The Crucial Role of Memory in Creating Identity and a Positive Sense of Self

The Role of Memory in Brain Development

Memory plays an important part of identity formation and creating a positive sense of self. As a child develops and has experiences, there is a part of the brain that creates a story from these experiences and over time there is a sense of self that develops. This is known as Autobiographical Memory (AM). Memory plays an important role in helping an individual remember the good choices and positive parts of oneself (“I helped Mom today with the groceries” “My brother bothered me today but I ignored him and didn’t hit him”) and is also part of what bonds us to others. We remember that another human is trustworthy based on their pattern of behavior and then a bond is formed. Memory also helps young people make better choices in the future by calling to mind mistakes previously made and correcting future behavior. When development happens normally, the parts of the brain that interpret experiences and the parts of the brain that create memory all communicate so that a seamless stream of experiences and memories are constantly being formed. The result is a young person that learns from mistakes, overcomes shame and guilt by remembering made positive choices and recognizes positive parts of herself. Socially, healthy bonds are formed with parents and caregivers, other trusted adults, and friendships are created.

Neurodevelopmental Delays and Factors that Disrupt Memory

Sometimes, this process of memory is disrupted. Neurodevelopmental disorders like autism create delays in parts of the brain. These parts do not develope correctly and communication between different parts of the brain can be disrupted. Other conditions like trauma, neglect and abuse, and grief can also disrupt normal brain functioning. Since adolescence is a time of upheaval in the brain, there can be times in the young person’s development when the function of memory is delayed or disrupted, resulting in low self-worth, self-loathing, and the inability to form or sustain relationships with others. For young people with these problems, they tend to move through life simply existing and reacting to events. Without memory functioning as it should, there is no way to interpret events and relate these events to themselves; in essence, the child does not develop a sense of self. To also complicate matters, children with these types of delays and challenges only tend to remember events associated with negative emotions (fear, sadness, frustration, etc.) which become intertwined and the child often views these events as “my fault.” Without a functioning memory to recall good choices and positive attributes about oneself to balance this out, the child is left with only the negative emotion and associates their ‘self’ as “bad” and they cannot see any other perspective. This is also why children on the spectrum tend to struggle with the concept of time and why routine is so important is helping reduce stress. It is as if the brain only registers danger or negative experiences, and so the individual remains in a sense of high alert as the sympathetic nervous system (“Fight/Flight/Freeze”) continually fires in a constant loop.

Problems that Result from Disrupted Memory Systems

As noted, there are many problems that can occur from delays or disruptions in memory systems during the course of development. A lack of a sense of self can disrupt the process of attachment, self-acceptance, and receiving and giving love and affection. Self-hatred and self-rejection can lead to failures in correctly assessing situations and may event result in self-harming behaviors like drug use or ultimately suicide. Researchers have found that individuals on the autism spectrum who hoard things and have obsessive impulses towards specified interests (video games, anime, TV shows and movies, etc.) are actually attempting to construct a sense of self through this behavior (Skirrow, Jackson, Perry, & Hare, 2015). Also, the lack of development of the sense of self is directly related to the absence of or delay in AM (Tanweer, Rathbone, & Souchay, 2010) in individuals with autism and which disrupts social development and can result in depression.

What Can Parents and Caregivers Do?

For parents and caregivers, there are specific things that can be done to help compensate for memory deficits and delays. For example:

·       Using routines and schedules to help make life predictable and organized.

·       Connecting with the individual through the specified interest (watching a show, learning about a video game, and understanding the items that are collected).

·       Building Relationship: I can’t say enough about this one. Spending quality time in play, connecting, and showing interest through relationship helps instill memories that are positive in nature. Studies have shown that play and connection shift the brain out of fight/flight/freeze and shut off the ‘loop’ of survival mode. The longer the brain maintains a sense of safety the longer this becomes the new normal and other parts of the brain that need to grow and come ‘online’ do so. This is a foundational component of my counseling approach and I’ll never change it or apologize for it. Young people with neurodevelopmental challenges are often managed like objects, but yet never develop a sense of self or understand who they are. Connecting through the individual’s specified interest is an important way to send the message that you value them and they can find a sense of value through the relationship. This is very important later in life in forming relationships and becoming as independent as possible, and also in being able to deal with negative emotions like sadness and fear.

·       Encouragement and Praise: Whether you’re raising a child with autism or dealing with an adolescent who just seems to be in a negative ‘funk,’ find ways to offer positive messages of encouragement and praise them when you see an opportunity to do so.

Last, remember that the process of developing a sense of self and identity is a slow process. If there is a significant challenge like autism or if the child has experienced a significant amount of distress in the form of loss, abandonment, or trauma, it will take time for this to be overcome. Counseling that specifically focuses on these issues can be extremely helpful through helping the individual process past events and develop self-understanding and self-appreciation.  

References

Skirrow, Paul, Jackson, Paul, Perry, Ewan and Hare, Dougal Julian (2015). I collect therefore I am- Autonoetic consciousness and hoarding in Asperger Syndrome. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy 22 (3) , pp. 278-284. 10.1002/cpp.1889

Tanweer, T., Rathbone, C. J., & Souchay, C. (2010). Autobiographical memory, autonoetic consciousness, and identity in Asperger syndrome. Neuropsychologia, 48(4), 900-908. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2009.11.007

Parenting Books Made Easy: Simple And Clear Advice

“Dr. Hull, what book can you recommend that will help me in my parenting?”

 

Many parents ask me if there is a book they can read about what a child really needs in our complicated world, and I reassure them that they don't need a book. “Keep it simple” I say and remind them of the following unshakable truths of what a young person needs.

 

1) Love and Relationship. Your child's sense of safety and security comes from attachment to you. His or her ability to grow mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually are directly related to being with you and around you. You are the greatest teacher your child will ever have. Our culture tries to minimize our impact (watch Disney channel to see parents portrayed as lazy, stupid, and untrustworthy), making us think that we just need to keep our kids busy. Don't believe this lie: Young people need and want relationship with us. Build it, play with them, and find activities with which to teach values of loyalty, hard work, and persistence.

 

2) Boundaries. Your child needs to know their place and what is expected of them. He or she needs to know that you are in control and exactly what role they are to play. Remember that this will shift as they grow. This area involves giving chores, expecting your child to help around the house, and doing their best in school and extra-curricular activities. They need to know that what you provide for them comes from hard work and you should teach them about being grateful for good things and appreciating what they have that comes from you.

 

3) Consequences/Rewards. Good parents give their child a clear knowledge of what will happen if he or she chooses to not follow the rules, and also reminds them that the old adage “Make Good Choices and Good Things Happen” is true as well. Children will work harder for their freedom than being threatened by the fear of being punished. However, when they make a mistake, give them a consequence and stay calm. Use the experience as a teaching tool and let them learn from it but deliver it in love. The website loveandlogic.com has some great ideas for managing unwanted behavior and how to deliver consequences in loving but firm ways. I must say here that you must remember that it is not your job to make your child happy (It's impossible to MAKE someone happy anyway) and that your child will be unhappy with you at some point during the course of their life. Don't let this shake you; your child is programmed to love you and he or she cannot see what you see. Stay calm, demand respect, and use it as an opportunity to model that you are in control. Wise parents don't allow a child's emotional reaction to change the parent's values. 

 

4) Praise and a Chance to Shine. Every child needs to know they are valued and that you notice when they are doing well. Give opportunities for them (this is done through relationship by the way) to show you what they know and what they can do. Model for them the giving and receiving of compliments and remember to praise effort and not necessarily the result.

 

5) A Channel of Communication. Kids and young people need to talk, have you noticed? Are you listening? Give your young person undivided attention every day and set aside judgments and opinions. Just be. Just listen. The time for teaching comes later. Simply sit and let them get it all out. If you notice, kids and adolescents talk in a loop: They start with a story, give an opinion, and then arrive at a conclusion or idea of what should be done, which is usually pretty insightful and often aligns with the values of the parent. However, most parents jump in during the story part, commenting with opinion, judgment, and a lecture that leaves the young person discouraged and dejected. Just listen, and see what happens. Your kid knows more than you think.

 

6) Down Time. Kids need time to be kids. Teens need to sleep in. Rest is not bad; being allowed to lie on a bed and stare at the ceiling is not a sin. Model for them how to relax and have fun.

 

7) Balance. Keep this in the forefront of your mind and you will always give your young person the necessary skills that will serve them well. A time for work, a time for play, a time for rest, a time for relationship and family, a time for friends, a time to learn, a time to show what has been learned. There is a time to spend, a time to save, time to make new friends and a time to let friends go; a time for joy and prosperity and a time for sadness and loss. Wise people and successful people live in a state of balance. Give your children this great gift.

 

There you have it in a nutshell. All the books out there simply re-arrange these in a slicker package but these are the basics. Keeping things simple will help you stay grounded while the world shakes around you. Remember that children and adolescents look to us for their sense of safety and security: If we are easily swayed and inconsistent, they naturally look elsewhere for something or someone else to ground them.     

Neuroplasticity Part One: Overview and Good News for Parents!

What is Neuroplasticity?        

A hot topic lately in the world of neuroscience is “neuroplasticity.” Neuroplasticity is a phenomenon in which the brain is able to restructure itself through the process of making new neural pathways during the lifespan. Neural pathways are the information “superhighways” on which information travels to and from different parts of the brain. Neuroplasticity occurs when nerve cells grow and change as a result of new situations and circumstances. One simple way of looking at neuroplasticity is to imagine the brain with a vast army of individual computer programmers inside that are constantly changing code based on what information is pouring in through the senses. As the code changes, so does thinking and behavior, and memories are created.  

How Does Neuroplasticity Work?

            Remember those computer programmers? As the information pours in, the programmers have to do something with it. The brain is very efficient, and information that is familiar and repetitive is logged as non-important and not much happens. In fact, there is good evidence to show that parts of the brain that are not used can be shut down or “pruned.” However, when new information is received, the programmers note this and if the new information continues to flow in, the programmers “re-wire” certain parts so that the new information can be used which results in new learning and behavior patterns. When parts of the brain have been damaged and no longer work properly, the programmers will take new information and send it to other parts of the brain to try and compensate for the parts that are not working.

Why is Neuroplasticity Such a Big Deal?

            There was a time in neuroscience when it was believed that once parts of the brain were done developing or were damaged, those parts could not change or heal. This “hard-wiring” theory is characterized by the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Research in recent years proves otherwise and is revolutionizing the lives of those affected by brain injury, addiction, and mental illness. For counselors like myself, neuroplasticity plays a major role in helping children, adolescents, and adults overcome negative habits and building new ways of thinking, behaving, and forming relationships.

            While neuroplasticity is exciting, there are some conditions that can disrupt the process like depression and stress. Stressful and traumatic experiences, because they represent new information are also logged into the neuron development and neural pathway process. This tells us that conditions like trauma and depression should not be allowed to persist and should be treated as soon as possible.

Neuroplasticity, Parenting, and Play

            For parents, neuroplasticity provides a lot of encouragement. First, relationships are important with your children. Spending quality time in relationship with your child instills learning and a solid foundation of safety. Second, using words and acts of kindness and providing firm boundaries is important in giving your children the necessary combination of love and safety. Second, play is important in many ways. Play helps children make sense of their world but when play is done with a trusted companion, learning, a sense of safety, and brain growth occurs at maximum rates. Play also helps children who have suffered from brain trauma, post-traumatic stress, or neglect heal and be able to learn and form new relationships with caregivers. I have used play with many young people who suffered from neglect and abuse, and who also suffer from great fear and sadness. I am a witness to the life-changing process of play and have had the privilege of seeing long-term change as these children move through adolescence and into adulthood.

            Neuroplasticity reminds us of just how amazing our brains really are, and how important relationship is with those we care about. For children, their brains are constantly growing and mapping their world, and they need relationships that are predictable and stable to help them get through the developmental process in a healthy way. My next blog post will continue to discuss neuroplasticity and the role it plays with adolescents, families, and other relationships. Stay tuned!

The Importance of Drudgery

Drudgery: Used to describe work that is boring or unpleasant but must be done. (Advanced English Dictionary: Harper Collins).

One of my favorite words is “drudgery.” I don’t know why. It is one of those words that sounds unpleasant. Perhaps is the thickness of the d-g put together which creates a sound of iron-on-steel pounding against one another sending sparks flying and creating deafening sounds of hard labor. The sheer sound of the word can make you taste dirt in your mouth, feel grit on your hands, and feel the sting of sweat pouring down your face and into your eyes as you blink furiously to clear it.

I spent part of this summer in upstate New York researching the roots of my family. On my father’s side, my ancestors came to America during the Puritan migration and settled in Massachusetts, then Connecticut, and finally upstate New York west of Rochester. While there are a few notable ancestors (a captain in the Army during the French and Indian War; a Methodist preacher in the early 1800’s; a land owner during the reign of Henry VIII) most of my ancestors were farmers. Simple folk. Most lived in one area for most of their lives and endured the life of the farmer: Living at the mercy of the weather and hoping for enough food to get through the winter. At the end of their eighty years or so, they passed on the land and a meager sum of money to their children who continued the cycle.

I stood near a field on which my aunt told me she, and my mother also after my aunt had left home, hitched up four horses and plowed it at the age of 12. The word “drudgery” kept coming to mind as I stared at that field. I thought of the lives of the young people I see today, and the relatively easy life I had growing up, and wondered how kids of today would fare with an existence like that. Then it hit me. Even in modern times, with all our technology and comforts, there is still drudgery that must be tolerated and accepted. Note the second part of the definition above: Work…boring or unpleasant…But must be done. But Must Be Done. Dishes and laundry need to be washed, garbage must be taken out, and on and on. Take most people’s jobs for instance. Regardless of the amount of money that is paid, most jobs have one common factor: Drudgery. Not necessarily fun or flashy, the common element from a professional athlete to the pharmacist to the check-out clerk are the repetitive, boring tasks that must be done. Most people aren’t farmers, but they perform jobs that provide, in essence, the same results. The job pays the bills and enables them to own a home and few nice things that hopefully can be passed down to their children. Most people don’t feel like doing the mundane daily tasks, but those tasks must be done.

How does this apply to raising children in a tech world in which nearly anyone with a YouTube or Instagram page can be their own little megastar? We need to introduce our children early to the idea that most of life isn’t standing on a stage in glittering lights and getting accolades. Most of life is getting up early, performing tasks in which there will be little thanks or recognition, and doing what must be done. If there is recognition or thanks, well, that’s nice, but we need to teach our kids that simply performing the task because I saw it need to be done and I did it with my very best brings about an internal satisfaction that creates energy for me to create something or go do something I really enjoy. It is about teaching our kids that despite what they feel, there are tasks that must be done.

I’m not saying we parents should be moping about with looks of desperation and gloom. I see a lot of kids who are terrified of becoming adults because their parents constantly complain about how hard and unrewarding life is. That creates despair. There’s more than enough of that to go around. But there needs to be a balance. Your children should have chores. They should have to spend their own money that they have earned from chores on things they want. They should have to pick up dog poop. They should have to dig a hole to plant something. If they break something, they should have to replace it. They should see that the home is like a ship: Everyone has a task and when everyone works together, things get done and then there is fun. Here’s one that parents in today’s “my-kid-is-a-rock-star-Instagram-hero-with-5,000-followers” hate to hear: Let them fail. Hold them, comfort them, encourage them to keep trying, but let them experience the sting of pouring everything they have into something and it completely doesn’t work out. Why? Because that is how most of life works. But, from the failure comes acceptance, trying again, learning about myself, and the courage to move forward. Read any Wikipedia page about any successful famous person and you’ll find the theme: Drudgery and failure.

So, as you think about what you want to pass on to your kids to prepare them for life, think about the theme of helping them accept and tolerate drudgery. While it probably doesn’t sound pleasant, think about the importance of helping them find the balance of doing what must be done and the internal satisfaction that comes from it. The result: A self-motivated person who isn’t afraid of work that can thrive in nearly any situation and be self-sufficient regardless of what is going on around them. Sounds pretty good to me.  

Helping Kids Thrive In Spite of War, Political Unrest, and World Chaos

Recent current events such as the United States bombing Syria and Afghanistan has raised the level of concern and awareness of many Americans. Increased military activity in the Middle East and North Korea, combined with seemingly unstable relations with Russia, has gotten everyone thinking about the possibility of war. Regardless of one’s political beliefs, there is no doubt that world events have a significant emotional and mental impact upon children. As someone who meets with young people on a regular basis, I can tell you that the threat of war is on their minds. While our country has technically been “at war” in the Middle East for a long time, it seems far removed from most people’s minds. For many young people, the idea of firing missiles and attacking another country is like a video game or a TV show. The realness of it is hard to grasp. For a country that spends two billion just on Easter candy, it is hard to think of people in other countries without shoes, food, or the ability to breathe clean air.

The Unknown: The Greatest Fear

Most children’s fears are related to the unknown. Fear of the dark is a good example. What is “the dark?” It is unknown what might be out there. Common childhood fears such as abandonment, “bad guys,” and new situations such as a new school year, new soccer team, etc. have the common theme of the fear of change. Fear of losing loved ones has the element of the unknown in that if all my caretakers are gone then how will I be cared for. The reason that threats such as war causes fear is because of the element of the unknown. The unknown is scary because there is a lack of context of understanding. Once the unknown becomes known by breaking things down into smaller pieces that are familiar, the level of fear usually decreases. War, and the threat of war contains elements of all the aforementioned fears.

Discussions about unpleasant things such as war are uncomfortable for parents, which is usually why questions about such matters are deflected or ignored. None of us like to walk with our children into discussions where fear might be stirred up, yet proactive discussions at key periods can give children a sense of safety and preparedness. As I often say to parents, “Would you rather them hear if from another 4th grader or would you like to guide the discussion?” Here are some key points to consider when discussing war and global events that are unpleasant.

Make Discussions Age Appropriate and Use Familiar Concepts

            For younger children, explain in simple terms that since the beginning of time there have been conflict between nations. Use pictures and ideas from what they know and understand. For example, in nearly every show or video/computer/tablet game there are conflicts depicted in the action. For example, shows such as My Little Pony, Thomas the Train, all the way to Dragon Ball Z all model conflict resolution and overcoming challenges. Games as simple as Mario Bros. and as complex as Minecraft all contain the themes of facing conflict, dealing with “bad guys,” and either getting help or running for shelter. Children’s books also deal with these themes. When your child is scared about what they’ve heard or seen on the news, think about their favorite show, book, or game to try and relate the concept through this medium.

Using Play to Create Understanding

            As I’ve written about many times, play is a way for a child to relate to the real world but from a safe distance. Using dolls, stuffed animals, LEGO mini-figures etc. are great tools to act out disagreements between people. Using arts and crafts such as painting, clay, or drawing is another great tool to give your child the chance to express and work through emotional fear and worry. Remember: A sense of safety comes through understanding. Helping children understand the system of how our government works, how the military makes decisions, and why other countries have different ways of thinking all create a framework of meaning and a sense of safety. Most video/tablet/computer games have the themes of challenges, bad guys, etc. that allow a parent to explain that life has the same themes but that there are ways to protect oneself and find safety.

Build Relationship to Instill Safety

            It isn’t rocket science to know that a relationship with trusting, caring adults provides a foundation of safety on which children can thrive. While parents do a lot today and are great managers of their children’s lives, I find that there is little relationship building going on. By spending quality time with children, parents can create a sense of confidence and stability in their child. Related to our topic of helping children with world chaos, children look to the parents to check how mom and dad are doing: If mom and dad aren’t freaking out, then I don’t need to freak out. However, if a solid relationship is not established, the child will not trust that mom and dad are reliable predictors of safety. How much time does it take to build relationship with my child? I tell parents 15-30 minutes at least three or four days per week.

Conclusion

            Chaotic world events can make parents feel completely helpless in providing a sense of safety for our children. However, I hope that this helps you see that you have more power than you think in instilling a sense of safety and confidence in your child, despite what is going on in the world. The true goal of parenting is to provide our children with what they will need to face in an uncertain world when we are not there to steady them, and the only way to do that is to teach through relationship.

Why Is My Child So Emotional?

I am often asked by parents, “Why is my child so emotional?” This question comes from parents of children as well as teens. It's a good question that doesn't always have an easy answer. Some of a child's emotional reactions are inherited and embedded in their personality, some of a child's emotional reactions are learned based on what a parent permits and what a parent models. Some of the emotional reactions of children are related to puberty and the release of hormones and physiological changes in the body and brain. Yet another factor is the child's environment such as what is going on in the home, social stressors, and pressures that come from academics and extra-curricular activities. We MUST remember that we will NEVER know what it is to be our children's ages - what I mean as that you and I can never imagine the pressure of today's world with all the social media, 24 hour news, and bombardment of images and messages through TV, internet, and texting. It is easy to forget how different the pressures are for our children than they were for us at their ages. These factors creates pressure which triggers the child's “fight-or-flight” response which causes emotional overload.

When you see your child reacting emotionally, you are witnessing the phenomenon of the logical/rational part of their brain disengaging which leads to the child being reactive. It is important to remember that this is a biological response and the child is not purposefully being “bad” or “defiant.” One of the best descriptions that I have ever read of a picture that helps explain the ups and downs of young people is in a book by Irving B. Weiner called Psychological Disturbance in Adolescence ((1970). Weiner quotes Josselyn (1954):

The behavior of the adolescent is typical of that of individuals, of whatever age, who have not found an adequate integrative pattern with which to reconcile their own impulses, demands of conscience, and the demands of reality. Adolescence, as is equally true of neurosis and psychoses, is characterized by relative failure of the ego. Demands place upon it have caused a strain that it cannot meet. (p. 225).

The ego is a term given to represent the part of a person that operates in reality and is able to resist selfish urges and desires in order to behave in a mature manner. Children and adolescents are in a state of ego development and this helps explain why young people appear immature, selfish, and easily emotionally overwhelmed. So, you may ask, how can we help our kids? Thankfully, I have some answers for you.

First, I hope it is evident from this information to see how important it is for you the parent to be non-reactive. Yelling, threatening, or arguing with an emotional child or adolescent is a complete waste of time. Using a firm voice to give directives is different from stooping to their level of emotionality and being out of control. We must commit to being good models of emotional maturity for our children.

Second, work to create an environment of balance and peace. It is possible to live and function in a fast-paced world and use the technology available to us without being overwhelmed by it. By following routine and building in times of relaxation and rest for ourselves and our children, we show them a balanced approach to life. Listen to this quote by Horrocks (1954):

If the environment is such that the adolescent can gradually be inducted into experiences for which he is prepared and with which he is able to cope, if he is allowed to assume responsibility and play a mature role when he is ready to do so, and if there is a real effort on the part of adults to accept his interests and, where possible, to meet his needs, the adolescent will find his transition into maturity comparatively smooth and uncomplicated (p. 700).

Third, through relationship and connection, get to know your child's emotional maturity level. Seek to give them opportunities to step up and experience higher levels of responsibility but not too much that he or she becomes overwhelmed on a continual basis. This is yet another reason to make our homes safe places of love, hope, and encouragement. When our children arrive home after their busy days, our homes can be places of balance where their emotional batteries are recharged.

Fourth and last, spend time with your child or adolescent in play and relationship. Playing helps regulate the brain and pulls the young person out of “fight-or-flight” mode and allows you to model how to deal with the stress of everyday life and still find enjoyment and joy. Be mindful of how you talk with your young person and what you say around them. Do you make life seem as though it is terrible and hopeless? I talk with many young people in my office who are afraid of becoming adults because all they hear from the adults in their lives is how bad the world is. Remember to give them the view that while living in our world is hard sometimes, we always have the ability to make good choices and our attitude is always ours to control. Also, always remember to model the fact that relationships are the lifeblood and foundation to a healthy, stable individual.

 

Horrocks, J.E. The Adolescent. In L. Carmichael, ed., Manual of Child Psychology, 2nd. Ed. NewYork: Wiley, 1954, pp. 697-734.

Josselyn, I.M. The ego in adolescence. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 24: 223-227, 1954. 

The Importance of Identity

One of the key tasks of adolescence is the forming of an identity. If all goes well, the teenager emerges from the period between 12 and 19 with a sense of self. That is, they have some idea of who they are and who they want to be. One of the main struggles that causes headaches for parents during adolescence is known as "identity confusion," that time during adolescence when the young person experiments with different fashion, friends, hairstyles, music, etc. This seemingly constant flip-flopping can drive parents crazy as mom or dad worries that what they see in their teenager is going to be a permanent fixture of the kid's personality. Just when mom or dad accepts a certain representation of the teen's person-hood such as music or a way of dressing, it seems the teenager is trying to push the boundary further and wants to adopt yet another form of self-expression. Perhaps the biggest cause of stress between teens and parents is a sense of "You just don't understand me" that is felt on both sides.

While it can be maddening for a parent to witness the challenges of identity confusion, it is a very necessary process and an important developmental experience for the adolescent. Adulthood brings big challenges such as career building, marriage, raising children, and so on. Successful adults who rise to meet these challenges and do well are individuals who know who they are and what they want. They are solid in their beliefs and form deep, committed relationships. Conversely, an adult who doesn't have a solidly formed identity struggles to meet the demands of adulthood - they tend to be easily crushed by challenges and flounder. Raising teens today is also complicated by the influx of information that is available to them through the internet. Social, political, and racial views and beliefs are put in front of our children at an astounding rate which impacts their beliefs and ideas and thus impacts the identity development process. However frustrating for parents, the experimentation with various identities helps the young person figure out what they want and who they want to be. The teen is literally learning through a series of experiments, that clothes and the outward appearance have nothing to do with what really matters in a person. Thus, by the early to mid-twenties, there is a sense of intrinsic satisfaction and a sense of worth and value that is not related to things or appearance.

Parents often ask me in these moments of exasperation if there is a quicker way through this process. I tell them no, there isn't. Many parents assume that they can pound their beliefs into their teen, as if by threatening a little more or pushing a little harder somehow it will work. Usually, however, it makes things worse and the relationship between the parent and teen is broken, sometimes irreparably. "So what do I do?" asks the mom whose 16-year-old daughter tells her she doesn't believe in God anymore. "How do I handle this?" asks the dad whose 15-year-old son wants to color his hair and get piercings and begins making friends with peers whose beliefs are the exact opposite of his father.

Here are some tips to navigate these rough waters.

1) Don't Panic and Don't be Reactive. Recognize the normalcy of this stage of development and see the benefits of the desire of the teen to want to try a new look or adopt a new set of beliefs. Talking to other parents whose children are now adults can be a great way to gain perspective and hear what they went through. They will often tell you what they think they did right and what they wished they would have done.

2) Set Firm Expectations, Boundaries, and Consequences and Be Consistent. Having a plan prior to a crisis usually means a successful outcome. Your goal as a parent of a teen is to guide them, keep them safe, while giving them space to be their own person. This is at times difficult because these areas can often overlap. Be clear about what you expect, be clear about the rules, and enforce consequences consistently when the teen makes a wrong choice.

3) Build Relationship. You know if you've read anything that I write that this is part of the equation. Build in time together and don't stop connecting. Remember, much of the posturing of a teen is just that - an act to look confident and bold, when in reality the child is scared and worried. By continuing to reach out, you help them through the fear and provide reassurance.

4) Know What You'll Bend On and What You Won't. Most parents get into trouble because they make snap decisions without thinking them through. Remember: You are the parent and you have the right to step back and think about things before making a decision. Do some research, get some advice, and let your teen know you'll get back to them regarding a certain type of hairstyle or if they can attend a party. But give them the respect of listening to them and letting them know that you've heard them. For things you absolutely know are not acceptable to you, make those clear and let your teen know that those are non-negotiable.

5) Don't Be Afraid to Seek Professional Help. Contacting a counselor or talking with your child's teacher or guidance counselor can provide you with perspective and guidance. Family counseling can be extremely valuable in showing your teen that you want to help them as much as you can and want to understand their perspective. Family counseling provides each party involved a neutral place to share thoughts and ideas while working through difficult developmental transitions.  

Don’t be afraid of the identity formation process. It is normal and a healthy part of your teen’s journey to adulthood.  

Autism and Co-Occurring Disabilities

I recently wrote a chapter for a textbook related to counseling children with disabilities. My chapter focused on children with autism and co-occurring disabilities.  “Co-occurring” means that there is another type of problem that the child is experiencing in addition to autism.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2014) state that about 1 in 68 children have been identified with autism.  Many are unaware of the fact that autism often co-occurs with other “developmental, psychiatric, neurologic, or medical diagnoses” (Levy, Giarelli, Lee, Schieve, Kirby, Cunniff, Nicholas, Reaven, & Rice, 2010, pp. 267) and that the co-occurrence of one or more non-autism developmental diagnosis is an alarming 83% (CDC, 2014).  Yes, you read that correctly: 83%!  While I was aware that many of the young people with whom I work suffer from other disabilities, it stunned me to know that the number was so high.  As I did more research for the chapter, I was alarmed to find that the rate of occurrence of each disability is several times higher than for those in the general population.  Here are some of the co-occurring disabilities and the rates at which they occur.

Cognitive Delays, Neurological Issues, and Epilepsy

            A high percentage of children with autism, especially more severe forms of autism, experience cognitive delays and problems with reasoning and intellectual functioning.  Neurological development is disrupted because of delays in brain development or due to certain areas not developing at all.  Epilepsy is common among children with autism.  Tuchman (2011) found that a person diagnosed with autism is 10 to 30 times more likely to have epilepsy than those in the general population and that the long-term outlook for a person with autism and epilepsy is poor.

Gastro-intestinal and Eating Problems

            Gastro-intestinal (GI) problems and eating problems co-occur with autism.  Wang, Tancredi, & Thomas (2011) conducted a large study and found that 42% of children with autism had GI issues, as opposed to only 12% of their neurotypical siblings.  Eating problems such as refusing certain foods, craving other foods, as well as acting out during mealtimes are problems that many parents of autism children report (Durand, 2014).  Stress, which is a common part of the autism child’s world due to the triggering of the sympathetic nervous system (Bodenach & Bogdan, 2012), is believed to be a factor in GI problems, while sensory issues and hypersensitivity to texture are a factor in children with autism having difficulty tolerating new and different foods.

Psychological Problems

            Anxiety and mood disorders co-occur with autism at an alarming rate.  Durand (2014) states that “roughly 50-80%” can be diagnosed with an anxiety related disorder (p. 58).  The activation of the “fight-flight-freeze” response and release of neurotransmitters such as cortisol and adrenaline create a sense of disorder and danger, leaving the child feeling unsteady and unsafe.  The behaviors that result in an anxiety related diagnosis (obsessive-compulsive disorder, separation anxiety, phobias, etc.) are all connected to the child’s attempt to restore a sense of safety and equilibrium.  Depression occurs at rates of between 25 to 34% (Ghaziuddin, Ghaziuddin, & Greden, 2002) in individuals diagnosed with autism.  Problems from social situations, family stress, and trips to therapists, doctors, and special school classes, leave children with autism feeling overwhelmed and many turn their negative feelings inward resulting in overwhelming sadness and self-rejection.  Many children with autism have difficulty understanding emotions and due to an inability to put feelings into words, the child buries it all deep within resulting in a sense of despair and hopelessness.

ADHD

            Attention-Deficit-Hyperactivity-Disorder (ADHD) is yet another co-occurring diagnosis with autism.  When one considers the constant triggering of the sympathetic nervous system and the upheaval that results in high levels of anxiety, it seems logical that ADHD is part of the landscape for a child diagnosed with autism.  The demands of joining a confusing, fast-paced world often outweigh the child’s psychological resources.  In my experience, nearly every child diagnosed with autism usually receives an additional diagnosis of ADHD or is mis-diagnosed with ADHD instead of autism.  I believe that the reason for this is that the intellectual intensity and the inability to tolerate negative emotions creates a constant triggering of the sympathetic nervous system (“fight-flight-freeze”) which makes the child appear to have severe impairments in the areas of impulse control and self-regulation. 

Sleep Problems

            A final problem that often plagues the child with autism are issues with sleep (Durand, 2014). Trouble falling asleep, sleeping too much, as well as insomnia are all characteristics of those diagnosed with autism. Sleep problems affect the mental and emotional functioning of the child as well as academic performance and overall coping skills (Staples & Bates, 2011).  From a family perspective, sleep problems of the child with autism can create stress on the family system and the bed time routine is often a major problem area that is mentioned during the initial counseling intake session.

What Does All This Mean?

            This information has several implications for families with a child with autism.  First, parents should not feel shocked when they discover that their child has something else going on in addition to autism.  For whatever reason, the rate of a co-occurring disability is high, and knowing this can help parents be prepared to find coping skills and strategies to keep stress at a minimum.  Second, investigating the co-occurring disability and finding effective treatment will be helpful to lessen the effects of stress and anxiety on the child and everyone involved.  Third, routine and structure as well as building relationship are of utmost importance.  It is hard enough to parent a child with autism but for those parents who have a child with autism and a co-occurring disability, it is an overwhelming task.  However, creating routine and structure with a clearly defined system of rewards and consequences, in addition to making time for play and relationship minimizes stress and allows the child to stay on track developmentally.

The Role of Counseling Children with Autism and a Co-Occurring Disability

            Counseling for children with autism who have a co-occurring disability has many benefits.  Learning to put feelings and thoughts into words, developing a sense of self-understanding and self-worth, as well as learning coping techniques to deal with stress are just a few of the benefits.  Play therapy and relationship-based therapy provides the child with an affirming environment wherein the child uses play to express thoughts and feelings which helps manage stress and anxiety.  Play therapy can be tailored to address a specific problem such as low self-worth or anxiety, and it can be taught to parents in family therapy sessions so that they can take the techniques and implement those in the home environment.  Play helps build self-worth and create a sense of identity and self-understanding. 

A Final Word…

            Autism and co-occurring disabilities occur together at an alarmingly high rate.  Children with autism who have a co-occurring disability face immense challenges in daily living.  Families with a child with autism who have a co-occurring disability experience high levels of stress and many parents carry a sense of despair at being unable to help their child and to meet the child’s developmental needs.  Counseling offers a safe haven for children with autism and co-occurring disabilities and their families.  Play therapy and relationship based therapy are ways to help children with autism and a co-occurring disability deal with stress and increase self-worth and self-understanding.  Family therapy is useful to teach parents coping skills and learn effective ways to manage stress, create routing and structure, and build relationship with their child. 

References

Badenoch, B. & Bogdan, N.  (2012). Safety and connection: The neurobiology of play. In L.Gallo-Lopez and L. C. Rubin (Eds.), Play-Based Interventions for Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders (pp. 3-18). New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Autism. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html.

 

Durand, V. M. (2014). Autism spectrum disorder: A clinical guide for general practitioners (First Edition.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

 

Ghaziuddin, M., Ghaziuddin, N., & Greden, J. (2002). Depression in persons with autism: Implications for research and clinical care. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32(4), 299-306. doi:10.1023/A:1016330802348

 

Levy, S. E., Giarelli, E., Lee, L. C., Schieve, L. A., Kirby, R. S., Cuniff, C., Nicholas J., Reaven, J., & Rice, C. E. (2010). Autism spectrum disorder and co-occurring developmental, psychiatric, and medical conditions among children in multiple populations of the United States. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 31(4), 267–275.

 

Staples, A. D., & Bates, J. E. (2011). Children’s sleep deficits and cognitive and behavioral adjustment. In M. El-Sheikh (Ed.), Sleep and development: Familial and socio-cultural considerations (pp. 133–164). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

 

Tuchman, R. (2011). Epilepsy and encephalography in autism spectrum disorders. In D. G. Amaral, G. Dawson, & D. Geschwind (Eds.), Autism spectrum disorders (pp. 381–394). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/med/9780195371826.003.0026

 

Wang, L. W., Tancredi, D. J., & Thomas, D. W. (2011). The prevalence of gastrointestinal problems in children across the United States with autism spectrum disorders from families with multiple affected members. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 32, 351–360. doi:10.1097/DBP.0b013e31821bd06a

 

 

 

 

Sometimes It Gets Worse Before It Gets Better

“Sometimes it gets worse before it gets better…”

I learned this phrase from a wise teacher when I began working with children and families long ago. She explained to me that there is a fundamental resistance to change in all human beings, but especially young people. One of the things that I usually share with parents during my introductory session is that their child’s behavior might get worse before it gets better. I don’t want to discourage them or frighten them, but instead I want to steady them through the murky, undoubtedly discouraging times of feeling as though they are failures and that their child is really broken. I have written before about how the human brain is built to be efficient – once something is identified as needed for survival, the brain directs thinking and behavior so that a routine is formed which in turn provides a sense of comfort and safety. A pattern is formed so that the behaviors necessary in this survival loop become automatic so that the need or want is more easily accessible the next time around. A good way of thinking about this is to imagine the route you drive every day. Sometimes you’ll notice that when you arrived at home or work, you can’t remember the exact details of your trek – in a way, you were operating on autopilot. Part of your brain took care of the mechanics of driving while another part was thinking of something else. Now imagine how you feel when your typical route is disrupted and you have to take a detour. Suddenly, you feel different as you have to readjust to the new stimuli and you have to pay attention. Now, if you take the detour route long enough, it becomes the new “normal” and pretty soon you don’t even think about it.

For young people, this process is streamlined even more because they are still developing and in learning stages. In primitive times, these formative years were the most dangerous because the child could wander off or become injured due to a lack of survival skills. Staying close to a caretaker and not having to think about complex skills kept them safe. Today, children and adolescents look for the easiest way of doing things not because they are lazy, but because anything new or different is frightening. Thus, there is resistance. So, when you are attempting to change your child’s behavior, expect resistance and sometimes, the behavior will get worse before it gets better. Our brains are constantly mapping our environment and behaviors in order to keep us from doing things that prevent us from getting our needs met. This is both reassuring and scary: Eating right and exercising can be habitually formed and so can a $300.00 a day cocaine habit.

Part of good parenting is changing the behavior that we don’t want to see in our kids and instilling new ways of thinking and behaving so that our children will have the skills necessary to be independent and successful. You don’t like the way your ten year old talks back, so you set up new rules along with consequences in order to change it. You are worried that your teen is spending too much time on their phone so you decide to limit phone time along with consequences/rewards in order to help them have enough time for other things. And what usually happens? There is an emotional reaction, then resistance, then a “testing” period that the young person puts you through to see if you’re really serious (this again, is their brain desperately trying to keep the previously “normal” pattern of doing things) and after a while, if you’ve done what Dr. Kevin has taught you and stayed the course and didn’t panic and become reactive, the new behavior is formed slowly but steadily. This again sheds light on how important it is to leave your emotional reaction out of the equation. The young developing brain will look for anything to focus on other than the actual behavior change and if you are emotionally reactive, that brain would much rather argue and play on the emotional jungle gym than deal with the actual issue at hand. So, to review, when you are interested in changing behavior, here are some rules to follow:

1)      Introduce your new expectations when you are calm, and your young person is calm. The Family Meeting is a great time to do this, just as the management of a business would share new expectations in a meeting format.

2)      Expect resistance and don’t take it personally. Now that you know about brain development, realize that this is normal. Try moving the salt and pepper shakers to a new spot in your kitchen and watch what happens.

3)      Stay calm. Be emotionally non-reactive. Be firm, but not out of control. No matter what.

4)      Clearly state expectations and always follow it up with the consequences and rewards. “Those who want to have the privilege of having a phone that I’m willing to provide will follow the rules of when it can be used.” Also, remind your young person that if they make good choices, there is no need for consequences.

5)      Schedule periods of checking in and thank your young person for even the smallest effort. This helps them feel noticed and valued.

6)      Remember: Even though the outer behavior of your child may appear angry or sullen after new expectations/rules are introduced, deep down there is a gratitude that they know you are willing to put up boundaries to keep them safe.

I hope that this is helpful to you in your parenting journey. And, next time you have to take a detour and rearrange your plans, you’ll know why it’s such a jolt to the system.

Our Deepest Fear

Our Deepest Fear
By Marianne Williamson


Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us.

We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.

Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people won't feel insecure around you.

We are all meant to shine,
As children do.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.

It's not just in some of us;
It's in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we're liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.

These inspiring words always bring me to a sense of perspective that helps me in my role as counselor, professor, author, husband, father, and friend. Are you afraid to shine? Are you afraid to unleash yourself on the world? Can you imagine living without fear? Can you imagine not worrying about what people will think? People who you may never see again and who would not lift a finger to help you if you were in need?

Be great today. Be inspired today. Live without fear today. Tackle that task that is awaiting you that you have constantly put off because you're scared. Step up. Step out. Shine.

Navigating the YouTube Landscape

YouTube. The very name can send shudders down a parent’s spine. That internet monster with endless tentacles that reaches for your children to devour their sense of reality and shape their social awareness. YouTube is yet another example of the culture coming into our homes and taking our children captive right under our noses. But let’s be honest, you actually like YouTube. Well, at least sometimes. Based on statistics you probably watched a video from YouTube today. I did. I hear about YouTube from parents a lot, and I’m often asked questions regarding if it is “okay” for their kid to watch videos on YouTube. That is why I’m writing this today.

I’m keenly aware of YouTube because it has become a favorite app of the many young people with whom I work on the Autism spectrum. Whatever the passion of the young person, there is a YouTube channel devoted to it. Young people are loyal to their favorite “YouTuber,” fiercely defending them against anyone who dares criticize the person, and many young people feel as though they have a relationship with their favorite YouTube “celebrity.” Many young people characterize being a “YouTuber” as a viable career, and before you laugh, you might be surprised if you check out the annual income of some of the most popular YouTube personalities. But what happens when a young person wants to watch YouTube for two, five, ten hours a day? “Is that healthy?” parents ask. Before I jump to an overall answer, let’s examine some of the pros and cons of this cultural technological juggernaut.

Pros

·         YouTube shares knowledge and important information. Can’t deny it, folks, there is some great stuff on YouTube. Topics from nature to world history abound, along with information regarding the junk your mother always told you which turns out to be false (Nope, a tooth will not dissolve in Coke overnight; Sugar does not make kids hyper).

·         YouTube allows ordinary, everyday people to share their passions and create an online classroom to teach others. I found out I could use a form of Superglue (gel form, without acetone) to attach orchids to tree bark and rocks. I also fixed our dryer, patched our roof, and replaced the headlights in both cars, not to mention a ton of other stuff simply because an honest person decided to make a short video to help someone else. And trust me, when you save yourself $300 by avoiding a service call, you are grateful that YouTube exists.

·         A way to catch up on things or relive memorable events. Remember that spine-tingling scene in…You get the idea. Want to watch it again? How about a hundred times? Whether it is a sports play, scene from a film, a musical performance, or a speech, there it is. Savvy parents can use YouTube to piece together a series of events to enhance their children’s sense of history, such as the civil rights movement or the “miracle on ice.” Do you believe in miracles? “Well, as a matter of fact I do, son. See, there was this hockey coach named Herb Brooks…”.   

·         A way for kids to get to know the world. Wanna see the lizard that walks on water? What is it really like to survive 24 hours in the Sahara? Wanna go to the deepest part of the ocean? Did you see the guy who sold everything to dig wells in Africa? Well, watch this. Have you noticed that young people of today value the experience of things over the simple facts? This is a good and bad thing, but at this point of our discussion, YouTube provides the good side of this urge to be there, see it with my own eyes, and do my own research.

Cons

·         YouTube puts adult content in the hands of anyone. I have parents tell me that their kid learned all the cuss words because of various YouTube videos that were supposed to be “kid-friendly.” Welcome to our world. I reassure them that they would have heard them eventually, but I get their point. Parents feel like they should at least be able to keep the culture at the front door, but when it seeps in there is a sense of violation and anger.

·         YouTube is addictive. For many young people, especially those on the Autism spectrum who tend to have the ability to hyper-focus, YouTube becomes a sort of drug that lulls the young person into a make-believe world. The feed just keeps on rolling and one video flows into another and it is easy to spend hours just sitting and watching.

·         Distortion of Reality. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Steph Curry never misses;” or “Lionel Messi always scores a goal on every kick.” I can’t really blame them, YouTube is one big highlight reel that can make anyone look invincible and perfect. I’ve heard from coaches that YouTube has killed the urge for kids to practice because the child doesn’t believe that athletes practice or train – they Just Do It. It isn’t just about sports. Kids can watch someone play guitar perfectly, build a masterpiece in MineCraft, or create the illusion that baking a cake is effortless. The result? Surprisingly, instead of being inspired to go “do” whatever it is they’ve seen, kids and teens often feel depressed or get a sense of despair. “Why should I do it, it has already been done? And besides, I’ll never be able to make it as good as that guy.”

·         YouTube allows ordinary, everyday people to share their passions and create an online classroom to teach others. Recognize this from the pro list? Sadly, it is a con as well. Meanies, bullies, perverts, liars, “trolls” (ask your kid) all have somewhat free reign in the mega-sphere of YouTube. Violence, tragedy, and “shocking video” (that’s your local news too, by the way) are all available which desensitize a young person’s sense of compassion and limit their perspective. The danger is that young people don’t have the capacity to put information in perspective, which makes it easy for them to become overwhelmed which often results in the young person dismissing the reality of what they are seeing and cause them to put up a “wall” of indifference. Over time, this results in a lack of empathy and for some young people creates an urge to lash out at others in a similarly aggressive manner.


 

“Okay, so what am I supposed to do as a parent?”

 

I was raised in a culture that simply sought to destroy or remove any outside cultural influence. By banning movies, getting rid of a television set, not allowing any music but classical or a rousing rendition of “Nearer My God to Thee” by George Beverly Shea, my parents and others like them believed that encircling children with the wagons of denial and forced separation would magically protect us from the evils of “the world.” With lots of rules, do’s and don’ts (mostly don’ts), my friends and I lived in a real-life “bubble.” I have no bitterness towards my parents because they did what they thought was best and honestly, in a way, it was wonderful. We played games every night after dinner and went on bike rides. I developed a love of reading, writing, and Chopin’s Etudes. My times with my youth group at church and being at summer camp are some of my most cherished memories. The downside was that when I was forced to meet the demands of the “real world,” I was overwhelmed. Many of my friends were sucked in due to being denied everything as children, thus, they wanted everything – sometimes all at once. I was naïve and believed everything I saw and was told. I lacked discernment, especially in the dating and marriage department.

I don’t believe that we can ever stop the culture from reaching for our kids, but we can teach our kids and equip them to think and have discernment, while we provide limits. We can limit what comes into our homes. However, the answer isn’t to get rid of technology in your home, because the truth is that your kid will simply watch whatever when he’s with his friends and your denial will create a hunger for what he or she can’t have. The answer lies in Balance and Limits. Look at the pro list above. Pretty good stuff, right? Check your listings on your TV. Some pros and cons right? How about what is on the news right now. Pros and cons, correct? You get the idea. Nearly everything that our children come in contact with in this culture has potential positive and potential negatives. Do you know the one constant in whether or not young people become swallowed by the culture? That’s right: The parent. Parents who provide a balanced view and who create limits regarding what is viewed and for how long and watch what their children watch (relationship, sound familiar?) tend to keep children and adolescents balanced and prepared to face a topsy-turvy world. The parents adopt the role of a teacher and in essence, the parent is the filter of the information that flows to the child, but does so in a way that fosters relationship and thinking.

Don’t fear YouTube. Use it. Be a teacher. Build relationship. Find out what makes your kid tick. Laugh at the Asian zookeeper trying to keep the Panda cubs out of her leaf basket, and watch as your kids sit mesmerized when they see the “I Have a Dream Speech” by Dr. King. Let your grandkids know where you were as you show them Walter Cronkite shedding tears as he announces JFK’s death on live TV. Show them the world, and explain the greatness of visionaries. Set limits, use it as a reward to instill a work ethic, and carefully monitor who and what your kids are watching. For example, while you may like your 8-year-old kid to use headphones because you can’t stand the voice of the Game Grumps, think again. You need to hear what is going on and what is coming across the screen. Wise parents of young children only allow YouTube time when they the parent is present and within hearing distance. Parents of teens, you need to connect! Check in, build relationship, and keep an open door of sharing and dialogue. Young people of today are sharp and hunger for truth and experience. But they are often lacking in the discernment area. Parents are usually mistaken in believing that most schools of today teach young people to think – not so. That is your job! Use YouTube as a way to guide and point out discrepancies between what is real and show how the real world works. Point out and share dialogue with your teen regarding what the guy on YouTube basically made up during his rant about how he is going to “move to Europe if Donald Trump or Hillary is elected.” Sure you will, okay.

Culture and technology will never stop merging to form a formidable presence in the lives of our young people. But don’t see it as a bad thing. Later this evening I’m going to lecture to my class through the use of online technology to students scattered all over the United States, they can see me and I can see them – Amazing! Without technology, my ability to reach them would be limited, as would the information that I need to give them. We must be willing to stretch ourselves and learn and grow, and above all, connect with our kids in relationship as we guide and prepare them for life in the “real world.” Set limits, but also provide balance through teaching and relationship. Oh, and check out my YouTube channel…just kidding!  

Relationship Building: An Alternative to Consequences and Punishment

I work with many parents who have “little people:” Children that fall into the 2-5 age range when the urge for independence and assertiveness create all sorts of behavioral problems. This is also the time when separation anxiety appears and children become clingy and controlling. The urge for independence creates power struggles between child and parent and parents often hear the word “No!” coming from their child and see folded arms and tantrum-like behavior. Parents are often shocked by this and feel fear and the need to “nip it in the bud” and deliver harsh consequences in order to prevent the behavior from happening again. The parents are often surprised to see the behavior raise its ugly head again just a little while later. Our culture has labeled this time as the “terrible two’s” and new parents will often live with dread as they look upon their precious infant and think that in just a few years this precious baby will sprout wings and scales and spew fire killing us all. I hate this. The real reason behind society’s view of the “terrible two’s” is the idea that I, the parent, should be able to have my life the way I want it and my kids just better get with the program or else they are “bad” and “stupid.” Many parents will use spanking repeatedly, thinking that this will extinguish defiant behavior during these years, and most who’ve used it sheepishly admit to me that it doesn’t work.

Now, I am not a counselor who thinks that a child should not receive consequences, in fact, quite the opposite. I am a teacher of consequences but the consequences that I teach are those that are natural consequences (“Those who refuse to pick up their toys will lose the privilege of playing with them” “When you scream at me I can’t hear what you’re saying” “Those that want to play sports will have their homework done and get good grades”) The consequences that I teach preserve and create relationship; these consequences teach the child something and help build character and responsibility. Spanking says, “If I catch you you’re going to get it!” Spanking is usually done out of the parent’s fear and anger and I always ask parents “If spanking worked, why do you have to do it again and again?” I don’t want to get into a dissertation about spanking, it is a topic for another time. However, I want to help parents understand what is going on during this “defiant” stage and help you see an alternative for coming up with consequences for defiance.

First, the brain is doing some major changing during the ages of 2 – 5. Cognitive awareness increases, emotional maturity expands, and the process of being able to reason, think, and make decisions develops. The result: The child can do more for herself, think better, converse about all sorts of new things, and understand more of how the world works. The downside: FEAR. The child begins to see that things die, people move away, babies are born which takes away time from ME, Mom might forget me, etc. You get the idea. Children instinctively know that to be connected to caregivers is the number one way to survive, but they also are beginning the journey of independence which will take them into adulthood. The child’s behavior that appears to be negative is usually a way to get Mom or Dad’s attention. I spoke with a parent last week whose four-year-old began waking up in the middle of the night and asking for water, a story, even a Band-Aid for a “boo-boo.” I helped Mom see that the real issue was fear, and that what her child wanted was reassurance and comfort because at her stage in development the increase cognitive awareness had made the child realize that she could be forgotten or abandoned. The mom and I created a plan for the mom to build relationship with her daughter for 10 – 15 minutes each evening, instead of punishing the “clingy” behavior. The mom let me know a few days later that the negative behavior was gone and she was grateful. The girl was sleeping through the night again. The mom told me that she joined her daughter in play by simply sitting on the floor while her daughter played around her and the mom let her daughter join her in some new chores that satisfied the daughter’s desire to help and be in control. The mom was very grateful and she realized that her efforts to punish the negative behavior had only made things worse.

Second, when you see your child’s new “defiant” behavior don’t be shocked. Think “Aha, this is my child growing to a new level.” Welcome it, and celebrate it. How do you do that? Make time for relationship and find outlets for the new energy. Some examples are:

-New Chores (washing dishes, helping with the yard, washing the car, unloading groceries, etc.)

-New Challenges (learning to ride a bike, introduce an instrument, climbing, building, painting, etc.)

-New Cognitive Awareness (going on nature walks to notice new bugs, animals, and plants; reading higher level of books together, going to museums, libraries, etc.)

-New Play (learning a new sport, practicing a new skill like a video game or pretend play with puppets, LEGO figures, Dolls, etc.)

Each of these has one common component: RELATIONSHIP. Each gives us a chance to teach, be taught by our child, and both learn through spending time together. Shoot for 10-15 minutes a day, and a bit longer on weekends or when there is more “down” time. I often tell parents that they are great “managers” but lousy companions in relationship. Kids at the ages of transition, regardless of the age, need relationship with parents or caregivers to remain emotionally stable. For example, many teens are “bored” and hibernate because the parent has given up on attempting to build relationship because they are waiting for the parent to come to him. The teen is really wishing for the parent to notice them or create a space for time and relationship but they won’t put it into words. Defiant behavior at the teen stage is a clear indication of a need for new chores, responsibility, getting a job, and also relationship with the parent.

Remember to examine your child’s defiance and I hope you see it in a new way. Outright disrespect needs consequences and you as a parent should have a “policy and procedure” manual to deal with it. However, don’t discount the need for relationship and that often, building relationship removes the need for consequences because the real reason for the kid’s behavior is a desire for reassurance, comfort, and connection. They are discouraged or feeling insecure, but they can’t put it into words. I hope this helps you as you move forward in your parenting journey!

 

How to Talk to Your Kids About Politics

How To Talk To Your Kids About Politics

It is Presidential Election season again, folks: When blatant lying, uncensored criticism, and backbiting abounds - and grown, educated, successful people act like spoiled, angry toddlers. It also makes relatively calm, everyday folks turn into raving maniacs who scream insults at other relatively calm, everyday folks, usually about candidates that no one has actually met or know on a personal level. Each election season seems to go to a new level of hatred and scheming. When I was a boy I remember watching people say how much they hated Reagan on the evening news, and it baffled me. But in my adult years, it was Clinton, then George W. Bush, and then I didn’t think people could hate the way they hated President Obama. But it seems things have gone to a whole new level this year during this election season.

Not long ago, a girl in middle school told me she didn’t like eating with her friends at the lunch table anymore. “Why not?” I asked.

“Because,” she said, “Everybody is fighting about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and which one would make a better president.”

I was stunned. Wow. Middle school. The week before some kids told me they went to see Jeff Dunham, the superb ventriloquist in Tampa. They said that he started to do some political jokes with one of his puppets and a fistfight broke out in the crowd down in the first row. Each week in my office, young people talk about what their parents have said about the candidates. It got me thinking: What is our role as parents in talking to our kids about politics? What is our duty to teach them about the process and what they see and hear on TV and from teachers and friends? Here are some guidelines to help you.

1)      Reassure Your Child and Remove Fear

Fact: We live in the greatest country in the world. Nowhere else in the world does one have the ability to make something of themselves as we do here in the USA.  From starting at the bottom of a company and moving up, to being an entrepreneur and starting your own business, being in the United States offers opportunity that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else. Yes, you have to work very, very hard, and yes, there are many obstacles along the way, but it can be done. Is it a perfect place? Absolutely not. Racism is still here, as is sexism, poverty, and crime. But reassure your child that our land still has opportunity for progress and success.

2)      Use Discussion of Politics to Teach How Our Government Works

Fact:  Our government, while not perfect, is the best version of government for a nation of our size in the world. The three branches create a balance. One person cannot bring down our country despite what the lobby groups and 24 hour news networks tell us. George W. Bush didn’t have a hurricane machine that created hurricane Katrina and President Obama didn’t barge into all of our homes and take our ammo for our assault rifles (sorry, NRA). If you can’t remember how our government works, take a quick refresher course and do some research so that you can teach your kids that we are going to be okay. Also, being involved in our political system is important. The answer is not to avoid voting, in fact, we should be paying attention to our local government more than the national scene. Again, our democracy is not perfect and how can it be? It involves people. A quick scan of our history will show that what we are seeing in this political season is nothing new. Just review the political cartoons in Andrew Jackson’s day: Some were downright brutal.

3)      Teach Discernment, Not Blind Criticism

Fact: You don’t really know what a candidate will do once he or she is in office. Most political discussions involve assumptions. We don’t really know what Hillary would do in office, or what her policies will be. We don’t know what kind of president Mr. Trump would make or what policies he will attempt to implement. We can only assume. When our children hear us make blanket statements against people that we don’t really know, especially when these statements are negative, it creates an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. Even if I believe that the creators of South Park would make a better presidential duo than any of the candidates, I must be careful what I say when my children are around. Our job is to teach, and do so with the knowledge that our kids are the next generation. We must also teach our children that by being informed we create a faith in the system and a union of citizens, instead of putting all our faith in one person and demanding that he or she change everything and make it perfect.

4)      Notice Some Things You Don’t Like? Find Ways to Get Involved!

Fact: It’s easier to criticize and do nothing than to get involved and try to make a difference. I like parents who teach their children that they can criticize any part of the parent’s way of doing things as long as they bring two solutions for each criticism and are willing to work towards those solutions. By teaching our kids that true patriots not only notice something that needs to change but get involved and work to make differences, we teach them an important lesson for life. We teach them something about what makes truly great people great: They weren’t afraid to speak up and they put their actions behind their words. Harriet Tubman, William Wilberforce, Dr. Lucy Cabrera…and on and on. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Finally, as you navigate this increasingly difficult landscape, remember to limit the information that pours into your home and cars when you are with your children. Much of the problems in our nation come from 24 hour news coverage which wants to shock and create divides among people, instead of providing information and unity. Teach your kids how to research the issues and see both sides so that an informed, balanced opinion can be created. Don’t simply rely on our education system to teach your kids about government or politics. As I’ve said many times before, you are the most important teacher your child will ever have.  

Group Counseling

People are programmed to work and live in groups. Sure, we all need our individual space, but survival depends on being part of a clan. People that live well form attachments and know how to ask for help and provide support to those that they are called upon to care for. I have conducted group work in my counseling office for many years. The purpose of these groups are diverse. Some are to help develop social skills, some are designed to help members learn to overcome challenges of a developmental nature, while others are geared to building up self-worth and understanding one’s personality. Regardless of the nature of the group, there are several benefits to group counseling, especially when it comes to young people.

“Hey, I’m Not the Only One…”

Kids and teens often feel like “I’m the only one.” I’m the only one with divorced parents, I’m the only one who had their parent die, I’m the only one” and on and on. The reason for this is that the brain shifts to a very self-directed perspective during development while other parts of the brain are forming. Interestingly, it is during this time that the young person thinks “everyone is watching me” and feels very self-conscious and vulnerable. The group experience shatters this concept and forces the young person to hear the story of another kid that lost his mom in a car wreck. The teen that thinks no one could feel as sad as she did hears there’s someone else who felt like killing themselves because of a bully situation. Group counseling puts everyone in the same boat, and while problems are unique and take on different forms, the feelings are the same. And when we find others who feel like we do, there is a sense of empowerment and comfort that follows. For kids and teens, feeling empowered and comforted provides the emotional rain forest-like conditions in which big growth happens: Self-worth forms, which means I feel good enough to notice tasks around the house that need to done and I do them. Identity formation occurs: I know who I am, who I want to be, and I see a path to make that happen. Confidence, etc. all of these spring from being empowered and comforted by being in the presence of others who are going through similar circumstances.

“Learning is Fun…”

The group counseling experience is an exciting, dynamic experience in which new ways of thinking and behaving can be taught in a fun way. Sure, there are serious topics and discussions, but the overall teaching method is through an open invitation of fun-based learning and experience. Many young people I talk to tell me that life moves so fast for them that they have little time to know who they are or notice others around them, much less interact with others on a deep level. The group experience allows young people to take a pause – to breathe, to laugh, to think. Whether it is learning about personality or how to deal with the rejection of someone you thought was a friend, fun pervades the atmosphere with a lightness that allows learning to occur.

“There is Strength in Numbers…”

For young people with developmental challenges, life can be hard. Every human should be respected and honored for who they are, but it is not so in our culture and in our world. People with disabilities or even simple differences can trigger a predatory or nurturing instinct in others. All too often it is the predators who rule in the worlds of our young people, maiming and wounding those that appear vulnerable. The group counseling experience represents a safe place, and it is in the context of safety that growth and learning take place. When the young person leaves the group session, he or she leaves with a mindfulness of the experience. Memories are created, not only of a fun time, but of being accepted, being listened to, and feeling valued. The power of this is that when the young person re-enters the world in which they must face alone, they are armed with the positive attributes of the group experience.

If you think that your child or teen is struggling with something, or you want to expand their developmental experience consider group counseling as a fun and dynamic way to not only develop social skills, but to instill a sense of value and worth. Specific skills for managing ADHD or similar developmental challenges can easily be taught in group counseling, and there are many other benefits as well. Like one young man, who attended one of my groups when he was in elementary school told me just before he entered college, “The group was always a safe, fun place to learn and just be myself. And I really needed that back then.”

Pathways to Better Communication...

Ever heard this before?

“How was your day?”

“Good.”

“What did you learn?”

“Nothing.”

“Got any homework?”

“A little.”

“Wanna talk about anything?”

“Nope, I’m good.”

I call this a “communication pit.” To some, this is a daily routine. Nearly every parent I talk to wants to communicate better with their kids, and nearly every kid and teen I talk to wants their parents to listen. So what are we missing?

The most common issue is timing. When we want our kids to talk to us, they aren’t ready, and when they want to talk to us, we’re not ready. Thus, we miss each other and then later wonder what happened. I have some ideas about improving communication and staying out of “The Pit.”

Shatter the Old Routine: For those of you who say the same things at the same times every day to your kids, it’s time to switch things up. One way to do this is to use open-ended questions (“Tell me what happened at lunch today.”) Closed questions make kids feel interrogated or that they are in trouble. Another is to not accept one word responses (“Nuthin’”) or shoulder shrugs. Demand full sentenced, articulate responses – and demand the same out of yourself. Another way is to tell your kids about your day. I find it interesting that parents expect kids to share all about their day but the parents never tell anything about their day. It has to go both ways.

 

Create “Space” for Communication to Occur: Zinging questions from the driver seat in the car back to the 3rd row of the SUV or family van doesn’t work very well. Good communication happens when there is a face-to-face or an equal body position. Eliminate distractions such as phones, TV, or outside influences. Tell your young person, “Hey, later on let’s take 15 minutes and talk about today. How’s 7:30 sound?” This creates expectations and sends the message that talking with them is important. Once you’re in position, listen and don’t interrupt or make snap judgments. For example, when your 15 year old daughter is telling you about how disappointed she was when her friend wore a skimpy outfit to the football game, don’t jump in with a comment or judgment (“I’m tellin’ you, if she was MY kid I’d really tan her hide!”). Your daughter has told you that she’s already disappointed in her friend; the lesson is learned and the point is made so shut your mouth. One interesting factor in getting kids talking is where you, the adult, decide to sit. I’m amazed when I sit on the floor while a kid sits on the couch how comfortable they are talking to me. Remember: What works with one kid may not work for another. Be willing to be flexible and don’t get discouraged.

 

Use Toys and Art to Talk about Tough Topics: Situations like loss and rejection bring about emotions like anger, fear, sadness, and frustration. These are hard for young people to put into words. However, when you grab two LEGO mini-figures to play out the fight that your son had with a friend at PE, or you grab some paper and start sketching with your daughter while you’re listening to some of her favorite music, communication will usually start to flow. A blob of clay or Play-Doh becomes the oil that gets the communication gears going. The use of these tools creates a safe distance for the young person to look at the problem and examine their thoughts and feelings and then be able to talk about them. This is why play is so powerful: It takes the real situation that’s awful and makes it not so scary.

One thing to remember is that if you haven’t done a good job at connecting with your kid they are going to look at you like you’re crazy when you start trying. This is because they want to know that you are for real, because they aren’t going to buy in if it’s just going to be another disappointment. Be consistent, and don’t give up. Deep down, you are the one person that your young person is dying to receive attention from, even if they act like it’s not true.  

Every Day is a New Day, Every Moment a Fresh Start

“Today is a new day…This moment is a fresh start…”

I love the idea of those phrases. Most of the people that I’ve met over the past 20 years battling depression have a hard time believing these phrases. People tend to keep a record of their wrongs, their mess-ups, shortcomings…but that little phrase can release it all. I use it with kids often in the office. Just last week, I was moved to tears while a young man wept in my office over a poor choice. We discussed self-forgiveness. He discovered that you can’t forgive yourself until you find compassion for yourself.

Why do real people struggle with forgiving themselves for shortcomings? Personality is one factor: Some people are just hard on themselves, demanding perfection in every small thing. Sometimes it is something they have learned – mom or dad drilled into them that there is no room for mess-ups and that there is no way to right something once it has gone wrong. Children in these environments end pointing the finger at themselves and believing that they could have made things better.

Many of the young people I work with are perfectionists: It’s the way they make sense of a chaotic environment. They think, “If I’m perfect, and all is in order, then I’ll be safe.” But just like a cook who is trying to handle too many pots and dishes, things can get out of hand quickly. Then they are left with sadness and fear which is a terrible combination.

Are you a “parent perfectionist?” If so, you probably beat yourself up at the end of day reviewing all your failures and shortcomings with your kids. Thinking of where you snapped, that time that you angrily kicked a shoe out of the way or grabbed the whatever… “Oh, here, let me do it!” I come across these a lot and my heart goes out to them. I work hard to give them encouragement and help them learn to let things go. Many of the parents with whom I work are dealing with immensely difficult developmental problems that their kids have. This brings many frustrations and challenges that many of us would buckle under in less than an hour, me included.

The danger of not being able to forgive ourselves and see each day, each moment, as a new opportunity is that we carry the tally sheet with us into the next situation and relationship is lost. If I don’t feel worthy, there is no way that I can join my partner, my child, or neighbor in deep sustained relationship. My instinct will be to run and stay away. Or, I end up hurting others because of how much I hate myself.

What can we do about this as parents of young people who desperately need us to remain in relationship with them?

First, model the great act of accepting responsibility and making amends if you have done something to hurt your child. There is nothing greater than a parent who owns their behavior and then restores relationship. It shows the child humility and the process that love is not lost. It shows that despite human emotions which caused some fog, there is a light that blasts through it and brings love back into the picture.

Second, be mindful of what you are feeling and thinking in the present moment with your kids. When you feel anger or frustration creeping up, look for the cause then take a step back with a deep breath and regroup. Think forward – instead of being reactive.

Third, release your shortcomings through purposeful and intentional behavior that refuses to frame you as a failure or a mess-up as a parent. This is done by pushing through the feelings and going to your child or adolescent to join in relationship, even if it is plunking down next to them while they are playing a game. Invite them into your space too. Go on a walk, throw a ball, go for a drive. Don’t let a past mistake define what you choose to do in this moment. This moment is new – the past is gone.

If I define who I am by what I’ve done, then I’m a prisoner to the past. If I define who I am by who I am in this moment, I am free to choose how I will act and believe in this moment, which propels me into the future as a better, wiser person.