On the Road to Change With Father Time and Gandhi

When I was in college, I got really bored with how my room looked. Changing the colors of my comforter or posters was not enough to make my restlessness go away. So, I rearranged my 3 pieces of furniture each quarter. This is a bigger deal than you think. As a smart control freak, I prepared for each move by cutting Post-It notes to represent each piece of furniture and placed it on a graph paper blueprint that I had drawn to scale. (No, I’m not kidding.) I have repeated that behavior in the 7 places and 6 classrooms I’ve lived in since then.

But, that doesn’t mean I’m good at accepting change or easily ready to make changes to myself. Anxiety and depression are characterized by the overwhelming feeling of being stuck, being unable to change how things are now in order to make things better later. Change is not easy. Maybe that is why there are just as many steps to change as there are to grief.

Cracking Open the Window to Leap Through

Johari’s window

Grad school provided me with two memorable frameworks with which to approach counseling. My homeroom-esque class with the best professor and mentor a loud, know-it-all needed (shout out to the one and only Dr. Victoria Junior) came with an introduction to Johari’s Window. In my practice, it is common for clients to reach out for help for problems that border panes 1 and 2. My clients know there is something not right but just can’t quite articulate the problem. In order to crack that window wide open, we work to crawl, walk, run, retreat, and regroup through the stages of change. (The names of the stages are mine, not the clinical terms.)

Substance abuse and addiction training required the ultimate textbook for understanding all change. This is literally the textbook on the stages of change.
  • Problem? What Problem? There are not enough examples, videos, PowerPoint presentations, or tantrums to get you to see there is a problem. The bad news? Your loved ones must continue to beat their heads against the wall and fill the air with their voices despite its apparent lack of efficacy. The good news? Something is getting through at a subconscious level that is prepping you to proceed to stage two.
  • Oh, That Problem? It’s Not a Problem. Deaf ears are now more like selective hearing. You have gotten the message that there is something in your lives getting in the way of an angst-free existence. But, at this stage, the problem is YOURS; your loved one believes it is manageable.
  • OK, My Problem is a Problem. Time to buy colored pencils, Post-It notes, and erasers.
    Hiro from Heroes when he learned to stop time

    Lots of erasers. You are ready to put a plan in place. We have one stage left before the plan is put into action, but we have a plan!

  • I Did It! Despite the fact that change has been working, albeit at an uncomfortably slow pace, it is clear to everyone that you are making new choices. New behaviors are obvious and should be applauded by all onlookers. Don’t be surprised if physical exhaustion accompanies all of this psychological and emotional change.
  • That Worked..Kinda. Although change may vastly improve your physical and mental health, it is not always easy to maintain. People need to meet the NEW YOU. You need to see how the new you interacts with your old friends and family. An occasional appearance from your stage 1, 2, 3, or 4 self is to be expected, not shamed.

Spark Note Summary

Just because you seek out doing things differently, doesn’t mean you are ready for a change. Anxiety and depression don’t start overnight or disappear in the daylight. There is a process to learning how to see your problems even before you start to address them. Your best friend on this journey is time. Just ask Gandhi, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

Summer Is Not the Only Thing Hot

As a proud sci-fi geek, I have watched every superhero movie. In the first Avengers movie, the good guys are fighting enemies from outer space while battling inner demons. (More real life than sci-fi.) The Hulk is known for having incredible anger issues and admits that his secret to controlling his Hulk-bearing anger is that he “is always angry.” He is not alone; anger is always lurking in all of us. Being full time parents, employees, spouses, friends (just writing the list is making my Hulk side wake up) spreads our resources too thin to stay calm. Anger may be unladylike, but it is common and lurking (not far) below the surface of every woman I know. We are running too fast, giving too much, and getting too little. So, our Hulk comes out as a matter of survival.

Your Brain on (Organic) Drugs

There are a flurry of chemicals generated in your body at all times. That is why all of our well-named mental illnesses used to be under the umbrella of “chemical imbalance”. Chronic mental illnesses, like depression, anxiety, and bi-polar disorder, are diseases where your body naturally does not produce the neurotransmitters or hormones necessary to live a healthy, productive, focused life without medication to restore the natural balance. But, we are immensely powerful. We can change our body chemistry and trip ourselves into these conditions. Anger is one of the strongest catalysts for this problem. But, before I discuss how to treat anger, and prevent mental illness, it is important to have a quick rundown on these important chemicals.

  • Dopamine is your natural high. It motivates you to get to the gym because of the impending reward of a piece of cake on a cheat day. It moderates your euphoria into more acceptable happiness.
  • Oxytocin is your natural love potion. It is the neurotransmitter that fills your body when you first kissed “the one” and when you first saw the baby you loved from the inside out (literally) for 40 weeks. It helps you heart things on Facebook based on empathy.
  • Epinephrine lets you lift a car off your loved one and run away at Flash-esque speed when you feel threatened. The reason this hormone is the life-saver for those who suffer from fatal allergies is because it triggers your fight/flight response by providing a surge of adrenaline.

Anger Is An Alarm

It means the dopamine and oxytocin are running low and being replaced by epinephrine. Or, in more common terms, you’re are being overrun by the need to survive. Your emotional boundaries have been triggered by one, or a combination, of the following emotions:

  • Selflessness: Women are driven by the dream of “having it all”. In trying to pursue that dream, we forgot to read the fine print: YOU are the first one to get nothing. There is a limited amount of emotional and psychological resources in every one. Once you red-line on that fuel, anger will let you know that there is nothing left for your partner, children, or employer before you do something wonderfully indulgent (think double-digit minutes in the bathroom with the door closed, for example) to start.
  • Loneliness: The last time I saw my closest friends, my crew, was at a wedding almost one year ago. Before that, we got together to mourn the loss of a parent. We have been friends for more than 20 years, so our bond is solid. But, it is ludicrous that we can only find time to connect when a milestone is reached. It is hard to maintain your identity separate from your roles in work and home. Feeling like you are alone will easily wake up the Hulk, the original spokesman of anger.
  • Exhaustion: When you wake up at 5 am and run around until 11 pm, there are precious few minutes to stop your brain and fall asleep. Sleep deprivation can cause a myriad of physical health problems. The effects on mental health are glaringly missing from the everyday conversation. Your brain needs 25 years to be fully grown. The last area of growth, the forebrain, is where your executive functioning thrives, the ability to multi-task, prioritize, and organize. See also: the Mom-brain. That quarter-century of development can be undernourished if you don’t get enough oxygen/sleep/relaxation.

Spark Note Summary

Doctors get sick. Lawyers get sued. And, moms need to be “mommied.” Mommy shame is pervasive in social circles. It is also a bellowing megaphone in our own heads: we have internalized the message that we MUST be the best, achieve the best, and raise the best without applause or affirmation. Trying to win that impossible trifecta would make anyone gear up for survival. So, the choice is to admit you are human or continue to be Mrs. Hulk.

Breaking News: The Monkey House Smells Terrible

We love going to zoo. Even as an adult in his late 30’s, my husband used to go to the zoo with his father. Anyone who has ever been to any zoo worth its peanuts knows the monkey house is a must. The monkey house is a magical place: it has the ability to trick your senses within minutes. The monkey house smells awful! In the first 5 minutes, you are overwhelmed by the smell, nearly to the point where you can taste it. But, zoo magic takes effect, and the smell seems to disappear.

It’s amazing what we can get used to or accept as normal. It’s common knowledge that we are being tracked with every click on our smart phones, scan of our rewards cards, and search on our laptops. The grocery store knows which coupons to give me the same way Facebook introduces me to a dozen pages that are close enough to the irreverent, 80s nostalgic, underdog, and teacher-focused other pages I have liked. Technology is designed to make life easier by bringing us all of our likes faster. But, it is so effective in keeping contrary opinions and points of view so out of reach that we stop growing.

Facebook is the easiest way to illustrate my point. My friends and I share similar values. So, when they post interesting stories or articles, of course I “like” them. GAME ON. I am automatically able to “like” the source. That clearly gets another thumbs up. After a very brief period of time (imagine sun cycles, not lunar cycles), feeds I have never heard of are banners between every 3rd post. My cultural ADD clicks in causing me to dole out more “likes.” My global village is now just a cul-du-sac of like-minded people. Sounds good, right? Too good. The problem is we have limited our capacity to develop to our full potential without any exposure to contrary opinions.

Growing Up is a Lifelong Journey

Developmental psychology has many different theories and models. Like the delicious cheese counter, theorists come from different countries and emphasize different aspects of aging. What they all agree on is growing up isn’t limited to children and requires HEALTHY CONFLICT.

  • Cognitive development: In order to increase intelligence, we need to adapt. Our physical bodies know this when our blood thins when we move to Florida to retire from the cruel winters of our New Jersey childhood. Our minds adapt by creating categories, challenging the criteria for the categories, and broadening the category. As a toddler, my son called everything with 4 legs a puppy. Great job, Jacob! You were creating a category of animals. As he went to the zoo, all of the puppies transformed into lions, giraffes, rhinos so each DIFFERENCE made the animal category expand.
  • Social development: Experts, the Most Knowledgeable Other (MKO), is essential for social development. My best friend was my pregnancy sherpa, my MKO, who guided me through the unique experience she survived one year prior. How else would I know about the best cream to use on my parts sore from nursing and my son’s parts red from diapers? It takes time out of your bubble, and maybe your comfort zone, to find your MKO.
  • Attachment: As parents, we know the bond between us and our children is vital to making our children feel safe. Helicopter Parents and Tiger Moms are notorious for not letting their children develop INDEPENDENCE because the children are too sheltered and unexposed to different people and experiences. Data tracking through rewards programs and social media are the Helicopter Parents and Tiger Moms for adults. Inappropriately attaching to strangers without the process of developing a relationship is as big as a problem as not bonding to anyone. (You all know where this is going…) Collecting followers on social media closes you off to growing and developing relationships that have a healthy GIVE AND TAKE.
  • Moral development: Ask any of my students from my 15 years in the classroom…they were educated in the benevolent dictatorship of Mrs. Slutzky in which I owned the air they breathed. Kids rely on consistent rules from authority figures. Their decisions are based on avoidance of consequences from breaking those rules. But, even at a young age, children progress to the next stage of moral development. Interacting with peers in different social settings cause HEALTHY CHALLENGES to the “rules”. It becomes okay that absolute rights and wrongs don’t exist. Grammy is allowed to give Jacob a cupcake for lunch despite the rule that “sweets come second”. Learning how to adapt when there are new interpretations of right and wrong, shoes off when you go into a house, eating burgers with a fork, is a proud sign that our children are using their own compass to navigate new situations. Why, as adults, have we gone backward?

Spark Note Summary

There are times when surrounding yourself with like-minded, cheerleaders who support you without exception is vital; low self-esteem days and tragic life events happen to us all. But, spending too much time in your bubble is similar to the NEXT 5 minutes in the monkey house; reality is suspended. The answer is not to avoid the monkey house or convince yourself there was no palpable stench. You CONFRONT the discomfort, readjust your expectations, and smile for surviving with a (now) bigger bubble.

The Long Goodbye

This is the first time I have stolen a title for my blog. But, I’m in good company. Patti Reagan “stole” this title for her 2004 memoir about her father, President Reagan. Her mother, Nancy Reagan, coined the term “long goodbye” in 2002 to describe the last years with Alzheimer’s sufferer, President Ronald Reagan. I first saw this term as the title for an episode of The West Wing, my favorite political drama. The episode aired in 2003 and focused on the relationship between the White House Press Secretary and her father, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Television’s allows America to show us who we are so we question if that mirror is accurate. I haven’t seen or heard of any show that has committed itself to exploring the diseases associated with aging. I’m sad to say that our treatment of loved ones aging is accurately mirrored in pop culture; it doesn’t exist. The Alzheimer’s Association advocates for the more than 5 million Americans living with the disease. I’m hoping this post helps their caregivers who provide 18.2 billion hours of unpaid assistance to their loved ones.

It is natural to disassociate ourselves from thoughts of loved ones dying, one of our nation’s biggest fears. Fear puts us in survival mode. We are ready to run, fight, or freeze. We just want to be left alone. But, the consequences of asking your aging parent to deal with this part of life alone are profound. (Consider this: the worst penalty that can be imposed on a criminal short of death is the same technique used in torture, isolation.) It is hard to talk about the end of a wonderful journey. It is hard to get in the car and spend time with someone who may or may not know who you are. But, you can use these tips to increase your chances of smiling when you make the effort.

Connect Four

The key to maintaining a meaningful relationship with a loved one who memories are slipping away is to personalize each minute. I love how A Dignified Life introduces the concept for caring for loved ones with dementia and Alzheimer’s, a Best Friend. Best Friends are the living photo album, memory book, and memorial candle who can bring about meaningful moments with someone who is just beyond reality.

  • Folly: Gathering intel is fun but requires a level of dissociation from the detective. You cannot presume to know what is important to your aging parent based on what was prioritized in your home. Religious observances, for example, may have just been a marital compromise. My grandparents were very observant Jews. They walked to temple, had separate dishes for meat and dairy, and even a separate kitchen for holidays that required cooking in a separate oven. But, my grandmother used to sneak me out of the house to share pork-filled wontons and other Chinese foods. Additionally, getting older ironically awakens the young, mischievous sides of us. In fact, based on the shrinking brain and decreased efficacy of neural pathways, the elderly act just as impulsively as adolescents. Stories like this one of mischief and mayhem are great ways to wake up a sleeping brain.
  • Triggers: I love fires. I went to overnight camp since I was 5 years old. My husband and I expressed our love in front of a fireplace. Whereas most of my friends share the warmth and comfort of a fire, it would be a mistake to think everyone has positive memories or impressions of huddling around a campfire. My father-in-law was badly burned as a child when trying to stamp out an innocent fire in the alley behind his apartment. It may make sense to share this story of how his son fell in love as a way to remember who I am or enjoy the shared experiences of finding love. Except, sharing the intimacy of the memory would nearly guarantee a traumatic response from my father-in-law. Taking the time to learn which memories are painful is just as important as learning which memories are pleasurable.
  • Labels: My father loved to create nicknames for us. I loved to create nicknames for my students. Uncovering nicknames (not teasing, shameful name-calling) from childhood are helpful to grab your loved one out of their isolating zone. My father-in-law used his legal name, Harvey, all through school. But, he used his middle name, Scott, as an adult. This piece of family history is helpful insomuch a using the childhood name is more likely to create bonding moments.Aging works in reverse chronological order, the newer memories are the first ones to go. Our favorite possessions also have their own fond names. My mom and I had sequential license plates starting with the letters “LF” when I got my first car. We used them as proud monikers for the “lead foot” bestowed upon us by HER father, the man who urged everyone with a new car to open up the engine early to train it in case a need ever arose.
  • Visitors: Grandchildren are a gift. My mother insists that being a grandmother
    Jacob listening to Papa’s wise words (Papa, 96, Jacob, 7 mos)

    is intensely different and deeper than being a mother. Unfortunately, grandchildren and aging parents do not match. The increased energy of the child in combination with the quiz questions, “Who is this?” or “Don’t you know who this is?”, make someone in the throes of Alzheimer’s or dementia angry, sad, and frustrated. In fact, mislabeling a child, calling your daughter by your name, is a common source of agitation for caregivers. Correcting your loved one becomes a common source of agitation for the aging. Where your mother may have missed a generation, she still knew the child was family. It is best to agree with your mom and chat about a memory you have shared. More often than not, she will recognize your daughter before the story is over. It’s also not a time to find beautiful albums or frames for those little ones. Memory-related disease does not necessarily mean there are other health problems. But, poor eyesight is a given for all who age. It can be frustrating to be surrounded by pictures you cannot see.

Spark Note Summary

We have become a generation of avoiders and hoarders. We want to hold onto to our loved ones as long as possible…over there. Those years do not have to be wrought with anguish, for the loving or loved. Take the decades before diseases of aging rob you of your loved ones to learn how special their lives have been. That way, the “hello” has much more impact than the “goodbye”.

Learn How to Scrawl: A Book Review

Click here to read reviews on Amazon!

Welcome to the first book review from Lessons Learned! From time to time, we need a brain break, a way to escape the facts of our life by exploring fiction. Books can be a great way to learn some lessons while relaxing. My first recommendation is Scrawl by Mark Shulman. Before you raise your eyebrows, or close the blog, let me prove how a book marketed to tweens and teens has a few lessons for all of us to learn.

From Cover to Cover

As we read the first line in the novel, we read the first journal entry of Tod’s detention journal: “Think about a pair of glasses for a second.” 230 pages later, Tod’s journal ends with an exchange between himself and the guidance counselor who has been reading and commenting in his journal for the 5 weeks he was in detention: ” ‘Was that all that kept us from getting kicked out of school?’ And you smiled back at me. ‘Yes.’ ” What we learned between the first and last pages, is how we all judge without knowing, watch without seeing, and speak without listening.

  • Who? The book is formatted as a journal written by Tod, a bully, who is serving detention under the supervision of Mrs. Woodrow, a guidance counselor. But, the more you read, the more you question what you know about bullies. For example, Tod explains his environment to Mrs. Woodrow by explaining, “Every neighborhood downtown has its own violent Neanderthal troglodyte hell-raisers” (8). He also plays euchre at lunch with his friends. Euchre, not poker. And, helps his blind lab partner. Questioning your facts on bullies, yet?
  • What? Punishment. The journal is a punishment for getting caught. (You don’t learn what he got caught doing until the near-last page…and I’m not spoiling that for you.) Tod’s friends are outside completing their more typical, juvenile delinquent punishment of picking up trash under the supervision of the head custodian. But, who hasn’t inflicted punishments upon themselves? True story: my mother accidentally ran a red light. (It was one of those that is only for a small strip mall.) When I pointed this out to her, she literally pulled HERSELF over! This is not a serious example, but it is a serious issue. Instead of listening to me, listen to Tod: “The more important you treat yourself, the more you’re worth” (41).
  • When? Let me be a typical therapist, here, and answer a question with a question: Which events in your life mark the difference between then and now? There are the usual markers in life, births, deaths, weddings, and graduations. Traditionally, developmental psychologist have stopped there. But, since late in the first decade of the new millennium, we are starting to understand that the life span has markers in adulthood, too. We see Tod accidentally enter the spelling bee only to come in second when a teacher cheats, and we question what we know about bullies. We admire the large statue created by Luz, and we question what we know about the goth/artist. How long does it take, how old do we have to be, for stereotypes to be broken? Changed?
  • Where? The longer you read Scrawl, the more it reminds me of a house of mirrors where each turn reveals a different, exaggerated version of yourself and surprises you each time. You realize that Tod is more complex than the school bully. You see what he is like at home, a not-surprisingly poor house where he wears layers of clothes to sleep in order to combat the lack of insulation in his “bedroom.” Tod surprises us in the auditorium as he becomes a reluctant accomplice in creating the costumes for the original play written by the stereotypical school freak. In detention, Tod writes much more than is required and is more honest than is expected.  reflection.
  • Why? It is surprising that, as a therapist, I loathe this question word. After reading Scrawl, are we supposed to long for after school specials? Do the readers labeled as bullies feel vindicated? Do we donate more to the Salvation Army in case a ne’er-do-gooder needs to help a friend? Sure, why not. Or, maybe we just needed some perspective on how far we have come. Or, maybe we just needed a way to talk to our children about how to treat others.

…And How?

How do you take the lessons learned from Scrawl and use them to make yourself stronger? First, let go of the memories of high school that have flooded you for 238 pages. Second, make an impromptu book club with your kids (ages 10 and up are fine) to discuss how they feel about the characters and if anything is similar in their lives. Third, it’s never to late to start a journal. It is infinitely more healthy to get any thought or feeling out than to “suck it up.” Last, start now to be who you want to be regardless of who you were then or who others think you are now. Like scrawling, life can be messy, unconventional, and unpredictable. Enjoy!

LeVar Burton, Accidental Therapist Extraordinaire

Click here to bask in the nostalgia of the theme song!
Before the costume designers of Star Trek: The Next Generation chose an 80s banana clip for a futuristic visor, LaVar Burton was the host of Reading Rainbow. Each episode had a theme similar to ones that my son has in his pre-K class…space, animals, transportation, etc. Books were read to us by famous celebrities like Kermit the Frog. LeVar Burton took us on “field trips” to a fire house or farm. But, the best part of each episode was at the very end. A child just like me, a cute, book-loving precocious child, would tell us all about a favorite book. These were heartfelt testimonials that always ended with the phrase, “But, you don’t have to take my word for it.” No? But, I do! You love books…I love books! We are virtual book club buddies!

Bibliotherapy

Bibliotherapy is a real, accepted modality for treatment of some mental health issues. It started with the turn of the century when soldiers were given medical books to learn about their injuries. In the 1960s, bibliotherapy became an official modality under the American Library Association, and psychotherapists mainstreamed the practice as an additional tool during more traditional therapeutic treatment. As Lessons Learned begins adding an occasional book review, it is important to understand the mental health benefits of reading.

  • Pacing: Shakespeare wrote in poetry, iambic pentameter, for his audience to get caught up in the music of his words. Before you twitch into a mess of
    Click here to hear modern day iambic pentameter.
    horrible memories of school, it may help to understand that iambic pentameter is exactly the same cadence as the theme song from Gilligan’s Island. Prose also has an intentional rhythm. Short, choppy fragments mirror the mood of the character. Endlessly long sentences (see anything Faulkner wrote) drone you into a lull; “what did I just read in those two pages that were three sentences long?” Mental health practices of mindfulness and meditation help suffers of anxiety and PTSD, for example, use careful control of breath as a self-healing tool. Being whisked away into an author’s linguistic pacing can have the same benefits. 
  • Guided imagery: All of my students will tell you I have a hard and fast rule about movie adaptations of books. I refuse to watch a movie in which I’ve read the book. I refuse to read the book if I’ve seen the movie. Case in point: I’ve seen all 8 Harry Potter movies without cracking the spine on any of the 7 novels on which they are based. My snobbery is based on protecting myself from dashed expectations. As I read any book, I imagine what the characters look like, how they speak, how they dress, etc. I like to use my internal CAD programming to design their homes and neighborhoods. Getting lost in the story is why reading a book with Fabio on the cover can be more healing than one with Dr. Phil on the cover. One of the most preeminent medical facilities, the Cleveland Clinic, has concluded: “Imagery can stimulate changes in bodily functions such as heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory patterns. It can help you tab inner strengths to find hope, courage and other qualities that can help you cope with a variety of conditions.”
  • Empathy: One of the major impacts of bibliotherapy is to see yourself, including your challenges, in a character. It is also extremely cathartic reading how someone just like you works on fighting mental illness without stigma or despite of it. This process, forming a bond with a character that reminds you of yourself, builds empathy. It also allows you to have empathy, not sympathy or pity, for yourself. Now that you are starting down the path of empathy for yourself, you have made the most difficult step in self-care: appreciating who you are without apology. Not sure what the difference is between empathy and sympathy? Watch this remarkable animated short.Spark Note Summary

Bibliotherapists are most often English majors with a depth of knowledge about “who” and “what”. Therapists are most often psychology majors with a depth of knowledge about “how” and “why”. As a woman with a bachelor degree in English Education and a master’s degree in psychology, I am your unicorn. As this blog takes on an occasional book review, have some faith in the magic of some more of the lessons I have learned.

The Court of Common Sense and Sensibility

When I grew up, “like” was part of the (annoying), everyday vocabulary. Shows like Seinfeld and Friends gave us more phrases that sunk into our common psyche and rose out of our mouths seemingly without thought. Now, it seems that “Don’t judge me” is the next phrase to permeate our culture. I’m told that comedian Kevin Hart may be to blame. Neither my mother nor my mother-in-law have a clue who that is. Yet, they have both used the phrase “don’t judge me” multiple times in the last few weeks. In a society filled with efforts to stop Mommy Shaming and Body Shaming, I am in complete agreement that we should all be cautious of our glass houses. But, when did having a different opinion get you labeled as “judgy”?

Presentation of Evidence: What Are You REALLY Saying?

Being called “judgmental” is not a slur hurled at you from strangers. It takes place in the course of a regular conversation with someone you know. But not someone you know well. Your lifelong bosom buddies would never accuse you of passing judgment when your opinion differs from their own because you speak the same language. So, here is the internal monologue taking place when you are accused of shaming or judging someone.

  • “Please don’t point out I’m unsure of my opinion.” The feeling of being judged begins when you interpret that someone’s facial reaction or verbal response has devalued what you just said. In other words, somehow, you are “wrong.” When you are passing on someone else’s opinion, it works like sharing on Facebook — the original content is not your own. The problem is not that you lack an ability to accurately recall the phrase or article you are repeating. The problem is your memories are emotion-based; thus, there is room for misinterpretation of fact based on how that information was emotionally digested.
  • “This is not a discussion. I just need to be heard.” There is a lot of research, clinical and anecdotal, about the positive benefits of emotional venting. It is physically and emotionally healthy to release feelings of anger, frustration, and disappointment. However, these benefits are lost if you do not choose your audience well.

Spark Note Summary

My response to the accusation, “Don’t judge me,” is…WHY NOT? I welcome differing opinions from others who have lived a different life. Without healthy, respectful disagreement, it becomes hard to learn. It’s hard to learn about others. It’s hard to learn about yourself.

 

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: COMING SOON…BOOK REVIEWS! GET READY FOR SOME SPECIAL BLOGS THAT RECOMMEND BOOKS THAT MAKE YOU THINK, CONNECT, AND LEARN!

Fly Your Geek Flag High

Let’s start with a riddle:

  1. If you see one, it is safe to assume there are dozens you cannot see.
  2. They can subsist on garbage yet grow to amazing heights and weights.
  3. The minute you outsmart them, they find four more ways around you.

The answer: Mice? Vermin? Pestilence?….TEENAGERS!!!

There is some form of instinctual survival skills that causes adults to cross the street, or hallways in the mall, when a gaggle of teenagers looms closer. I have spent more than 20 years as the Jane Goodall of teenagers. I have been accepted in their tribe. I have learned to adapt to their unusual language patterns and ever-changing forms of communication. I have studied their behavior in the hopes of sharing this vital information with others.

Your Teenage to Adult Translation Guide

Every once in a while, I feel validated when a prestigious, well-researched journal documents their years of research only to conclude something my work in the trenches has already learned. Recently, there was an article in an academic publication that revealed the key strategies for working with teenagers in a therapeutic setting. I am admittedly “borrowing” the organization of the article (Holliman, Ryan P. and Foster, Ryan. (2016). Emodying and Communicating Authenticity in Adolescent Counseling. Journal of Child and Adolescent Counseling, 2:1. 61-76). These experts list 7 strategies for creating an authentic relationship with an adolescent client.  I’m going to shorten the list and give you my usual, humorous, everyday insights to help you manage the teenagers in your life. Warning: most of the experts cited in this blog will be directly from the real voices of my favorite fictional geeks.

  • Personal confidence: It is a teenagers job to win at “gotcha”. They look for inconsistency between what you say and what you do as justification for not trusting you. Your job as a counselor, or even a parent, teacher, or any role model for a teenager, is to demonstrate the strength in being yourself.  Nobody explains this better than Mr. Stand By Me, Wesley Crusher actor and nerd king, Wil Wheaton.
  • Modifying language and speech: You can easily make the mistake of zigging or zagging. This is not the time to throw out slang you’ve heard on TV. (Zig.) Please don’t answer the question, “What did you do last night?” with, “Netflix and chill.” You haven’t created a bond with your client; you have either revealed an intimate detail about your private life or your desperation to be liked and accepted. This is also not the time to demonstrate your expert vocabulary or practice your parenting tone. (Zag.) Conversation is the start of communication. An effective counselor is using these conversations to model healthy word choice. Start building your client’s emotional IQ by working together to properly identify emotions. This is an exceptional way of feeding into the natural tendency of teens to correct all of us ignorant, out of touch people who were birthed as adults.
  • Dissipating tension: Teenagers are similar to dogs and babies; they can smell fear. Maybe because they are fueled by trying to make sure nobody else detects their own fear. It is helpful to remember that teenagers are still children. Engaging their bodies will loosen their lips. I often play cards (which may or may not resemble Vegas tables) in my first session. The ease of the activity helps build what person-centered therapists call congruence, an overly academic way to explain that a therapist should be a person, not a caricature. Whether it’s board games, card games, or drawing, the activity that releases the tension is also the best to return to when therapeutic gains are released. Remember: the best salve for growing pains is childhood fun.
  • Investment in the process: Teenagers grant access to their thoughts and their feelings to very few people. Even then, the time you have access is limited.
    “You see just seeds, but I see the trees.” Photo by jeffzeleya.com

    Therefore, the role of a counselor is to plant a seed. Create a relationship that serves as a fond memory for a healthy, trusting relationship with healthy boundaries. Make it easy for the next coach, life or sports, to continue the work you begin.

Spark Note Summary

Being authentic simply means being yourself. What is not so simple is embracing that self. When counseling, parenting, or mentoring a teenager, it is essential to have worked out your adolescent issues FIRST. We want our teenagers to LOVE who they are, not SHAME who they are. Especially if they grow up to be sci-fi fanatics who use sarcasm and wit to educate others about some lessons learned.

Take Your Time, Don’t Waste Your Time

My father just got remarried. My anniversary is approaching. I’ve received three emails in the last two days about new clients for couples counseling. And, the cover of my last professional magazine was about marital counseling.

“Marriage, that blessed arrangement, a dream within a dream..”

Message received: it’s time to talk about marriage.

My husband’s aunt and uncle were high school sweethearts, but my husband and I didn’t get married until our 30’s. Our family seems to prove the statistics in Gallup’s analysis of the last census: When Gen Xers (see: me) were aged 18-30 years old (see also: no longer me),  32% were married. Our parents’ generation saw 40% still pledging till death they do part. And, the numbers of matrimonial bliss drop to 20% for the millennials currently aged 18 to 30.

There are a plethora of cliches and metaphors to try to get others to understand marriage. Science minds nod when you say “opposites attract”. Spiritual minds smile in agreement when you introduce the ying to your yang. When and why you chose marriage is not important. To some extent, neither is who you married. As a family counselor for almost a decade, the secret to a lasting marriage is all about time.

It’s All About Time Management

Not the real John Gottman, but the “real” grand poohbah.

In grad school, I bought thousands of dollars of textbooks that got me through the licensing exam before being boxed up and shipped to another counseling student for pennies on the dollar. The only book that I keep coming back to is one I bought at Barnes and Noble, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. John Gottman is the grand poohbah of couples counseling. His Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (of Marriage) are the common mistakes couples make when fighting, the mistakes that allow Gottman to predict with 90% accuracy couples that will remain together or split up. The only behaviors I can predict with the same 90% accuracy are my own. But, I have my own true-isms to add to the field of couples counseling:

  • Explain OR emote: This is not the time to practice what you have learned from me about dialectical behavior theory. It is a neurological miracle to be able to speak eloquently about your feelings while you are having them. Why? Fun fact #1: the area of the brain that processes emotions is as far away from the area of the brain that uses language without leaving your head. Fun fact #2: most people do not naturally possess a high emotional IQ to identify and discern the cornucopia of feelings in the human experience. Fun fact #3: anger, the most primal and present of emotions during a fight, is an alarm emotion.
Fun fact 1 + fun fact 2 + fun fact 3….it doesn’t add up

Anger lets you know that someone or something has breached an emotional, psychological, or physical boundary that you set up for your protection. No matter how you try, it simply does not add up to explain how you feel during a fight.

  • Set an expiration date: You cannot go back twenty years in a fight that started twenty minutes ago.  Yes, there are ongoing unresolved issues in marriage. No, they don’t need to be rolled into every disagreement. Today’s fight is happening because of today’s circumstances. There are some days when getting ice for a glass of water will trigger my startle reflex causing me to launch a full attack on my husband. I have known my husband for 20 years; the startle reflex is not breaking news. He may laugh, duck, or (justifiably) hurl a counter-assault my way.  It all depends on how full our buckets are the moment the fuse has been lit. Giving an accurate chronology of each time my husband has surprised my unconscious in the last 20 years is time consuming and as ridiculous as it sounds. However, focusing on the context of the current quarrel may give you insight and traction on tackling the larger issue.
  • Nice to meet you, again and again:You don’t stop growing up when you are growing old. For those of you who choose to parent, please understand that parenting puts you into stasis. Your world revolves around being a parent, a distant second cousin twice removed from the individual who took vows. A journalist documented this worst-kept secret in the book, All Joy and No Fun; it’s my favorite “homework” to assign  to couples because it freely discusses the not-so-fabulous world of parenting most of us are afraid to admit. A poll conducted by Pew Research in 2014 revealed that 54% of children under the age of 18 were living a traditional home, one with heterosexual birth parents. My unofficial research tells me that these children grew up in homes where the parents stopped learning about themselves and their partners. Who you were when you took vows is not the person you become as you live your life, 585,600 minutes a year. If you don’t share the new you with your old partner, you lose the chance to have a lifelong connection.
  • Spark Note Summary

    Maybe the secret to a marriage that lasts a lifetime is to live in all times. You need to cherish the past shared experiences that have kept you together, hope that the future will keep getting better and brighter because of your relationship, and choose your partner every day.

    Ivory Soap Can Kiss My A*#@!

    The image of soap in a child’s mouth is not just a humorous scene in a 24-hour Christmas movie marathon. It is a vivid memory of my mother’s solution to saying bad words. Interestingly, the words that left a taste of Ivory in my mouth were not the usual f-bombs or poop-synomyns. In fact, my mother loves to tell the story about baby Amy, snuggled into a stroller shopping in Lord and Taylor with my grandmother. My mother remembers running into a woman who was friends with my grandmother. At the prompting, “What does Gigi (my nickname for my grandmother) say?” I loudly replied, “Ahhhh…sh**!” Needless to say, swearing was not exactly forbidden; context was the exception to rules that bore punishment. My mouth was only forced to be 99.44% pure when I said the words “shut up” or “sucker”.

    “I want my clean as clean as Ivory.”
    We have an inexplicable fascination with dirty words. The first parlor trick you perform when you learn any new language is how to swear. (I can fluently swear in Spanish, French, Romanian, and American Sign Language.) My 8th grade students have permission to Shakespearean insults throughout the unit we study Romeo and Juliet. Some psychologists have even studied the positive effects of swearing.

    The Top 3 Worst Swear Words

    Before you guess which swear words are the most common or the most effective, consider which swear words are the most damaging to both children and adults.

    • “Shut Up”: I cannot tell you how much it irks me that my mother got this one right. This phrase earned students 10 push-ups in my room, a legacy of our beloved Army music teacher. Healthy self-esteem and self-respect begin with the ability to express your individuality. Words, and the opinions that they hold, are powerful. In an article written to guide parents about building a respectful relationship with teens and tweens, developmental psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell Ph.D explains 11 categories of words that help grow a healthy relationship during the years your child challenges you the most. Because we all continue to grow up as we grow old, these lessons are invaluable at all stages of life.
    • “Stupid”: That’s another 10 push-ups. Limiting speech with the first bad word is bad; judging that speech with this one is worse. “Stupid” is the gateway insult for verbal and emotional abuse. I hear this word more often in conversations amongst adults than I do with children. In fact, researchers have found that 75% of workers have been bullied with the use of repeated demeaning or insulting words a hallmark of the epidemic. 
    • “Should/Shouldn’t”: Shame, shame, shame. Albert Ellis made this word, and its deletion from everyone’s vocabulary, the premise of his Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Judgment of self and others is the consequence of saying “should”.  For example, your sweet baby boy asks for a lollipop (filled with powerful antioxidants – Mom wins) after he has already had his dinner, juice, and a cookie. You ask yourself, “Should I let him have (what he thinks is) another treat.” Your judgmental self is what answers, “I don’t want him to have a sweet tooth” or “I don’t want him to always get what he wants” or a litany of other emotional reactions to one behavior, a request for a lollipop. The moral here is to ACCEPT the action/behavior without judging it. 

    Spark Note Summary

    We all grew up singing about sticks and stones doing more harm than words. Then, we all became grown ups who knew that words do more harm than any sticks or stones. Cleaning up your language just might clean up your relationships, at least 99.44% of them…