the problem, the more important that our empathy has some depth. A big help here is reminding ourselves that even though the better decision looked like a no-brainer to us, our kids have at least a couple decades less of life experience. Also they are different people with their own profiles of strengths and challenges. So things that might have been easy for us to decide when we were our kids' age might be tougher for them.

Give it a try. Make sure to begin with choices that are going to be easier for you to let your child live with. If we give them the power to make the decision, and then swoop in and rescue them, we send a powerful message that we don't believe that they are capable. And these unstated messages have a way of being far more persuasive than the ones we say directly. The good news is that whenever we are able to provide empathy and support to help them cope with the results of their decision, we send an equally powerful message that they are the sort of kids who can handle making decisions and who can learn from their mistakes. That is one of the irreplaceable gifts that we can give to our kids.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Apple Updates iPod Line

Okay, now this post definitely gets filed under "miscellany", but I couldn't resist. It appears that the iconic classic white iPod has now gone the way of the dinosaurs. As one blog suggested, it seems appropriate to bow our heads for just a moment.

There is a lot for iPod fans to be happy about today. I'm not a huge gadget person across the board, though my wife might argue with me on this, but I do have to say that I have a weakness for Apple products. Today Steve Jobs did one of his over-hyped press conferences. I was impressed with the number of changes to the iPod line that some of the apple gossip sites had predicted that actually became reality today.

The basic changes are the Shuffle has a bunch of new colors. No changes in memory. The Nano has a new format for viewing cover art and can now play video. To make the viewing feasible the shape of the Nano has changed to shorter and wider with a larger 2" screen. It also has increased pixilation so the screen is not only larger, but more vivid than the one on the previous Nano. It is available in 4 and 8 GB sizes. The Nano as well as the larger iPod, now called the "iPod classic", both have a split screen feature now that previews cover art on the right side of the screen as you navigate the familiar menu on the left. Both also now can be navigated via "cover flow", which uses animated cover art that looks like flipping through an old juke box. Most iTunes users will already be familiar with the look of Cover Flow. The iPod classic is now encased in aluminum and is available in 80 and a whopping 160 G sizes.

Finally one of the bigger rumors fulfilled is the "iPod touch", which turns out to be essentially an iPhone without the phone service (or contract). It is very close to the same dimensions as the iPhone. The iPod touch comes with WiFi that allows users to download music as they walk around, so long as they're within range of a hot spot, rather than needing to be at the computer. Apple has started a partnership with Starbucks to make those hot spots more predictable. iPod touch users will be able to instantly download any music they hear at Starbucks with the press of a touchscreen button (this can also be done with laptops). iPod touch also has web browsing capability. The storage is only at 8 and 16 GB, which some are saying is too small for the price, and is not a good match for the beautiful wide screen and touchscreen experience. Presumably users would want to use the widescreen for video, but the memory won't allow for much storage. I've heard speculation, which seems plausible, that Jobs will announce larger storage sizes for the iPod touch just prior to Christmas. The touchscreen interface truly is remarkable. If you haven't had a chance yet, it is worth stopping by the Apple store to experience it even if you're not remotely interested in buying one.

On a related note Apple dropped the price of the 8 GB iPhone to $399, $200 lower than it debuted, and discontinued the 4 GB model. I will leave the more detailed analysis to the folks at Macworld and other gadget sites. Here is the lineup at Apple. I can't be held responsible for any impulse purchases you might make. Please weigh in on the the poll over to the right.

First Day of School

Today's the day. New sneakers, more carefully done hair than usual, new supplies...though we can't seem to locate the new lunchbox.

We have a tradition of taking a picture in the front yard every first day of school. A friend of ours takes one in the exact same spot every year, just like her parents did when she was a girl. It is really neat looking through the photo album from when the mother was a girl. Since she's always standing next to the same front gate you can see the changes in height and in her face from year to year from Kindergarten through 12th grade. Family rituals like that are a nice way to mark certain times as special, and to mark time as we move through life. Like our unique ways of celebrating birthdays and holidays, they can be a nice source of connection and meaning. Anything regular like a family ritual also is helpful for those kids who tend to feel a bit more anxiety when starting school. The familiarity of the ritual can be grounding for them.

I like the practice, which I don't recall happening as a kid, of starting the first week midweek, so the transition is a bit less traumatic. Three days and you're through your first week. Good luck to everyone with the the first day. Here's to a new year with new opportunities.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Quote: On Shared Control

"Control is a basic human need. We can either proactively share control on our terms, or we can force the child to take control from us on their terms."

Jim Fay

We'll be talking a lot about this one. Shared control is one of four central principles of Love and Logic. I don't always agree with the Love and Logic folks on each particular intervention that they might recommend for a given situation, but I do have to say that their four central principles, after more than well over a decade using them with children, hold up better, and more broadly than any others I've come across. It also turns out that they can be implemented in lots of different ways, which means that I'm not stuck with offering "Off the Rack" parenting advice. Instead, using the four principles along with other parts of my training, I am able to help parents tailor an approach that fits their child's temperament, each parent's temperament and personality, and the family's unique values, strengths and challenges.

Shared control often takes the form of using enforceable statements or choices within limits, which we'll cover on another occasion. Kids who feel like they have a reasonable amount of control tend to spend a lot less time fighting adults for control. Remember we're talking here about choices that affect the kids, not the adults. We don't give a kid the option to throw a big fit right in the middle of a family gathering, but we might give him choices about "Would it be better for you to get calmed down so you can be here with us, or would it better for you to have a bit of time on your own in your room?" Master this principle and you'll experience a nice shift in your ability to positively influence your kids.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Back to School, Temperament and Emotion Coaching

After today, only one day of summer left for my daughter. Hard to believe it's already slipped by. New beginnings are always a bit of a challenge for her, as they were for me. I've done much better as an adult with work that fluctuates according to the seasons than I did with an on/off schedule like school was. So for me seeing what going back to school is like for Hannah isn't all that big a jump empathy wise. Any of us with two kids, or who've closely observed kids, understands what the research has to say. Children are very different from one another from day one on at least nine different measures of how they react to stimuli and how they regulate their emotions (before learning or parenting has a chance to affect the measures). When our kids have temperaments profiles that are quite a bit different from ours, it can take a bit more work to see things from their perspective.

Having someone "get" who we are and what we are experiencing is one of the most important things to us in life. If we are surrounded by people who "get" us, our lives tend to be much happier. We also need at least one supportive relationship in our history in order for us to be relatively psychologically healthy.

It can be a good exercise to think back to a time when we went through something emotionally difficult as a child where our parents or caregivers weren't able to give us the empathy that would have been helpful. Can you remember what that was like? Experiencing a difficult emotion and feeling like you were on your own with it? What could the adult in your life have done or said that might have been helpful? All of us had those experiences where the adult was unable to be as helpful as we could have used. Fortunately, children don't need perfect parenting to do well in life. It is about what the pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnecott called good enough parenting. Our children don't need a completely supportive environment to turn out okay, just enough of one.

On the practical side, what we can do if our child expresses some reservation about school is 1) Listen, 2) Clarify and 3) Run by them your understanding of their experience. Then repeat steps one and two until they feel like you've more or less got it. The easy mistake for us to make is to respond to our children's reservations or distress by giving advice right off the bat. "You don't need to worry. After the first couple days you'll be used to your new teacher." Even if the advice is good advice, if our kids don't sense that we understand how they're feeling, the advice can feel dismissive.

If you've ever had a friend do this to you, you know that's usually not what we hunger for when we're having a hard time with something in life. If you do run through those three steps with your child though, when you do have any practical suggestions for how they might cope, they will be much more able to hear the suggestions and maybe even use a couple of them. What it boils down to often is our being able to be with them in their distress for a moment. See Our Most Important Job post a couple of posts back about this being one of our central challenges as parents.

Remember we don't always need to get this right, but it is worth shooting for an increase in how often we can meet our kids emotionally this way. It is one way to keep the connection open with them that at times can their lifeline.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Pause and Breathe

Pausing for just a bit and combining that pause with a slow, deep breath can make all the difference. If home life is hectic you can try pulling over a block or two before your house, turning off the ignition and just taking a moment for yourself. Just a few slow deep breaths can lower your blood pressure, give you a sense of calm, and smooth the transition from work to home. John Kabat-Zinn is a Professor of Medicine Emeritis at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and founder of clinic that focuses on equipping patients with skills to improve their ability to heal from, prevent and cope with medical conditions ranging from psoriasis to cancer. He suggests that we use anytime we put the keys into the ignition as a cue to pause and breathe. Richard Carlson, PhD, the author of the Don't Sweat the Small Stuff series of books, suggests that we do this for a few minutes for every hour that we work. He makes a convincing case that when we cut down the harried pace and take the time to pause and breathe that our productivity as well as the quality of our work is likely to increase.

As someone who works regularly with parents, I notice that simply pausing before responding to something that our children do or say decreases problematic interactions and increases parent effectiveness. In conversation in our culture we tend to rush in to have our say, often thinking about our response as we try to listen. I'm familiar with this one because I can have a tendency to jump in too quickly. Experiment with pausing and taking a breath after the person you're talking with finishes their thought.

For more information on breathing to reduce stress (and on mindfulness) you might begin with one of Richard Carlson's books from hisDon't Sweat the Small Stuff series. To explore the link of breathing and mindfulness with medicine and health, John Kabat-Zinn's Full Catastrophe Living can be a nice place to start. In...and...out. Slow and easy. Once you've experimented with that and maybe put up a couple of post its to remind yourself to use these skills (bathroom mirrors, closet door jamb, on the fridge), you can check out Pause and Breathe part II

Demotivation Posters

Despair.com has a whole series of these "Demotivational" posters. If you've ever had the feeling that your boss hung one of the "legit" versions of this sort of motivational poster in your office to squeeze extra work out of you, you'll likely enjoy these. If you find this one funny, check out their site. They have a whole series. Check out their Pessimist's Coffee Mug while you're there. You can probably already guess what it says. Once you've seen a couple of these posters you'll probably never be able to see a "legit" one of these again without laughing inside.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Thought: Our Most Important Job

One of the most crucial jobs that we have as parents, as I see it anyway, is to help our children learn to tolerate and manage their emotions. Do you know any adults who don't understand their own feelings? Any that have difficulty managing their temper or their sarcasm? How well do they do in their relationships? You get the idea.

Guess what our biggest obstacle to helping our children to learn to tolerate and manage their emotions is?


Tolerating and managing our own emotions.
Maybe it should give us a bit of empathy for our kids. Even having at least a couple of decades on them, it is still difficult, when we're honest with ourselves, to manage all the feelings that parenting and simply living in today's society brings, not to mention that simply being a human being brings.

Whether we're talking about a four year old, a twelve year old or a college sophomore, we have a lot more experience in life than our kids do. Try to imagine what it is like having the powerful sorts of emotions that we have at our worst moments, with a good deal fewer skills for managing them.

Block Party!

It's that time of year again...the annual block party. Usually a really nice array of potluck food, a fire after dark, and a chance to catch up with all those neighbors that we usually only wave to on our way to school, work and the grocery store. The last neighborhood we lived in didn't have these. One more reason we're glad we moved to more community oriented neighborhood. And it is not raining this year. These are a lot more fun when you're not hunkered under collapsible shelters watching the drizzle. I hear the music going already. Cheers.

Hypnosis Improves Surgery and Recovery

Women who had a 15 minute experience with hypnosis prior to breast cancer surgery experienced less pain and their recovery went more smoothly. The comparison group, who received supportive conversation with a psychologist, but none of the guided relaxation, pleasant visual imagery or soothing techniques of the group receiving hypnosis helps sift out that the way hypnosis helped these patients. The positive effects are evidently not solely due a positive interaction or distraction.

The WebMD article on this study concluded:

The study adds to other research that demonstrate that hypnosis "substantially reduces pain and anxiety during surgical procedures while decreasing medication use, procedure time, and cost," says an editorial published with the study.

"If a drug were to do that, everyone would be using it by now," writes editorialist David Spiegel, MD, of the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department at Stanford University's medical school.

Hypnotherapy has definite, measurable benefits that are well worth tapping into. The difficulty with hypnosis is that there are a lot of providers that have little education beyond a certificate program who have a tendency to smuggle in all sorts of untested nonsense and mix it in with what has been established as effective practice with clinical hypnotherapy. Your best bet is to find someone who is a member of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis to ensure that you are going to have a professional experience and not be exposed to all manner of quackery.

Book: The Sociopath Next Door

Ever wonder what it would be like to live without a conscience? We often think of sociopaths or psychopaths in terms of serial killers, but they have much more of a range than that. They can be successful business people, politicians, deadbeat dads and petty criminals. The one trait that ties them all together is that they function without a conscience. This can be surprisingly hard to detect because they can be impressive emotion decoders even though they lack any felt empathy that you and I experience like fish experiences water. This means that they can read others well and that they can often portray exactly the emotion that will push your buttons, which will serve their selfish ends.

If I recall correctly it was Robert Hare in his book Without Conscience, who compares the sociopath with the color blind person. Watching a color blind person at a traffic light, if we didn't know ahead of time about their color blindness, their deficit would be invisible to us. They apparently saw the light turn green when they drove off. The sociopath has learned tricks similar to the color blind person watching the relative position of the traffic light rather than the color. They similarly learn to deal in emotions that convey empathy without ever experiencing empathy themselves. Because of all this they can and do frequently wreck havoc in the lives of others.

Martha Stout's Sociopath Next Door sold well for good reason. It acquaints us with what it is like to live in their world and explores the tragic effect that they have on the lives of others with straight forward analysis and stories that will draw you in. Have you ever wanted to do something that your conscience would not permit you to...but you still wished you could if only your conscience would let you alone? She also entertains this intriguing question, would it be worth it to be able to pursue your own ends without a conscience to pester you if you had the choice?

I think this question gets at why we find ourselves drawn in by the Sopranos, Showtime's Dexter, Dirty Harry films, American Psycho and so on. It is intriguing to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who can live without a shred of genuine concern for others. But most of us only entertain that fantasy for the duration of the movie or book and then go back to genuinely connecting with others, loving our spouses, kids and families, feeling for others to one degree or another when they hurt. For the true sociopath when the lights come on, the movie doesn't end.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Gottman: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child

One school of thought in parenting is that there are often times where we need to be wary of engaging a child's emotions. If we do, this approach says we'll end up making the situation worse, much like trying to put out a fire with spray bottle full of gasoline. Another camp focuses on the fact that children genuinely need help navigating their emotional experiences. These two camps often point fingers at one another saying that the other side doesn't "get it" about what is most important about working with or parenting children.

Of course with a very young child, things start off with no real setting of limits of any sort. The second camp I think is certainly on the right track in this regard. The relationship at that point is primarily about connection and the meeting of needs. But as a child grows older, becomes mobile, starts hitting, pinching and insisting on having things their way, the first way of looking a things begins to look a bit more appealing to many of us. I think both of these ways of looking at parent-child relationships have some wisdom to offer.

That's why I try to stay in the habit of thinking about relationships in terms of continuums. Thinking in terms of either/or gets us in trouble. Just placing the issue on a continuum and pretending you have a slider (like a volume adjustment) can help us to see lots of alternatives that would have been invisible when viewed through an either/or lens. The discussion of this book takes both camps into account, and tries to use the "slider" or continuum approach.

The last book I featured was Daniel Siegel's Parenting From the Inside Out, which also delves into the emotions involved in being a parent. Siegel's book homes in on discovering what the parent brings to the relationship from his/her own past and their inner experience. John Gottman's Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child gets a bit more practical as it looks at the "how to" of ways parents can interact with their children to support their emotional development during difficult interactions. In doing this, Gottman builds on Daniel Goleman's work on Emotional Intelligence which shows that ability in knowing and handling one's emotions has much more to do with how far we get in life and with how happy we are than IQ does.

John Gottman is today's premiere researcher on couple interactions. He's the researcher/therapist that can identify with just a brief, minutes long sample of behavior whether a couple will still be married in 15 years. His accuracy in doing this is impressive. In Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child he applies some of the concepts of his research to how parents can support their youngsters emotionally and help them become emotionally intelligent. Here is the general approach which he calls Emotion Coaching in a nutshell:

1. become aware of the child's emotions.
2. recognize the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching.
3. listen empathetically, validating the child's feelings.
4. help the child find words to label the emotion he is having; and
5. set limits while exploring strategies to solve the problem at hand.

Love and Logic, which I draw on in my parent coaching work, is very practical in its focus. It is strong on the "how to" of step five above of Gottman's Emotion Coaching approach, "setting limits and exploring strategies to solve the problem at hand," whereas it relatively glosses over the first four of these steps, calling what they are getting at simply "offering empathy". Cline and Fay's identifying empathy as being important and as something that is very helpful even when setting reasonable limits with children is an original and important contribution. Where their expertise lies is in how to carry out the limit setting and maintaining of boundaries.

One place Gottman's book can be nicely integrated with some of the boundaries and limits of Love and Logic's focus is in the details of just how that empathy might look in different circumstances. It goes further than that, of course, and helps children to become more emotionally literate, teaching them something about how both they and others respond to different events in life.

All approaches to therapy and to raising children have implicit assumptions. These assumptions both give them their strength and determine where the limits of their effectiveness lie. If you are aware of what those assumptions are, it becomes easier to know when to draw on which approach, and that awareness will help you decide what might fit best with each specific situation. Gottman's Emotion Coaching approach definitely deserves to be in the range of skills that you can draw on as a parent. It probably also describes things that you are already doing. Isn't it nice to hear a bit about why certain things that you are doing are working once in a while?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Forgotten Car Roof Items & the Cycle of Luck

When I was 14 years old I had my first boom box, earned with what was then the boyhood rite of mowing lawns in the neighborhood. They weren't cheap when the first came out. My friend placed it on top of his grandfather's Plymouth Barracuda, with an on-dash push button shifter, as we were packing up for home from a fishing trip. After seeing and hearing several other motorists pointing and waving at us and yelling things we couldn't make out, we finally stopped and got out. We were amazed to see my treasured Toshiba boom box still sitting up there several blocks later. If you recall the design on the early boom boxes was much more upright and flat than the more recent lower profile design, so it was remarkably impressive that it stayed upright on the ride. It probably helped that my friend's grandfather was no speed demon, despite the hi-tech push button shifting. My luck with forgotten items on the roof has grown increasingly worse over the years. Maybe 15 years ago, I left a Nissan stainless thermos cup on the roof, which functioned amazingly like one of those twirling lawn sprinklers as it tumbled off my Toyota pickup. Despite the impressive random coffee streaks on my truck and the parking lot my thermos cup thankfully only suffered cosmetic dents.

Last night my wife and I were taking our 7-year-old daughter and her friend out to dinner. While my wife was getting the booster seats situated, she placed her keys on top of the car. When we were just about to be seated at Red Robin, my wife noticed her keys weren't with her. We went out to the car and looked for them. She recalled that she had put them on the roof of the car. We called a neighbor who was nice enough to look around on the street by our house to see if they were there. We didn't want to wait until after dinner for someone to pick them up that would have no way of knowing whose they were. No luck. We did a small exercise in the physical sciences as we tried to figure out where they would have been most likely to have gained enough momentum to slide free of the car's roof. After much deliberation and calculation of possible trajectories we concluded it must be somewhere between our house and Red Robin. Lots of driving around. No keys.

After talking with a local homeless man, who was kind enough to offer to keep his eye out for us, and posting an ad on Craigslist, the implications began to dawn on us. With the electronic entry key fobs, if the keys had fallen off closer to the house, all it would take is a drive down the street at night for any less-than-scrupulous person to locate the car in front of the house with no problem, and voila, noiseless entry into to two cars and to the house. So to cover the possibility of the keys having been lost nearby, we are now out a couple of car clubs, four re-keyed house locks and the two lost key fobs. Don't those those fobs seem a bit overpriced? So the question is, have I used up all my forgotten roof item luck...or am I now finally due to restart another cycle where I'll be as lucky as I was with the boom box Barracuda experience? I'd better not push it.

What's With The Name?

I've had quite a few clients mention that it was the name of my web site, Enjoy Parenting Again, that got them to initially contact me. For them the name just made sense. Presumably they had times earlier in their relationship with their children where they really felt some connection, when things were going more smoothly, and they contacted me because of concerns about how things have been going more recently.

For others the first two words make sense, but back when I was doing more health fair appearances, I would not infrequently be asked, "Again? Is it really, again?" I think I get what these folks mean. Lots of times parenting feels like an uphill climb from the first days. The way I responded to people who asked me this is something along he lines of this, which I actually really believe, "Even if it's been rough going since birth and it hasn't seemed to get any better, my assumption is that there are at least fleeting times where, if only for fractions of a minute, things really felt good, they were going smoothly."

That's is what getting into this line of work was all about for me, the satisfaction of seeing things go a bit more smoothly. It is amazing how little time that often takes, and it is hopeful to see for a lot of families things end up going quite a bit more smoothly a lot more often.

Book on Attachment

Parenting from the Inside Out
by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell is a wonderful book. The work I do with parents when they first come in is often focused on the very practical, how to cope or improve specific interactions and try out some potential solutionns to common workaday parenting challenges from dealing with sibling rivalry to problem solving how to chisel out some time and pull off family meals more regularly. Parenting From the Inside Out gets at the deeper level in parenting that in my work with clients often begins a few sessions into our work. Rather than covering ways to handle the daily parenting challenges or even connection strategies, this book gets to the core of our relationships as parents to the bond that we have with our child, attachment.

For those who are less inclined to want to hear a lot about research behind Siegel's work, like he covers in The Developing Mind, Parenting From the Inside Out is a gem of a book to learn about how the attachment between parent and child works and how our attachment with our child is deeply affected by how we've made sense of our own attachment to our parents.

Here is one fascinating fact from the book. We can tell a lot just by hearing what a parent has to say about what their childhood was like with their own parents. Before a child is born, or even conceived, based on how the mother tells the story of her attachment with her parents we can predict with a good deal of accuracy what sort of attachment she will have with her child to be! Here is the clencher. Even if you've had a difficult childhood, a poor attachment with your own parent, that is not what in the end determines how well you'll be able to attach with your child. Instead it is how well you've been able to make sense of the experiences you had as a child that is associated with how well you'll bond with your child.

A couple examples are helpful with this. Parents who form insecure attachments with their children will often dismiss the importance of parent-child relationships, and they tend to have very inaccurate understandings of what their own relationship with their parent was like. One way that this can show up is that when asked about his relationship with his mother, a father might make a sweeping positive statement, "She was a great parent." But when asked for examples of this, he can only make vague statements, or he might even make statements that actually would better support a statement that the relationship was not very close.

Another way of saying all this is that parents who will have secure attachments with their own children are able to tell a coherent story of what their attachment was like with their parent. Parents who do this even if they had a rocky upbringing have worked through and understood what happened. They also value attachment, rather than dismissing its importance in order to cope with the emotional pain of their past. Parents who have done this are prepared to provide secure base emotionally for their own children.

The wonderful thing about Parenting From the Inside Out is that it actually takes you through exercises to help you take stock of your experience as a child. This is work that often takes place in the context of therapy, or even in other close, supportive relationships, but it can also be helped by self-reflection. This book is a tool to help you do some of that on your own, piece by piece.

The Enforceable Statement

I wanted to get a practical skill in here early on. One of my favorites is the Enforceable Statement. Parents let me know that they often wish they had more credibility with their children so that when they really need their kids to take them seriously, they would. One way to increase credibility right away is to stop talking about what the child needs to do and focus instead on what you will do, provide or allow. A familiar example is if you tell a child, "Don't talk to me in that tone of voice," the statement is completely unenforceable. It will probably make the child want to continue to talk to you in the same exact tone you are trying to address. Now what happens to your credibility when the child does respond in the same tone? Down it ratchets.

Notice what happens when you change that unenforceable command into an enforceable statement. "I'll be happy to listen as soon as your voice is calm like mine". Now if the child continues with the same tone, you can let them know that it looks like you'll need to try again later. With some repetition they get the hang of things pretty quickly and realize that staying tuned in to what you say you're willing to do, provide or allow is a valuable source of information for them.

On days when things aren't going so well we might try to set the exact same limit, by saying with exasperation, "You use a civil tone or don't bother talking to me, because I won't be listening." Even though the limit is the same, because it is framed negatively (and usually has a petulant tone to it as well) it pulls the kid into a power struggle with you, if you weren't already in one to begin with. Love and Logic uses the mnemonic Thinking Words vs Fighting Words, which I think captures pretty nicely what we're shooting for.

On Love and Logic.com they have a nice Enforceable Statements PDF handout. Be patient with yourself as you try these. Awareness is the first step. If you're trying out enforceable statements and you end up saying something much less helpful, remind yourself that this is the normal process.

Just being aware that there is an alternative, and seeing in retrospect where it might fit is progress that will start you on your way, even if your behavior has not yet changed. Give enforceable statements a try. They can be one important piece of a better relationship with your kids.

When in Doubt...Empathy

One thing that is clear in doing a lot of parent coaching and counseling with parents is that it is hard to figure out when to respond in what way with your child. Should I empathize? Should I set a limit? Should I offer a choice? Certainly we can find books that would advice any of the three, and dozens more. As parents we can’t be blamed for feeling baffled, especially at the end of a long day (whether at work or at home) when it feels like we'd be lucky to have two brain cells to rub together.

Rather than several approaches to sort through, it can be nice to have a single fall back option. One that can almost always draw on, and one that would very rarely cause more of a problem. Lots of parents find it helpful in these situations to go back to having/showing empathy for the child. Keep in mind that empathy is not an all or nothing proposal. If something has happened that is big, our child flunking a test, hearing that a friend is really peeved at them (and for good reason), it is important in those circumstances to dig deep and come up with some actual heart-felt empathy. But we don’t need to do this for smaller everyday sorts of occurrences. For these run of the mill issues, a simple, “Bummer,” seasoned with bit of empathy can suffice. In other words, the empathy is most helpful when it is commensurate with the context.

Sometimes our gut tells us that it isn't a good time to say anything. Empathy can even come in handy during these times. We can do this just by doing nothing more than noting that we need to come back to the situation. And before we do that'll give us a bit of time to give it some consideration from the child’s point of view. I’ve yet to see a situation where the parent took the time to consider how the situation might look from the child’s viewpoint (through their temperament, preferences, developmental abilities, and areas of challenge) that this hasn’t proven helpful to the parent or to the relationship in the longrun.

The author of Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion, George Thompson, made the statement that empathy is the most important word in the English language. And this is a guy whose gig is helping to train police officers around the country how to handle the aftermath of burglaries, and the guy who is refusing to step out of the car for the breathalyser. Situations where people aren't known to be their most flexible. I thought when I first read Thompson's book back when I was teaching that he was onto something important. Knowing how whomever we are working with sees the situation, whether an angry driver who is being verbally combative with a police officer or with our 11-year-old whose attitude we’re finding hard to tolerate. After a bit of practice, on our better days, getting there can come relatively easily. On other days…not so easy. I'll have plenty of posts coming up to address how to deal with ourselves on these more difficult days.

Inaugural Quote

I thought it be appropriate to start this whole blogging thing off with a quote:

"For a long time it has seemed to me that life was about to begin; Real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be got through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life."

Father Albert D’Souza

I find this meaningful whether about life generally or about parenting. It hit me for the first time when I was in undergrad. I remember as much younger man getting very frustrated with setbacks, financial aid not coming in on time, losing 3/4 of a term paper because it was the 80s and I had yet to learn the lessons about saving frequently (to my 5 1/4 inch floppy). I used to experience a lot of my life with the following thought as my background theme, “Once I get past X hassle, then I can get on with enjoying my life.” But I began to discover exactly what this quote is getting at. If I wait until all the fires are out, until my inbox is empty, until things finally calm down, I will be waiting for a good portion of my life, rather than living it. The nature of life, I think, is that even though we get the wisdom in this quote, it is all to easy to lose sight of, which I guess is synonymous with losing perspective.