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An Ethic to Live: Building Barriers to Suicide Around Ourselves & Those We Love by Laura Skaggs-Dulin

In cities throughout the world, notable high buildings and bridges increasingly have additional fencing built atop of them with the specific purpose of preventing suicides. Suicide fences tend to work because research has shown that suicidal actions are frequently impulsive, hence such fences serve to forestall that impulse and buy individuals precious time to further think about their decisions. In studies of suicide fences, it appears that individuals don’t leave such barriers to go look for another bridge or tall building to end their lives from, but instead return to the business of living for yet another day.  

Presently suicide is the leading cause of death among young people ages 10-17 here in Utah, and over the last decade, it’s also doubled amongst adults in our state. As concerned friends, neighbors and parents, how do we help our community build more barriers to suicide; protecting and empowering those we love? Over the next year, I’ll be writing a series of articles in answer to this question; offering my perspective as both a therapist, who has stood on sacred ground in helping others walk back from suicidal thinking, and as one who’s felt and ultimately rejected the dark pull to end my life amidst heavy times.   

Perhaps you’ve already noted that there’s no way to build suicide fences everywhere or to somehow block all of the endless ways in which someone might consider ending their life. Sound public policies on prevention and physical barriers like suicide fences are only some of the important ways to help. So in addition to these forms of prevention, the focus of my writing will be on how to build barriers to suicide directly into the thinking and values of individuals, and into the culture of our community as a whole. In this first article, I want to introduce how we help foster an ethic to live within ourselves and in others as a key barrier to suicide.  

An ethic to live means valuing our lives and holding a commitment within ourselves to continue living — even when we’re unsure of how we’ll cope or move forward. In my experience, helpful conversations about consciously building an ethic to live, begin by first taking care to turn our attention to the reality that to live is to be vulnerable to an array of difficult life experiences, with the potential to evoke within us the thought to end one’s life to escape them. Throughout human history, individuals and peoples have had to confront extremely painful and unjust challenges which have overwhelmed their sense of being able to continue on, and it’s important to acknowledge that when we confront such considerable pain, it is the most human thing in the world to want relief from it. This is real; excruciating human suffering beyond one’s current sense of how to reduce or stop it is real, and in these concentrations of pain, we may find ourselves having suicidal thoughts.  

When we acknowledge and honor that such excruciating life experiences do show up for many of us, it’s then that we can locate where we need to begin building internal fences to prevent suicide. It’s here that we recognize the need to develop a strong ethic to live even though there are times that we might not yet fully know how we’ll cope or be able to see brighter ways forward. It’s also here that we find the need to define as individuals what makes life worth living with specificity to our own life experiences, as well as the need to find a listener who we can turn to and voice what’s going on inside of us. 

As you navigate life’s difficulties, no matter how hard things may get, make the commitment now to live and identify your personal reasons to do so. Additionally, identify suicidal thoughts as a  sign to find a listener who you feel safe enough to talk to. It’s worth thinking about right now who it is you might feel comfortable turning to during your hardest times. By doing so, you’ll begin to build your own internal fence between you and suicide as well as have greater insight as to how to help others you care about to do the same.  

 * If you or someone you care about is currently having thoughts of ending their life, caring help is available 24/7 by texting 741741 from anywhere in the USA or you can call 1-800-273-8255 to speak directly with a Counselor from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 

About the Author: Laura Skaggs-Dulin holds a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from San Diego State University. She currently sees clients at the Spanish Fork Center for Couples and Families and at Encircle LGBT Youth and Family Resource Center in Provo

Fun and Play by Dr. Jeremy Boden, LMFT, CFLE

When was the last time you and your partner really had fun together? When was the last time you were truly playing together?

Family in PoolWhen working with couples at the Center for Couples and Families, one of the most consistent questions I ask to evaluate the current vitality of their relationship is about their level of fun and play. I’ve found in both my therapeutic and educational settings that couples overwhelmingly underestimate the power of play and fun in their long-term relationships. In fact, two findings consistently show up in the research: 1. Couples give too little notice to fun and play in their relationship and, 2. playing together and having fun is a key contributor to marital happiness among couples.

You might contend, “We are too busy for fun.” If this is your sentiment, let me be the first to validate that concern. Yes! our lives have become increasingly busy. Having fun just doesn’t seem productive when there are jobs to go to, rooms clean, kids to feed, and activities to attend. I know. It’s tough. However, humor me and let’s see if I can bring in another perspective to the importance of fun and play in marriage.

MP900309139Dr. John Gottman, an award-winning marital researcher, has interviewed and observed couples in his “love lab” for the last twenty-five years. He found that when couples maintain at least five times as many positive interactions as they do negative interactions their relationship is more likely to be stable. However, few people have wedding vows that state, “I promise to make this relationship stable all of our married life.” At the genesis of most marriages, couples hope for their relationship to be full of vitality and happiness for the length of their lives. Thus, the goal for couples should be to have 10 to 20 times as many positives as they do negatives. I believe the main reason this is important is because during times of tension, conflict, or frustration, if you don’t have a reservoir of positive interactions stored up, the negative interaction can drain any positive feelings you have for your partner and create more tension than the issue probably deserves.

MP900289480So, what is a positive interaction? A positive interaction is any pleasant interaction (great or small) where a bond is strengthened and fortified. Therefore, having fun and playing together as a couple is a form of positive interactions. This can include dates, surprises, romantic acts, flirtations, appreciation, physical affection, or just plain silliness. An example of a simple positive interaction occurred the other night between my wife and me. As we were winding down from the day, she found an app on her phone where one can take a picture and manipulate a self-photo with crazy hair, make-up, morph their face, and so on. We sat there for about 15-20 minutes making a variety of different silly pictures of me, her, and other family members. It was fun, silly, and, most importantly, bonding. That simple act, created a positive interaction between the two of us.

In my experience with couples, those relationships that do the best are those that are proactive and intentional about positive relationship habits. Most relationships don’t just accidently succeed but rather it is two partners committed to intentionally nourishing and enriching their relationship daily. So, let me help you be a little more intentional by giving you a little homework or, what I like to call, Home Practice. Tonight, set aside 20 minutes when you are both relatively relaxed and wound down. Then, with your partner, engage in the following activity:
1. Separately write down five ideas of things that would be fun.
2. Together share your ideas and be open to your partner’s ideas.
3. Do your best to engage in activities that are, for the most part, fun for both partners. But also try to stretch yourself a little.
4. Make a plan for this upcoming weekend to engage in one of the activities.
5. Finally, make a point to not shy away from moments in your day together where you could be more spontaneously playful, affectionate, flirtatious, and/or silly.

Make fun and play a healthy habit in your relationship and watch the fruits begin to blossom.

Jeremy2(1) (297x221)About the Author: Jeremy Boden, PhD, LAMFT, CFLE is a therapist at the Center for Couples and Families. He has a PhD in Family Studies and is a Certified Family Life Educator as well as an instructor at Utah Valley University.

Positive on Purpose by Andy Thompson, LMFT, MS

business man with laptop over head - madA life dominated by negativity can be stressful, and stress causes wear and tear on our bodies, minds, and relationships. Have you ever noticed the tendency in yourself or in others to pay more attention to the negative things or problems in life than to the positive things and aspects of life that are going well? This is called negativity bias, which is the notion that things of a more negative nature, such as unpleasant thoughts, emotions, experiences, or interactions with others, will have a greater effect on a person’s emotional/mental/psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things, even when events are of equal intensity.
While I am not suggesting that we ignore challenges and difficulties, we do need to pay attention to the ratio of positive to negative experiences in our lives. For example, marriage and relationship researchers have come to recommend that for relationships to survive, a couple needs to have at least five positive interactions for every negative interaction.

In many areas of our lives, negativity can overwhelm us and begin to become chronic. Sometimes we might develop symptoms such as anxiety, hyper-vigilance, and distorted patterns of thinking. If negativity dominates our conversation, we might even start to notice that others distance themselves from us because they experience us as negative. This can turn into a vicious cycle that leads us to be unhappy.
Fortunately, there are many steps we can take in order to counteract negativity bias without invalidating the concerns we may have in our lives.

Businesswoman Ready for Work with Husband In Kitchen.What you can do in your head: Be aware of negativity bias and intentionally pay more attention to positive experiences. For example, eat a delicious meal slowly and really savor it. Pay attention to the positive sensations you get from your food, including tastes, textures, and smells that are pleasant.
What you can do with your actions: Intentionally bring more positive things into your life. Don’t wait until you feel positive to pursue positive experiences. Schedule in something positive, like a massage, a fishing trip, a movie with friends. If money is tight, there are still positive things to plan into your life, like a walk in the park, watching a sunrise, or a phone call to a family member or friend.
What you can do in your relationships: Prioritize. Avoid overloading your relationships with too many negative or difficult topics. Don’t try to fix every problem, correct every annoying behavior, or have all the hard conversations all at once. Pick the most important issues to deal with, and then work to have positive interactions in between facing challenges.

What you can do in your heart: Gratitude. Regularly think of things you normally take for granted (eg. Access to clean drinking water) and imagine your life without those things. This can often help us create an experience of appreciation for the good things in our lives, which can help us to feel more positive.
Again, I am not suggesting that it is a good idea to ignore or push away all negative experiences. Avoiding difficult conversations with a spouse, child, or other family members and friends can be harmful to our relationships. I’m also not suggesting that we need to put on our rose colored glasses and trust everyone and everything. What I am suggesting, however, is that if we make the effort to increase positive thoughts, experiences, and feelings in life, then we will be happier, healthier, and be more energized and capable of tackling challenges without getting overwhelmed by negativity.

Andy-ThompsonAbout the Author: Andy is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist at the St. George Center and the Cedar City Center for Couples and Families. He graduated from Utah Valley University with a Bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Science with an emphasis in Family Studies. To set up an appointment call (435) 319-4582.

Birds and Bees (Sexting) and Smartphones by Dr. Jeff Temple

Cover 2Adolescence is often described as a period of storm and stress – where children begin separating from parents, establishing their own identities, and discovering their sexuality. This development into junior adulthood coincides with myriad hormonal, physical, and emotional changes. In short, adolescence is difficult, overwhelming, and taxing. The fact that most kids make it through this critically important developmental period to be better human beings than when they entered is remarkable.

The fact that parents of adolescents make it through this period is nothing short of miraculous. And as if this period wasn’t hard enough, we now have to deal with smartphones – at the dinner table, on vacation, while they’re sleeping. Now we worry about cyberbullying, online predators, hundreds of dollars of in-app purchases from Clash of Clans to…SEXTING.

Sexting is defined as sending or receiving sexually explicit messages or images/video via electronic means (usually phones). My team at the University of Texas Medical Branch published some of the first studies on this relatively new behavior. While research in this area is still new, we and others have consistently shown that teen sexting is common and that it is often associated with real life sexual behavior.

Between 15% and 30% of adolescents have participated in sexting, with higher rates reported by older adolescents or when the sext is limited to just messages (no images). In my study of nearly 1000 teens, 28% of boys and 28% of girls had sent a naked picture of themselves to another teen. Nearly 70% of girls had been asked to send a naked picture.

Like all studies published on the topic, my research also shows that teens who sext are substantially more likely to be sexually active. Indeed, in a study published in the journal Pediatrics, my colleague and I recently found that teens who sexted were more likely to be sexually active over the next year, regardless of prior sexual history.

RF2_1734These statistics will alarm any parent. But should they? The short answer is “maybe.”

Let me begin by saying that I don’t want my kids sexting. That being said, most sexts are harmless in that they are seen only by the intended recipient and not the entire school, they do not end up on the internet, and they do not land the teen in jail. “Normal,” well-behaved kids sext, and accumulating evidence suggests that, when not coerced, sexting is not likely to have psychological consequences.

Furthermore, more teens are having real sex than are sexting. Thus, our priority should be promoting healthy relationships and teaching teens evidence-based and comprehensive sex education. Sexting education should be a part of this, but not at the expense of valuable information on the importance of delaying sex, and the prevention of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

However, sexting can have disastrous consequences. So what should we do? Most importantly, we should talk to our kids and we should do so in a fully informed and honest manner. Approach this like you would a conversation about something as mundane as seatbelts. You probably would not tell your children that if they don’t wear their seatbelt they will likely die the next time they drive. You would probably say something like, “You’ll probably be fine if you choose to not wear a seat belt, but ‘what if?’” or “It only takes one time.” Similarly, we should not tell teens that their future is ruined if they sext. Instead, we can say, What if it does end up on the internet; what if someone forwards it to your teachers; what if your coach finds out; what if the college you’re applying for learns of this?” Adolescents are impulsive and moody and irritable and weird; but they are smart. We should treat them as such.

But what do I know? I have a 12 year old at home who knows everything and thinks I’m stupid. Wish me luck.

Jeff Temple[1]About the Author: Dr. Temple, a licensed clinical psychologist, completed his undergraduate degree at the University ofTexas-San Antonio and his Ph.D. at the University of North Texas. In 2007, he completed a postdoctoral research fellowship at Brown Medical School. Dr.Temple is an Associate Professor and Director of Behavioral Health and Research in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UTMB Galveston. He is a nationally recognized expert in interpersonal relationships, with a focus on intimate partner violence.

Stress: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly by Dr. Mike Olson, LMFT

stress 1The Good. We often think of stress as a bad thing, something that we must eradicate from our lives. Yet, without it, we would not be able to survive a single day. There is, deep within our brains, an amazing little factory called the hypothalamus that produces/secretes thousands of very powerful and potent chemicals called neuropeptides and neuro-hormones. The hypothalamus works with the pituitary and adrenal glands to secrete these hormones which include cortisol and epinephrine or adrenalin. The levels of these neuro-hormones rise and fall naturally daily (diurnal rhythms) and help us to wake up in the morning, focus and deal with the challenges of each day and finally allow us to drop off into sleep at night.

The Bad. The problem that most of us have is not the presence of stress or the stress hormones that flow through our blood stream each day. It is however, the excess of these hormones as they build up in the body without release. Take a car engine for example. The engine revs and shifts as the gas pedal is pressed. The RPMs continue to climb as the demands rise on the engine. If the pedal remains pressed down without release, the RPMs will reach a critical level and eventually the engine will overheat and breakdown. The brain and body work in a similar way. When the stressors of life place demands on us our brain produces the chemicals necessary to deal with that stress. The branch of the central nervous system (CNS) called the autonomic nervous system controls the “gas pedal” and the “braking system” of the body, called the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The beauty of these systems is that they are self-regulatory and will, if left alone, rebalance.

Power Struggle Between a Man and a WomanThe Ugly. The problem is that with repeated stressors (worries, financial stress, work and family problems, etc.) these systems fail to rebalance and keep the “gas pedal” pressed. Chronic elevation of stress hormones has been shown to lead to a host of health problems including auto-immune disorders, skin problems, musculo-skeletal pain, arterial/heart disease, inflammation, and the list goes on. The relationship between stress and performance is not linear; meaning that increase in stress will lead to increase in performance or functioning only to a point and then it deteriorates, leading us to function less and less effectively.

balanceWhat to do? Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardio-vascular surgeon and researcher from Harvard and founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine has spent the last 30+ years studying what he calls the “relaxation response.” His work has shown that with a few simple steps, entirely within our control, we can activate this relaxation response, or brake system in the body.

The first step is diaphragmatic breathing (slow inhaling breath through the nose, slow exhaling breath through the mouth with pursed lips to slow flow of air down). Deep and slow breathing increases and decreases pressure on the vagal nerves and flow of blood from the heart to the brain. The rhythm of the heart is affected (more variability or change in the rhythm) which is connected to the brake system of the body as well.

The second step is to focus on a word, a number or a short phrase that is repeated in the mind as you take deep breaths. As thoughts come into your mind (random, distracting, intrusive, worrying thoughts), you passively disregard or let these thought flow through your mind and then return to your repetition (word, phrase, number). Dr. Benson has shown that within 3-5 minutes of following these steps, there are measurable reductions in cortisol, epinephrine, increased oxygen in the blood, increased delta/theta waves in the brain (slow, undulating, relaxed brain frequencies), among others. Finding the place/time to practice this basic skill on a daily basis can have measurable positive effects on health by significantly reducing stress in the body.

If any of our therapists or health coaches can be of assistance in your quest for wellness and stress reduction, let us know and we will be happy to help. Our staff has experience and training working with stress reduction and management using this technique among others (biofeedback, psychotherapy or talk therapy, autogenic techniques, EEG neurofeedback, etc.).

MikeAbout the Author: Dr. Michel Olson is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the clinical director of both WholeFit and the Centers for Couples and Families in TX. He earned a doctorate degree from Kansas State University and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in Behavioral Medicine at UTMB, Galveston

Understanding Self Harm By Jamie Porter

Young Woman Biting Her Finger NailI’m often asked WHY cutters cut. For those that do not cut, they have difficulties seeing how something that appears to be so painful can cause a relief? It’s beyond their mind’s capacity to understand why someone would do this to themselves. The hardest part about trying to answer what appears to be a simple question is that there is not a simple answer. I’d like to take a moment to share with you what I have experienced as a clinician, what I have read from books, collected from research, and have heard from the mouths of my clients. Secondly, I’d like to share some basic tools or coping skills to gather and use as a lay person, a parent, a friend or a therapist. My greatest goal is that you build an ability to be open-minded to help those that are hurting.
Cutting is a form of communication. At the basics of cutting, self-harmers live in a world where they are either afraid to speak their true emotions, will be criticized if they do, or lack the ability to articulate their emotions. Our job as clinicians is to help bridge the gap. We must help our clients find a healthier coping skill, build verbal communication, and help mend emotional turmoil.

1.  First, we must assess the cutters. Most cutters cut to avoid suicide. This is a very important concept we must teach the parents’ of cutters. However, there is a small number that actually have suicidal ideation while cutting, and an even smaller number (4%) that have actually died from self-harm. If this is the case, it is important that we refer our clients to the nearest hospital and make sure that their families are aware that they must be under greater supervision than one-hour a week therapy sessions.

 

2.  We start to help our clients to build a vocabulary list of emotions felt before, during and after conflict-cutting.

 

3.  We help them go over coping skills that can be traded for cutting. We need to help our clients heal the internal and external pain. We must be compassionate for each client will have a different reason for cutting. ‘I want to feel alive’, ‘ I want to stop the bad feelings’, I want to feel numb’, ‘It makes me feel numb’, ‘It’s my way to avoid people, punishment, consequences’, ‘It’s my way of control’, ‘I’m bored’, ‘It’s my way to punish myself’, and/or ‘I want to be paid attention to’. If we can understand their pain, we can help our clients communicate that to those around them.
For parents, some basic tools include opening lines of communication, listening to your child, not judging, not giving ultimatums/threats/punishment, help aid their cuts and provide medical assistance if needed, and help them find professional help to process their pain/emotions. Most importantly, for a parent to remind their child that they deserve to be happy and that you are trying to be there for them, not against them, could be most beneficial.
Sick Young Woman Lying in BedFor the therapist/clinician, starting off with an impulse-control log, can help your client start to document how often, where, when, with what tool, and emotions attached to the behavior. You can also help start to identify some healthy coping skills including writing, drawing, music, physical activity, art, meditation, etc. One of the greatest tasks as a clinician is to help the client vocalize their emotions to their parent and to get a response that will not only verbally and emotionally be a safe response, but physically. Most of our clients lack a relationship of verbal comfort or even physical comfort (hugs). It can be a long process for clients that are fearful to open up. We must instill safeness again and remind our clients that their current level of coping is not healthy for themselves or their families.
Cutting is a topic that some clinicians stay far away from and that parents are highly fearful of. I want to remind both clinicians and parents that suicide is not the ultimate goal for cutters. I want to demystify the behavior and build a sense of clarity and compassion for those who are fighting the battle and those that watch the fighting battle. For ‘self injury is a sign of distress not madness’. – Corey Anderson

 

Resources:
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Mental Health of America: www.mentalhealthamerica.net
Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior in Adolescents and Young Adults: www.crpsib.com/researces.asp
S.A.F.E. Alternatives (Self-Abuse Finally Ends):  www.selfinjury.com
Self-Harm: Recovery, Advice and Support: www.thesite.org/healthandwellbeing/mentalhealth/selfharm
Self-Injurious Behavior Webcast:  www.albany.edu/sph/coned/t2b2injurious.hmt
KidsHealth: www.kidshealth.org
Christianity Today: www.christianitytoday.com/cl.2004/005/29.18.html
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: www.aacap.org
Book:
Strong, Marilee (1998). A Bright Red Scream. New York, New York: Viking Press.
Conterio, K. and W. Lader, Ph.D. (1998). Bodily Harm. The breakthrough Healing Program for Self-Injurers. New York, New
York: Hyperion.
Magazine:
The Prevention Researcher. Parental Guidelines for Preventing and Constructively Managing Inevitable Self-Injuring Slips, 19, February 2010

 

Jamie Cropped2About the Author:  Jamie Porter has a Master’s degree in Marriage & Family Therapy from UHCL. She has worked in non-profit settings working with women, adolescents, children, families, couples, and equine assisted psychotherapy. She is currently the Sugar Land Center for Couples & Families office manager, and  an AAMFT approved supervisor.

Families and Cellphones by Camille Olson

RF2_1751Families and Cellphones: Technology has brought some amazing things into our family lives. We are connected in ways that we never imagined when we were kids. Paradoxically, we are often more disconnected as families than ever before, as our time and attention is increasingly absorbed by electronic media. There is a concept in physical/organic systems called “disentropy,” which is the idea that living systems tend to fall into a state of disorder or disorganization without constant action or forces to keep them together. Think of a family being in a boat together trying to row upstream on a river with a strong current. Without constant effort to maintain position or move forward, the strong current will quickly move the boat downstream. Even more insidious are the quiet and slowly moving currents beneath the surface that are almost undetectable but are carefully leading us away from our goals as families.

As a mom, I’ve watched the tides shift in my family as our kids have grown and been increasingly exposed to the pressures and expectations of being fully “plugged in.” While certainly helpful in many respects, the strong effects and pull on our kids (and others) to spend more and more time in front of a screen has been alarming. At the risk of sounding old fashioned (I never thought I would say that about myself), there is a need for a “call to arms” to confront some of the risks inherent in the currents of electronic media that are moving our kids into dangerous waters. With 91% of adults and 60% of teens reporting owning cell phones (Pew Internet & American Life Project Survey), it isn’t likely that we will avoid these challenges in our families, in some form. Medical and social/behavioral sciences are finally catching up to our kids and reporting some concerning effects.
In a recent Baylor University study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, James Roberts (study co-author) reported that “cell phone and instant messaging addictions are similar to compulsive buying or substance addiction and are driven by materialism and impulsiveness.” He further explained that “technologic addictions (a subset of behavioral addictions) are no different from substance addictions in that users get some kind of reward from cell phone use, resulting in pleasure. Cell phones are a part of our consumer culture, as both a tool and status symbol. They’re also eroding our personal relationships. A majority of young people claim that losing their cell phone would be disastrous to their social lives.” (http://www.news-medical.net) This is just one example among studies that have reported “side-effects” of constant use including: 1) generating negative feelings during face-to-face conversations when the device is visible/present, 2) increasing stress levels, (constant ringing, vibrating, alerts, reminders, etc.) insomnia and depression, 3) increasing risk of chronic pain (pain and inflammation in joints including fingers/hands, neck, shoulders, and back), 4) increasing risk of digital eye strain, among others.

RF2_1742Perhaps one of the most harmful effects is the way that cell phones, texting, and social media interrupt the flow of our time together as families and the opportunity to have face-to-face, meaningful time and contact with each other. Hence, the “tail wagging the dog:” something that is a minor or secondary part of something controlling the whole.

Putting things back in place:
The most important principle of change is to start where you are! One of the first challenges is to be willing to unplug, as the parent, and make time for the family. If you are willing to do that, everyone else may be more willing to follow your example. Another guiding principle of change is to understand the “why” of change. If your family understands the risks, the consequences, and the benefits of making time for each other and “parking” electronics during set times, they will be more willing to follow along. Particularly if you are using the black-out time to actually enjoy quality time together. One suggestion is to “dock at dinner” so that, as your family comes together at the end of a day, everyone shuts off, unplugs, etc. and is present with each other. The phones stay

Camille Olson is the marketing director at the Center for Couples and Families. She is also the editor of the Bay Area Health & Wellness Magazine in South Houston, TX.

How Fear Gets in the Way of Your Relationship by Erin Rackham

MP900387501Every couple I see in my practice comes in needing help with one thing in their relationship—connection. They may not know how to put it into words, or may have other concerns on top of this, but after a few sessions, it always seems to come down to this core need to feel connected to their partner. It may seem like a bold statement to say that every single couple needs help with this, but I believe it to be true because so many of our problems could be solved without outside help if we were truly connected to each other.

Now, it might be important here to define what I mean by connection—true connection—because I’m not just talking about the “Hi, how was your day?” after-work-greeting in the kitchen. The connection I’m talking about involves being emotionally attuned to one another so intimately that we can sense when something is off and we can create the space in our relationship to share and talk about it with each other. But again, this sharing and talking is not the typical problem-solving that most couples do. This sharing involves being willing to explore our deep, dark, scary emotions of fear and inadequacy and allow our partner to comfort us through each of these feelings instead of pretending they aren’t there.

MP900309139This is difficult work to do in therapy because for most people, they’ve never experienced a relationship that was safe enough for their insecurities and pain to be divulged in, let alone for it to then be listened to, respected, and taken care of. Most of us have dealt with this lack of emotional safety our whole lives by either anxiously pursuing for reassurance that we matter to our partner, or by withdrawing to avoid the feeling that we aren’t good enough for our partner. In therapy, we ask you to break your patterns and take a risk with your emotions, knowing that they will be held precious by your therapist at first, and eventually by your partner as well.

The neat thing about all of this is that when we are in love, we have a natural tendency to protect ourselves with defense mechanisms because the person we love has more power than anyone in the world to hurt us, but we have another even more powerful desire to love and cherish that person, we just let fear get in the way of our execution sometimes. Therapy is a safe place to start trying to put aside the defense mechanisms and the fear and start practicing emotional vulnerability with one another, which can lead to that true connection we all so desperately need to feel.

Erin-Rackham-HeadshotAbout the Author: Erin Rackham is a licensed Associate Marriage and Family Therapist. She earned an M.S. from BYU and is currently completing her PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy. She is currently a therapist at the Provo Center for Couples and Families.

The Crumbs of Truth by Bonne Norman

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One time or another all of us have been the proverbial child caught with our hand in the cookie jar. Averting our eyes from the evidence, with the tell tell crumbs on our fingers, we denied our culpability in a bold effort to avoid the scolding, the shame, the consequence of our action.

In confronting this universal behavior, my purpose is not to focus on teaching the negative results of lying, but rather to focus on the positive outcomes for owning and acknowledging our mistakes and choices.

Back to the cookie jar. A parent entering the scene of the “crime” often has a solid understanding of the missing treats, based on the position of the stool, the child and the container of goodies.

Stressed BusinesswomanThe mode of the questioning parent is key to turning the event into an effective growth experience. Expressing disappointment that the child did not respect and follow a family rule and/or did not immediately confess their wrong doing must be secondary to supporting the child in the frightening process of learning to own his mistakes.

The parent might began with a neutral inquiry such as “Jane, Johnny,can you tell me why the stool is out of place?” The child has two choices; to acknowledge eating the cookie or to invent a false story to support his or her innocence. As the child begins to weave his or her “not me” story, the parent gently interrupts, looks deeply into the child’s eyes with patience and uses the following declaration.

“Jane, Johnny, when mom (dad, an adult) asks you what happened, almost every time I already know the answer. What is really important here is for you to put into your own words what you have done.” If the child does not respond to this prompt the adult may followup with, “ I understand that it can be scary to take responsibility for your actions. I can hold your hand to give you my support.’

Most children are able to take ownership of their choices in response to this approach, allowing them greater opportunity to learn from their mistake. They also learn that while being honest does not erase all consequences, it almost always results in a lessor punishment, as well as peace of conscience and a feeling of building trust.

While these patterns of response are powerful for children, they apply equally to adult action. Fortunate is the adult who enters relationships having developed the strength of character to honestly own their mistakes, yielding trust, peace and forgiveness with those they cherish.

Bonne-cropped-297x229About the Author:Bonne Norman is a licensed masters social worker who recently completed 18 years of service with LCISD assisting children and families in an elementary school setting. During this period she developed a strong multicultural perspective while working with a wide variety of families dealing with behavior disorders, crisis and loss, relational stress and major changes in the family system.

The Secrets of Successful Single Parents by Dr. Jared DuPree

MP900262968The Secrets of Successful Single Parents: Are you a single parent feeling overwhelmed with life? Georgia Lewis, a single parent of 7 children published this helpful article on what you can do as a single parent to succeed. She is a Parent Education Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools. http://www.thefamilyworks.org/Parenting/SinglePa.htm

“Looking back, what kind of advice would you give other single parents?” This question was asked to parents that had been single for many years. These are the insights and experiences that were shared. “
Prioritize

“Put your energy into what’s really important, and don’t worry about the rest,” Jennifer advised. By “the rest” she meant “cleaning, going to meetings, and some of the social stuff. You have to be there for your kids. And you have to work, to feed them. But you can use short cuts, like prepared foods. You don’t have to do everything you used to do.”

Get Support
Maria, who had 3 young children when her husband died, remembered feeling terribly lonely . “The hardest part”, she said, “was having all the responsibility, making all the decisions, solving all the problems, alone”. Researchers call it “task overload, responsibility overload, and emotional overload. In other words, too much to do, too much to worry about, and too little time! Add to that (for most single parents), not enough money, and feel lik there are no resources.
In time, Maria learned to ask for help. She found a support group and a babysitting coop, and formed a pot-luck supper club with 3 other families. Because parent stress inevitably spills over onto the children, support from friends, relatives, or mental health professionals helps the whole family. Among the least stressed single parents are those with another adult living in the household (friend, relative, or another one-parent family) to provide companionship and share the burdens.

read2Spend Time Together, Have Fun
Family life can get chaotic. It helps to maintain a predictable routine and to schedule in family time, whether it’s working, playing, or just hanging out together. Try to have at least one meal together each day. One family actually enjoys their Saturday morning clean-up-the-house routine. They take turns making up a list of chores, choosing what music to play while they work, and deciding where they’ll all go for lunch when it’s done.
Celebrate Family Traditions
Rituals and traditions can be the glue that holds a family together. They don’t need to be elaborate; some of the most treasured are the simplest. An exmple of this is one mother and her teenaged daughter take a quiet walk together after dinner every night. It helps to keep your ties to extended family. If yours is far away, create a “chosen” extended family of friends and celebrate holidays and birthdays with them. Sometimes, after a death or divorce, it makes sense to start a new tradition. Carla divorced just before Thanksgiving, when the family had always hosted a formal dinner. That year she and her teenaged boys helped cook and serve dinner at a local shelter instead. The experience was so satisfying it has become a new Thanksgiving tradition for them.

Don’t Go Overboard
“When my wife left”, said Tim, “I felt sorry for the girls (teenagers), not having a mother. I didn’t give them any chores to do. I did everything, plus my job. I was tired all the time, too tired to follow through on discipline, so they got away with a lot. And I went overboard on gifts, even though I couldn’t afford to.” After a while, Tim said, he learned that “showing love is different from spoiling”, and the girls learned to share responsibility for the well-being of the family.

mid section view of a woman cutting vegetablesLet Kids Be Kids
Sharing the workload is fine–as long as its balanced with friendships, activities with peers, and support from adults. But experts caution us not to treat children like partners or adults. “A therapist told me that lots of kids with one parent have to grow up a little faster than is good for them,” said Anita. “I didn’t plan it that way, but my daughter sort of took care of me, and my son (who was only 11) acted like the man of the house. I found myself telling them my problems and asking their advice. I left them alone a lot. They seemed so mature, but inside they were scared of the responsibility. They weren’t really as grown up as I thought.”

Keep the Other Parent Involved
Ann has been a single mom right from the start. “One of the hardest things for me is to let my son’s father (and his family) be involved, because I’m still mad at him,” she confessed. “I try not to “badmouth” him or keep them apart, because I can see it’s good for him to know his dad.” Ann’s instincts are right; research has shown that children are more successful when both parents are involved in their lives.

The Good News
Strong families share certain characteristics, among them good communication, regular time together, shared family traditions, and access to community support. Whether headed by one parent or two, any family is capable of developing these traits and raising healthy, happy, competent children.

traditionA Caring Community
A caring community can make a big difference to one-parent families. Neighbors can help with car pools or swap babysitting. Relatives can take the kids on outings when Mom or Dad is exhausted. Employers can adopt family-friendly policies like flextime and family leave.
Schools can child care for meetings and conferences, schedule events at times convenient for employed parents, and keep both parents informed about the child. Agencies can offer support groups; adopt sliding scale and flexible payment plans; schedule evening and weekend hours; and provide accessible, affordable child care, afterschool, and summer programs for kids.

These strategies are especially helpful to single parents, but they make sense for all families. At the Center For Couples and Families, there are mental care providers who have training in single, blended and divorced family issues.