communication

Kids, Feelings, and Parents, Oh My!

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

Inspired by How to Talk so Kids will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk, by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

Parenting is exhausting.  Taking part in relationships with adults who struggle to communicate their emotions is hard enough, but engaging with kids who don’t know what they are feeling or how to tell you their feelings is even harder!  Being in tune with our children’s emotions and experiences allows us to more naturally engage in our relationship with them.

Just because kids are “young, little, a baby” does not mean their emotional experiences are less real or matter less than our own experiences.

The author of How to Talk so Kids will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk describes her experience of parenting and how she “could be accepting about most of the feelings [her] children had, but let one of them tell me something that made me angry or anxious and I’d instantly revert to my old way [of parenting]” (page 3).  Her old ways were when she would disregard, minimize, invalidate, avoid, or ignore another person’s experience.

How do we feel when someone disregards our feelings?  How do we feel when people pretend they didn’t hear what we said? Or, when people try to “help” or “fix” a situation when all we want is someone to listen.

When we feel listened to and understood it is easier for us to manage our emotional responses.  The same happens with our children.

When they feel listened to and understood, they are able to work through their emotional experiences and problem solve more clearly.   Often, children are just wanting someone to intently listen to them.  Our attunement to the conversation and small responses, like “uh-huh” allow our children to know we are paying attention.  This response only works if you are looking at them, not at a screen!

Children need help naming their emotions and giving words to their experience.

The naming of emotions acknowledges their experience and helps to increase their engagement in the relationship. It also helps to teach children about emotions.  It can be helpful to have an emotions chart on the refrigerator with faces on it, or for older kids a wheel of emotions.

Being in relationship with our kids is hard work. This hard work is laying the framework for better relationships as they age. We hope they have learned about their emotions and how to verbalize them and deal with them safely.   We are teaching something important to our children that they don’t yet know is important!

How a Children’s Book Made Me Think About Cultivating Emotional Intelligence

Smile, Pout-Pout Fish…Or Don’t: How a Children’s Book Made Me Think About Cultivating Emotional Intelligence

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

Do the books we read to our children cultivate emotional intelligence, or communicate subtle messages discouraging awareness and honest expression of feelings?

Smile, Mr. Fish! You look so down. With your glum-glum face and your pout-pout frown. No need to be worried. No need to be sad. No need to be scared. No need to be mad! How about a smooch? And a cheer-up wish? Now you look happy: what a smile, Mr. Fish!

Of all the books my little one loves, this one most often gets relentlessly stuck in my head! With its well-crafted rhyme and adorable pictures, it captivates its little (and big) audience quite well. But the subtle message of the book has always made me a bit uneasy: you shouldn’t be sad, worried, or scared; there, you’re happy, that’s acceptable and good.  I realize there is a strong possibility that I am over-analyzing the book, but at the same time, I think subtle messages like this are important to be mindful of – both that we have been taught and that we are passing along to our kids (or nieces/nephews, friends’ kids, etc.).

If taken too far, a child can internalize that the only acceptable emotion is to be happy…which will have great consequences in his or her ability cultivate emotional intelligence and to healthily navigate life.

Accordingly, I found this article, published by the Gottman Institute, to be very helpful in identifying the following three do’s and don’ts for developing a child’s emotional intelligence:

  • Do recognize negative emotions as an opportunity to connect. Don’t punish, dismiss, or scold your child for being emotional.

    Do help your child label their emotions. — Don’t convey judgment or frustration.

  • Do set limits and problem-solve. — Don’t underestimate your child’s ability to learn and grow.

 

Given these guides, perhaps a helpful re-write of the book might read like this:

Hey, Mr. Fish, you look so down. With your glum, glum face and your pout, pout frown. Come sit beside me, I see your broken toy has made you sad. I would be, too, if it was the favorite toy I had. It’s okay to cry, it’s okay to be mad. But we cannot hit and we cannot squeal. How else can you show the sadness you feel?

 

 

 

Does Validation Matter?

Validation: Why it matters.

 

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

We have all experienced a situation where we have not validated a person’s beliefs or behaviors as we interact with them.  We also know what it feels like for someone to ignore our feelings, minimize our experiences, or change the subject of a conversation when the topic really matters. Validating our own feelings and those of other people is an important skill to have and to hone.    

What is validation?  Validation means “acknowledging that a person’s emotions, thoughts and behaviors have causes and are therefore understandable”.  

To validate someone means we are looking for the kernel of truth in another person’s perspective, even if we don’t agree with them.

Why is it important?  Well, it shows that we are listening to the other person and that we are trying to understand them.  It helps to strengthen our relationships because we can avoid a power struggle over who is right by validating the other person.  When we don’t validate others, it hurts.

How do we do it?  Pay attention to what the other person is saying.  Actively listen and reflect back to them what they are saying, without judging them!  We have to use our observation skills and we have to be pay attention to the conversation.  It is important to notice the little things, how is the person standing, are their arms crossed, is their face red, do they look like they are getting ready to cry?  All of these clues help us in conversation.  

We need to notice how a person is acting, listen to what a person says, and respond according to what we see and hear to help create and improve connection in relationships.

What’s the impact?  Like I said, validation helps to create connection. Validation challenges us to be present in conversation. We have to be listen to what the other person is saying in order to respond in a way that helps a person to feel understood. Validation can de-escalate a situation because you’ve avoided the fight and acknowledged the other person’s experience.  

Give it a shot!  

 

 

 

 

Information adapted from DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents, Rathus, Jill H., and Alec L. Miller. “Validation.” DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents. New York: Guilford, 2015. Print.

Don’t Judge?

Don’t Judge?

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

To judge is to form an opinion, or to form an estimate or evaluation.  When I hear “don’t judge” in the way it seems to be most often used -particularly social media-  I think about how impossible it seems.  We judge things all the time.  We all instinctively form opinions about everything from food to cars to people.  We can’t avoid having opinions.

SERIOUSLY?

I think the intent of the “Don’t Judge” maelstrom is mostly well-intended.  I think a better word for what people are trying to say would be “Don’t Condemn”.  It seems that nobody reacts negatively when I judge someone to be pretty or smart or competent.  It is when I move from judging to expressing contempt for others that I have crossed a line.

My opinion about the relative appearance of a person is powerless in and of itself.  When I state that a person is ugly in appearance, I am revealing my perception about that person.  I am not stating a fact.  Another person could find the same person attractive.  Neither the positive nor the negative opinion a) alters the actual appearance of the person in question, or b) measures the worth of the person in question.

What is more, asking me not to state my opinion or to change my opinion is to devalue me.  It means that my thoughts and feelings don’t matter or shouldn’t exist if they disagree with yours or make you uncomfortable.  I don’t have to call you handsome if I think you look like a troll, nor does the fact that I think you look like a troll make you in fact, a troll.  It does not even mean that you are actually, objectively, “ugly”.  I am not bullying or being contemptuous when I state my opinion.

My opinion becomes contempt when I attempt to declare the worth of a person or thing.  If I look at the person I deem unattractive and proceed to tell them, “Your mother should have aborted you,” I am expressing contempt.  When I say “You should wear a bag over your head so the ‘rest of us’ don’t have to look at you,” I am expressing contempt.  I am declaring what you are worth (an objective reality) on the basis of my subjective perception.  I express contempt for your being, which I have assessed on the basis of your appearance exclusively.

We are devastated by opinions because we equate them (and often they are expressed) as measures of our worth.  We are devastated because we somehow have come to believe that our worth is actually connected to what the other person is saying.

The vast futility of contempt is that it absolutely cannot do what it is trying to do: change the actual innate value of the thing (or person).  

Having an opinion does not make me a jerk.  It’s how I express that opinion that matters.  I can hold it for my own self and leave others to make their own assessments, or I can condemn the object of my opinion as worthless.  Either way, how I express my opinion says more about me than it does about who or what I am describing.  –Jonathan E. Hart, LPC

Blood is Thicker than Water, Part III

What does “holding out for healthy” look like, anyway?

By Jonathan E. Hart, LPC

This blog presumes you’ve read the previous two in the series.  If you haven’t, Click HERE to be taken to the first entry.

Now that you’ve recognized that your family member is not the person that their job description calls for, you’re beginning to take some steps.  You’ve come to understand that, for example, Dad is not in the “Parents and Siblings” ring of intimacy.  He is more an “Acquaintance”, based on the way that the relationship feels and works.  You’ve started to give yourself permission NOT to call every week because you don’t call your other acquaintances that often.  You’re arguing with the guilt that arises from being a “bad child”, and with the healthy compassion that comes from seeing him struggle with loneliness.  You’re resisting the impulse to go in and rescue him.Levels of Intimacy

And you feel like you’re being mean, cold-blooded, and harsh.  You’re being told, “You’ve changed, and not for the better.”  Other family members are calling you to convince you to “seek reconciliation”, or to chew you out for your “bad attitude”.  The pressure becomes enormous, and you sometimes forget what you are fighting for.

“Holding out for Healthy” is hard.  It means defying everything the relationship in question has taught you all your life.  It means holding on to the desire for real intimacy, even if your hope that the desire will be fulfilled looks too remote to be realistic.  A very old aphorism says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick”.  It means clinging tight to the idea that a healthier relationship with your father is worth the loss of the false intimacy you’ve been used to all your life.

Because what you’ve been used to all your life was not real.  It was a counterfeit of relationship and, when you tried to use it as currency, you discovered you’d been cheated.  Which would you rather have: A fist full of play money, or nothing?  It’s a trick question.  You’ve got nothing either way.

The hard truth is that when you start operating according to the way that the relationship actually exists, you are not changing anything about it.  You’re merely speaking the truth about it for once.  You’re finally allowing the natural outcome of Dad’s way of being to actually touch him for once, rather than protecting him from it.

The reason the relationship persists the way it does is likely due in part to the fact that nobody has dared to tell him what it’s like.  Nobody has named the fact that the Emperor has no clothes.  Naming it to him hurts, but it also offers him the chance to see that what he’s doing is hurtful, and provides him with an opportunity to grow.

“Holding out for Healthy” invites the other person into a better place themselves.  It calls them to be a better human being, to seek healing for their own wounds, and to acknowledge the wounding they have done themselves.  They will either be able to do this, or they won’t.  Even if you can step into one ring closer with them, you have more than you’ve ever had before, and that is wealth indeed.

“Holding out for Healthy” also leads you to healing of your own.  This relationship loses its power to define you because you are actively defining the relationship.

What does Holding out for Healthy look like?  It’s a mess.  It’s painful and it rocks the boats of a lot of people.  You’re not going to do it well.  But doing it at all represents a change that has real value on your own life, and — potentially —  in the lives of those you love.  It’s worth the risk.

 

 

Conflict and Resolution in a Nutshell

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

It is the nature of relationships to include conflict.  In fact, conflict is a necessary component of intimacy and closeness in relationship.  If you are to become emotionally close with another person, it is necessary to come into conflict with them, because conflict is the place where my uniqueness bumps up against your uniqueness, which by definition is different than mine.

Conflict is the place where we figure out how to do life together in the presence of these differences.  If ever these differences are eroded away or eliminated (what many would describe as “resolved”), we are not actually connected with each other. One of us has been either consumed or effaced by the other.

Two objects in contact with each other generate friction and heat as they move independently in that contact.  If there is no friction, there is no contact.  If we never engage in or experience conflict with our significant other, we are not emotionally engaged with them on a meaningful level.  We are not in contact.

conflict

This being said, there are two ways of doing conflict: Well or Poorly.  Conflict done well strengthens the relationship.  Conflict done poorly decimates it.  In order to do conflict well, we need to find a way toward resolution.Fingers

Agreement is NOT resolution. 

The problem most people encounter is that when they try to resolve conflict by reaching some kind of agreement, they are working toward an unsupportable solution.  Agreement is not necessary to reach resolution.  If we try to find a place where we agree on everything, we end up working against our own uniqueness, and we cannot sustain that forever.  Agreement sometimes happens, but when we hold that as the only standard for resolution, we will end up frustrated and hopeless.

“Agree to disagree” is not resolution.  

If we agree to disagree, we create “dead spaces” in the relationship where we can never come into contact.  In this arrangement, the solution to conflict is to avoid it, which simply cannot lead to resolution any more than the South road leads North.  If avoiding conflict is our goal and our standard for good relationship (i.e., being “nice”, “happy”, or “positive”), we will never experience a truly connected, intimate relationship.

Compromise cannot lead to resolution. 

When we try to use compromise to reach resolution, we are usually operating on the presumption that “everyone loses something” and “no one leaves the table completely happy”.  Compromises reached in this way are generally composed of requests or demands that we make of one another.  When we agree to a compromise, we are saying that we are going to “try to be different” for the sake of the other.  While this sounds good on the surface, what is happening under the surface is that our uniqueness is not being acknowledged and/or validated.  Because of this, the changes are often unsustainable. We become frustrated, exhausted, and resentful in the long run (consumed), or we simply “kill” that part of our identity for the sake of the other (effaced).

Real Resolution

Real resolution is achieved when we genuinely and deeply understand each other’s position, thoughts, and feelings, and can acknowledge them as valid, even though we may not agree.  When we really understand the other person, we often find a willingness to work together and move toward a solution that is not forced or demanded, but organic to each participant, and therefore sustainable. Any changes we make grow out of this deep understanding of the other’s need, and are generally “gifts” offered by the participants themselves based on this knowledge and kindness. This leads to gratitude and a building of affection between the parties (read, Intimacy, Closeness, Connection).

Kevin_Richardson_with_hyenas

To say it concisely; once I deeply understand and give credit to how you think and feel, and presuming I care about what you think and how you feel, I find myself willing to shift how I relate to you.  When we each are able to do this for the other, we are no longer in conflict.  We are working together, and the conflict is resolved.

 

My Most Recent Parenting Blunder

My Most Recent Parenting Blunder

I just decided to look up the word “blunder” since it is the word that seems most appropriate for this parenting mishap, and according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, blunder means “a stupid or careless mistake.”  Yep, that captures this situation in a nutshell!

blunder1740-correction

About 2 weeks ago some friends and I were about to watch a movie called The Hunger Games.  Have you seen it?  If not go here to learn about the premise of the movie – basically, kids and teenagers have to kill each other to live.  These movies are very well done, but the storyline is a bit jarring.  So back to my blunder….my 8 year old son (almost 9…if that helps my case any?!?!) wanted to watch the movie with us.  He often loves to watch things with my friends and me.  I think he genuinely enjoys the shared experiences.  When he first asked to watch it with us I was hesitant.  I polled the room to see what others thought.  The overall consensus was that he would be okay, though I think we were all a little hesitant!  That still wasn’t enough for me.  Then I thought about other movies he’s seen – Harry Potter, Star Wars, Home Alone (does this even count among the other movies listed?), and I began to think he could handle it.  He and I talked briefly about the movie’s storyline and then jointly decided he could watch it with us.  He was ecstatic!

Can you guess what happened?  When the killing started it was too much for him.  He announced, “This is too much for me.  I’m gonna go to my room.”  And he walked into his room, shut the door, and about 2 seconds later the crying began.  Blunder.

He was very upset.  While crying he said, “How could people do that to each other?  How could the president guy get away with that?  I just want to go get him and kill him.  What he is doing is wrong.  The people need to get together and get rid of him (pretty amazing considering that is exactly what happens in the story!).”  He said many more statements like the ones I just wrote, and as I hugged him and listened I began to learn more about my son.  Here’s the first thing I learned:  My son loves justice and hates injustice.  Immediately many instances flooded my mind of times when this character trait showed itself in his words and actions.  It was a blessing to see this so clearly.

He also said this, “I am so mad at myself for choosing to watch that movie.  I should have known better.  It was too much for me.”  After he said this my heart broke a little.  I hated that he was taking responsibility for this decision when clearly I am the parent and I am the one who is in his life to protect him from making “blunder” types of decisions.  So I immediately set the record straight and told him, “You are not to blame for this, I am.  I am your mom.  I am here to protect you, and I didn’t do my job very well with this decision.  You are 8.  You aren’t supposed know how to make decisions like this yet.  But I am.  And I messed this one up.  Will you please forgive me?  Please don’t be mad at yourself.  If you need to be mad at anyone be mad at me.”  His whole demeanor shifted.  A weight had been lifted.  The shift was as clear as day.  He was relieved to be reminded about what is his responsibility and what is mine.  He was allowed to be 8, and this was good for his soul!

So here is the other thing I learned:  I will make blundering types of mistakes with my kids and its not the end of his world or mine.  The mistake isn’t the most important thing, but how it’s handled IS!

So I think I’ll wait a few more years before trying to watch The Hunger Games again with my oldest son, but I am thankful to have learned so much about him through my blunder!

 

by: Lianne Johnson, LPC

Does Your Social Media Usage Lead to Communication or Connection?

Does Your Social Media Usage Lead to Communication or Connection?
I don’t have to tell you that we live in an era of constant communication and instant information. As soon as I hit “publish” on this blog, anyone with internet access can instantly read my post. In a very real sense, I can tell the whole world anything….from this chair in my office alone. I’m talking to everyone and no one at the same time. I’m sharing and hiding at the same time. I’m communicating, but I’m not connecting.
I don’t see your face as you interact with my words. I can’t read your body language. You can’t hear my inflection or intonations. I’m pausing between sentences, as I consider how best to communicate my next thought. I’m deleting and editing as I go. I’m carefully choosing what to type, what to show, what to share. I have this underlying sense of vulnerability as I type my thoughts for others to interpret and judge, and yet there is something in it that feels false. There are times I read very personal information on rather public forums and wonder if it bravery to share so broadly, or cowardice to expose so impersonally. We spare ourselves the risk of vulnerability when we share with everyone through typed words on a screen, by avoiding the risk of not getting the response we hope for when sharing with one or more people. It is much safer to hope that someone, anyone, will respond to a post or tweet about a horrible day or compliment a beautiful photo or meal, than to hope that the one person I choose to be vulnerable with will respond in a way that values my vulnerability.

I do not think technology is bad. I love all that it enables me to do, all the access and ease it brings. I see, however, that along with the benefits it brings to communication in my relationships, it also brings convenience that can cheapen the connection. Often after reading friends’ blogs, viewing their Facebook or Instagram accounts, I feel I have gotten caught up on their lives and my urge to connect with them is appeased to a degree. I have noticed my connection in these relationships has suffered over time. I have been grabbing fast food through the drive thru of information, and some of my relationships are suffering from lack of connection nutrition. I am gaining information from edited and limited glimpses into the lives of those around me; I’m missing out on intimacy, emotions, and real responses.

When we share ourselves in bits and snippets through typed words or snapshots that someone else will see on a screen, we are missing out on the connection that comes with risking vulnerability in the presence of someone who is going to react. Even emailing or texting one person takes much greater vulnerability and courage than emailing a group of people or writing a blog post. Don’t confuse exposure with vulnerability. And don’t confuse communication with connection. So, who do you need to connect with?

by:  Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC

3 Essential Questions to Ask Yourself When Big Feelings Happen

3 Essential Questions to Ask Yourself When Big Feelings Happen

(#3 is the real kicker!)

If you’re looking for a way to keep from losing your mind when big feelings happen, I’m going to suggest these 3 essential questions to ask yourself.

First let’s define “Big Feelings”. These are feelings that swell up and burst in a nanosecond. It happens as quickly as a reflex (because they usually *are* reflexes, not choices!).   A sudden, very intense feeling of anger, offense, rejection, hurt, or other similar powerful emotions.   Often you may be able to recognize that the intensity you are feeling seems out of proportion to the thing that seems to have caused it.

Avenues Counseling

 

The Big Feeling is generally accompanied by a strong reaction of some kind: you erupt in anger, you run and hide, or maybe you shut down and withdraw. Whatever you do, it seems automatic.

So the three questions are a tool you can use to get underneath the reflex and understand what is pushing you around. The end goal is to gain enough understanding and distance from the feeling that you can intelligently choose what you are going to do next, rather than letting the feeling dictate your actions.

Question #1: What is the feeling? This seems simple at first: “I’m ANGRY, you idiot!! Isn’t that obvious?!”   Not so fast. Usually with an emotion like anger or offense, there is a softer feeling that comes first. Think of a parent that sees their child playing in the street. They react in anger: “What have I told you about playing in the street??” But the first feeling is fear: “I’m afraid you are going to get hurt or killed!!”

The key to mastering Question #1 is volume: wrap *a lot* of words around the feeling. Go into as much detail as you can. What does it physically feel like? Where do I feel it in my body? Is there motion to it? Does it rise or fall? Move forward or retreat? Burst or crush? It’s probably more than just one feeling, so what else is there? How many synonyms or clarifying words can you come up with to describe this feeling? These are just some examples, but hopefully it’s enough to get started.

Question #2: Why is it there? This question moves from what’s happening inside you to your immediate surroundings. What just happened to trigger this feeling?   Again, it seems obvious at first. “I’m pissed because you’re a jerk.” This part may be true, but let’s go a bit deeper, shall we? Get into the layer of meaning. What is it about that word, that action, that tone of voice that makes it so intense? Does it tell you they think you’re worthless? That they don’t respect you? That they’re not going to hear anything you have to say no matter what? Again, get into as much detail as you can.

Question #3: Where does it come from? We’re still dealing with the feeling that you named in question #1. Answering this question can be extremely informative, as well as kind of scary. The goal of this question is to discover where in your story, as far back as you can remember, have you felt this feeling before? Often, as you think about the physical sensation of the feeling, the answer comes quickly. It may be a specific story or event. A moment that, though it happened 10 years ago or 30 years ago, is crystallized in your mind so clearly you can remember what you were wearing.

It may not be a specific moment, but rather a type of moment. The feeling might be connected to something that happened often enough that specific moments are lost in the sheer number of them. What remains is the impression of “always”. “We always had to… He always said… It was always like this… Whenever I saw/heard/felt this, I knew…”.

Discovering your answer to Question #3 can sometimes be like a bomb going off in your mind and heart. All of a sudden you realize that you are connecting two different stories together, and that the old story is what you’re really angry at (or afraid of). Maybe the two stories are similar enough that they feel the same, and it’s the kind of story you never want to be a part of ever again.

Gaining this understanding is absolutely essential to developing the capacity to thoughtfully respond to the triggering situation rather than reacting out of the power of your emotions. Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting you ignore what you feel, but that you seek to understand what you feel clearly so that you can deal with it intelligently.

Big Feelings are tough to handle. They always will be. But you don’t have to blow up or disappear when they happen. The Three Questions are intended to help you be able to stand up, speak your peace, and seek resolution in a healthier way. Rather than getting lost in the fog of confusion, fear, or anger, you can engage with openness, clarity, and self-control.

-by Jonathan Hart, LPC