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 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.