All posts by rwhitson

Parenting: Protesting versus Defiance

A question I am often asked in my practice is, what to allow in terms of protest from a child.  I think the general rule with this is not to allow defiance or disrespect.  However, children are people too, they have their own thoughts and feelings, so it is also important to tolerate some protest.  How do we know what crosses the line from protest to defiance?

The first question to consider is, what is respectful and what is disrespectful protest?  I think there are some variations in where this line would be drawn from one household to another.  For example, a door being slammed is not likely something I’m going to take on as a prohibited protest in my family.  It really doesn’t hurt anything (barring a child trying to break the door with the slamming); it is a statement from the child that they don’t like what’s happening.  However, I am not likely to tolerate eye rolling, as I find this to be extremely disrespectful.  I guess the difference for me is that one is away from me and one is a direct interaction with me and action towards me.  But another household may tolerate eye rolling, but not door slamming.  I think deciding where your boundaries will be and then sticking to those is what is important when it comes to this determination.  There are a few things to consider when making your own boundaries of what you will tolerate and what you will not.  The most important of those is thinking about what would be tolerated in the real world and what would not be.  If my child were to roll his eyes at a future employer, he would be likely to be fired.  However, if he went to a separate location outside of the earshot of the employer and slammed a door, there would likely be no consequences for this.  Cussing at, refusing a request, or yelling at, however, are behaviors that should not be tolerated in any household, as I think it can be agreed upon universally that these behaviors would be considered disrespectful in any setting.

The next question seems to be a little more clear-cut: What defines defiance? Defiance goes beyond simple protest, it is a refusal to comply with the requested action.  For example, if a child was told to clean their room and refuses to do so, that would be defiance.  Also, if the youth were told they could not go out, and then goes anyway, this refusal would be defiance as well.  One thing is very clear in parenting, defiance can NEVER be tolerated.  As soon as a parent begins to allow a child to defy them, even with a simple task, they are beginning to lose control over that child, and it is extremely likely that the youth will defy more often and it will lead to defiance about bigger issues.  It is very important that the order of power within a family remain intact, that children understand the parents are always in charge.  Of course, I am in no way advocating doing this in a militant manner, as this is likely to inspire the very defiance we are trying to avoid.  But it is very important that every child within a household understand, through experience, that defiance is never tolerated.  Will a child test those limits from time to time, absolutely! It is their developmental task to test limits.  When the parent reinforces that limit with an appropriate consequence, the child is again sent the message that defiance will not be allowed, and things return to a healthy state where everyone knows their role.

It is not uncommon for parents to bring their teens to me for therapy, stating that their child has been very defiant, taking off in the car when told not to, refusing to do chores or other tasks around the home, or refusing to go to school.  The teen is often cussing at or even physically confronting the parent.  Often the parents tell me initially that this behavior is new and that prior to this beginning, there were no issues in the household.  Further investigation, however, inevitably reveals that there has been previous defiance.  That the child has gotten away with things like not doing assigned chores or refusing to listen to smaller directives (turning off the TV, going to bed at a certain time, cleaning their room, etc.).  Usually these smaller actions of defiance have been ignored by the parent.  Maybe if the child doesn’t load the dishwasher, then the parent just does it instead.  Or if they were told to turn off the TV and ignore the directive, the parent just goes about what they were doing and doesn’t follow through with making sure the directive is complied with.  If this is the case, then there usually hasn’t been much conflict within the household, but this is not because the child’s behavior was appropriate, it is just because the parent has chosen to deal with the defiance by ignoring it.  All the while the child is getting the message more and more that they do not actually have to listen to their parent, that their defiance has no real consequences, and that their parent does not really have authority.  When this child hits the teen years and the stakes go up, they are simply doing what they have always done, ignoring the parent’s directives.  The problem is, now the topic is one that holds more weight and that the parent can not ignore (like not going to school or taking the car when told not to) and the teen is likely defying in a more aggressive manner (yelling or cussing at the parent, saying no in a direct way, being physically intimidating) instead of just ignoring the parent’s directives, like when they were younger.

This is why defiance can not be tolerated.  It changes the balance of power in a manner that will create bigger problems as the child ages.  It teaches the child that your words don’t really mean anything.  It sends the message that your child can really do whatever they want.  And it communicates to the child that you really don’t have any power over them or their actions.  Dealing with defiance is something that will be addressed in a future article.  But for now, I hope this has everyone thinking about what protesting you want to allow, where your lines are between respect and disrespect, and if you are allowing defiance in your home. It can be easier at times to allow behavior that shouldn’t be allowed or to shut down all protesting, but doing either of these can lead to problems in the future.  So, remember, thinking through these issues and being a mindful parent will lead to appropriate expression by the child and good limits within the household.  It will lead to a more peaceful home with reduced conflict and emotionally healthy family members!

Bullying and Social Media Part 2: A Parent’s Guide to Social Media

I wrote an article the other day entitled “Bullying and Social Media” that discussed the impact social media was having on our youth, and how many children are turning to suicide as a result of the pressure and pain they have endured due to bullying, specifically online bullying.  That article raised more questions, questions that I think all parents wrestle with.  Questions that I think don’t have an easy or clear-cut answer.  Questions that I hope stimulated some conversations and thought, so we, as parents, can make mindful and thoughtful decisions about how to handle social media with our children and teens.

The first question I posed was, how do we, as parents, navigate social media with our children? How do we decide what to allow and what not to allow?  I think this, like many of the questions in this article, and in parenting in general, does not have one clear cut answer.  It is something each parental unit must decide for their family.  I’ve seen many responsible parents handle this question in many different ways, to not allowing social media until the child is of a certain age, to not allowing it at all, to only allowing certain sites and not others, to allowing them on it with restrictions, to requiring the child to “follow” certain public figures that stimulate thought and social awareness.  When deciding what to allow, I think a parent needs to ask themselves about the emotional maturity of the teen, about how they are handling issues like peer pressure and fitting in with peers.  About how they are handling the responsibilities in their lives (their grades, their outside activities, doing chores, following rules at home and at school).  The truth is, if any of these issues are needing some improvement, social media is likely to exacerbate whatever problems are already present. The youth may have you believe that if they were allowed to access social media, these things would improve, sort of a “reward” for turning things around.  I caution you against yielding to this argument.  A child who is emotionally immature or is not handling other parts of their lives well is very likely to get themselves into some sort of trouble if social media is added to the mix.

The second question I offered up was, if we do allow social media, how much do we monitor it? What about issues like “privacy” (a favorite word for my teen clients to use with their parents in session when discussing this issue)?  I think this question is a little simpler.  I strongly believe the answer to this is that we DO monitor them.  I often use an analogy with my clients to help them understand this topic of the internet in terms we can relate to from our childhoods.  Imagine someone calling you on the home phone as a teen and your mom answering on the kitchen phone (if you’re old like me, it would be the kind with a spiral cord that is connected to the wall).  The person on the phone sounds like an older man.  Would your mom simply hand you the phone and never ask a question?  Of course not! If she handed you the phone, it would likely be after she asked who the caller was and felt satisfied that this was an appropriate relationship.  When phones belonged to an entire family, there was much more natural screening that went on.  Our families knew who was calling us because anyone could answer the phone at any time.  But these days, with everyone having their own private phone and internet access, children are often given unlimited access to the world and all it has to offer, and the world is given unlimited and unfiltered access to them.  This can cause an array of problems.  When it comes to social media and bullying, it can mean months of bad treatment without anyone in the child’s family aware that it is even occurring.  Obviously, this can be extremely damaging to a youth’s emotional and psychological health.  So, I urge you, if you have decided to allow your child to have social media, please monitor them.  Have their passwords, do not allow them to delete any content, check their accounts regularly, and know what is going on in their lives.  And if you know of concerning behavior of a youth outside of your family, please let their parent know. This is critical in keeping our children safe.  If we all band together to know what is going on in the lives of the youth in our community, maybe we can avert the next crisis.  Maybe the next child or teen thinking of harming themselves can get help instead!

Bullying and Social Media: What is it Doing to Our Children?

When I first became a therapist, children and teens taking their own life was an extremely rare occurrence.  Now, unfortunately, it seems to be a true risk to all of our children!  It’s mind boggling to me that a child can be that distraught that they would go through the process of thought and behavior that it takes to execute a successful suicide.  And yet it happens daily! What must they be feeling and thinking that makes it a viable option?

I think there are multiple issues that contribute to such an act.  Too many to discuss in one article.  But one thing that has definitely changed in recent years that contributes to this issue is social media and cyber bullying.  So many of the young people ending their own lives are leaving notes talking about how distraught they had been over the way they’d been treated on social media, that the bullying became too much.  I think this cry for help must be heard!  It is tragically too late for the youth who have followed through with their suicidal intentions, but if we do something about this, maybe it will save another suffering child.

First, I think we need to look at the age at which children are accessing social media and ask ourselves, is this a developmentally appropriate activity for them to be participating in?  And if so, what should the parameters be?  Social media allows anyone to say anything with the push of a button.  We all know that children are impulsive; they act without thinking.  They also lack the cognitive development to fully understand the consequences of their actions.  All of this makes it very likely that they will post something on social media that they have not taken the time to think through.

Now let’s add to that the insecurity of this age of adolescence and pre-adolescence.  Kids at this age are learning who they are amongst their peers.  They haven’t figured it out yet and are “trying on” different ways of being.  In some ways, middle school and high school has a “survival of the fittest” feel to it socially.  Many children are afraid to be the one that does not fit in or becomes the target of a mean comment or joke, and often times children will say mean things to another in response to that fear.  And again, because they can’t think through all of the potential consequences of th0ese actions, if they have access to social media where their words and actions reach many with the click of a button, the damage can be much more substantial than it would have been before this medium existed.

And what about the person who is having trouble fitting in?  He or she may get on social media hoping to gain some acceptance from their peers that way.  Then that person becomes the latest topic of conversation, being an easy target due to their obvious insecurities.  Something negative is said about them.  The others join in even if they may feel uneasy about it, because “at least it isn’t me!”  In a matter of hours, the number of mean comments and the people laughing at the person have compounded. The targeted person has difficulty escaping it.  The theme of the bullying grows very quickly because of the level of connectedness (most students at the school are connected on the site) and the real time format (as soon as it’s written it shows on the site).  It becomes like a wild fire in the wind, growing quickly and strengthening with each moment that passes, devouring whatever is in its path.

Anyone in this situation would be feeling pretty terrible.  But an adult would hopefully have the life skills to be able to understand that this will eventually pass, that we all have low moments, and then we move on to another stage of life.  But we are not talking about an adult, we are talking about a young person, someone who’s primary developmental task is figuring out the answer to that question, “who am I amongst my peers?”  And this has just happened, that child is the target of the ridicule from his/ her peers.  No doubt feeling terrible.  Development comes into play again.  He/ she lacks the ability to see the bigger picture, to understand that this pain is temporary, to realize that it will pass.  This person becomes distraught, depressed.  He/ she feels worthless.  They feel like nothing amongst their peers; a loser. It feels overwhelming.  In time, this grows to thoughts of suicide.

When we understand the emotional and mental development of teens and pre-teens, I think it becomes obvious that they are not yet ready to navigate the turbulent waters of all that social media has to offer. At minimum, they are not ready to navigate it unsupervised.  They can become caught up in this scenario, either as a bully or as a victim very easily.  It can happen to anyone, and kids of this age are particularly at risk.

But then, as a parent, we all know that social media is how the kids connect.  If they are the “only” kid not allowed to be on snapchat or Instagram or twitter, their social lives will be “over”, or so they would have you believe.  It’s such a complicated issue.  How do we, as parents, navigate it? How do we decide what to allow and what not to allow? If we do allow it, how much do we monitor them? What about issues like “privacy” (a favorite word for my teen clients to use with their parents in session when discussing this issue)?  This is a topic for another article.  Because, like this whole issue, and like parenting in general, it does not have an easy answer.  But I hope this article got all the parents out there thinking.  Because we all need to make mindful decisions when it comes to our youth and social media.  And we all need to teach our children about this issue and how not to get caught in the trap of bullying.  And we all need to talk with our children about options if they ever feel like they are being bullied.  No one has all the answers. None of us can stop this alone, but hopefully together, through lots of conversations and perhaps some parameters and limits, we can do something to deter that next tragedy!

This Year’s Flu: How Do We Manage the Fear?

The statistics are everywhere: 42 people in California under the age of 65 have died this year; 32 in our state in one week; a local boy has died; another is fighting for his life in the ICU.  Many doctor’s offices are out of the flu vaccine.  It’s staggering and very scary!  I’ve seen social media posts from parents considering keeping their children home from school.  Posts about how to protect ourselves.  Posts about questions about the flu shot.  This year, flu and fear seem to go hand in hand!

So how do we not let the fear overcome us? How do we maintain that delicate balance between protection and peace?  To achieve this, we must start with examining our thoughts.  The common belief is that how we feel is due to things that happen.  But the truth is, there is something that occurs between an event and our emotions, and that is how we THINK about the situation.  To demonstrate this point, imagine if it started pouring down rain right now, how would you feel? Some may say happy, another sad, maybe someone else angry.  These emotions are all different for the same rain.  Why is that? It is because of how each individual thinks about the rain.  For the person who is happy, the thoughts may be, “I love the rain and we really need it.”  The person who is sad may think, “I really wanted to be outside today and now I won’t be able to.”  The person who is angry may think, “Darn it, I just had my car washed.”  Their individual thoughts are what causes the different emotional state.  This example may seem juvenile, but when we begin to apply it to other situations, we can quickly begin to see what a difference how we think about things can make.

When it comes to something outside of our control, like rather we get the flu or not, we need to examine our thoughts.  When we focus on something that is not within our control, this is an irrational thought, even if it is a “true” thought.  The reason it is irrational is because of our inability to control it.  It causes nothing but negative feelings for us, but does not change the situation (because, by definition, the situation cannot be changed).

Let’s apply this concept to this current fear of contracting the flu.  If we are consumed by thoughts such as, “what if I get the flu?”, “what if my baby gets it”, “we could die from this flu!” it will cause only one result: fear and worry.  It will not change if we or our loved ones get the flu.  And another important thing it will stop us from doing is focusing on what we CAN control.  Fear is crippling.  It makes us feel helpless.  These thoughts make us feel helpless.  So we need to change them, possibly to: “I can’t control if I get the flu, but I can make sure to wash my hands often and get the flu shot”, “I can’t stop my baby from getting the flu but I can limit his exposure by not going to some of the high-risk areas and by making sure everyone who holds him is healthy and has washed their hands.”  We can say, “most people do not die from the flu, so even if my family gets it, the chances are extremely high we will be just fine.”  Once we give up this focus on things outside of our control, we can take appropriate measures to protect ourselves, we can make rational and informed decisions about how we want to proceed, if we want to keep our kids home from school, if we want to avoid the play area, if we want to get the flu shot, etc.

The truth is, knowledge is power, but if we are making emotionally reactive decisions, then we are not using that knowledge to empower us.  If we reduce our anxiety and emotional reactivity, we can achieve the goal of balance between protection and peace, we can control what we can and let go of the rest.   We can learn not to let this flu have power over us anymore!

“Did you feel safe?”: Protecting children from sexual abuse

I, like most parents out there, want to protect my children and keep them safe from all of the dangers of the world. Due to my profession, I know the realities of the dangers that lurk amongst our children probably more than most. I know that sexual abuse is one of the most real and threatening dangers facing our children. I know that estimates state that one in three girls and one in six boys are sexually abused as children and that some estimates put the number closer to one in four for boys. I know that most children do not disclose their sexual abuse, even to loving and concerned parents. I know that children are much more likely to be sexually abused by someone they know. Much more likely! I know that predators groom their victims and also groom the parents, sometimes for years, before acting on their intentions. This means that someone I trust, someone who is a part of my inner circle, may actually intend on harming my child at some point.

One more scary thing my experience has taught me is that I cannot identify who in my world would want to harm my children. Even with all of my years of experience in this field and dealing with this specific issue, I cannot determine who may be a perpetrator. Sure, I can have an uneasy feeling about someone, and I’m darn sure I wouldn’t ignore that after all my work in this area, but I know I may not get a “feeling” about someone who could be a danger. Because perpetrators can spend years grooming a parent before acting, making them feel comfortable, becoming like part of the family (or even being family), there is really no way for any of us to know who could be a threat.

I also know that I want my children to feel safe in their world. I want them to be trusting and to believe that the world is a good and safe place. I want to preserve the innocence of their childhood as long as possible. I want them to love and trust their community and the people in it. I don’t want them to be scared or paranoid that they could be harmed.

So, these disheartening facts have left me, as a parent, struggling to find balance between preserving my children’s innocence and trust in their community and knowing if they are truly safe. How does a parent ask their kid about their experiences away from them without sounding paranoid? Without freaking out our children or giving them the sense that something bad could happen at any point or that the people in their lives cannot be trusted? I used to ask my kids about their time away from me with questions like, “did you have fun?”, “what did you do?”, “who was there?” and then just watch their reactions to these questions, hoping I would pick up on any change in their demeanor or discomfort about something. To ask more could freak them out! So I didn’t. But it didn’t feel like enough.

Then a few years ago I heard from somewhere something brilliant (maybe TV or an article, I honestly can’t remember the source). A way to ask that will mean virtually nothing to your child if everything is fine, but could make all the difference if at some point your child is at risk or has actually been harmed. Now I ask my kids, along with all of the other questions above, “did you feel safe the whole time?” The responses I get to that question varies from child to child. From one of my children, with a sigh of annoyance that mom is so overprotective and a monotone “yes mom” with a slight eye roll. For another, it is a little laugh with a “mom you always ask that question!” To which I respond that it’s my job to make sure he’s safe, to which he tells me, “well, my answer is always going to be yes!”

These responses give me tons of useful information. Most importantly, I get to know that their sense of safety is intact. As of now, they can’t imagine that they would ever be in a situation where harm is a real possibility (and for that I thank my lucky stars daily!).

It also gives me a way to check in on their experience. It helps me know that not only did they have fun, but all was well in their little worlds while they were outside of my protective wings.

Another thing this creates, and I love this, is a way for them to check in on their own intuition. I am communicating to them that their intuition is important, that any sense of fear or discomfort they may have is something they should pay attention to. (This is something I have discussed with them all at various times).

And the number one thing this question gives me is a baseline. I know how they each respond. Yes, I see annoyance (that is my job, after all), but I also see comfort. This question does not make them withdraw. It does not make them shut down. It does not make them become defensive. If there is any change in that at any point, I will know I need to investigate further.

While I know the dangers out there and I fear them greatly, as I think every responsible parent does, I know I cannot keep my children from experiencing some of the pain life brings. I have to let them go. I have to take a deep breath and trust that they will be OK. I cannot let my professional experiences make me paranoid. I do find comfort, however, that I am doing my part to keep them safe during this short and sacred time we call childhood. I believe that these four little words, “did you feel safe?” is an important tool in my large toolbox of ideas and strategies to keep them safe and to help them grow into well-adjusted adults. If you find it helpful, feel free to add it to your toolbox as well!

Social Media: What are our rights and what are our responsibilities?

We live in an interesting era. Anyone with a computer, or even a phone for that matter, can have a platform to say anything to anyone. There are so many ways that this thing we call social media is positive. It is an excellent way to keep in touch with people. It’s great for sharing information. News of issues like missing pets and amber alerts can get around so quickly. But there is a flip side. What about when something bad happens? What are our rights and what are our responsibilities.

Imagine for a minute, if you will, being a fourteen year old middle school girl. I don’t know about you, but I think middle school can be quite the social jungle. I work with kids this age all the time who are struggling with their identity. Dealing with issues like anxiety and depression, trying to negotiate the social aspect of this age, and attempting the manage the pressures of school, friends, sports, etc. it can be a grueling time in a person’s life.

Now I would ask you to imagine that this fourteen year old girl has just had her world rocked by some major life tragedy within her family. Something so horrible and upsetting that she has been crying herself to sleep every night. Her parents are fighting non-stop and they are at risk of losing everything. The pressure feels unmanageable to her and in her fourteen year old mind, things will never get better. Then she goes to school and the kids there are whispering behind her back, some are pointing at her as she walks by, and some are even coming up to her saying terrible and shaming things. And she realizes that her worst nightmare has come true. That every person at her school knows her family’s shameful secret. That she is now a social outcast! She wants to lean on her friends but finds that most of them have turned their backs on her too. Her anxiety level goes through the roof. She has no escape from this pain. Home is terrible and now school is too. She feels completely alone.

I don’t know about you, but as an adult, I would want my children to be her friend, to go up to her and put their arm around her, to tell her it will be alright, that this is temporary and this pain will end in time. I would want her to have comfort and support. I would want her to feel like her community is in her corner. I would want her neighbors to offer to listen and her team mates to tell her they’re there for her. In this time in her life, she needs it more than ever. In fact, it could mean the difference between life and death, for all of this pressure has made her begin to think that it would be better if she just were not here anymore.

If you’re imagining this, I bet you are feeling bad for this girl. I bet you are hoping someone comes along to comfort her. I bet you’re thinking if you were her neighbor you would reach out, if your kid was her friend you’d tell them to be there for her.

But now let’s imagine that the issue this girl is having, this tragedy, is something shameful that a family member did. Let’s say her father has been arrested for allegations of molesting a child, or her mother for driving drunk driving that seriously injured a family with young children, or maybe her older brother was driving like an irresponsible teen and killed himself and his passenger. What shame that girl would feel. What worry and sadness. How embarrassed would she be, the fourteen year old who is already embarrassed by nearly everything. But now this child has a whole other layer of pain and shame she has to manage, that it feels like her entire community has turned against her. The worst things are being written about her family. People are saying that the mom she has always loved, the one who has taken her to all her soccer games and kissed all her booboos, should have died in that wreck and is a terrible person. People are saying her dad, who has helped her with her homework and tucked her in at night, is an evil man. Her brother, who once stuck up for her against a bully, was a terrible person who should have known better and ruined so many lives. It’s almost more than she can bare, to read those things now when her life is shattered to a million pieces.

When something tragic and avoidable happens, we as a community all feel outrage. This is completely understandable. It’s been that way always. In times past, we might have discuss it with our neighbor over the fence, “that man should rot in jail.” We may talk to another parent about it at football practice, “I’ve always known that woman drinks too much.” We may text our best friend, “that boy was being stupid driving like that; I bet he was high.” But now, we turn to our phones and our computers. We don’t just post it on our personal wall for our few hundred friends to see, we put our opinions and thoughts, our shock and outrage, on public sites for thousands to read about, including that fourteen year old girl.

So let’s stop and think for a moment. Is this the version of ourselves we want the whole world to see, the version that is spiteful and (understandably) angry? Is this what we want to model for our children? How do we expect them to go to school and not whisper and point, not call her a name, when we are essentially publicly shaming her on social media? I think we must remember that we are not talking to our neighbor, our fellow sports parent, or our best friend when we are typing on a public site, we are talking to everyone, including that innocent child who’s world has just fallen apart. I urge each of you, before those fingers touch that keyboard, to stop and think. If this is not something you would knock on that girl’s door and say to her tear-streaked face, it may not be something to write in a public forum.

Do we have a RIGHT to post these things? I suppose the answer is “yes”. But what are our RESPONSIBILITIES?

But YouTube Says He’s A Narcissist: The Dangers of Internet Diagnoses

In this information age, there are positives and negatives when it comes to mental health.

I can not tell you the number of times a person enters my office these days with a diagnosis in mind. Either one for themselves or for another person in their life. “I watched a bunch of videos on YouTube and I now know he’s a narcissist.” “I believe that she’s bipolar because I looked up the diagnostic criteria.” “She must be borderline, everything I’ve read fits that.”

Back when I was in college, we used to call this “medical student syndrome.” It happens when you learn about a list of diagnostic criteria and then everyone you know seems to fit that criteria, often yourself included. I remember this happening to me when I took Abnormal Psych, just as the professor had warned us it would. For months I walked around thinking I was surrounded by every mental health diagnosis there was, including a few myself. The problem is, a person no longer has to get their hands on the latest version of the DSM to look up diagnostic criteria, it’s all right there on the internet with the click of a button.

So what are the positive and what are the negatives to this? Well, one positive is that it has definitely increased awareness about mental illness, which I hope has also decreased some of the stigma associated with it. It also can increase people’s understanding which can help with empathy towards those who suffer from mental illness. And of course, the information can help people understand when they may need to seek professional help.

But like most things, there can also be negatives associated with too much information, especially in the hands of people who have not had the training, education, or experience to know what to do with that information. My biggest concern is that when it comes to diagnosing, it really should be left to the professionals. Diagnostic criteria is only that, it is a list of symptoms that indicate that an individual COULD have a specific diagnosis. It does not mean that they DO have that diagnosis.

How many times have you searched for physical symptoms you are experiencing, only to then not be able to sleep because you are worried it may actually be a brain tumor (or something equally as terrifying), because the Internet said it could be?

To illustrate this point, I just did an internet search for some very common symptoms to see what would come up. I typed in “headache, fatigue, irritability”, things most of us experience from time to time. Several diagnoses immediately came up: sinusitis, insomnia, migraine, chronic fatigue syndrome, and hypothyroidism. One website states that there are actually 126 conditions associated with these symptoms! So how would one know which condition actually applies to them? We would have to go to the doctor and go through a diagnostic evaluation to differentiate between all of the possibilities until a trained professional is able to determine what the correct diagnosis actually is. Most of the time, thank goodness, it is not a brain tumor.

But what are the dangers of this when it comes to mental health? What I have experienced that is concerning is that when people come to believe they or someone they love has a certain mental health diagnosis, then they begin to deal with that person as though that is actually the diagnosis. This can be extremely dangerous. I’ve had young children come into my office telling me that they have diagnoses they should have never heard of and are not even able to pronounce. This labeling is not good for anyone, especially when it is a label not determined through sound diagnostic methods. I’ve had people make the decision to leave spouses believing the person is unchangeable or the situation is hopeless due to an internet search. I’ve had clients do things that exacerbate symptoms, believing they are helping, because someone on the Internet said that’s what should be done.

So I urge everyone to take a moment. Slow down your process. If you think you or someone you love may have a mental health diagnosis, seek professional help. It is not uncommon for symptoms to look like a diagnosis but actually be the result of something else, like family dynamics, developmental issues, emotional immaturity, or even basic conditioning.

It is often the case that people bring their children or teens to me for treatment convinced they have a severe mental health diagnosis, and once treatment is complete, the symptoms have dissipated. It is not uncommon for a couple to begin marriage therapy with the wife telling me the husband is a narcissist and so the marriage can not be saved, and then end treatment with a partner who is empathetic and compassionate. Teasing out, diagnosing, and then treating these issues must be done by a qualified mental health professional with experience with the issue of concern.

So as tempting as it may be, I really urge you to stay off the internet when it comes to concerns of mental health. It really can do more harm than good. And unfortunately it often does. The good news is, he may not be a narcissist after all!

Tragedy: What does how we respond say about who we are?

There’s two theories on human nature, one is that we’re basically good, the other is that we’re selfish and destructive. A recent event has me thinking about which I believe. I was in my local Walmart shopping for groceries the other day before I had to pick up my daughter from school. It was supposed to be a quick trip in and out, well as “quick” of a trip as Walmart can be, anyway. On my list was candles, as I had just decorated for Christmas and needed a little votive candle for a Christmas decoration in my bathroom. After I got all of the groceries, I almost decided to skip looking for the candles, as I was already taking longer in the store than I had planned. But I decided last minute to go look anyway, so I ventured to the back of the store to check out their selection. I was surprised to see that most of the candles were gone, and assumed it was due to Black Friday a few days before. So I began smelling the selection that was left, looking for something that would compliment the pine scented candle that was already in the bathroom. I lost track of time doing this, and when I looked at my watch I realized it was already past noon, and I should have been checking out by then. I quickly moved to the check out line, which, in true Walmart fashion, was very backed up. Eventually I checked out and hurried to exit the door I had entered a little over an hour earlier. When I got to the door, I was told the exit was closed due to an “incident” outside. I looked up and saw several police cars. I whispered to one of the employees to ask what happened, to which she replied quietly, “a stabbing; it’s really bad!” I found that my heart started to beat fast as many thoughts raced through my mind. I quickly walked to the other exit and left the store. The scene outside was shocking. It literally stopped me in my tracks. There were at least eight police cars, two fire trucks, and an ambulance, along with many emergency personnel. There was yellow police tape surrounding the entire area. I struggled with what to do next, as my car was parked in the row that had the police tape around it. I walked toward the scene, trying to see what was going on, but also feeling like an intruder. I took a few photos, but didn’t want to attempt to look past the barrier of emergency vehicles to what may lie inside. I heard people saying they were giving a man CPR. There were rumors that he was dying or had already passed away. I felt scared. I felt confused. I felt like an intruder. Someone was having the most traumatic event of their life and I, a complete stranger, was there to witness it. There were people taking pictures and video, people creeping closer to see more, people like me trying to walk past. The scene was confusing and terrifying.

Once I got in my car and left, my mind started racing to a million different things. What had happened? Were the people ok? How was this scene happening so close to my house, in a store I frequent? What was happening to our safe little town? And then I realized that I could have been involved in this incident. I was minutes away from walking out of the store when it occurred. If I hadn’t spent so much time being distracted by candles, could I have been injured? Could my life had ended? Those thoughts were terrifying. The idea that I could have entered a store to buy a few groceries and never made it back home to my family. The idea that something so violent and so random could happen so close to me. And so close to my home!

The rest of the day I had a headache. My body was tight. I found myself thinking about it nonstop, being distracted by the images I had seen. I thought about the victim, his family, what they must be feeling at that moment, how their life had changed in the blink of an eye. I thought about the people who had witnessed the altercation, the people who had seen the violence and the blood and the ending of a human life. I thought about how their bodies must feel. How stressed and worried and scared and sad they must be. If just seeing the police cars and knowing what was occurring was impacting me this strongly, how did all of those individuals feel?

It reminded me to be empathetic towards other’s experiences. It reminded me how precious life is. It reminded me to cherish every moment, because we don’t know when it will be our last.

Then I thought about my work as a psychotherapist. About all of the people I had helped with trauma over the years. About the people I was currently working who had been victims of the recent Las Vegas shooting. I thought about the intensity of their reactions, the stress and anxiety that kept them up at night and made them jump at every little thing. Having this experience that put me near trauma, not even in it, was consuming my thoughts and making me question my perception of safety. It increased my empathy and my understanding of what it must feel like to experience something so life changing as what so many victims of crime and violence have experienced.

Over the days that followed, as my town attempted to make sense of this senseless act and heal from it, I witnessed such a wide range of responses from others, both on social media and while out in the community. Some of these responses were filled with anger, understandably. But I think, even through this anger and pain, it is important to also remember the core of who we want to be as humans. We have a choice in how we let these events shape us. Pain and fear can either bring out anger and hatred, or it can bring out understanding and support. I personally believe in human kind and that tragedies like this are opportunities to highlight the best in us, and not the worst; that it can bring out the understanding and support. That we can show our best versions of ourselves to our fellow man.

What Makes a Good Mother?

As moms, we have a unique set of pressures on us. Some are imposed by the outside world, but you may be surprised about how many of them may be self imposed. I remember a situation when my first child was only about a year old. I was working with a fitness trainer to try to get back in shape before having my second child. One of the things he insisted on was that I eat breakfast daily, something I had never been good at doing. So one morning I was in the kitchen making my baby and myself some breakfast. He was waiting in his high chair. I was done making his breakfast, but was waiting for my toast to pop up before I went over to him, so we could eat together. I suddenly felt this rush of anxiety and guilt inside my body as I waited for my toast. I noticed this and asked myself what this feeling was about. I realized that I felt guilty that I was making my child wait a few extra seconds for his breakfast because of my own breakfast. I found it intriguing that I would have this response. It became something I pondered throughout that day. I came to realize that I had an underlying belief that to be a “good mother”, I must always put everyone else’s needs first. That it was not even acceptable for my child to wait a few extra seconds to eat so that I could eat too. My subconscious belief led me to feel guilty about this and feel like I was not being a good mother.

Wow! Just wow! I realized how completely irrational that was. I realized that if I kept this belief (that I hadn’t even realized I had) I would teach my children all of the wrong things in life. I would teach them to expect to always come first. I would teach them that my sole role in life is to be there for them. I would teach them not to respect me. And in the mist of all this, I would likely grow weary, feel unappreciated, and possibly even come to resent my role as mother. I knew I needed to change this. I needed to become consciously aware of thoughts that lead to guilt about things like my own self care. I needed to make a conscious effort to create balance between my role as mother, as wife, and as human. I needed to be sure to treat myself with the same respect that I give to my children and my husband. I needed to throw out the thoughts that lead to guilt for taking time for myself, for doing things like eating or sleeping or working out or taking some time for leisure.

I work with women every day who are struggling with this very issue. They have spent years serving at the expense of themselves. They have lost who they are as a result of not affording themselves the same rights as everyone else. Now they are in a place where their children don’t respect them or appreciate what they do for them. Some find that their husbands now find them uninteresting. Many feel unfulfilled or don’t remember who they were before becoming mothers. To work through this and find their zest for life again, they must begin to care for themselves, set boundaries with their children, stop expecting themselves to be everything for everyone, learn to say no, and work on finding what it is that makes them feel fulfilled beyond the very important role of mother. If we can all remind ourselves that is ok for those we are serving to wait for our toast to pop up, we will begin to break this unhealthy pattern.

Lifestyle a way of life

lifestyleLifestyle is defined as “a way of life or style of living that reflects the attitudes and values of a person or group.” This section will address just that. It is about how we choose to live. The motto of my therapy practice is “design your life” because I believe that when we choose to be in control of our lives, to make conscious decisions of what we want it to look like, that is when we truly live. That is the way to happiness. It’s not enough to just survive, my goal is to help people to truly thrive, to find their inner peace, to get the most out of this thing we call life. So this will be the focus of this section.

What are the things that work for us? What can we do differently? What do we need to scrap completely? Being mindful of these questions and evaluating what your life truly looks like will help you achieve the happiness you want. Or maybe you’re already happy. Maintaining that happiness and peace requires mindfulness as well. Because life is so fluid, it is every changing. We need to constantly be aware of these changes and how we respond and adjust to them. What worked in one era of our lives may not be so effective in another. If we pay attention to this and focus on finding that balance, we will be able to maintain happiness.

As we near the end of our lives, it is human nature to reflect back. If we feel a sense of fulfillment we will feel satisfied. If we experience regret, it can lead to bitterness and despair. So my philosophy is, don’t wait until it’s almost over and difficult or impossible to change; do it now! Get in the driver’s seat! Be mindful and reflective of what is happening in the present and change what does not work.

This section is the broad catch-all to address all lifestyle related issues. The goal of this section is to really help readers “design your life”!