Book Review: The Whole Brain Child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your Child’s developing Mind (2011)
Authors: Daniel Siegel, MD and Tina Bryson, PhD
By Mia Bertram, LPC
The Whole Brain Child, is a must read for every parent and caregiver. This valuable resource offers easy ways to help nurture the parent child relationship while understanding ways to foster a child’s emotional development. Neuropsychiatrist, Doctor Bruce Perry and parent expert Doctor Tina Payne Bryson offer effective parenting strategies that are backed by cutting edge research on brain development and speak directly to the child’s brain. The author’s use of cartoons, personal stories, hands on techniques and strategies to help implement and understand what may feel like otherwise overwhelming material about the brain and neuroscience. They even offer quick reference sheets to put on the fridge for easy review as well as ways of helping teach children about their own brain that are fun and easily doable. By paying attention to the everyday moments with your children and practicing and integrating these strategies both within the good and tough times will help foster happy, successful children who feel good about themselves and enjoy their relationships.
Not only is having an understanding of the brain essential in your relationship with your child, but also the authors convey the importance of integrating the different parts of the brain and its impact on creating more balanced, meaningful and creative lives. Understanding the different parts of the brain- left, right, up and down creates a way for us to conceptualize where a child is coming from, what their perspective is, and how to work with these parts so integration, awareness and connection can take place. Such conceptualization allows us to have appropriate expectations, language and understanding during the challenging moments we have with our children. It helps, according to the authors, to move from surviving to thriving in our relationships and day-to-day functioning.
In times of challenge and struggle, Bryson and Siegel teach us to connect and redirect with our children. Appealing to both sides of the brain is important and there is a formula to follow so that integration and connection take place. In times of big upsets and emotional charge, initially responding to the emotional right side with empathy and understanding creates emotional connection. Once the big emotions have settled and the child is calm, the logical and linear left-brain can come on line. This is where redirection, and discipline can take place, helping the child form an understanding of their experience. Such connection and integration strengthens relationship, emotional development and the developing mind.
The authors provide 12 strategies to help nurture the child’s mind, create connection and promote healthy growth. Using the body and movement to help shift your child’s emotional stare is great in the “Move It to Lose It Strategy”, along with the “SIFT” game that helps bring awareness to sensations, images, feelings and thoughts within. Teaching children how to shift feeling stuck in emotional states in the “Let the Clouds of Emotions Roll by” helps children understand that feelings are simply states and not traits. The “Name it Tame it”, helps children work through taming intense feelings through storytelling. Additional strategies include helping to work through memories while exercising control, engaging in focused attention and “Engage Don’t Engage” which appeals to the logic and planning of the left-brain rather than the emotions.
I think every parent, caregiver, teacher, counselor, or anyone involved in the life of a child could benefit from reading and learning this valuable information. The whole brain approach to parenting creates deeper connections and greater understanding of our children. It is a resource that I offer and sometimes require in my practice. It normalizes our experiences and offers strategies on how to work with our children, creating moments of challenge into triumphs and mistakes into opportunities. The information presented within is user friendly, accessible and valuable. More importantly, if utilized and implemented can help create children who are more self aware, emotionally attuned, congruent, resilient, and evolved.
When I first introduce the idea of using a type of behavior modification, parents often dismiss it by saying, “We’ve already tried that and it doesn’t work; what else have you got?” This is because there are several common pitfalls that will effectively sabotage a behavior modification approach with children. These pitfalls include: using an overly complicated system (usually including grids and charts), choosing unmotivating “rewards”, not including the child in the creation of the plan, no plan for phasing out the system, lack of clarity regarding the behaviors themselves, expecting perfection, bribing versus reinforcing and poor parental follow through.
The Structured Activity Reward techniques used here are both simple and effective. In fact, the results are often immediate and dramatic. Chronic negative behaviors often improve within weeks! In addition, the technique can be used with a wide variety of undesirable behaviors. It is a structured approach that focuses the child on the desired behavior and provides fun activity rewards that are motivating to the child. As a result, the child is also taught how to get parental attention in a more appropriate, positive fashion. This is very important, as most undesirable child behaviors are actually fueled by the parent’s negative attention to those behaviors. To better illustrate this approach, consider the following case examples.
Alex, Age 6
Alex was a feisty, highly intelligent boy who was diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and was on related medication. Children with ADHD display unusually high levels of inattention, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity for their age. As is often the case with very bright children, Alex was very manipulative. He had a history of aggressive behaviors which included biting others, as well as himself. What better way to get immediate and consistent negative attention! Alex’s parents were seeking assistance for his increasingly unmanageable behaviors in school. His most recent exploit involved running out of the school building and climbing up a tree. When the school staff attempted to talk him down, he growled loudly!
During my first session with Alex, he explained to me that he liked biting himself when he was “bored and hungry”. He smilingly reported behaving well in school “unless someone antagonizes me. Like if you antagonized me, I’ll bite you!” Needless to say, I made every effort to stay on Alex’s good side, as I’m sure others in his life felt compelled to do.
The next week, I met with Alex and his father, who informed me that the school began a point system to provide the parents with daily feedback regarding Alex’s behavior. He could earn up to four points a day. We integrated this into our Structured Activity Rewards Contract (see Figure 1). As soon as Alex accumulated eight good behavior points, he earned a fun activity with Mom or Dad. To maximize motivation, we also included a “bonus for perfection”. If Alex obtained four points every day in a school week, he got to choose an additional activity. The next week, parent reports indicated a good week in school, earning three points most days. This continued the following week and by the third week, Alex got his bonus for perfection. Because structured activity rewards allow highly manipulative children to be manipulative in a positive way, it is often quite effective. After five weeks, we increased the number of points required to twelve and eventually phased out the system completely.
Contract for Alex
When Alex gets 8 Good behavior points
Then he can choose a reward activity
If Alex has a perfect week
Then he can pick an extra activity.
- Go to the lake
- Play a board game
- Play a card game
- Play Wiggle Bridge
- Play math games
Monica, Age 8
Monica was a socially sensitive, needy child who easily got into conflicts with her mother. Mom reported that Monica would experience anxieties/frustrations, take it out on her mother, who would then get angry at Monica. Later, her mother would feel guilty and try to make up. This scenario occurred repeatedly within their relationship. Consider how this behavioral sequence would result in and was being reinforced by so much negative attention.
One area of specific difficulty common to so many families is getting homework done. When it was homework time, Monica would engage in a variety of avoidant behaviors including: eating, fooling around, playing with her younger sister, etc. Her mother indicated that Monica would procrastinate until or through dinner and all the way up to and often past bedtime, requiring “hundreds” of reminders (or “yelling” according to Monica) to no avail. Mom tried “everything” including rewards like playing video games, which Monica loved, but then she would just rush through her homework in a haphazard fashion. Consequently, for the last year, Monica was not allowed to play video games during the week. In addition, Monica wanted to play with her friends after school, but couldn’t due to this time consuming negative homework ritual. This only compounded her social problems, by reducing her opportunities for needed socialization experiences.
We negotiated a Structured Activity Rewards Contract which addressed these issues (see Figure 2). If Monica did her homework well after dinner and before bedtime with no more than 3 reminders, she could play video games and be with her friends the next day. In addition, these good homework days would result in a fun activity with her mother or father. A week later, her mother reported that the contract was working “really well”, and Monica indicated that Mom was yelling less. While we addressed other therapeutic issues, homework continued to go well over the next 6 weeks at which time we were able to phase the contract out, as Monica had developed appropriate homework skills.
Contract for Monica
When Monica does her homework well after dinner and before 8:15pm (no more than 3 reminders)
Then the next day Monica can play video games (1/2 hour) and play with her friends after school
Also 3 good homework day results in one of these fun activities:
- Going out to ice cream
- Going bowling with Dad
- Dinner with Mom
- Playing video games with Mom
- Coffeehouse for tea and a muffin with Mom
- Softball with Dad
- Sleep over
Monica’s signature Mom’s signature
Omar, Age 10
In our initial session, Omar presented as a respectful, well-mannered adolescent who was eager to please. He was referred for a very common problem that had manifested into a variety of unusual behaviors. His mother indicated that Omar was, “Scared of being alone and darkness. He needs to have somebody with him at all times when it’s dark”. Until age 3, Omar shared a room with his sister, who is one year older. “Then he became scared to sleep by himself.” This developed into a pattern of behavior in which Omar would initially fall asleep in his room and during the night, go into either his sister’s or parents’ room where he would remain until morning. Another set of behaviors also developed around the fear of being alone. Whenever Omar went to the bathroom or showered, one of his parents had to stand outside the door. In addition, Omar was fearful of going upstairs alone or washing the dishes downstairs alone. Keep in mind that these behaviors continued for many years. What precipitated their finally seeking treatment was Omar’s recent desire to go on sleepovers. It would have been awkward for Omar to ask his friend’s parents to stand outside the bathroom door! Despite his being highly motivated to conquer his fears, he was unable to break these behavioral patterns.
In our second session we discussed some basic cognitive-behavioral strategies to help cope with these fears. Omar learned a deep breathing technique to foster relaxation and created a calming statement of reassurance that he could repeat to himself. The following week we constructed a Structured Activity Rewards Contract (see Figure 3). We were able to move quickly in large part due to Omar’s motivational level. At his suggestion, we set a fairly challenging goal of 5 out of 7 “good” days. In addition, we added a “bonus for perfection”. Again, we utilized basic activity rewards with Mom or Dad. Two weeks later we met again and to my amazement, Omar proudly reported being successful every day! We revised the contract to 6 out of 7 days and one month later phased it out. Each subsequent week resulted in 6 or 7 good days. Once again consider the behavioral sequence. Consider the inordinate amount of parental time and attention that Omar’s problem behaviors resulted in. While it’s possible that the cognitive-behavioral techniques alone could have eventually gotten the same results, providing Omar with a way to earn positive parental attention insured rapid success.
Contract for Omar
- showers on his own (going upstairs with the door closed) 5 out of 7 days
- bathroom on his own (again with the door shut) 5 out of 7 days
- sleeps on his own (in own room and doesn’t call anyone) 5 out of 7 days
Then Omar can choose one activity on Sunday
-Lake with Mom -Go to mall with Mom
-Craft with Mom -Gardening with Mom
-Build model with Dad -Fishing with Dad
-Lake with Dad -Bike ride with Dad
-Play catch with Dad -Play a sport with Dad
***Bonus*** For a perfect week, Omar picks another activity
I have read and agree with this contract.
______________ _____________ _____________
Omar’s signature Mom’s signature Dad’s signature
Ryan, Age 5
Initial parent reports indicated that Ryan was a, “Perfect child for the first five years.” Four weeks earlier he had begun a new pre-kindergarten program. Since the first day of school, Ryan had been having increasing difficulties adjusting. It began with his dislike of a forty-five minute “sleepytime” toward the end of the school day. Ryan was not a napper and probably found sleepytime to be tedious and boring. His mother attempted to solve the problem by picking him up earlier, thus avoiding sleepytime altogether. To the parents’ dismay, his adjustment problems worsened. At this point Ryan resisted going to school at all, wanting only to be with his mother. Despite a prior history of positive and frequent socialization experiences, Ryan was having tantrums every morning before being forced to go to school.
Let’s stop for a moment and consider the behavioral sequence. Ryan’s initial adjustment difficulties result in leaving school early, to be with his mom. In addition, there were certainly countless talks with Ryan regarding his concerns, trying to soothe his fears. Not only do his adjustment problems increase, they now are unrelated to the initial issue of sleepytime. All of the adjustment difficulties do, however, have one thing in common. They all resulted in parental attention. While the parents may not be yelling or punishing, it is still negative attention in that it fuels and even escalates the undesirable behaviors.
After sharing my negative attention theory, Ryan’s parents were doubtful that this could apply to their son based upon his very well adjusted first five years. Despite this, they agreed to try utilizing structured activity rewards and we created a contract for Ryan (see below). Ryan’s parents telephoned me prior to our two-week follow-up appointment. They were pleasantly surprised to report that Ryan’s difficulties had dramatically improved and they would call back to reschedule if problems reoccurred. I spoke with them sometime later on a different issue and was told that their son’s school adjustment problems were much more infrequent (i.e., normal).
Contract for Ryan
When Ryan has a good school morning (crying only in room, no grabbing Mom before school)
Then Ryan gets a Happy Point
2 Happy Points = 1 Reward Activity
- Go out for pizza with Dad
- Go to grocery store with Dad
- Play a game with Dad
- Bike ride with Mom
- Go out with Mom/Dad for ice cream
- Go out with Mom/Dad for Chinese food
Bonus 5 Good Mornings = Clock
Jason, Age 11
Jason was also diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Through prior therapeutic contacts and a good response to medication, his symptoms were kept under control. Jason’s father had a variety of medical conditions that he had suffered with and, to his credit, learned to cope with fairly well. Approximately three months earlier, Jason’s father had a sudden mysterious attack which left him temporarily paralyzed and seemingly, catatonic. His family, who was with him at the time, feared he was dead. While he completely recovered hours later, it was certainly a traumatic experience for everyone. This was particularly true for Jason. Ever since this incident, Jason insisted on constantly being with his father to make sure that he was all right. As his father put it, “He just won’t leave me alone!” It had gotten to the point where Jason insisted his dad sleep with him in his room every night. Even the garage, which used to be Dad’s private sanctuary was now always shared with Jason. While Jason and his dad previously always had a close relationship, he was driving his dad crazy!
This case is a good example of a very common behavioral process. Jason’s initial concerns and behaviors were completely appropriate and understandable. The unanticipated consequence, however, of a significant increase in parental attention inadvertently fueled the behavior to a more dysfunctional level.
We agreed to utilize a Structured Activity Rewards Contract, but given the dynamics of the case, all of the reward activities were with his father (see below). In our two-week follow-up, his father was ecstatic to report eight good days. One month after initiating the contract, their relationship was returning to normal and both were forgetting to monitor the contract. In this case the system was successfully phased out “naturally”.
Contract for Jason
When Jason gives Dad his space for a day
- Not bother Dad in Garage after 8:00pm
- Dad sleeps in his own room
One warning per day for first week only!
Then Jason earns 1 Point
3 Points = 1 Activity Reward
-Buy a model -Work on a model
-Go fishing -Rent a video game
-Go mineral mining -Play a board game
-Work on a project in garage
-Go to park, throw ball around
-Fly/work on a model plane
I read and agree with this contract
Dad’s signature Jason’s signature
Taylor, Age 8
According to Taylor’s parents, he “always” had a problem complying with their requests. They described him as, “very impulsive”, “overemotional” and stated that he “tantrums whenever we discipline him”. Even when he did comply it usually required at least 6 reminders and often, endless debates.
A review of Taylor’s school records and early developmental history indicate that at age three he was diagnosed with speech/language delays and had a history of frequent ear infections. A pre-kindergarten screening noted specific weaknesses in auditory memory (remembering what you hear) and receptive language (understanding what is said to you). Taylor benefited from ongoing speech/language therapy and was reported to currently be within the normal range for his age. While “not listening” is easily one of the most common child disciplinary issues, it is quite possible that Taylor’s noncompliance was initially a function, at least in part, of his real language difficulties. I hoped that an effective structured activity rewards contract would give him the extra motivation needed to break these very early habits and foster new skill development.
We negotiated our Structured Activity Rewards Contract (see Figure 6). For each parental request, Taylor was allowed one reminder. Three good days would earn him an activity reward. At our two week update session, Taylor had earned eleven good days out of fourteen. I was pleasantly surprised with his progress. Considering his developmental history, his parents were also very pleased with his progress, but did mention that he often waits for his one reminder. To address this issue, Taylor and his parents added a bonus reward of money, which reportedly Taylor wanted more than anything, for needing no reminders. Preferring activity over monetary rewards, I reluctantly agreed to this revision (see below). The following week Taylor had accumulated six more good days, three of which were bonus days of no reminders. Mom confided that the days without reminders took so much effort on Taylor’s part that she had succumbed to the fact that he just needs a reminder or two. His success continued and we phased out the contract after five weeks.
Contract for Taylor
When Taylor does what is parents ask him to do all day
Then Taylor will earn one (1) point
Reminders!Taylor is allowed one (1) reminder for each request
Three (3) points = one(1) activity reward
Bonus!! 1 Day no reminders = 25cents/3 in a row = $1
- Go for a drive to see a relocated friend
- Draw or paint with Mom
- Build something with Dad, like racetrack
- Go to a movie with Mom or Dad
- Play Monopoly with Dad
- Go to Blockbuster to rent a movie or game
- Go out to eat with Mom or Dad
- Go out for ice cream/frozen yogurt
I have read and agree with this contract
________________ ________________ _______________
Taylor’s signature Mom’s signature Dad’s signature
Matthew, age 6
In 1992, a significant earthquake rocked southern California at approximately 5:30 in the morning, waking most of us. Matthew, like most children (and adults!) became quite frightened. To help Matthew feel more secure, his parents allowed him to spend the remainder of the night with them in their bed. In my opinion, this was a completely appropriate response. The next night, Matthew awoke at 2:00 am and asked to sleep with his parents again due to his continuing earthquake fears. As you may have guessed, this pattern continued for days that turned into weeks. Consider the behavioral sequence that, of course, culminates in enormous parental attention. Attention which, while initially quite appropriate, was now fueling Matthew’s earthquake anxiety behaviors. Keep in mind that Matthew’s fears were also initially appropriate. Inadvertently fueled by parental contact/attention, his fears became more severe and maladaptive.
Matthew’s parents reported that he was always a worrier. He was even easily startled as an infant. Consequently, Matthew may have also been more predisposed to having anxiety difficulties.
As our initial session was ending, I began to feel somewhat anxious myself as I was going away on a two-week vacation the next day and Matthew’s parents were desperate. With great reluctance, I agreed to meet with Matthew later that day and quickly formulated a Structured Activity Rewards Contract with the family. I like to work quickly, but not that fast! We were, however, able to complete our contract later that day. The system encouraged staying in his bed, but even if he came in once, he was still rewarded (see figure 7). If he came in more than once, his parent’s would simply help him back to bed. He could not, however, stay in his parents’ room. Right before the family left, Matthew looked up at me and his eyes watered up. He then quietly said, “I don’t think this is going to work.” At that moment I was afraid that because I had moved too quickly, he would be right. At our two week follow-up session, we reviewed Matthew’s progress. During the first five days, Matthew visited his parents repeatedly on three nights and only once on two nights (thus earning two points). Then to everyone’s amazement, Matthew remained in his room the following nine nights! Matthew proudly indicated that he did wake up on some of those nights but was able to deal with it on his own. We then proceeded to revise/phase out the contract (see below).
I met with the family two years later about some compliance difficulties and was told that there was no reoccurrence of these earthquake anxiety/behaviors.
Contract for Matthew
When Matthew stays in his bed all night
Then he will get 3 smiley faces
If Matthew only gets out of bed one time
Then he will get 1 smiley face
Activity Rewards (5 Smiley faces)
- Wild Animal Park
- Sea World
- Ice skating
- Buy and play with bow and arrow
- Marine Museum
New Contract for Matthew
When Matthew stays in his bed all night
Then he will get 1 star
Activity Rewards (5 Stars)
- Wild Animal Park
- Sea World
- Ice skating
- Buy and play with bow and arrow
- Marine Museum
- Go to a movie
- Stay up ½ hour late
- Go to tide pool
Cindy, Age 7
Cindy presented as a sweet, friendly child whose eyes sparkled when she smiled. In reviewing her case history with her parents, she seemed to almost be the perfect child. Cindy adjusted “extremely well” to school, which she still “loves”. Her interactions with peers were observed to be “excellent”. Her parents also indicated that she was “very responsible” and she even willfully helped with chores! You may ask, “Why bring her to a psychologist?”
Cindy was referred for chronic bed-wetting. She was toilet trained at age two and had no accidents until age five. For the last two years, however, she wet her bed almost every night. Cindy’s father left very early each morning for work. Prior to leaving, he would check on Cindy. If she wet her bed he would wake her up, change her sheets, and put her back to bed. Her medical history indicated frequent urinary tract infections, which were probably a contributing factor. At age six, Cindy went to a urologist for a comprehensive medical evaluation and was even placed on medication for a year. Despite this, however, her frequent bedwetting continued. Not sure what else to do, the urologist sent her to me.
At that time the most effective treatment for bedwetting was a device called a “Pad and Bell”. To use the device, the pad is placed under the bed sheet and is attached to a bell next to the bed. Any moisture that touches the pad completes a circuit, which activates a loud bell. The theory is that this trains children who are usually heavy sleepers, to be more aware of the body sensations that wake us up when we have to go to the bathroom at night. (I’ve always wondered how this classical conditioning tool affects its subjects later in life. When they hear a door bell, do they get the urge to go to the bathroom?) I discussed this approach with Cindy’s parents and located a pharmacy, which sold the pad and bell device.
Prior to purchasing the pad and bell, I suggested that we assess motivational factors by setting up a Structured Activity Rewards Contract. I explained to Cindy’s parents that I didn’t expect the contract to help much, but I wanted to see if increasing her motivation would have any effect at all. We also explained to Cindy that we’d try it and if it didn’t work, it was no big deal. We constructed a contract that included daily rewards and bonus rewards for multiple dry nights (see below). We met a week later and to everyone’s surprise, Cindy was dry five out of seven nights! The following week she was dry seven nights straight! During the next week, Cindy only had one wet night. At this point we began phasing out by modifying the contract (see Figure 10). Cindy was also required now to change her own sheets. Approximately six weeks after initiating the contract, we phased it out completely. One month later, Cindy continued to have all dry nights. I couldn’t help but wonder if the daily one-on-one attention from Dad each morning inadvertently fueled the behavior. Interestingly enough, her parents began to notice an increase in attention seeking /defiant behaviors from this seemingly “perfect” child. While she was staying dry at night, she was getting more “pissed-off” during the day! We addressed these issues in subsequent family therapy sessions.
Contract for Cindy
If Cindy has a dry night
Then she can choose 1 daily reward
-Lunch at school -Time alone with Mom or Dad
-Later bedtime -15 minutes in parents’ bed
-Dad’s seat for dinner -Sleeping on the floor
Bonus! 2 Dry nights = 1 Bonus
3 Dry nights = 2 Bonuses
4 Dry nights = 3 Bonuses
-Nails with Mom -New notebook
-Mom cleans her room -New markers
-Front car seat on weekend -New book
-Bath with Mom -Mermaid cards
-Ice cream with Dad -Having a friend over
I have read and agree to this contract
Parents’ signatures Cindy’s signature
New Contract for Cindy
When Cindy has two dry nights
Then she can choose 1 special reward
-Lunch at school -Time alone with Mom or Dad
-Later bedtime -15 minutes in parents’ bed
-Dad’s seat for dinner -Sleeping on the floor
Bonus! 3 Dry nights = 1 Bonus
4 Dry nights = 2 Bonuses
5 Dry nights = 3 Bonuses
-Nails with Mom -New notebook
-Mom cleans her room -New markers
-Front car seat on weekend -New book
-Bath with Mom -Mermaid cards
-Ice cream with Dad -Having a friend over
I have read and agree to this contract
Paarent’s signatures Cindy’s signature
These case histories attest to the powerful impact of systematically shifting parental attention from negative to positive. It is important to point out, however, that these seemingly simple contracts were carefully constructed to maximize their chances of success. The next chapter will provide you with everything you need to know to construct an effective Activity Rewards Contract for your child. The key element to this system is the use of parental attention that fuels the child’s motivation to practice the desirable behavior(s). To get your own step-by-step instructions on creating your own Structured Activity Rewards Contract, download Dr. Hittelman’s free report: “Change Your Child’s Behavior in 30 Days” by clicking HERE .
by: Ryan Dawson, MA, LPC
If you are like many parents, you have at times experienced difficulty motivating your teen for school, chores, family outings, following simple instructions, being nice to their siblings, doing homework, limiting screen time, etc. It’s a fundamental parental question that baffles parents around the world: how to motivate teenagers who seem to have an agenda all their own?
Many parents come to my practice looking for support and someone that can get through to their child. However, in my experience working with adolescents for the past 20 plus years, any influence I have resides in my abilities to effectively utilize the same fundamentals that I recommend to these parents.
Spoiler alert– It is all about cultivating a consistent and positive relationship.
Validation. Let your kid know how amazing you believe they are. I have yet to meet a teen who has escaped the major identity transformation of adolescence without self-doubt. This can become a larger and persistent problem without proper support. Your son or daughter needs someone who consistently reminds them of their brilliance and believes in them. Even if they act like they are too cool to hear it, they are listening. Be prepared to not be appreciated for your cheerleading but know your words are being deposited in the bank of your childʼs resiliency.
Empathy. When negative things happen to your child as a result of poor life choices and strategies, be empathetic towards them. Even if they rebuffed your suggestions along the way, and you feel like reminding them of your sagacious advice, it isnʼt a good time to do that when they are hurting. Empathize with their pain and express sorrow instead of offering an, “I told you so.” Then, when they are ready to hear it, offer your guidance as a consultant. Remember how hard it was to feed apple sauce to a toddler who didnʼt want it? The same goes for advice to a set of ears which arenʼt ready to listen. In summary, always empathize before you educate.
Giving choices. Most humans strive to feel in control of their lives; teenagers included. Presenting acceptable choices or parameters to your child rather than trying to force them to follow your will, will give them a sense of empowerment, independence, and responsibility. Additionally, they are then less able to lay the blame on you if things donʼt work out the way they expected or, conversely, they get to feel the glory when it goes well.
Planting seeds. If you have a desire for your teen that involves how they spend their free time or what might be “good for them”, sometimes the indirect road is the one to travel. Plant idea seeds and let them germinate. Slowly help them to understand the value of your idea. Give it time to grow. Come back to water it with love and warmth and a gentle reminder if needed. Allow them to have control when to implement it (deadlines can be helpful) and let them know that if they choose this path you will be there, without judgment, ready to support them.
Emotional intelligence. This subject isnʼt often taught at schools. Therefore, helping your child to understand what they are feeling and how to deal with it is important. Life often creates internal distress. Unfortunately, happily-ever-after is just a fairy tale. There will be unexpected and unsettling twists and turns on the path of life. Teaching them that they can tolerate negative mood states and still move forward is key to increasing their willingness to try new things. Sometimes motivation looks like moving toward what is important even when we donʼt feel great on the inside.
Ryan Dawson is an expert on issues of teenage psychology. Contact him to learn more about how to motivate teenagers or to discuss your teen’s issues.
By Jeremy Dion, Licensed Professional Counselor
My 7-year-old daughter came home from school the other day and told me that she just had the “worst day of her life.” To be fair, this is not exactly an uncommon routine in our household, and we average two to three “worst days ever” per month. On this particular day, she went into detail about a friend who didn’t want to play, a teacher who didn’t understand, and an art project that did not come out the way she had hoped.
As she’s sharing all this, I listen and give her my undivided attention. When she finishes, there’s a pause. I breathe. This next moment is pivotal. It’s the moment where I’m going to respond. And how I respond is going to be determined by two things—first, and most importantly, my own internal state. Am I calm, cool, and connected? Or am I stressed, rushed, and distracted? Do I feel empathy or am I too preoccupied to connect? We’re usually somewhere in between, though most of us think we’re less stressed than we actually are.
The second factor that will influence my response involves my perception of the events that just unfolded. When my daughter is telling me about the hardships of her day, do I see it as an openhearted act of vulnerability on her end, and an opportunity for connection between us? Or do I see it as a bit dramatic, mostly complaining, and symptoms of a bad mood I’d like to change?
Feeling Calm Allows Us to Feel Empathy
When I’m feeling more calm and grounded, I have more capacity to feel empathy — to dig into the hard stuff. My tolerance for discomfort expands, which is always helpful. But if my system is more stressed, I am inclined to shut down her uncomfortable feelings, because I’m less willing to feel my own.
My cultural conditioning often encourages me to be “helpful” to my daughter by pointing out the bright side of her story, trying to add the silver lining to her “worst day ever.” Because that’s helpful, right? It’ll make her feel better. In this mode, I’m inclined to say something that begins with, “Well at least…” Or I may try to fix her problem by trouble-shooting it: “Did you try…” Or, “What can you do next time so that…” It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking these are helpful responses. And the truth is that they can be. But only after I’ve completed a crucial and often overlooked step: Empathy.
The simplest definition of empathy involves recognizing the emotions of another person, and feeling with them. Showing empathy is a vulnerable choice. In order to truly connect with my daughter in this moment I have to connect with that part of myself that knows these feelings – those parts of me that know first hand what it’s like to feel left out, misunderstood, and disappointed.
The Four Qualities of Empathy
For a more nuanced explanation of empathy, I look to the work of nursing scholar Teresa Wiseman. She highlighted these Four Qualities of Empathy:
1. Perspective taking – recognizing this perspective as their truth.
2. Staying out of judgment.
3. Recognition of emotion in others.
4. Communicating that recognition.
Empathy sends the message that I hear you, I’ve felt those feelings, and they’re painful. I can feel them now. You’re not alone. I’m so glad you’re shared this with me. When I’m able to respond with that type of empathy, we share a connection that wouldn’t happen otherwise. And often times, that connection is enough, and nothing more is needed.
As author and researcher professor Brene Brown says, “The truth is that rarely will a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”
Learn more about Jeremy Dion, Licensed Professional Counselor
Is Your Family Struggling To Adapt To A Change Within Your Family System?
Is your family struggling to adjust to a significant family transition, such as a new baby, new developmental stages for your children, adolescent angst or launching a teenager? Is this new shift in your family triggering conflict, uncertainty or imbalance within your home? Are you finding your new role difficult to navigate, instigating self-doubt and self-judgment? Is this new phase for your family causing stress between you and your partner? Is the change and newness leading to increased disconnection or upset between family members? Do you wish you felt more confident in your ability to lead your family through the change and ensure that everyone’s needs are being met?
Much like children go through developmental stages, families also experience stages called transition cycles. These cycles – or shifts in the family dynamic – typically occur following births, at pivotal times in childhood and adolescent development and when teenagers enter adulthood and leave the home. They can also occur when adult children take on the role of caring for their aging parents. Much like a child entering into a new development stage, family cycles can come with significant challenges, fears, conflicts and confusion. Struggles can be compounded, however, when the whole family system – and not just an individual member – is tasked with accepting newness and adapting to new family roles and other necessary changes within the home. During these cycles, it’s common to feel anxious and overwhelmed, and to question your ability to navigate change and adequately support all members of your family.
It is Common For Families To Struggle With Transition Cycles
Most families experience difficulties adjusting to the newness and uncertainties that arise when major shifts occur within their home environment. Not knowing how to be in a new family situation or uncertainty concerning what new roles will look and feel like can elicit conflicts, increase stress between family members, and make everyone feel unsettled and fearful. Change is hard. It disrupts the familiar and it’s common for everyone within the family – especially children – to be resistant, angry or inflexible. Children – who need structure – may become fearful and act out or withdraw. Teens may try to cope by self-medicating or developing other, unhealthy coping mechanisms. And, the stress of change may be impacting your relationship with your partner and/or causing you to experience self-doubt and anxiety. Thankfully, it’s also very common and beneficial for families to reach out and ask for help during these significant family transitions. A BPS therapist who is highly trained and experienced in families in transition matters can help you navigate change with greater ease and help your family adapt to change.
Therapy Can Help Your Family Accept, Adjust to and Embrace Change
Your family is always changing and changes – especially significant transitions – require everyone within your family system to be flexible and adaptable in order for family cohesion to occur. And, you or you and your partner are charged with leading the way. Therapy can be extremely effective in helping you learn how to navigate this new terrain and help your family adapt to change.
Your BPS family therapist can help you understand the dynamics of family transitions, determine what’s occurring within your family system that is creating unease, and help guide you through this tricky time. As well as coaching you and offering concrete, practical strategies to try at home, your therapist can help your family connect during a time when people often pull away. In therapy, all members of your family will be given a safe space and time to talk about these changes and the feelings they may be experiencing, which may be difficult to discuss in daily life. Your family can learn better conflict resolution skills, including how to fight fairly. With help, you can lead your family through a transition with more ease and fluidity and get the support and guidance to make change easier on your children, partner and yourself.
The changes and challenges your family is experiencing now can become an opportunity to understand each other better, increase closeness, improve communication and strengthen your family connection. Although you may feel overwhelmed now, with help, it is possible to navigate this newness with more ease. All members of your family can adjust to and accept what is new and learn to embrace your new family cycle. And, addressing the issues that come up for your family when confronted with change now can help you better navigate the inevitable changes in your family’s future with more ease, confidence and clarity.
But, you still may have questions or concerns…
I think therapy could be helpful, but I’m concerned about costs.
This is your family’s lives and wellbeing. Addressing family transition issues now can lead to both immediate and long-term benefits. It can also prevent difficulties within your family from getting worse. Therapy is an investment in building confidence, creating balance and developing a workable structure for your family. It can help your family adapt to change in healthy ways and lead to increased connection within you family now and in the future. Therapy is also an investment that can lead to more security, consistency and wellbeing for your children.
Many people come to BPS having worked with other therapists who were not trained to work specifically with family transition issues or who they or their family couldn’t relate with – which is a waste of time and money. At BPS, we’ll conduct an referral assessment and match your family with a therapist who is trained and experienced to help with transition issues and whose personality is a good match for your family. Once you find that good match, making a commitment to yourself and your family may be one of the most valuable investments there is. Imagine everyone in your family feeling and functioning better now and in the long-term on a regular basis and ask yourself what that’s worth.
If money still is an issue, you can talk with your BPS therapist to see if they work on a sliding scale. They may also be able to help you find other lower cost resources in the community.
Our schedules and lives are so hectic right now. I’m not sure that it’s possible to get everyone in one room at the same time.
We live in a busy culture and many families struggle with the juggling of schedules, shifting routines and conflicting needs. While it can be hard align everyone’s schedules for an hour a week, doing so during a transitional period is important. It can help your family connect and honor your family system. Alternatively, not doing so can create further disconnections and increase conflicts.
Your BPS family therapist can create a therapy structure and schedule that meets the specific needs of your family. And, once therapy has begun, your therapist may suggest working with different members of the family at different times, on various issues – alleviating the need for all members to be present at every session. You can talk to your therapist about your time concerns and develop at strategy and structure that fits your family. Therapy can be a fluid and dynamic process.
I’m afraid that therapy will shine a light on all that’s not working within our family and make everyone feel and/or behave worse.
You may be right. Oftentimes, things have to get worse before they can get better. But, it can get better. And, your BPS family therapist can help support and guide you through the upset that often occurs before healing can begin.
It’s also important to note that not addressing the issues that are occurring within your home can lead to further disconnection between family members and increased conflict as negative feelings deepen and problematic behaviors become entrenched. And, if your family is unable to adjust to current transitions, issues and conflicts can be compounded when the next transition – which is inevitable – occurs. Alternatively, therapy during a change cycle can lead to closer family bonds and help your children – and yourself – develop a healthy ways to handle change. With help, all members of your family and your family system as a whole can become more flexible and adaptable now and in the future.
\We encourage you to schedule a referral assessment with one of our BPS therapists trained by Dr. Jan Hittelman. We will work with you to determine what your family’s specific issues are and ensure a good match between you, your family and a BPS therapist in terms of personality, style and expertise.
You can also check out our free, online therapist directory, which will match you and your family with a therapist who has expertise working with family transition cycles and related issues.
BPS therapist Kat Austin, LPC, LAC, LMFT
helped create the content for this page. Kat is specifically trained in family therapy and has been helping families through family transition cycle issues since 2005.
The value and importance of understanding non-verbal communication
By Rachael Bonaiuto, LPC
”The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” –Peter F. Drucker
Why Non-Verbal Communication?
The World English Dictionary defines nonverbal communication as “those aspects of communication, such as gestures and facial expressions, that do not involve verbal communication but which may include nonverbal aspects of speech itself”. There are popular statistics asserting that most communication (75%-90%) is nonverbal and that nonverbal behavior is the most crucial aspect of communication. And wholesome communication, as you probably already know from personal experience, defines the health of so many of your relationships. Further, healthy relationships are the pillars to a quality life with increased joy, abundance, health, and happiness.
So why don’t you pay more attention to your body language, your posture and gestures, your tone of voice, eye contact and somatic patterning? We live in a culture that places so much value on the spoken and written word, on what you say and how you articulate your experience. If it’s true that what we pay attention to grows, and conversely, what we don’t pay attention to dies away, it is important to acknowledge, attend to, and develop our non-verbal communication skills in order to engage in thriving relationships with our children, partners, co-workers, friends and fellow citizens. So, how do you begin to tune into your non-verbal communications and what impact will it have on your life?
”The human body is the best picture of the human soul.” –Ludwig Wittgenstein
How do you develop your Non-Verbal Communication Skills?
Paying Attention and Practicing are two foundational elements for your non-verbal communication development. From wherever you are in this very moment, read the following words and then pause – noticing right now: how you are sitting, the pace, rhythm and quality of your breath, the angle of your spine, the location of your feet and the direction of your gaze. Don’t feel like you need to change any of these things, in any way, just simply notice. As you survey and take stock, you are paying attention. The practicing part comes in the frequency and diligence with which you take stock, survey and notice your body. Do it often – as you are driving your child to school, standing in line at the bank, talking to a friend in need, asking for something you want, ordering your morning coffee, telling someone you love them – what is your body doing? What are you communicating without words?
Below are a few areas to identify, pay attention to and engage in practice. Let’s take an example of an everyday interaction – sitting at the dinner table with your family – and examine these various aspects of non-verbal communication.
Posture – How are you sitting at the table? Where are your elbows and hands? Is your spine upright or are you slouching? Are you facing the other family members at the table or are you positioned away from them in some way? Do you feel grounded? Are your feet on the floor? Is your crown open toward the sky? Are you ‘awake’ in your posture?
Proxemics (Personal Space) – Where are you in relationship to the others at the table? Have you distanced yourself in a way that feels appropriate? Are you invading another’s space? Do you feel that someone is too close to you? Are you wishing you were a bit closer or further away? Is it okay to move your positioning? Are you ‘awake’ in your personal space?
Gestures – How are you expressing yourself? Are you using your hands to say something that you are not saying with words? Have you tilted your head in a way that either affirms or denies someone else’s experience? Are you engaging or disengaging in conversation with your movements? Are you ‘awake’ in your gestures?
Facial expressions – There are some 43 muscles in the face and we are often using them in ways that we are not aware of. What are your eyes saying? Did your lip turn up or curl down when something was shared? What direction are you tilting your nose and chin? What are you communicating with your face as you respond to your environment? Are you ‘awake’ in your facial expressions?
Paralinguistics: tone of voice, volume, inflection, pitch – Have you ever experienced something that someone said as incongruent with the actual words they spoke? What is your tone of voice expressing when you ask about your lover’s day? How is your inflection when you question your child’s participation in a school activity? Are you speaking loudly about something that makes you nervous? Are you ‘awake’ in your voice?
Eye Gaze and Contact – So much is communicated through the eyes. Have you made eye contact with your family members during dinner? Are you scolding someone with your gaze? Are you paying attention with your eyes? Have you been looking at your feet throughout the entire meal? Or gazing up at the ceiling? Are you ‘awake’ in your eyes?
Somatic Patterns – We all have somatic patterns that are often unconscious, communicating something that we are unaware of. Are you twirling your hair while your husband talks about his work day, appearing bored or disinterested? Are you nodding as your child shares about his science test? Do you rub your eyes when sadness begins to creep in, trying to conceal an emotion? Are you ‘awake’ in your body patterns?
Appearance – How we appear communicates so much to others, often without our cognizant choice. Did you come to dinner in your pajamas? Have you changed into something comfortable or perhaps loosened your tie and taken off your shoes? Have you spent the entire dinner looking at your phone? Is the hat you are wearing covering your face? Are you showing through your appearance respect, presence, disapproval, disinterest? Are you ‘awake’ in your appearance?
”What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
What will improve as you develop your Non-Verbal Communication Skills?
As you imagine paying attention to and practicing your non-verbal communication skills, you might also imagine aspects of your life changing for the better. Among other things that will surprise, delight and inspire you, you will develop healthy, clear boundaries, enhance intimacy, deepen connections, communicate feelings and needs, and establish safety and trust. And who wouldn’t want these healthy upgrades improving our relationships and increasing our quality of life?!