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Parents’ Screen Time Is Hurting Kids – The Atlantic

When it comes to children’s development, parents should worry less about kids’ screen time—and more about their own.
— Read on www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/07/the-dangers-of-distracted-parenting/561752/

Revealing Weaknesses of Mental Health Professionals & Diagnoses

The other morning I was enjoying my morning routine of coffee and news when I came upon Dr. Frances‘ (psychiatrist and former chair of the DSM-IV Task Force) comments on Trump.  If you don’t know, there’s been a ton of debate among psychiatrists, psychologists and other therapists on whether or not we have a duty to comment upon the perceived mental health of public figures who are in positions of power.  Frances’ comments addressed this topic as it relates to Trump and I found two sources.  The first was a short piece he wrote in Psychology Today months ago and the other is from an interview with the Verge, which was what I found on this particular morning.  As a regular person and as a Clinical Psychologist, I was frustrated but more disturbed than anything.  I’ve witnessed many mental health professionals that are in leadership positions get a lot wrong, and in some big ways.  Frances’ comments are concerning to me because he’s been heavily involved in the development of the DSM.  While this article focuses primarily on Frances, I also want to raise issues related to therapists needing to improve their level of psychological insight and health regarding themselves, and also point out that the DSM does not diagnose relationships.  I find both of these extremely problematic and upsetting.

1 |  Rejecting a Diagnosis is to Diagnose Someone

Those who use the DSM are advised to not diagnose at random, not to diagnose people whom they have not met, not to diagnose people who are not their clients, and that a diagnosis should not be publicly made unless it is the client disclosing this information.  When a diagnosis occurs, a process called “Ruling Out” happens at the same time.  “Ruling Out” is when a clinician (e.g., psychologist, psychiatrist) determines that a client does not meet the criteria for a specific diagnosis.  In order to do this the clinician has to know the person well enough or have enough information about them in order to say, for certain, that the diagnostic criteria are definitely not met.  In this way, to say that someone does not have a diagnosis is to diagnose them, which is exactly what Frances did.

Frances said, “The psychiatrists and psychologists who are now publicly diagnosing Trump feel compelled by the higher call of national interest to break any restrictions against diagnosis at a distance.  But the argument fails because their diagnosis is poorly informed and simply wrong.”  Yet, Frances says directly that Trump does not meet the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  How can he say that when he’s not supposed to diagnose anyone publicly, from a distance and without adequate information about the person?  He can’t but does so anyway.  As a result, Frances contradicts himself and has grossly misled the public.  But this isn’t the most concerning thing about Frances’ statements.  But before I continue picking apart his comments I think it’s important to note that he has some good points in these two publications.  Given the outrage, they could go unnoticed.

2 |  Not All Bad

First, Frances’ comments seem to be complex and nuanced, which is what I would hope to see from any clinician.  As much as the human brain wants to over-simplify facts or reality, it’s always infinitely nuanced.  Consequently, not all of Frances’ statements are bad or without merit.  From my perspective, about half of what he says is worth considering, is accurate or possibly helpful.

First, diagnosing from afar is dangerous and our egos often have more to do with this than a desire to protect others (though Trump may be a very real exception to this for some clinicians).  The average person generally doesn’t understand the many layers of thought that go into the process for diagnosing.  This isn’t because people are dumb but rather, they just haven’t gone through the extensive education and training that it takes to adequately consider a diagnosis.  No amount of personal reading or Google searches can equal this training.  This is why diagnosing should be left to the professionals.  Everyone should know that such an exercise, though seemingly simple, can be very complex.  Professionals can also have different opinions or diagnoses that are often valid, and this can confuse the average person but for the professional it makes perfect sense.  While Frances is right that clinicians should avoid diagnosing from afar, he violates this himself.  I’m interested to know how he didn’t catch that or if he did, did he think that the rest of us wouldn’t notice it?  Obviously I’m just guessing here in an attempt to understand his large error.  Regardless, I think that there’s also something to be said for professionals to taking action when someone is acting in abusive and manipulative ways.  As I see it, Trump (like many other politicians) is abusing the American people and manipulating them in so many different ways.  If there isn’t something unhealthy or diagnosable about these behaviors then I think that there’s something very wrong with the DSM and those who support it.

Frances made another good point and it had to do with scapegoating.  He said that we need to be cautious about pointing the finger at one person, Trump, who is supposedly the source of all of our problems.  On this point I definitely agree.  Humans prefer simple answers and when things go bad, they (we) want something and someone to blame.  Interestingly enough, this is our own narcissism at play because by dumping the blame onto someone else allows us to walk away from the situation squeaky clean.  So when Frances says that Trump isn’t causing the world’s problems, I believe he’s partially right.  Where he’s wrong is that Trump is causing some major problems and making a variety of social issues much worse.  The fact that there were enough people to put Trump into office shows us that there are much bigger societal issues at play.

These involve the dominant societal definitions and approaches to mental, physical, social and environmental health.  Right now I would say that our definitions and approaches are weak, often misguided and that our country has always struggled with excessive arrogance and narcissism.  Unfortunately, doing what is healthy for us, on an individual and collective level, is generally not very popular (unless it increases our narcissism) and as a result, the rate of improvement in these areas is painfully slow.  Trump seems to be the ultimate expression and symbol of the selfie, our social media tendencies, our greed, our abuse of others, our racism, our ignorance, our misogyny, our admiration of narcissists and abusive people, and the privilege of white men, Christians, the wealthy and conservative people, and so on.  So yes, let’s not scapegoat Trump.  He’s one problem and then we have all of the problems that I just mentioned.  These are the sicknesses that are present in each of us and throughout our society.

3 |  Politics Over Truth, Mental Health & Public Welfare

For me, the most disturbing thing that Frances says to the Verge is, “We [made] the decision to introduce narcissistic personality disorder in DSM-III and I wrote the version that’s still used now.  The decision to include it was purely for clinical purposes and we never dreamed it would result in the diagnosis of NPD being used in political warfare now.  I think that if we’d had that thought along the way, we would have thought twice about including it.”  Wow.  Those who meet the criteria for NPD and hold leadership positions cause so many of the problems in the world, in our communities and in our families.  They can take advantage of others, they belittle them, they disregard anything that others say, they’re greedy, they’re manipulative, they destroy, they’re without regret or remorse, they lack empathy, they distort reality, they destroy the environment and they are deeply, deeply troubled.  Yes, there are problems with the misuse of diagnoses within the general population but this DOES NOT mean that we should prioritize politics over accurate diagnoses.  We shouldn’t hold back from labeling an unhealthy behavior because people in the public eye might be slandered.  We should work to counter slander but we shouldn’t sacrifice truth for it.  Yet, if this is truly what Frances believes then what about all of the other disorders that are tossed around or slapped on so many?  NPD is much more prevalent in men and he didn’t make any comments about those disorders that are overused and misused for women and children.  Does he wish to change all of them to avoid possible slander, public misperception and consequently degrade the validity of a diagnostic label?  Or is his particular focus on NPD revealing his privilege, bias or blindspot?

4 | Privilege Revealed

Another sizeable problem with Frances’ comments is that he seems to approach the subject of mental health as though he has the final word on the subject and its definitions.  His statements are presented in a way that seem to suggest that he has or believes he has the absolute right to define mental health…for all of us.  For me, it comes across as a bit self-aggrandizing and this is quite ironic given the topic of conversation.  To say that someone is not disordered “because these traits don’t cause him distress” is absolutely absurd.  From the looks of it, many serial killers and criminals aren’t distressed by their actions.  Does this mean that they don’t have serious mental health issues?  Of course not.  So how can Frances, someone who’s influenced the DSM significantly, maintain these views and expect us (psychologists and other clinicians) to use his definitions and diagnositic book?  Why wouldn’t we begin to question the whole system to ensure that there aren’t more distorted influences on the core resources that other clinicians use?  Regardless of whether or not Trump’s public personna is real or not, I believe that a person who chooses to conduct themselves as he has should not be considered mentally and emotionally sound.

Though we hold advanced degrees in our fields, Frances and I (or anyone else else for that matter) are not in the position to establish, absolutely for all people and cultures in the world, a definition of mental health and that of mental illness.  We are not the final authorities because we cannot speak for everyone, every culture, every country and every related field.  Yet, some of those is our field believe that they have the right to make such declarations.  Why?  Because of privilege.  Even though I believe that there are many issues of privilege present in Frances comments, I’d like to focus on his declaration.  This is because people could run with this and they have the potential to use his statements to support their own biases and perspectives.

While I don’t believe that any of us can claim something absolutely, I do believe that we should voice our views on a given subject matter, especially when its within our profession.  I think if we’ve studied and worked within a field for a long time that it’s important for us to throw our views out there for people to consider.  This is one of the primary ways in which we advance and mature as a species.  But we have to be careful when we toss things into the ring and this is where Frances went wrong; he didn’t “IMO” enough.  Though this phrase seems so overused, I believe it’s a good trend because it emphasizes that no one is the ultimate authority over a thing.  It recognizes that a person’s view is one of many.  If it is sincerely meant, then it is a humble acknowledgment of our collective or socially constructed reality.  Frances would have faired much better had his contributions embodied this philosophical and social position.  From my perspective (aka, IMO) and as a person who’s studied psychology for over 30 years, our individual level of mental health is largely determined by our ability to adapt, handle stress and how we conduct ourselves in relationship to the world (i.e., people, animals, environment).  And yet, this is where the weaknesses of the DSM are revealed because it has no diagnosis for relationship patterns.

5 | The DSM Lacks Relationship Diagnoses

This is probably where eyes will start to glaze over, if they haven’t already, but I’m going to make this short so hang in there with me.

The DSM is a narrow in its focus and extremely biased in its approach to diagnosing.  It’s based upon the conditions of an individual and a diagnosis is determined by observed behaviors or traits and statements the individual reports about how they feel about themselves, others, etc.  Simply put, a diagnosis from the DSM is viewed as medical diagnosis (though that’s in theory…but I won’t get into that).  One of its huge weaknesses is that it has failed to derive relationship-based diagnoses.  If an individual physically, sexually or psychologically abuses other people, there’s no diagnosis for this.  What a clinician will try to do is to give them an individual diagnosis such as Antia-Social Personality Disorder or something to that effect.  So if a person is an abusive predator of others but it never bothers them, disrupts their life or if it fails to meet existing criteria in the DSM, then they won’t have a diagnosis.  Of course, this is if we follow Frances’ example and his reasoning.  This would be like us saying that Jeffrey Dahmer wouldn’t have received a diagnosis until he went to prison because his behaviors finally disrupted his work-life balance.

We still have a lot of work to do in this field and despite issues such as these, I’m glad to be a part of it.  All of us, and I mean all of us, just need to work hard at being better for ourselves and others.  The culture in the U.S. rewards some of the most troubled people and even puts them on a pedastal.  I can only hope that Trump’s example will show all of us just how destructive, mean and hurtful such traits are and then we can alter this trend.  Who knows, being humble and psychologically healthy might actually become popular one day!  Well, I can always hope.

Apple and the 2016 MacBook Pro are Working to Change Your Brain, and it’s Uncomfortable

What’s Up

As an Apple fan, I appreciate the thoughtfulness that Apple puts into integrating their hardware and software so that it gradually moves users in new directions (whether they like it or not).  Psychologically, this is a good move because there’s only so much change that people are willing to tolerate before they avoid the situation.  Well this year, Apple has pushed the envelope and it’s done it by reducing the ports and really changing up the keyboards.  Now ports have a relatively concrete solution (i.e., adapters), so resolving this issue for people is relatively easy, albeit annoying.  The keyboard, on the otherhand, requires that all Apple users make a significant neurological change if they’re to use the keyboard in the most efficient and quietest way possible.  Now I’m not talking about the Touch Bar, I’m talking about the actual keyboard and the keys.  I have to admit, the new keyboard has been driving me friggin’ crazy (crazy!!) because I’m used to the old 2011 MacBook Pro 15″ keyboard, which I love so much more at the moment.  Now, I believe that Apple is moving its users toward a keyless keyboard…like a touch screen or something close to it.  In the past, Apple has done well to move people down the road toward long-term improvement but they might want to keep in mind that they change needs to be paced out a little bit better.  If they are, in fact, going to the keyless keyboard then I think that people may need some more time…but we’ll see, right?  Regardless, if the new keyboard has been frustrating for you and you’re curious about why and what you can do about it, hang in there.

Keyboard Differences Compared

As many others have described, the old keys were smaller, taller and required more pressure and stability in order for them to be successfully pressed and registered with the computer’s circuitry.  What’s also a massive, though technically small, difference is that the total depth of the keyboard is different.  From the measurements that I’ve taken, the new keyboard is about 1/4″ shorter in depth.  Meaning, we lost about 1/4″ when you measure from the very front of the space bar to the very back of the last row (e.g., any number key).  Here are a couple of photoscomparing the keyboards of the old 2011 MacBook Pro and the new 2016 MacBook Pro w/ Touch Bar, and you can see there’s a small difference.  At first I wasn’t sure if it was my eyes were messing with me but sure enough, they are different…and this explains why I am constantly making a lot of small errors!

As other authors have noted, the new keys have a very small (around 1mm) distance to travel from the start of the finger press to the completion of it so that it registers with the computer’s circuitry.  This is a very huge difference compared the the previous generations keyboards.  Also, the keys are bigger and more stable, which means that your brain doesn’t have to be as focused on hitting the keys just right.  Instead, there’s a little more space in the keys so that everything is a little more forgiving.  A basic comparison of the two keyboards (the 2016 vs. the 2011) gives me the impression that the keys on the 2016 MBP are barely there.  Good for design, reduced weight and use of space, but not so good for your long-standing typing habits that our brain and our bodies are used to.

What’s Involved When You Type

Man, there’s quite a bit!!  I could totally geek out by breaking down all of the structures, but I won’t do that to you.  So let’s keep things relatively basic.  First, there are multiple areas of your brain that are used for typing.  The major areas are those that govern motor or physical movement (Parietal Lobe), memory and habit (Hippocampus, Basil Ganglia, Temporal Lobes, etc.), visual information and feedback (Parietal and Occipital Lobes), and language (the whole friggin left half of your brain).  What’s more is that these structures need to connect to all of the muscles, tendons and nerve endings in your hands, fingers and arms in order to work properly.  These connections are made possible by many crazy long sequences of nerves that go from your brain, into your spine and then they travel throughout your body.  So when you’re forced to change a habit like typing on a new kind of keyboard, you’re changing all of these structures inside of you even though you can’t see it happen.  I have to admit, it’s all so nuts but so cool!  And this is just about typing!

So, when you go to type something right now, all of the nerves in your brain and body fire in a specific sequence and this makes it relatively easy to do.  This is because the nerves and muscles have had a lot of time to adapt to all of the practice that you’ve done.  The way that your typing speed increased was the result of your brain, nerves and body working together to alter all of the small structures underneath your skin…and this is what led to you being able to type faster.  Now we don’t see any of this taking place and we don’t even know that it’s going on, but it’s important that we know it.  When you first learned to type it wasn’t on this new Apple keyboard and the only reason that the keyboard is to blame for how funky this feels is because our biology can’t adapt quick enough.  This means that even the smallest of changes can mess with the complex neurological and muscular system that is called, “your ability to type.”  My body’s reaction to Apple’s change from the 2011 MBP to the 2016 MBP has been strong, and there have been times that I want to destroy my new MBP because I’m so frustrated with my body taking so long to adapt to the new keyboard!

As a side note, I’d like to acknowledge that Apple has been probably tried to be smart about deciding when it was going to force certain changes on us.  This is a tough balancing act and I don’t envy them in trying to determine how much to push the consumer while trying to balance strong stock prices and investor confidence.  That just seems like an impossible formula.  So how do you pump out quality products that push the boundaries of tech while also working with humanities biggest weakness: adapting to change.  It’s a tough call but let’s stay focused on the topic at hand and save that for another blog post.

Why Learning Something New Can Be Biologically Uncomfortable

Basic Brain Stuff:  When we’re under 25 years old, it’s easier for us to change because our metabolism is higher (which promotes quicker growth and protein synthesis which is needed for neurological changes) and our brain has a greater influx of newly created brain cells or neurons.  Beyond 25, we continue to get some new neurons but it’s like a trickle-charge because it’s happening at a really slow rate.  This means that older adults depend more upon existing neurons to rewire themselves (aka, neuroplasticity) than on new cells jumping in to create new pathways and connections.  Generally speaking, rewiring takes more time, practice and energy…and this can be uncomfortable and frustrating.  At 40 years old, I’m pretty frustrated by this new keyboard because all of the changes have slowed me down, increased the number of typing errors and now I have to be stupid deliberate about typing…and I feel like I’m having to learn this all over again.  However, I know that I need to force myself to practice because my neurons need some time to rewire themselves.  The worst thing that I could do is throw my arms up in the air and return my new MBP and buy some old machine.  But we all know this is the coward’s way out…and what way to better solidify my old-man stature by refusing to adapt to change, right!?  Anyway, I know I have to be patient and to rethink how I press each key with each finger.  This is just how it’s going to be for a bit.  If I do this, I’ll be able to be more precise when I type and not be so damn loud on this new keyboard.  So far (it’s been a touch over a week since I’ve had the new machine), my brain and muscles have adjusted a little bit but the old habit is pretty strong because I can feel that my fingers want to pound on the keyboard with more force.  The fact that I’m having to hold back and to change this brings about a weird feeling in my hands…which I find massively annoying…and fascinating at the same time.

Proximity of Change:  Another reason that this is so annoying is that the difference between how I used to type on the old keyboard and what I need to do now is close I can easily imagine the new way of doing it.  Even though I can imagine typing in this new, quiet and softer way, my biology hasn’t caught up.  Emotionally, though I’m not thinking about it in this way, this is the most frustrating part of the entire thing.  So even though I can imagine the change and am aware of how it feels so close to what I normally do, I have to slow down and be patient with the number of errors that I make.  Also, that 1/4″ of inch difference in the keys is really messing with my precision.  Now I have to track my fingers whereas before, I just typed as I always had.  Such a simple thing is bringing up such strong reactions.  It makes me think of people who have suffered a stroke or nerve damage that has limited their mobility.  If I’m so frustrated about this, I can’t imagine the difficulty that these individuals experience as they try to recover their mobility.  I have a new found empathy for them, though it’s based on something that’s ultimately pretty ridiculous by comparison, and my heart goes out to these people.  The one thing that’s helped me progress through this frustating time is maintaining an awareness of what comes up emotionally.  As I’ve observed myself, it’s important to keep things in perspective so we don’t get too pissed off and start blaming the keyboard for our failures (though I’ve wanted to break my new laptop during some moments of frustration).

Why You Should Strategically and Purposefully Change Your Habits

While it’s uncomfortable to deal with this change that’s been forced upon us, it’s good that we have to focus on how we can deliberately create a new habit or skill in the most effective way.  Ultimately, I’m driven by laziness and so I put a lot of effort into creating habits that are as efficient as possible.  This way, the efficient habit will lessen the potential problems and work that I have to deal with later on.  In order to reduce this work down the road, I need to really think about what I’m going to do.  In this way, I’m putting more effort upfront so that I can consider the impact that my actions and inactions may have on others, my environment and my future goals.  I know that this is just about typing but I’d encourage you to adopt a similar approach in your own life so that you can reep the benefits of doing things really well (for the short-term and long-term) and with the least amount of energy.

Now, if we don’t take care to analyze the situation and just haphazardly adjust to the new keyboard, then we’re likely to develop a new habit that’s not optimal.  Once we establish this new habit we’ll be less likely to enhance it later on because we’ll be able to get by even though it’s sloppy.  Unfortunately, I think many people are probably going to type very loudly on this new keyboard, which will annoy the shit out of a lot of people, and this is because they didn’t know how to approach the development of a new habit.  The problem with habits is that we humans are pretty resistant to change and we tend not to make an effort to improve something when it’s small and when we don’t believe that it really matters.  While this is true for the majority of us, there are many people who are exceptions.  In this current keyboard situation, this is likely to occur because I doubt many people are going to think to themselves, “Hmm, I need to type differently.  How can I do this so that I only have to relearn this once?  Also, I can tell this is going to annoy the hell out of a lot of people so how do I go about typing quietly?”  Yeah, most of us are probably not going to be this deliberate about the whole thing.  So, this means that we’re going to have a lot of people who are going to type very loudly with the new Apple keyboard because they didn’t go through the painful week or two that it takes to deliberately adjust in an ideal way.  So I’m alreay thankful for my noise cancelling headphones!

Ways to Help the Change Happen Quicker and With Less Discomfort

  1. Slow Down.  Remind yourself throughout the day, everyday, that you’re going to type a lot slower than you used to because your mind and body has to make a lot of small adjustments in order to regain the typing precision that you once had.  The keys have all moved and it’s going to take a little bit before you instinctually feel just the right level of softness and pressure that you need to use on the keys.
  2.  Relax. As you remind yourself of the above, let yourself relax and give yourself more time to complete any emails, papers, etc..  Your enemy in this situation in impatience.  And it’s good to practice becoming more patient with yourself, even though it’s really friggin’ hard to do.
  3. Practice.  Try to type as much as possible so that you get in a ton of practice.  This will help things move along and your neurons and muscles will change at a quicker rate.
  4. Eat Protein.  When your brain is changing and adapting, it needs a bit more protein than normal because it’s literally creating and moving neurons in your body.  These neurons need protein in order to alter their structures so be sure your diet is well balanced.
  5. Be Deliberate About This New Habit.  Don’t just adapt without thinking about why and how you’re adapting.  Work to type in a way that really fits with this new keyboard and in a style that you want for yourself and the people around you.  Ultimately, how do you want to feel when you’re typing?  The new keyboard wants you to type with more precision, with a smoother flow and with a gentle touch.  Also, people don’t want to listen to or watch you hammer away at the thing like you’re super pissed.  It’s really annoying to be on the observing end of this so consider putting some serious effort into customizing your new habit for you while also considering everyone else.  We’ll thank you for it!

Wrapping It Up and Predictions for Apple’s Future Changes

The new Apple keyboard is ultimately really good and pretty cool.  I’m liking it more and more as I get used to it, but it’s going to take just that.  Do I wish that Apple had made in quieter?  Absolutely, the amount of change is challenging and I want to be lazy like everyone else.  This change is pretty significant and honestly, I’m really not enjoying it so far but I’m hopeful that this will change as my brain, nerves and muscles adjust with practice.  It’s hard to not be overcome by my frustration and not to blame it all on Apple…but the reality is that our bodies can’t adapt as quickly as we would like, especially when we’re a bit older and our neurons want to be lazy.  Now, if I set this change component aside what is my evaluation of the keyboard?  I don’t think it’s the greatest thing but I can see where they’re going.  Ultimately, I think they want us to get used to using a totally different kind of keyboard…one that’s only a touch screen and has no moving parts at all.  This new keyboard design is a great way to move us in this direction, though I really don’t want to go in that direction at all.  My brain and my body really like how things have been…but I know it’s good for me to adapt and change my habits, so I’ll suck it up and move forward with the changes…

What Meditation & Mindfulness are Really About

 

As a long-time meditator and Buddhist, I am increasingly concerned about the level of appropriation of meditation practices.  I am especially frightened by people and professionals who claim to others that they are knowledgeable on the subject, to the point of calling themselves teachers, but who clearly promote a harmful and grossly misguided version of meditation.  What concerns me the most about this situation is the harm that these unqualified individuals can do to those who aspire to learn.  Not only can it result in the worsening of people’s internal difficulties, but it has the potential to turn them off to something that could otherwise be immensely beneficial.  Consequently, this article is going to be corrective and informative in nature, and it’s my attempt to counter the harmful information that too many are promoting.

Our Addiction to Happiness is the Problem

One of the biggest mistakes that people make coming in to meditation is that they believe that it’s all about feeling amazing…but it’s not.  Meditation is about developing certain mental capacities and this sets the stage for us to, possibly, experience greater satisfaction in our life.  I can’t say it enough, meditation is not about sitting and being happy…but we have the potential for feeling positive and uplifted during or after a meditation session.  Though, we might end up feeling scared, sad or even angry.  In the end, it doesn’t matter how we feel as a result of the meditation session because it’s like exercise.  Sometimes we don’t have a “good” workout or feel like exercising, but we know it’s good for us, right?!  Meditation is the same way.  Meditation is not about our addiction to happiness, it’s about learning how to fully utilize our human abilities and to enhance them.

When we have an addiction to happiness, we are constantly trying to experience higher and higher levels of it.  This is akin to an addict, and addicts have a very hard time experiencing or tolerating what they don’t want or like.  The stronger our addiction is to happiness, the greater our unhappiness will be and the more we’ll experience it.  As is taught in many traditions from the East that utilize meditation, this addiction is highly problematic and the source of the problem.  So when I see or hear of people promoting meditation and espousing that we should be addicted to happiness I feel disgusted.  My first thought is, “You’re poisoning them by telling them that the source of the problem is the solution!”  When I see and hear these messages, I cringe and wince with a deep disappointment and sadness, and I urge you to reject them or at the very least, question them thoroughly.

Contentment is the New Happiness

Happiness is typically thought of, at least within the dominant culture of the U.S., as a constant state of elation or joy.  We imagine people always smiling, engaging in life with energy and intensity, and they never experience any problems that shake their ever present good-mood or positive view.  We see this depicted in television and people often present themselves this way on Facebook.  Unfortunately, all of it’s a big fat fiction, and we would all do well to disregard it all.  However, we shouldn’t swing to the other end and become completely cynical or crotchety.  The middle ground is what we need…and this is where we find contentment.

Contentment is amazing.  It’s not only very possible to experience a state of contentment, but it’s better than elation and joy because it has immense staying power.  This is because contentment doesn’t require anything or any energy.  In fact, it can be quite rejuvenating.  Joy and elation are peak experiences in response to changing internal or external conditions.  Contentment, on the other hand, is based on nothing except for our consciousness and it requires no energy.  Yep, all you need to be is alive and have the capacity to be aware.  The reason that meditation can help you experience contentment is because it’s practices are deliberately aimed at doing things so that you can hang out in your most basic awareness.  The natural by-product of our basic awareness is contentment and a sense of feeling spacious, warm with a cool mist, light as a feather and even subtly fluffy.  But be aware that these sensations aren’t the goal and that meditation is not about contentment, but we may experience it as a side-benefit.

At this point you might be thinking, “but I can’t meditate all of the time, so what’s the point?”  Exactly, and great question.  There are many different meditation methods that are aimed at helping people improve the relationship that they have with their own mind, body and emotions.  Through meditation and various contemplations, we come to understand how the human mind works, how we get caught in our mind’s BS and how we can continue to hang out in our basic awareness while we go about our day.  This means that meditation takes some effort.  The better we are at focusing our awareness, learning and growing, and hanging out in contentment, the better able we are to birng our practice into our entire life.  So the ultimate point of meditation is to always meditate, regardless of what you’re doing.

 

It Takes a Little Work in the Beginning

All of this may have popped your bubble, but hopefully it doesn’t discourage you from going down the meditative road because it’s well worth it.  In the beginning, meditation can be tough and it’s important to be curious about your practice and your experiences (on and off the cushion).  As meditation becomes more familiar to you, it’ll be a place that you’ll want to go more frequently.  Initially, it can be uncomfortable and very confusing, but everyone gets the hang of it if they keep with it and maintain an open mind.  Just be careful not to assume that you know everything about meditation and yourself.  The finer points and deeper insights (even into simple things) can take some time to get down.  As a therapist and meditator, I’ve experienced many people who claim to know everything about meditation and their own mind…these are typically the people who are the most ignorant, poorly practiced, misguided and unaware.  So don’t fall into the trap of arrogance, but don’t go to the other extreme.  Lastly, remembered that it’s called practice and like exercise, you should always do at least a little every day to maintain your health.

Clarifying Mindfulness  |  It’s not Meditation

Mindfulness is only one aspect of consciousness and simply put, it’s our natural ability to be self-aware.  To use it to the fullest potential we need to max out our ability to concentrate and deliberately pay attention to a specific thing.  The most effective way to do this is to concentrate on something that is extremely simple, small, boring and constantly moving.  This is why the breath is the wisest choice.  Our breathing is extremely simple and it is ever flowing, which requires us to maintain our focus from moment-to-moment.  So when people say that they practice Mindfulness, I always ask about their specific practices because too many people use it as an avoidant technique.  In fact, people are taught to use it as a way to avoid…which I strongly discourage.  Yet the question remains, how can we recognize mindfulness or the lack of it in our own experience?

Imagine that you’re sitting and meditating.  You just started and your awareness is on your breathing and various thoughts are coming and going.  You continue to practice but then all of a sudden you realize that for the past few minutes you were off in some though, fantasy or even falling asleep.  Where did you go?  Where you went was the realm of the automaton (aka, automatic human being).  You were physically there…but you weren’t mentally there.  Then there was a flash of mindfulness where you were “fully” aware of what was happening.  In that instant, you recognized that your attention had drifted away.  At the same time, you recalled your meditation method (e.g., posture, breathing) and re-engaged it.  In this example we can see where mindfulness was and where it was not.  The trouble is noticing when you’re away during the day.  The hardest part is noticing when we’re acting on habit but our mind tricks us into thinking that everything is deliberate…that’s a tough one!  And so you know, nearly all humans are not completely mindful throughout the day and this is because we, like other animals, run on habit and automatic in order to conserve energy.  We often trick ourselves into thinking that we’re mindful but that’s usually because it’s psychologically scary to think that we don’t do a lot of things for very specific reasons and within our awareness.

Final Thoughts

So as you approach a possible meditation practice, equate it to an exercise regimen.  Ease in to it, learn as much as you can, and try to make it a lifestyle change rather than a temporary thing you do.  Keep in mind that sometimes it’ll be great and feel really good, but that there will be plenty of times where it might really suck.  The biggest difference between exercise and meditation is that your underlying psychological stuff can creep up and potentially freak you out when you meditate.  If you’ve experienced traumas in your life, tread lightly and get some good support before you venture into it.  This just ensures that you have a bit of a safety net before you decide to jump in, and it can’t hurt to have it.  Even if you haven’t experienced any traumas it can be extremely helpful to enlist the help of a seasoned and knowledgeable meditation practitioner.   And finally, remember that meditation is not about forcing happiness.  Rather, it’s a way to tap into your innate human potential and when you do this, you just might experience a greater amount of contentment and enjoyment that’s only based on living.

Spaciousness Within the Mundane

I hate doing laundry.  I realize this is somewhat ridiculous. It would be one thing if this chore was an all day affair that involved boiling a huge vat of water over a fire, scrubbing clothes on a metal washboard with hard soap, and hanging the clothes on a line to dry. But in our modern world of convenience, washing  and drying clothes in a machine is one of the more low impact chores.

And yet…I resent having to lug the clothes downstairs to my building’s lobby. I always marvel at how much longer it takes to sort the light and dark into their respective drums than I think it will. I am irritated by having to stop whatever I’ve started after half an hour to sort the wet clothes into those which will air dry and those that will be transferred to the drying machine. I loathe the clutter created by the drying rack in my living room. And then, before I know it, the timer sings its little reminder that it’s time to collect the remaining clothes from the dryer and fold them.

This morning, as I grudgingly hauled the laundry basket downstairs, I found myself getting utterly consumed by such disproportionate feelings of annoyance that they startled me. In that moment I knew that I should be laughing at myself, at the exaggerated grief that had emerged seemingly from nowhere…but I was already hooked. As I went through all the little motions, the starts and stops of completing my task, I watched my mind indulge in petty imaginings of injustice and hardship–if only everyone else in the building didn’t hog the machines during the afternoons and evenings so that early morning (my favorite time of the day) was the only reliable time to do it; if only my partner didn’t have so many dress shirts that couldn’t be dried, I wouldn’t be spending so much time hanging up wet clothes; if only the washing/drying cycles were at longer intervals so I could have some little pockets of peace within the chore…

Then, as I did my morning sitting, I watched these petty thoughts flare up and dissolve into feelings of anger, which I watched morph into a disappointed sadness of sorts. Interestingly, when taken out of the context of judging as good or bad (justified or unjustified), I experienced both a welling up of compassion for myself and a gentle understanding of what a misguided and confused set of ideas had taken hold: of course most people don’t want to get up early on a Sunday to do their laundry–they work hard all week, just like me, and would rather be sleeping or enjoying their mornings; so what if I spend a few extra minutes sorting out my partner’s clothes–it’s actually my pleasure to let him sleep while I do this tiny service that doesn’t even begin to repay all he does for me without a second thought; and sure, it would be nice if I could dictate the exact timings of any given chore such that it is exactly to my liking–but let’s be honest, having affordable, reliable access to a washer and dryer is already pretty damn convenient in the scheme of things.

Breathing in and breathing out, labeling thoughts as thoughts, letting myself feel the feelings without judgment…the hard, solid sensation of dissatisfaction lifted. And as usually happens at such moments, I thought to myself, how much easier this feels–I shouldn’t get caught up in such a narrow view. But then, as is happening with a bit more frequency these days, I smiled and conceded that I probably would get hooked again, perhaps in only a few minutes’ time, in fact. But if I do, when I do, there’s some peace in the sense that I can treat it just like any other experience in this life,  can let it be simply be what it is.

Training the Mind for Realization

When I was first establishing my meditation practice and studying Buddhism at the Shambhala Center of New York, I remember telling a teacher that it was hard for me not to berate myself for realizing that my attention had wandered, that it was actually getting in the way of returning my attention to the breath. His response was I might instead try being grateful I had noticed.

Of course, like most of the pithy tidbits of wisdom encountered in Buddhism, this shift from blame to grace is easier said than done. However, as is also often the case, the longer I’ve lived with my teacher’s advice, the longer I’ve spent on the cushion, the more comfortable I’ve become with this moment of noticing I’ve been in a trance, and I’ve been able to watch that familiar judgment materialize only to dissolve into nothing. And with each passing year, I appreciate the profundity of what it might mean to make this shift more generally, to “make friends with yourself” (to borrow Chögyam Trunpa’s famous words) both on and off the cushion. After all, the time spent cultivating mindfulness in a meditation practice should be laying a foundation for a more awake existence as we stand up and immerse ourselves in the chaos of our daily lives. Ideally, realizing that our attention has wandered is training for all sorts of realizations.

Often it’s pleasant: sometimes realizing my attention has wandered leads to seeing the beauty of the sunlight streaming in my window with fresh eyes; sometimes it leads to refocusing on the task at hand with new energy. Other times it’s soul-destroying: sometimes realizing my attention has wandered leads to seeing how blissfully ignorant I’ve been of the misfortune of someone right in front of me; sometimes it leads to understanding how impossibly far I am from the person I would like to be. It’s really difficult, being grateful for all realizations equally, and I hasten to say that I don’t manage it much of the time. But something that has made a difference for me more recently has actually been a realization about realizations.

When you think about it, aren’t realizations in and of themselves kind of amazing? Isn’t it a bit mind-blowing that humans are capable of synthesizing both the external stimulus of the world and the internal chatter of their minds’ constant commentary into a moment of insight that helps us understand our existence in a completely different way? Isn’t that something to be grateful for, even when the insights make us uncomfortable or sad? While I’ve certainly felt homesick for the security I felt pre-realization many a time, I would never wish to “un-know” any insight. Even at their most painful, I’m noticing more and more how hard won these little glimpses at truth are, how much tenacity and resilience is required, how long they take to incubate, and perhaps most affecting, how mysteriously beautiful they are compared to the long-winded, contrived stories I spin denying their truth.

“What’s Next?”

As a one friend celebrates his birthday today, and two other friends are getting married tomorrow, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we mark the different chapters of life. It seems as though childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood are full of clear transitions–school is littered with fresh starts as we make our way from grade to grade and then navigate each new semester of college;  once we pass through the ritual of graduation, we embark on first jobs, homes of our own, committed romantic relationships. However, as we get older, there are fewer and fewer clear markers of transition from one chapter to the next. Years begin to blur together, and starting a “new year” on the first of January can feel a bit arbitrary and lack luster.

For my friend, Nick, who celebrates his 34th birthday today, life has more or less followed the prescribed path. Since graduating college eleven years ago, he got a dream job within his field of engineering and has been promoted steadily (and more quickly than any other employee at his company); he married his college sweetheart; he bought a house…and yet, he’s expressed on several occasions a sense of nostalgia for the cut path of childhood with its specific hurdles to clear. More and more, the question, “What’s next?” hangs in the air.

I did not exactly follow the prescribed path. I was good at jumping the concrete hurdles set up by institutions, not as good at navigating the meandering expanse of life after graduation. For me, the last 10 years since finishing college have at times seemed like a long haze of optimism and false starts, self-discovery and  insecurity, joy and fear,  excitement and instability.  Up until very, very recently, I’d not managed to achieve most of the common markers of adulthood–full time job, long-term partner, etc. As a result, I often felt stuck in a strange limbo where I both felt terribly behind my peers while simultaneously wondering,”what’s next?” because I had no sense of the path to achieving these milestones, much less a larger purpose with my life.

Now that I’m more comfortably situated in a concrete way, I feel as though my long stint of frustrated adulthood may come in handy. If I’m able to derive some basic confidence from having weathered ups and downs without many anchors, then perhaps I’ll have the courage to create my own transitions, keep life from stagnating, asking, “What’s next?” with enthusiasm rather than dread. And when that courage wanes, perhaps I can draw strength from others grappling with this essentially human (albeit privileged) question for themselves.

After years of searching, Nick has created his next big milestone by taking a leap of faith this year. In another month, he will leave his prestigious, well paying dream job to teach engineering at a South Side Chicago high school, helping students gain confidence in math and science, encouraging them in their aspirations to be the first in their families to go to college. For him, and perhaps for all of us, the natural “next” step after ticking all the boxes in the usual checklist to establish ourselves is to turn our gaze outward and ask ourselves how we can contribute to what’s next for someone else.

 

Optional Suffering

The Buddha did not present suffering as the first noble truth just because he had figured out that everybody has a hard time in life. He said that there is something much deeper going on. We suffer because we are projecting the myth of permanence upon a situation that is actually conditioned, selfless, and constantly changing. Everything is interrelated and interdependent. There is nothing substantial and separate that we can lean upon. Samsara, “the cycle of suffering,” is a direct result of our desire for permanence.

~ Sakyong Mipham Rimpoche

Recently, a lot of things which I’ve struggled with for many  years (my entire life?) have come together. For the first time that I can remember, I feel a sense of stability in my career, partner, living situation, and friendships. Most days, I have at least a moment or two of disbelief that I’ve come so far in the last year, and my heart feels as though it might burst with gratitude. In short, life is good.

And yet, underneath my joy there always seems to lurk a current of anxiety, a tensing up in expectation of hardship that *must* be just around the corner. My dreams of both past and imagined distress sometimes startle me awake with fight or flight adrenaline coursing through my veins; the pleasure of gratitude is often spoiled by an underlying sense of unworthiness; there are days when I can’t shake the sensation that everything I have been blessed with is about to be violently ripped away from me.

“Everything’s okay now,” my partner says as he holds me during one of my attacks of inexplicable uneasiness. “All of that is behind you. After a bit more time, you’ll relax and feel safe.” His words, his touch, certainly provide comfort, but a voice in the back of my mind whispers that I know better, that life won’t always be this good.

And the thing is…I know I’m right. My partner’s soothing words are not true. Life undoubtedly will not always be as it is right now. There will be bumps ahead. Whatever stability I relax into will not stay constant–even if I am lucky enough to maintain a stability of sorts, the quality and nature of that “constant” will change in countless micro-adjustments as life continues to unfold. There undoubtedly is pain lurking around the corner in some form or another. And of course, my deepest fear–that I must face all of this alone–is simply one of the conditions of this human existence.

And yet, it’s not the fundamental unreliability of life that is the problem. After all, impermanence is just the state of things. Were I to get my wish and have everything stay exactly the same, my elation would soon fade, a restless impatience with the sameness would set in, and the very situation which I so desperately want to preserve would become a prison of frustration. It is the ever shifting nature of reality which gives life its color, its dynamism, its vibrancy. The problem is actually that I continue to trick myself into believing those well intentioned words, that I am now “safe.” The problem is not that I will never be safe from suffering; it’s that I persist in resting in a false sense of security. It’s that even now, as I write these words, part of me regards the (very reasonable) distrust of stability I’m experiencing as a malady, as the thing which is the cause of my anxiety.

But really, it’s not that I need to quit expecting bumps in the road; rather, it’s that I need to quit clinging to this “myth of impermanence” which obscures and limits the rich, complicated, messy grandeur of existence. There is actually more comfort to be had in accepting life on its own terms than attempting to fit it into a narrative so hopelessly narrow that it cannot contain the expanse of our experience. Is it any wonder that we’re constantly thrown into a panic when we persist in expecting life to play out in ways that are contrary to its most basic nature?

Perhaps more comforting than trying to sustain a feeling safety in an uncertain world is leaning into the uncertainty, dancing with it. That way, when the suffering comes, we’re at least spared the rude awakening, the sensation that we’ve lost control. After all, we never had it in the first place. As Haruki Murakami puts it, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

 

 

 

 

 

Psychotherapy 101: Therapy for Your Kid

There may come a point and time when you feel the need to take your child to a psychotherapist.  If you’re in this situation and you’re considering making this move, you, as a parent, need to consider some important things before you start this process.  The first part of what every parent needs to understand is that their limited in their ability to control and change their kid.  What I’m going to share may sound like bad news, but it’s not.  Instead, it’s the reality of our situation.  And when we better understand the reality of any situation, we can always find a workable solution and path to improvement.  So let’s get started.

Nobody Can Control or Fix Another Human

This is the first point that you will need to drill into your memory so that it permeates everything that you say and do.  We cannot control another person, we can only influence them or manipulate the circumstances around them through our own efforts.  Why?  Because each of us has a will of our own that nobody else can touch.  Our choices are our choices and they cannot be anyone else’s.  This means that change is up to them just like it’s up to you and me.  This is true for a 5-year-old and a 75-year-old person.  If you doubt this, just look into your own life.  Haven’t there been times when you’ve known that it was best to choose one course of action but you went a different route anyway?  No matter how small the situation or decision, we’ve all done this and it’s no different with our kids.  If they want to stubbornly hang onto a choice, they might go to the ends of the earth to stick to it, regardless of what everyone has told them.  If they change their mind, well…they changed their mind in response to something (e.g., a thought, undesired outcome, etc.).  And it’s precisely when they change their minds that parents and adults make the mistake of believing that they can control their kid or the other other person.  So we mustn’t think, ever, that our actions have the potential to change another person.  Sure, you might be able to overpower your child physically because you’re much bigger than them, but you can’t control their mind or what they choose in the end.  If you could control other people’s choices then they would be nothing more than programmable robots.

“If my kid could only….things would be fine!”

Whether it’s in the context of the family, work or a group of friends, we often tend to think that a single person is the source of our problems.  If they could only change or somehow be different then everything would be okay.  While there are cases when a single person is the source of a problem in a group, it’s more common that the individual is expressing a problem in the group or family.  When it comes to kids, it’s almost always the case that something is off balance within the family and that their behaviors are symbolic of the problems in the family.  Sure, the child might be having a hard time with a specific issue, but their ability to cope with the situation links back to the family.

For example, I worked with one adolescent who had the hardest time dealing with any disturbing or unwanted thoughts, feelings or situations.  When these would occur, the kid frequently went into a behavioral tail-spin…also known as a severe tantrum.  As I got to know this kid and his family, it became clear that one of her parents had an extremely difficult time withstanding any emotional upheaval, especially from the son.  As a result, this parent quickly took action to change their son’s circumstances so that he would feel better.  What this taught the son was that when he didn’t want something, the world would change for him.  In this context, the boy’s emotional instability and behavioral outbursts made complete sense.  His inability to manage difficult situations had been retarded because one of his parents did the work that he needed to learn how to do.  He also learned that when he increased the intensity of his emotions and behaviors, the one parent would freak out and do whatever he wanted to calm the situation.  This went on for years and when this boy and his parents came to me, it was very clear that the boy’s actions reinforced the parent’s actions, and vice versa.  If change was going to happen for the boy, the parents also needed to change their ways.

So even though it might make sense to us, in the moment, that another is solely responsible for our problems, relationships are a two way street.  This is why we need to focus on our responses to them and our role in the situation, no matter how big or small.  When a parent decides to enlist the help of a psychotherapist and believes that the therapist can fix the problem (aka, the kid), this is the first issue to discuss.  The truth is, we can’t force anyone to “get fixed” or to “stop being the problem.”  Why?  You guessed it again, their will is outside of our control.  So what do we do then?  That’s a great question, and the answer is that we focus on how we can change, regardless of whether or not the other person decides to change.  And this means that the problem is in the “we,” not the “them” or “you.”

Control, Cause and Effect, and Influence

It’s often the case that parents come into my office and want me to give them a secret way to deal with their kid in order to “make them” do something.  Parents often come to believe that they have control over their kid’s actions because they’ve witnessed a change in the kid’s behaviors when they change their tactic with them.  Therefore, they come to believe that their actions have controlled the kid, but this is only an illusion that our mind is giving us.  As a result of this false and incorrect belief, the parent implements the tactic again with the hope of achieving the same level of cooperation or to get the same response.  It might work a few times but at some point it’ll start to fail.  What’s not uncommon is that the kid will adapt to the new tactic, learn its nuances, and start to exploit it as time goes on.  For example, I’ve worked with numerous parents who have provided rewards to their kids for doing very basic things like taking out the trash.  What ends up happening?  The kid learns that they should get something from the parents any time the parent asks them to do something.  It’s at this point that the kid will turn to the parent and say, “What are you going to give me if I do this?”  Or the kid might say, “I’ll only do ____ if I get ___!”  Originally the parent thought that they found a new technique to get their kid to comply but the kid turned the situation around and now has control over the parent!

Our kids are bright, they’re quick-minded, and they quickly figure out how adults work.  All of this is because their ability to change and learn is faster than adults.  It’s also because the kids have less power and authority.  When any of us have less power and authority compared to another, we often master loop holes and rules in order to manipulate them into getting what we want.  Adults do this at work, with taxes, and when they try to get deals on things that they buy.  Kids do this with, well, everything!  When you put parents and kids together, the result is a battle of wits and ultimately, a battle for control.  Yet, nobody will ever win because nobody can control anybody else.  But what about those big consequences, like taking away their beloved cell phone or car, that you threaten them with?  You seem to have control them right?  Absolutely not.

All of us, adults and kids alike, face possible consequences in response to our actions all of the time.  For example, my boss can give me deadlines, but whether or not I meet them is up to me.  If I know that they’ll definitely fire me if I miss a deadline and my job is really important to me, I’ll most likely meet that deadline.  You might think that they’re controlling me in this situation but they aren’t.  Why?  Because I don’t want to lose my job and experience problems in my life.  Consequently, I choose to meet the deadlines and a result, I get to keep my job.  I could have just as easily decided to miss the deadline if I didn’t care about losing my job.  Therefore, it’s always that nobody can control my choices no matter the situation, just like nobody can control you.

“So what can I expect to see happen when my kid goes to therapy?”

Nothing.  You can’t expect anything because change is up to the kid, and by now you understand why this is absolutely true.  If they decide to use therapy, then they will use therapy and they will change because they’ve decided to change.  If they choose to reject therapy, they will reject therapy.  Yet, change is inevitable so you can just give them time and space to figure things out on their own.  However, if you want to increase the chances that they will use therapy for themselves and in a helpful way, then you need to focus on how you offer it to them.  Everything that I suggest comes down to you, the parents, giving them the space to have their own experience and to keep your nose out of their therapy sessions.  If they want to let you in, it needs to be on their terms and not yours.

Approaching a Kid About Therapy – The Easy Scenario

If you can avoid it, don’t force your kid to start therapy.  Ideally, you want to offer it to them as a helpful resource, and then they can decide how they want to use it.  When I was 10 years old, my father asked me to give therapy a try.  He told me that he wouldn’t force me to go if I didn’t like it after the first session but that a lot of people found it helpful.  He said that he would let me choose from a couple of therapists and that I didn’t have to go again if I hated it.  Whether he was aware of it or not, he approached the situation skillfully.  I don’t know if he was advised to do it this way, if it was blind luck, or if my father just had a great intuition about the situation, but he handled it impressively.  By giving me choices he gave me the space to feel that the decision was truly mine.  This helped me be completely open to the experience.  If he had forced it upon me in an attempt to change me, I would have related to therapy as an extension of him trying to control me.  If a kid feels this way, they’ll frequently resist whatever they’re being confronted with just because they’re reacting to you and their loss of control…and this will almost always result in therapy being corrupted before it even starts.

What’s also important is the relationship between the kid and the parent who is approaching them about therapy.  If my father and I had a very negative relationship where we fought for control all of the time, his approach wouldn’t have mattered because my defenses would have been up before he started.  I would have fought his suggestion stubbornly and without any rational reason.  So know that who approaches the kid about therapy is just as important as how it’s presented.  Also, make sure you give your kid as many choices about therapy as possible.  If you have a good relationship with them and you need to force therapy on them, it’s very helpful to apologize for having to do this.  By apologizing, you’re empathizing with them and how the situation sucks.  This can go a long way to repair the relationship.  Then, be sure to find as many ways that they can choose things throughout the process leading up to the first session.  And let them know that you’re not going to be nosey about their experience in therapy or ask them what they talked about.  If they want to, let them do the research when finding a therapist or ask them how they’d like to choose one.  Do they want your help?  A little?  A lot?  If they refuse to be involved, you can let them know that you’ll pick someone, but that you’d much rather them do the choosing.  Give them a little time to process your comments and they might come around after a few days.  In the end you can identify a few therapists and see if they want to pick one.  But what about the situations where a kid won’t go?  What do you do when they fight the situation every step of the way no matter how you approach them?

Approaching a Kid About Therapy – The Difficult Scenario

If you don’t have a good relationship with your kid or if the majority of your interactions become intense quite quickly, the final result of this situation might be that your kid doesn’t enter into therapy…but that’s okay.  Despite this, there are several things that you can do to help the situation, but this MUST occur before you approach your kid.  Your first task is to make sure that you’ve read the previous section, “The Easy Scenario,” and have spent some time reflecting on how you can approach them, wholeheartedly, in that way.  Next, we need to take a look at how you and your kid battle for control.

Sometimes relationships patterns are so engrained, repetitive, and highly reactive that they kick into gear regardless of the topic or issue.  Both of you might react with such intensity to the simplest situation that it makes any positive interaction nearly impossible.  I could lie to you and say that there’s a simple fix…but the reality is that you’ve spent a long time getting to this painful place, and it will take consistent effort and a bit of time to change things.  However, the one who will need to change the most is not the kid but you,the parents.  Therefore, it doesn’t matter all that much if your kid sees a therapist, but we should still offer therapy to them as a choice.  And when you offer it to them, let them make as many decisions about the situation as possible (as I’ve noted in the previous section).  Also, give them several days to think it over and be sure that they know you’re not going to spy on their sessions or drill them or their therapist after the session.  It’s for them to use or not use, and how they use the sessions are completely up to them.  If you want them to attend, you’ll need to stay out of their business…and you have to follow through on this.  Plain and simple.  Many, many parents struggle with this part and even when they try to give space, they aren’t able to.  This is because the habit of being in their business or trying to control them is so habitual that the parents aren’t even aware of it and the damage it’s caused.  I see this all the time in my work with the parents.  These parents don’t have bad intentions and they have a hard time seeing how knowing every detail about their kid is a bad thing.  If you’re identifying with what I’m saying, it might be best for you to start with a family therapist first, for you, and then move on to your kid.  And if your kid continues to reject any offer of therapy, then you absolutely need to go to a family therapist because change can and will happen with you.

Selecting a Therapist

This can be a very tricky task, especially since therapists aren’t generally good at marketing themselves.  What I mean by “marketing themselves” is that many therapists don’t often develop enough online information that can help you get a feel for what they’re like.  As a result, you end up with a list of names from your insurance company and the therapist’s basic information.  Do as much research online as you can, but sometimes it’s better to go with a referral from someone that you know and trust.  As you begin this digging, keep the following checklist in mind:

  1. Does the therapist have experience or training in working with kids?
  2. Do they have experience and/or training in family therapy? (e.g., LMFT)
  3. Do you want a therapist with a Masters or Doctorate degree?
    • A Ph.D. is primarily trained in research; a Psy.D. is primarily trained as a therapist who uses research; Masters level therapists can vary, check out WebMD’s page to get a better understanding of these.
  4. Do you know if your kid wants to work with a male or a female?
    • You may want to have one or two of each and provide your kid with options.
  5. Ask your kid if there’s a characteristic of the therapist that’s important to them (e.g., race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, etc.).
    • Go with what they prefer and without your suggestions or influence. If they have more influence on the choice, they’ll be more open to therapy.
  6. Age might matter to you or your kid, but try to be flexible and open-minded.
    • Don’t let the age hold you back, but if your kid has a strong preference you may want to go with it. 
  7. Is insurance and cost a limitation for you?
    • Many therapists work on a sliding scale, so don’t count a therapist out if you’re financials are limited.

Do a bit of work to figure out what might be best for your kid, and follow their lead as much as possible.  It can be a tough decision to make so be sure to ask around for suggestions from friends, family members, school administrators, and possibly colleagues (if appropriate).  The worst thing that can happen is that the therapist isn’t all that good, your kid doesn’t like them, and you try another one.  Be sure that they give the person a couple of sessions to see if it’s a good fit.  If they’re never satisfied with a therapist, they’re probably not ready to start therapy, but ask them what they’d like to do.  Again, if they don’t go then you should still go see someone.

Parents MUST Attend Family Therapy

As I’ve mentioned, many times people think that just one person is experiencing problems, but the truth of the matter is that the entire family is struggling.  Humans are deeply interconnected and nearly all that we do involves other people, directly or indirectly.  The most involved relationships that we have are within the family, and since our kids have less authority and responsibility than adults, it’s necessary for parents to be involved in family therapy to support a struggling kid.  I’ve found that it’s particularly helpful to meet with parents without the kid.  In fact, I let the kid know that if they ever want to join a family session then they will lead the topic of conversation.  If they don’t want to join, then they don’t need to.  As we know, a family is a unit of deeply intertwined people and if only one person is changing, it will be harder for everything to get better.  It can still happen but the process is more difficult.  When multiple family members learn how to work better together and to address their own hangups (which we all have), then everything tends to improve at a quicker rate.  Yes, there are growing pains and anxieties that come with change, but after a while everyone adjusts.  So start therapy with whoever is willing to participate and allow others to join if and when they’re ready.  If you’re adamant that your kid is the problem and that they need to be involved in therapy, you’ll need to first address this with a family therapist because your fixation is a symptom of other problems.  I know that me saying this might upset you, but it’s important that you know the truth of the matter.

Now, I’d like to add that there are times when a kid has a biological issue that results in specific problems that did not originate from family dynamics.  The situations are very rare and occur when a kid has a severe biological, neurological or genetic abnormality.  The bast majority of issues are the results of a combination of biological and environmental influences.  So while we might not think that family therapy is necessary in the rare case that our kid has a biological problem only, I still strongly advise it.  This is because parents need, at least temporarily, the support of a professional as they learn how to better manage the stress of the situation.  Many parents have a hard time dealing with the demands of a child who is suffering and their marriage, or other family relationships, can degrade as a result.  Seeing a family therapist can help keep the health of the family as high as possible when facing difficulties.  It can even help save a marriage.

Parents are Not Trained to Be Parents

Unfortunately, most of us go our entire lives without receiving extensive training and education on human psychology, parenting, and relationship dynamics.  As a result, it makes sense that many people struggle when they become parents.  What makes the situation even more challenging is that you didn’t get a rule book or manual for how to raise your kid when they were born!  Yes, there are often guidelines, but these change depending upon who you talk to and which research study you’re looking at.   Not only that, every family has a different mixture of culture, unique stressors and personalities.  What a mess!  It’s for all of these reasons and more that parents need to be involved in family therapy to support their struggling kids.  In these sessions, you’ll learn about your family patterns, reflect upon how your individual backgrounds have influenced these, and learn how to work together to make positive changes.  You’ll also figure out your individual obstacles that are getting in the way of you changing.  The more willing parents are to make their own changes, the better off the kids will be and the happier the family can become.  What’s more is that parenting can put a HUGE strain on your intimate relationship.  A good family therapist is going to keep all of these things in mind and support the entire family so that everyone is better.  Sounds like a good thing doesn’t it?!

The Boundary Between Therapy with a Kid and with Parents

A good family therapist will be able to maintain a good working relationship with each member of the family.  Individual sessions will not be discussed, by the therapist, with other members without express permission and purpose.  Even then, this “triangulation” should be extremely limited.  This is because it’s important for each person to share what they’re thinking and feeling with other family members directly.  It’s not the therapist’s role to be the conduit between family members between sessions, and it’s extremely unhealthy if the therapist functions this way.  So, how do we balance all of this?  First, let’s identify the different types of sessions and how their used.

  • Individual Sessions
    • Support the individual, explore deeper issues/experiences within the person, sessions are guided by the client’s agenda, therapist doesn’t speak for people not in session.
  • Parenting/Couple Sessions
    • Support the parenting and/or marital relationship, sessions are guided by ongoing and recent problems, communication and mutual understanding are enhanced, both are encouraged to change, and blame is not tolerated but responsibility is emphasized.
  • Family Sessions
    • One or more individuals want to address an issue and the session is guided by this, communication and mutual understanding are enhanced, blame is not tolerated, individual responsibility is emphasized, all are encouraged to change.

Individual sessions, be it with an adult or kid, are “owned” by the individual.  These sessions need to be “owned” by the individual and private so that they can voice anything and everything.  This freedom is only made possible if the individual knows that what is said in the room stays confidential.  When the person knows this, deep down, they will feel safe enough to share honestly and openly.  And they’re more likely to take the risk to address what’s really going on inside of them.  If parents or anyone else tries to invade this privacy, defenses will go up.  If privacy is invaded, then therapy sessions will no longer be helpful.

Sessions with multiple members are meant to address the relationships between the individuals.  It’s not helpful to get people on “your side” during the session or after it.  This only results in people ganging up on one another and therapy will degrade.  Everyone will start to feel unsafe and if this continues, sessions won’t be productive.

Final Thoughts

As parents, take care when approaching your child about therapy and keep in mind that your relationship dynamics will influence their response.  Also, you should meet with a family therapist regularly (weekly, biweekly) regardless of whether your kid is in thereapy.  I once had a parent say to me, quite eloquently, “so you’re saying that if we succeed, our daughter can succeed.”  This is exactly right.  In therapy, parents can learn how to best support your kid and the entire family.  Parents can also learn how to take better care of themselves.  Lastly, know that your kid needs space if they end up working with a therapist.  Feel free to ask them if the session went okay, but make sure that they know they don’t have to share anything with you unless they want to.  A big part of them growing up is learning how to experience situations for themselves and to figure out what they want to do with their problems.  If you’re always getting in the way, then they learn that you won’t let them learn to be independent…and this creates a very negative cycle where little or no change occurs.

As always, drop a comment or send me a note through my website contact form if you want to ask any questions.

 

Going to the “Compassion Gym”

After taking a break from running for several weeks, I’ve started ramping up so that I can participate in the Chase Corporate Challenge this next Thursday, along with an expected 25,000 runners in downtown Chicago. Whenever I return to regular exercise after a hiatus, I’m always struck by how hard the first couple of runs are and how quickly my muscles “remember,” allowing me to get back up to speed and even push beyond it. It’s simultaneously humbling and invigorating. Adding to all of this is the fact that I have spent most of my life declaring (almost defensively) “I am not a runner,” and I have to chuckle at the little unexpected currents running throughout life: five years ago, I’d have never believed that I could successfully run one mile, much less take part in a race. It makes me wonder what else I’ve walked around thinking is “just not me” that actually, maybe could.

When I lived in NYC and was attending classes at the Interdependence Project, Ethan Nichtern often spoke of meditation as a “compassion gym”: in the same way we go to the gym and lift weights to build stronger muscles, thus increasing our stamina and endurance for physical activity, we can turn approach meditation as a practice that increases our stamina and endurance for being generous both to ourselves and other people, strengthen the muscles required to extend genuine wishes for well-being and empathy for suffering beyond ourselves and those of our immediate circles of loved ones to strangers, even enemies. I’ve always liked this idea as it contrasts with what seems to be the prevailing attitude:  compassion and empathy are often treated as fixed character traits–qualities one is born with, an innate part of one’s personality, qualities one either has or doesn’t. “Well, he’s just a nicer person than I am,” gets bandied about with a shrug, both denying the agency of the actor and letting the observer off the hook.

If we can think about compassion and empathy as qualities one is capable of cultivating and strengthening like a muscle, it actually allows for a much wider range of possibility within the human experience–for all of us. It means that no one is exempt from the responsibility of making the effort to not only treat others well but, also, to understand others, to look for themselves in the behaviors that challenge or irritate or enrage. It means saying to ourselves, just like me this person is so worried that she’ll be taken advantage of that she’s behaving defensively. If that recognition is possible for all of us if we look for it, it means that it’s never too late to “be a nice person,” even if we’ve never been seen that way, even if we’ve never seen ourselves that way.  For those of us who are labeled “nice” (seemingly inherent in our very nature), it means that there is a practice that helps to examine what lies behind our niceness–is it “idiot compassion” as Chögyam Trungpa warned against, in which we enable others because we can’t bear our own discomfort with another’s suffering? is it generosity just for show? If our niceness must pass muster, must be rooted in working to see the suffering in others, to bear it with them as best we can, then it pushes us beyond the passive, superficial connotation so often associated (and embodied) in “niceness,” to be of real benefit to others while also expanding ourselves.

Beyond all of this, the other possibility that is opened up by thinking of meditation as a “compassion gym,” is that there is a refuge for each of us from the ticker tape of thoughts, worries, anxieties, pain, boredom, etc. In the same way that a good sweat can clear one’s head and realign our priorities when we get caught up in the repetitive cycle of neurotic mind, so can sitting on the cushion to focus our hearts and minds on wishing joy for ourselves, a loved one, a stranger, and enemy, all of these, and finally, all of us humble and invigorate us as we approach our day-to-day existence.