Over the years all the practitioners at Magnolia House have written articles for newsletters and journals. We are collecting them for others to read and copy in this section. We are happy for you to print any of these and to use them in whatever way is useful. The only thing we ask is that you acknowledge the authorship.
A popular explanation couples often give me for difficulties in their relationship is that they “can’t communicate”.
We Can't Communicate
A popular explanation couples often give me for difficulties in their relationship is that they “can’t communicate”. Though there is often some “truth” in this statement in the sense that the couple find communication difficult, it it’s literal sense it runs counter to the idea held by therapists that “it’s impossible not to communicate”.
Indeed, on some exploration, the couple generally reveal that they do communicate very powerfully, though their communication tends to be centred on things they don’t like, complaints, anger ,frustration and disappointment. Hence the couple can communicate but not necessarily about the things which help their relationship to be loving and constructive.
Often the value of helping a couple to recognize that their description of their problem, that is that they “can’t communicate”, is not quite accurate, is that it opens up the possibilities of them looking at their relationship from a less self defeating perspective.
Not infrequently I ask couples to prepare, as homework for our next session, a list of those things they like or appreciate about their partner or to nominate those things that they would like to “keep the same” rather than change. Again, this orientation can provide a different focus or perspective than the one which had been dominated by what is wrong with their partner and what things have to change.
While this approach is not meant to ignore those things that happen in a couples relationship which irk them, it can have the effect of helping them focus on what they have to build on to as opposed to simply what they need to change.
I often use an analogy of a house which has been partly burnt in a fire. If we simply look at all the black bits it is possible to get very despondent and come to the belief that all is lost, whereas if we look at the parts of the house which are still standing then we can begin to formulate plans on how to add on the the existing structure and repair it.
Many couples find it surprising when they complete such an exercise and then, in a subsequent session tell each other those things they like or appreciate or want to keep the same in their relationship. Often they begin to realize how much they have got out of the habit of communicating these important sentiments to each other.
As couples do this simple exercise, often the partner giving the compliments notices the way, at least at this instant, that they bring a smile to the face of their partner and contribute to making them happy. Since, in my experience the vast majority of partners attempt to make their spouse happy , having some direct experience of this can remind them of the habit they have lost. This can be a good start for many couples.
“Respect Yourself" demands the byline in a popular magazine article. Such prescriptions are common…
“Respect Yourself" demands the byline in a popular magazine article. Such prescriptions are common. Self confidence or high self esteem, we are told, is achieved by “being decisive”, “saying what we mean”, “standing up for ourselves”, “standing up to others”, “being assertive”. We are also asked to “affirm ourselves”, “think positively” and “like ourselves”.
Certainly there can be value in reminding ourself of such things but they can also put us in a bind. What if there are times when we cannot decide what to do, or don't stand up for ourselves or think positively. The message from popular articles implies we must try harder or force ourselves to “be decisive”, “think positively” or whatever.
From time to time I meet with people who attempt to follow these instructions but find it doesn’t always make them feel better. Sometimes they then conclude that their problem is they “lack confidence” or have “low self esteem”. (Incidentally I am often struck by the confidence with which people announce to me that this is their problem)
Since it occurs to me that almost every behaviour has value in some context (not an original idea), by slavishly trying to live up to these various popular prescriptions people can overlook the value of, on occasions, not standing up for themselves, thinking negatively and so on.
In my experience we can often discover interesting things about ourselves when we explore the value or purpose of our "indecisiveness" "submissiveness", "self criticism" etc.
A common example relates to parenting. I frequently find that parents, mostly mothers (that's another topic) will say, somewhat resignedly "I suppose I'm a bad parent". They acknowledge that other people have told them that they are a good parent but this doesn't seem to help. In such instances I ask parents what is the value, to them, of thinking of themselves as a bad parent. People sometimes find this a strange approach but, with some persistence will often be surprised at what they can unearth. Often their scenario ends up like this. "The value of thinking of myself as a bad parent is that it leads me to wonder whether I am doing the right thing. This in turn leads me to get ideas from other people, think and learn more about children, examine how I respond to my child and reminds me to listen and understand him/her."
In other words, to simply force ourselves to, “think positively” by replacing "I am a bad parent" with "I am a good parent" doesn't necessarily mean we will feel better.
On the other hand, exploring, valuing and accepting our doubts, hesitancies and uncertainties, rather than blocking them out, can be a great way to learn about ourselves and discover our strengths. Self confidence, then, is as much a function of our ability to accept confidently, our doubts and uncertainties as much as our accomplishments.
It had been one of those mornings! My elder son, then ten, had forgotten to do a couple of vital things during the course of our preparation...
It had been one of those mornings! My elder son, then ten, had forgotten to do a couple of vital things during the course of our preparation to get to school. As we headed for school, it happened again! Half way between home and school he suddenly blurted out “Dad I have forgotten my soccer pads!”, and then, reflecting on the mornings pattern of activity, said “I am just a failure ”.
Almost surprising myself with the speed of my reply, I heard myself say “Mate, you can not be a failure because you have just remembered, but it’s okay to say ‘I failed to get my soccer pads, get my lunch’, etc etc.”
This difference in explaining a bad event to ourselves is not just a matter of semantics. It can, when repeated over and over, have a big impact on our sense of self confidence and hopefulness about the future.
Explanations of the sort “I am a failure/ hopeless/ lazy/ an idiot/ etc” are generalized description of the totality of ourselves and our existence. Logically they are false and generally set the person making such an explanation of themselves on a course of remembering or recalling similar instances or times they have not succeded or whatever. It is one common form of self explanation used by people who describe themselves as depressed.
The alternate explanation “I failed to ....” is a specific and temporary explanation of a particular event in time and often leaves the speaker recalling exceptions to the instance they are explaining. Hence, for my son, saying “I failed to get my soccer pads” led him to say, when prompted, “but I usually do remember them”. This is a much more confident and hopeful explanation.
The vast majority of the time our explanations of events are not articulated for others to hear. The fact that they remain unspoken, except to ourselves, can indeed increase their impact since there is less likelyhood, if kept to ourselves, such ideas will be challanged by others around us. Parenting courses emphasize the importance of focusing on a child’s behaviour - “That was a silly thing to do”- as opposed to a generalized description “You’re silly”. This can be where people have begun to learn to explain bad events to themselves in such an all encompassing and self defeating fashion.
Since these patterns of explanation are habits, alternate ways of explaining bad events can be learned.
In my work with couples a common theme is the issue of differentness. Each partner in a relationship brings personality attributes...
But We're So Different!
In my work with couples a common theme is the issue of differentness. Each partner in a relationship brings personality attributes, childhood and life experiences which vary from that of their partner. Such differences are rarely the cause of relationship difficulties, rather it is the way the couple handle, resolve, negotiate around their differentness that counts. Often, when partners first tell me of their difficulties, these are presented as complaints they have about each other. These invariably reveal how they differ from each other. Asking the couple about their ideas about the value of differentness to their relationship can provide new things for them to explore.
One immediate effect can be that they can start to view their complaint pattern about each other more constructively. Asking them to consider what role their differentness played in their attraction to each other, and the implications this has for the health of their relationship, can also help.
A particular way I construct this notion is to suggest that we select or are attracted to a partner who has life experiences, displays particular bits of behaviour, or has attributes in their personality, which we would like to have ourselves but have yet to develop. This, in itself, means that we are attracted to someone who is, in some ways, different from ourselves.
It can follow, therefore, that one of the purposes of a close relationship is to develop those things in ourselves which our partner has but which we have not yet developed. The relationship then provides an opportunity for us to learn to be more like the person we want to be through the model or example our partner presents.
Hence, respecting, exploring and understanding our partners different perspective, rather than trying to undermine it, or talk them out of it, (as is more often the case with couples who have difficulties) is critical. In this way each of us can learn, bit by bit, to incorporate those things into our own way of behaving which our partner has or can do, which we would like, but have yet to develop.
Conflict or tension between parents, in any family setting, is distressing for children. Kids rely on parents for their sense of security...
Kids and Separation
Conflict or tension between parents, in any family setting, is distressing for children. Kids rely on parents for their sense of security and certainty about the world.
When parents separate, not only is this family upheaval new and unfamiliar to kids, conflict between parents is heightened and both are often preoccupied with their own emotional distress. Children therefore can feel particularly insecure.
In such a situation, it is very common for children to be unsure about whether it is safe to show their loyalty to both parents. Children wonder, if they are attentive or affectionate to one parent, or talk about the parent they are not with, whether they will alienate the other parent. Kids can therefore get caught up in telling either parent what they want to hear, or telling tales about the other parent as a way of securing their affection from either one.
One of the things that can be of great assistance to children, even when things are in a state of flux between their parents, is for them to experience their parents as being in charge of this state of affairs.
In my experience, despite their conflict with each other, parents do want to sort out the consequences of their separation in a way which is best for their children. This is one thing parents will inevitably agree about and, when prompted, are often surprised at how many other things they can agree about. I have a list of over twenty items which parents can use as suggestions.
Using this list or the key points they wish to emphasise, I suggest parents talk to their children together about these. It can be very helpful and reassuring for children to hear their separated parents, in each others company, tell them things they agree about.
Parents can, for example, remind their children that they both love them, that they both agree that they get angry with each other sometimes, that they do not always see eye to eye, and that they both want their children to feel free to love each of them.
When parents can talk together with their children about these things, sometimes on their own and sometimes with assistance, it is common for children to express relief that Mum and Dad do not want them to play favourites tin order ot be loved by bothof them.
Even if children do not remember all the things their parents have said, the very experience of having them talking together in the same room and demonstrating their joint responsibilities as parents can be reassuring.
Sadly, listening is one of those vital things which many people seem not to have learnt. I observe this often when seeing people...
Listen / Hear!
Sadly, listening is one of those vital things which many people seem not to have learnt. I observe this often when seeing people who have difficulties in their relationship.
One sure sign is when people interrupt each other before the other is finished speaking. This happens because, rather than one person listening to what the other person is saying, they have begun to construct an answer to what they “imagine” the other person is going to say, before that person has finished.
Often the answer they give, then, is based on only a small piece of information or inference. This can lead to misunderstandings and arguments, especially if both - as is frequently the case - do it to each other.
To help couples with this, I get them to slow down their discussion and ask the listener to remember exactly what the other person is saying, and then repeat it back as close to word perfect as possible. A helpful prompt can be something like “So what you are saying is...”
The purpose of this exercise is to highlight that to listen closely requires us to wait our turn and that we put our own thoughts and ideas to one side, at least for the present. Listening requires that we step into the shoes of the person doing the talking so that we can get a full appreciation of their point of view, even if it is different from our own.
Poor listening is a bad habit. Good listening needs to be practised for it to become a habit. This can be done simply by a couple allocating themselves ten minutes, with one person talking for five minutes and the other listening, and then switching roles.
The task for the person doing the listening is to simply listen and, initially, feedback exactly what the other person has said. Additionally people can be encouraged to ask genuine questions to further explore the other persons ideas. (Some questions, eg. “don’t you think that is too expensive” is really a disguised opinion,“I think it is too expensive”. A genuine question would be “How much will it cost”.) The topic can be serious or frivolous - ridiculous topics can make the exercise fun and are good listening practice. Listening to another persons five minutes of suggestion that, for example “we should cut the back half of the house up and make it into a house boat”, without offering any opinion or comment, can often require more effort than is at first anticipated.
People are often surprised at what they can learn about their partner, how they reason things, when they take time to listen. Their partner will also confirm that they appreciated being listened to. Differences are not resolved by one person shouting the other down, they are sorted out by each listening to the other and then exploring joint alternatives.
Fatherhood is one of the most undervalued roles for men in our culture. Even our own profession has only devoted 20% of it’s time…
Fathers are Important
Fatherhood is one of the most undervalued roles for men in our culture. Even our own profession has only devoted 20% of it’s time to researching the role of fathers as parents. Both men and women seem to underestimate it’s importance.
Highlighting this, a recent Australian survey of children found that one of the most commonly voiced disappointments for children was that they did not spend enough time with their fathers and/or did not feel very close to them.
The stereotype of the mans primary and only role in his family as being “the provider” is a definition held by men and women which severely restricts the way in which his impact as a parent is understood.
Too often men play a back seat role when it comes to the parenting of their children. The “absent” father, physically or emotionally, is how some are now characterising families.
The fact is that men do have a powerful impact on their children. The open, involved, affectionate father will have children who are more sociable, more confident, more motivated and less anxious, as well as showing more empathy and compassion. This is true for both sons and daughters.
On the other hand, the distant, critical and demanding father will increase the likelihood of his children being delinquent, aggressive, anxious and self doubting and more prone to have relationship difficulties as a teenager or adult. While the role of being “a provider” in a family is certainly an important one, it seems unmistakably important for children that fathers provide more than simply money. For this reason, our community, and us men in particular, must define a better balance between work and family, and raise the status of fatherhood to a central and vital role for men.
While we rightly hear about the dilemmas for “working mothers”, it is now also important that we start talking about and understanding the demands on “working fathers”.
We all play a number of roles in our busy lives. We have roles in our families; husband/wife, mother/father, son or daughter...
We all play a number of roles in our busy lives. We have roles in our families; husband/wife, mother/father, son or daughter, we have roles as friends, in organisations we belong to, and of course in our work.
In this International Year of the Family, one of the key areas to be addressed is the ‘balance’ between work and family. Dovetailing these two major spheres of peoples lives is a task, in a broad way, for policy makers, employers and unions to tackle. Flexible working hours, part time work, work based child care and a host of other measures have and are being discussed and tried.
However, at an individual level, there are a couple of things which, in my experience, can help to get some perspective on these, competing demands in our daily lives.
The first is a simple but often revealing analysis sometimes referred to as the ‘eggs in the basket’ exercise. Using the idea of roles, simply divide 20 ‘eggs’ between the roles of spouse, parent, worker, and self to represent the amount of time actually spent actively in these roles.
Getting both a husband and wife to do this exercise separately, rating themselves and then rating their partner can often bring up plenty to discuss. Asking people to allocate the ‘eggs’ according to their ideal and comparing this with the actual division can similarly be informative.
Asking a couple to chart the same thing for how their own parents operated, occasionally highlights the way they have departed from or continued their parents tradition. It can also help partners to understand the model their spouse got from his or her parents.
A second, again simple thing to note is how we change roles. Going from a worker role to that of husband or father requires, as it where, that we change hats. Most of us, whether we realise it or not, have little rituals which help us change role.
When I leave the office and get in my car to go home, I am making the transition from work to home. When I get home, I change from my ‘work’ clothes to what represents for me ‘home’ clothes. Sometimes people I have talked to find it a great help to note the rituals they use, and if they are, for instance, used to staying in their work uniform after they get home, then changing helps them to get into their family roles.
Of course changing our attire is not the only or even principal adjustment we make when we switch roles. However it can be a symbolic or ritualised way to remind us we are now talking to our children or spouse, not our employees, our boss or our clients, patients or customers!
When a couple separate and are in dispute, there can be three camps their friends/ family divide into...
Whose Side Are You On?
When a couple separate and are in dispute, there can be three camps their friends/ family divide into. There are those:
1. for the wife (and against the husband),
2. for the husband (and against the wife), and
3. for both (and against neither).
(Generally, children belong to the third group. Their loyalty and attachment to both parents mean they are for both and against neither.)
Taking sides and being an advocate against the ills and extremes of the other spouse (‘you are better off without him/her’) is common. It is a way to keep a friendship, get asked for advice you do not need to follow, and also to be supportive. It can also esclate their dispute.
Being for both people in such a dispute (and against neither) can be a good way to lose the friendship of both, however, as a therapist or mediator it is an essential stance. Disputes are only successfully resolved by a third person remaining the advocate of neither person.
When I see people who are separated, my stance as a mediator and therapist is to carefully cultivate this bi-partisan approach. I am for both and against neither. Not only is this helpful for the couple but it means that I position myself to be more in alignment with the experience of the couples children.
The same applies whether I see one parent on their own or whether I see them together. If I have only seen one person, or have seen one partner alone first, I ensure I convey in my conversations my interest in being for both partners. Addressing this issue openly to dispell any suggestion that I am taking a partisan position is essential from the beginning of my contact.
Hence, for example, I will discuss the possibility of the other partner coming for a joint appointment, I will ask when ‘they’ (the couple) last discussed the issue and how else they have tried or can try to resolve their dispute. I will ask the person I am seeing to put themselves in the role of their spouse so both sides are discussed and gently steer our conversations away from long lists of complaints about the absent spouse.
I will ask the person to talk to their spouse, but, if this is not possible, I will sometimes contact them myself. In any event, when we do meet, I always say I expect them to fear that I am biased because I saw their partner first. I will ask this person to tell me what they imagine their spouse told me separately, and always offer to see them on their own before seeing them jointly.
It is important that a separated spouse can get someone to advocate for them and I always encourage spouses to seek independant legal advice. However, my aim, ultimately is to help the separated couple deal jointly with their separation as a couple.
Separation is a family problem and therefore, if I am an advocate for anything, it is for family problem solving. I can only do this by being for both and against neither.
There are lots of ways we can avoid acknowledging responsibility for our actions. How we portray ourselves or our acts...
It Is Not My Fault!
There are lots of ways we can avoid acknowledging responsibility for our actions. How we portray ourselves or our acts with the language we use is a great giveaway.
Two prime examples are “I couldn’t help it” and “I had no choice”. How many times do we hear people use these expressions to kid themselves they are helpless about their own behaviour or that they had no alternatives to pursue?
We always have choices even though sometimes the choices may be between a number of unpalatable options. Helping people to explore the options they rejected can be an empowering exercise enabling them to recognise the choices they made.
Another form of expression which I hear often are comments such as “She/he made me do it”, “She/he provoked me, led me on” or “So and so makes me feel”. These likewise are powerful ways to attribute responsibility to others for the speakers behaviour. They lead to the inevitable conclusion that the only solution was for the other person, say a spouse, to act differently. Again some careful exploration as to other reactions can often explode the myth of this formulation.
Other explanations can be an equally powerful ways for people to promote their own helplessness. When a person describes themselves as “easily led”, or having a “quick temper”, as well as imaginary things such as “a short fuse”, the person is asking the listener to believe that they are at the mercy of this trait and that “it” is therefore to blame for their actions.
The same can be said of psychological formulations. Hence when a person declares that they have “low self esteem”, or are “co-dependant” etc., the clear implication is that the existence of this ‘condition’ explains their behaviour and therefore they are at ‘its’ mercy.
While the process of ‘de-constructing’ these ideas people have of themselves is not always simple, one approach I use is to help the person find ‘exceptions’ in their behaviour. There are often many such occasions when they acted contrary to their favourite idea of themselves. As they notice these exceptions the power of their previous all encompassing view of themselves becomes harder to sustain and this opens up the possibility of them engaging in more satisfying behaviour.
While most people would subscribe to the idea that we are “each responsible for our actions”, many times the language we use to reflect on ourselves can kid us into believing our behaviour was “not our fault”. It is!
The ideas that we have about communication clearly influence how we communicate. One idea which seems to be widely held...
The ideas that we have about communication clearly influence how we communicate.
One idea which seems to be widely held is that if another person does not comprehend or understand us, then it is their fault. When we cling to this idea the next thing that seems to follow is that the person who does not understand should be blamed or criticised for their stupidity. I have heard many times people echo sentiments such as “If they don’t get it then that’s their problem”. Rarely, in my experience, does this further the cause of getting ourselves heard and understood.
Hence, to use an example that is familiar to many parents, when I go to tell my children something when they are watching television, if I stand at the door and deliver my message then it is most likely I will be responded to by open mouthed stares, focused firmly on the television set.
I can then, of course, go off mumbling and grumbling to myself “damned kids, they never listen”. I get uptight and they do not get my message.
An alternative and potentially more useful idea is that we are “each responsible for the responses we get”. Another way of saying this is “the meaning of a particular communication is the response that it receives”.
Using the idea that we are each responsible for the responses we get, I can construe my childrens' response as a clear indication that my communication was ineffective.
Rather than getting resentful and cranky about it, using this idea just simply reminds me that I need to try a different approach. Sometimes I liken this to getting into a lift to go to the third floor and pressing the second button inadvertently. I got a response I did not want.
In this example I wanted to, at least, get myself heard (compliance is another issue). Hence, to get the response I want, that is to be listened to, I need to do something like stand in front of the television set or turn it off or turn the sound down.
This brings an immediate response and, once the protests die down, I can get my self heard and understood. Sometimes to double check this I can ask something like “tell me what I said?” to make sure the message has been received.
Certainly, there are people who are not very good at listening in that they seem to think that they know what we have said before we finish saying it, or are too willing to jump to defend themselves from imagined slights. In these circumstances it seems even more imperative that we adhere to the idea that WE are responsible for, sometimes patiently, finding a way to get a response to our message which indicates that we have been heard and understood (even if not necessarily agreed with).
I sometimes hear parents wondering why they have to remind their children, over and over, to do some of their everyday things.
The Value of Nagging
I sometimes hear parents wondering why they have to remind their children, over and over, to do some of their everyday things. Many of us express, in that exasperated tone parents develop, “How many times do I have to tell you” to, “tidy your room”, “bring your lunch box out”, “put your clothes in the wash”, “get ready for school on time”, “don’t eat with your fingers”, “go to bed”, etc. etc. etc.
The underlying belief which seems to accompany these heartfelt outbursts is that children should learn the complicated business of being responsible for themselves, and to be caring and considerate of others, by being told once or, at least, only occasionally.
In reality, however, it occurs to me, that the straight answer to the question “How many times do I have to tell you” is, simply, - MANY. It is for this reason that I consider “nagging” is a much undervalued and maligned parenting skill. We don’t expect children to learn their seven times table in one sitting, they generally need to repeat it over and over again. Yet, the seven times table is a far simpler thing than the complicated business of how to behave responsibly.
It therefore seems to me that when, as parents, we allow ourselves to believe that we should only have to tell our children once, or a few times, that this is a nice fantasy, but, it is not life. When we do this we can get ourselves well and truly worked up.
However, when we remember that we need to repeat things many times to children, remembering that the more we repeat the rules, or ask our kids to notice and reflect on what they need to do, the better they learn, we are simply doing what is required of us as parents. Dealing with this reality, rather than the above mentioned fantasy, can help us remain calmer throughout the process. I have found it helpful for myself to sometimes tell my children that one of my jobs, as a parent, is to repeat myself many times so that they can’t help but learn what I want them to!! This at least brings a wry smile to their face and reminds me of the reality of one of my parenting tasks.
I often think a test of the effectiveness of our “nagging” will come when we hear our own children, repeating the same things to their children!!
One of the things that is often apparent in my contact with couples are differences in beliefs held by men and women.
One of the things that is often apparent in my contact with couples are differences in beliefs held by men and women.
Beliefs are statements which are so well learned and ingrained that they are rarely thought of consciously. Because of this, they often go unchallenged and have a powerful influence on our actions.
Good therapy can help identify them, make them conscious and therefore open to scrutiny. Once this happens we can choose to keep them or modify them.
One belief which has a powerful effect on men and the way they act in their family's and relationships is their perspective about ‘work’. Men’s belief in this area seems to differ from women's and can be a source of conflict.
“He spends too much time at work” is one criticism heard by men from their partners. I have observed many men to be confused, hurt and flustered by this comment as it often is made in the context of complaints that the man is neglecting his family.
Yet, for many men, the underlying, well ingrained and strongly held belief is “I work for the family”. Consequently and logically, this implicitly means for many men, “the more I work the better off my family is”. How then a man reasons, can he be neglecting his family by working?
So powerful is this belief that men's identity or sense of themselves is defined heavily by their work. What do men need to know when meeting another man for the first time - not how they get on with their children, spouse or parents etc. but what work they do. Try asking a man to talk to another man without knowing what work he does and they are not sure who they are talking to.
No wonder men are hurt, defensive and angry when such criticisms are made of their commitment to work.
Of course, when we think of what makes a family function well, involvement by men as active fathers and considerate husbands is essential. This requires time away from work and is often what their partners are seeking.
However, what often dismays me in this age of so called ‘politically correct’ thinking is that men's commitment to work is often and readily dismissed or construed as a weakness or an indulgence. Too often it seems it is not appreciated as a reflection of a well ingrained cultural belief, which at least at the level of intention, is solidly family focused. Resorting to criticism or scarcasm is hardly mature behaviour.
At least we are now beginning to debate and explore publicly the idea of getting a “balance” between work and family. Hopefully this will help men recognise the way in which the “I work for the family” belief can limit the other valuable contributions they can make to family life.
Helping men appreciate the power of this underlying belief in their lives can give them choices, but we also need to help women respect the underlying intention which is implicit in such a belief.
Families have some wonderful ways of describing tantrum behaviour. But whether it be a ‘spak attack’...
Having a Spak - Attack!
Families have some wonderful ways of describing tantrum behaviour. But whether it be a ‘spak attack’, ‘chucking a wobbly’ or ‘doing your narna’, as parents, we have to find a way of responding to our kids when they are demonstrating these colourful events.
One idea I find useful is to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ tantrums. For starters, it helps remind us parents that, from time to time, tantrums are going to happen, and what's more, sometimes they are going to happen when we least want them, in public, when we are on a tight schedule etc. Seems better to expect them than be ambushed by them!
Of course a tantrum is just a child's way of expressing some anger, annoyance or disappointment. Despite the fact that, as parents, we expect our children to be happy to get in the bath in the middle of their favourite T.V. program, to accept gratefully that they should not have another chocolate biscuit, to be pleased about missing a friends party because the family is visiting grandma, etc., lots of times they are not! Strange that!
Children are not born with a blueprint for acceptable expression of these feelings and have to learn what is O.K., and what is not. This is where the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ tantrums is helpful. Distinguishing between the ‘good’ behaviour of, say, stomping of to their room and the ‘bad’ behaviour of hitting their baby sister, is a start. Asking kids to make their own list of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviours, talking to them of what, as adults, we do in similarly frustrating situations, and demonstrating or modelling ‘good’ tantrum behaviour can all help kids know how to behave appropriately. As with all complicated learning, however, once is never enough. These are things that need to be repeated plenty of times.
Demonstrating what “good” tantrum behaviour is like can even be fun for the whole family. A child who is ‘chucking a wobbly’ who gets helpful hints from other family members along the lines of “have you tried this” (and acting out the behaviour) or “what about saying ...” is not, as some might worry, being encouraged to have tantrums, rather they are being encouraged to act on their feelings in an acceptable way.
It can also be useful to predict tantrums. This not only has the affect of reminding us to expect their occurrence, but, paradoxically, sometimes tends to have the affect of lessening the likelihood of them even occurring. Hence, a child who asks hopefully “Can I have another lolly” and who is responded to with a comment like “I bet you will have a tantrum when I say no”, is faced, I think, with the dilemma of whether they choose to have a tantrum or whether they choose not to. If they do have a tantrum, then, we can help them do it acceptably, if they do not, we can be pleasantly surprised and suitably complimentary.
I also remember the story of the five year old, who, waiting with his Dad in a Bank, full of people waiting to be served, threw himself on the floor, kicked his legs and screamed about not being able to have or do something he wanted now. The Dad, stood calmly for twenty or so seconds, then, as his son continued their performance, he left his position in the queue and got down beside his progeny and imitated his precise behaviour. Apart from causing hilarity to the rest of the customers, the effect on his child was immediate. The five year old was up in a flash and standing quietly in the queue! That’s advanced, creative, tantrum management!
Depression is one of the more commonly diagnosed ailments in todays community…
DEPRESSION: “The Common Cold of the Psyche”
Depression is one of the more commonly diagnosed ailments in todays community. Longitudinal research indicates that more people identify it now as a regular or common experience compared to earlier times. One writer refers to the experience of ‘depression’ as an epidemic.
Estimates are that, at any one time, one in five Australians are feeling down with one in ten showing more significant signs of ‘depression’. The experience of depression is reported more frequently by women.
There continues to be debate over the contribution of biological and psycho behavioural factors to both the etiology of depression and it’s treatment. In recent years Psychologists have focused on the role of thought processes with improved treatment results.
Researchers and clinicians have observed that people experiencing depression have similar patterns of thinking. These are different from those used by the same people when they are not depressed and are different from those who have never experienced depression. When these thought patterns, sometimes referred to as ‘distortions’, are altered, significant change can occur.
All types of depression can respond to therapy which focuses on such distortions, with those experiencing a reactive depression likely to respond most readily. With more severe depressions, a combination of therapy and medication has been reported as most effective.
In working with a persons experiencing depression, I pay close attention to their language as a way of isolating and gently challenging their thought patterns. My fondness for being pedantic, (an ability not always cherished by others!) can be a decided asset in this work.
Typically a person experiencing depression will use the following:
1. Global or universal descriptions such as “ I can not do anything right”, “Everyone is against me”.
2. A dominance of “Should” statements either about themselves - “I should be able to cope”, or about others “He/She should....” or both.
3. Describe their depressive experience as irreversible and permanent - “I am always moody”, “I can’t cope alone”.
4. Regard all unpleasant experiences as completely their own fault. - “I must have done something wrong”.
5. Think of events and experiences in black and white terms and overgeneralise - “I am a failure”, “He doesn’t love me, I am unlovable”.
The interpretation of life events through this sort of thinking schema, can lead to a sense of despair or hopelessness about the future and consequent withdrawal from normal activities. Thus relationships and previously enjoyable activities become anticipated with dread, and are experienced as unrewarding, thus perpetuating a self fulfilling cycle of pessimism and lack of confidence.
Working assiduously with people’s thought patterns, helping them to correct the ‘distortions’ and getting some glimpse of their own influence can, bit by bit, help restore their faith in themselves and in their world and help them escape their depressive cycle.
Sometimes one of the most important beginning steps is to help them redefine their view of their difficulty. Often people can make themselves more miserable by getting depressed about ‘having depression’! I prefer to talk of people experiencing depression or having a depressive episode.
Counselling and therapy are often viewed as a mysterious process. Indeed I sometimes wonder whether those in our field deliberately try to...
More Than Just Talk
Counselling and therapy are often viewed as a mysterious process. Indeed I sometimes wonder whether those in our field deliberately try to portray the process as mysterious.
Certainly us humans are complicated characters, however it seems to me that one of our tasks as a counsellor/therapist is to help others understand themselves and their actions as simply as possible.
Talking about issues and discussing them in particular ways is an important and useful part of the way therapy and counselling proceed. However sometimes, in the search for efficiency or because discussion is not helping, other strategies can be helpful.
The only way us humans get information into our system is through our five senses. When we think of something, say, an event from the past, we will typically represent it in our heads in one of these five sense modalities.
Hence, if I ask you to think of a fire engine, one of my favourite examples, how do you think of it. Most people will say they “see” a red truck, in their minds eye, as it were. Some may say they “hear” the siren. In the first instance the person made a picture in their head! It is like they have a camera or movie projector in their brain. This can be important information as the person probably makes pictures about lots of things.
Now in the course of therapy, a persons pictures may change as they discuss the issue and thus, when they think about the problem or issue again they represent it to themselves differently. However, what if we helped the person to simply experiment with changing the picture without much discussion at all. This can be done and can help significantly.
If I ask you to return to the picture of the fire engine for a moment. Can you make this picture bigger, smaller, closer, further away, brighter, now black and white, out of focus, still, moving, moving fast, slow, backwards and so on. Some people have no trouble with this others a bit more so. We can all change the form of the pictures and, incidentally, the sounds, we recall when we think.
What is interesting when people do this, particularly with unpleasant events they remember, some changes in a picture of the event will be experienced as more unpleasant and some as less.
If, for example, I ask a person to change the picture of an unpleasant recollection, say an argument with someone they are telling me about, and put the picture off in the distance so that it is small and indistinct their face often lightens, their breathing eases and they relax. I might ask them to explore putting the picture ”behind them” to see what this is like, etc.
There are many variations of this approach, each one’s effectiveness determined by what the person prefers. A particular advantage is that it is not necessary for me, as therapist, to know exactly what is in the picture. This means that people can be assisted to explore different ‘perspectives’ without having to divulge intimate or personal material if they do not want to. Sexual abuse survivors, for example, can benefit from such an approach.
Therapy, then, is not just talk, it is the skilled and respectful use of a persons own processes to help them explore different ways of experiencing themselves and others.
On occasions I see people who report that they react to certain situations in an automatic way. They often say they “can’t help it”, wish they were different and berate themselves.
On occasions I see people who report that they react to certain situations in an automatic way. They often say they “can’t help it”, wish they were different and berate themselves.
Sometimes people do not see any alternative to their reactions and want others to change. At other times they scold themselves for being weak, fearful, talking too much or whatever.
How can we understand this and help the person to have choices about how they respond?
My approach to this difficulty is to talk with the person about when such behaviour was valuable or useful. Often their initial response is to look at me in a puzzled way and retort that “it’s never useful”.
However, exploring some past experiences, say when the person was a child, can begin to reveal a time when reacting in the way they now dislike was sensible. An adage I find invaluable is that “every behaviour is useful in some context”.
If we take the example of, a person who has been bullied or abused as a child either at home or at school. As a child they will not have had the wisdom or maturity to understand that the bully’s behaviour is reflective of some need of this person.
The child, in order to make sense of the situation, may blame themselves, keep their thoughts to themselves, become compliant or whatever limits the distress of the situation. In this circumstance their behaviour is adaptive.
Here I introduce the following idea about our “unconscious”. It is:
smart about the things that it is smart to be smart about;
dumb about the things that it’s smart to be dumb about;
and sometimes smart about things that it is dumb to be smart about.
It is the last explanation which, it seemed to me, can often be useful to understand.
Putting it simply, it means that sometimes we react to situations or other people in ways which were useful and appropriate at an earlier time, but now seem to be not so useful in the present context. It is as if the previous pattern of adaptive behaviour now asserts itself, even when, on reflection, the present situation is, in other respects, different.
Hence the person who, as a child, learnt to devalue or keep hidden their own opinions because this was an adaptive way to deal with a critical parent, may do the same in their marriage if their spouse even mildly offers a different opinion and hopes for a discussion.
The value of these ideas is that the troubled person can be helped to escape from their self criticism and instead value their behaviour or reaction as being sensible or useful at one time. This then allows them the freedom to choose alternative responses - which they may have to practise - and to understand their old responses in a respectful way.
There are many applications of this approach. It can be particularly helpful when working with people who have been sexually or physically abused, since the childhood strategies useful for survival then are not always rewarding now.
The way couples and families resolve differences is crucial to their health.
When ‘Keeping the Peace’ Brings No Peace
The way couples and families resolve differences is crucial to their health. Harmony in relationships is a function of how these differences are resolved.
A basic tenet in resolving differences is accepting the fact that we can not always get exactly what we want - a tough ask in our culture which exaults the pursuit of an individuals rights. Resolving differences requires compromise, with the benefit of such compromise being a shared sense of achievement and working together.
When this basic tenet is ignored destructive processes emerge to the detriment of a relationship. I have observed two patterns of resolving differences which lead to this outcome.
Sometimes partners argue their respective points of view, but then pursue their own course anyway. This “do my own thing” approach engenders resentment and results in distance in a relationship, ultimately leading to its demise.
Alternatively, and more commonly, once the couple have argued their separate positions, one partner may “cave in” completely to the other. Often this is accompanied by statements like “O.K. have it your way” with the capitulating partner justifying their position by saying they do this to “keep the peace”.
Such “peace” is usually a myth as, while the person who has been "caved-in to" may feel that they have "won", most often such "victory" is short lived as they become disgruntled at their partners continuing reluctance. Similarly, the person who has "caved-in" will also feel resentful. Both people end up feeling badly about the outcome. This resentment can then easily spill over into the next disagreement.
Interestingly, when couples use this approach a lot, both will say that they are “always giving in”. Typically the communication a couple use with each other in these two instances is aimed at trying to minimise their differences. Usually both attempt to talk the other person out of their particular position, often by belittling or denigrating their ideas. Hence when one person raises an idea which is different from their partner they may call the idea or the person stupid, irrational, crazy etc.
The alternative process of looking for a compromise, proceeds quite differently. Instead of a couple trying to undermine or denigrate each others ideas, the first thing they do is listen to, acknowledge and respect the other persons point of view even if they don't agree with it.
Hence, as a starting point, rather than trying to minimise their difference by undermining each other, they state their different positions as clearly as they can, while their partner acknowledges and respects their right to have such a point of view.
In this way it is almost as if the differences are maximised and accepted as normal. Once they have understood each others different point of view then this opens up the possibility of exploring, together, compromises which might meet both partners desires, at least to some extent.
One of the great things about this approach is that when we look for compromises together we can find many alternatives rather than getting locked into believing that the outcome simply has to be one persons way or the other. The other thing that happens is that the compromise then belongs to both people in the relationship.
The process of looking for compromises applies particularly in the area of parenting. Compromising on parenting issues can be one of the hardest things to do since our reactions to our children have been conditioned by long exposure to the beliefs and approaches of our own parents.
For children to have a sense of security in a family it is essential for parents to have a joint approach rather than to rigidly stick to their separate and different ways of managing their children. Ongoing conflict between parents, especially about parenting, is one of the most successful ways of messing up kids lives.