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I’m An Individual, Just Like Everyone Else

“Oh my God, did you see what the Smith kid was wearing today?” How many times have you been out in your community and saw a teen wearing clothing that just doesn’t fit, whether it be physically or socially? Have you ever wondered what kind of parent would allow their son to go out with a dog collar and pink highlights, or their daughter with a T-shirt that is 3 sizes to small? Before you go and call the Department of Children and Families for parental negligence, think about what is actually going on. When a child dresses drastically there are a few possible causes, but the most common is the need to set themselves apart. When a child starts the change into a teen and eventually into an adult, there are emotional and social changes to go with the voice cracking and growth spurts. Teens develop a need to become an individual, usually by dressing just like their friends. The pattern within their dress is a balance between dressing like their friends and different from their parents. These two avenues provide a scope for kids to create a wardrobe. The checklist goes as follows, “Jerry” is wearing non matching neon socks, Check. My dad would never wear non matching neon socks, check. I need non matching neon socks. This mentality is common among teens but why?

How does one go about attaining individuality? What makes a person an individual? For many it’s a journey that takes years if not a lifetime, but in the beginning it often starts as a superficial experiment of trying new things out. In its most basic understanding, individuality is the separation from others on some scale. At age 13, who do you really know well enough to effectively create separation other than your parents? So that is often your starting point. As it is a superficial study in human behavior, most of the differences are on the surface, such as dress, music, and even food. These are choices that can be easily changed and are not necessarily deep reflections of an individual. For a lot of parents it can become extremely frustrating and the root for many arguments. It is a hard aspect of parenting to deal with an oppositional child who does everything they can to separate themselves from you. It is even harder to watch and listen as other judge your child for their outward appearance when they don’t know them. So here are a few tips for a parent dealing with a teen seeking individuality:

1)      Be supportive – Just because your son is dressed up like a gangster rapper, or your daughter is in all black doesn’t mean they are not your child anymore. Acknowledge the changes they are trying to make and support them. Don’t ignore them, or overemphasize them, but acknowledge the change. This helps to keep the line of communication open, and also exhibits the parent as a resource despite it all and will strengthen the relationship.

2)      Have thick Skin – Some parents will get upset when their kids act out and do everything in their power to separate themselves. Don’t take this as a personal affront. They are pushing you away because they know you will stick by them. It’s that trust in their parents that allow them to take the chances to become the independent individuals every parent wants to raise.

3)      Understand the root – Try to understand that your child is doing this to establish their own roots. Having the knowledge that your child is doing this to further themselves will help ease the pain of seeing your son newly vegan son on the couch in his new wizard cape watching “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”.

4)      Don’t Freak out – Remember that this is most likely a stage and as long as your kid is safe then it is beneficial to their growth. If your child is dressing funny and listening to bad music, but not doing drugs or partaking in other risky actions, things are going well.

We all go through stages, but they help us develop into functional well rounded adults. It allows us to really understand what we like and what we don’t. It can be extremely hard to deal with a teen, who is defining themselves, but just remember what that Monty Python phase has taught all of us and “always look on the bright side of life.”

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A Faceless Crime

February 14, 2012 Leave a comment

One of the most frustrating and heartbreaking scenarios for a parent to experience is the bullying of their child. Add the internet to the equation, and bullying becomes a formidable foe for any parent trying to protect their child’s happiness and innocence. With the advent of Myspace, Twitter and the almighty Facebook, the internet gave bullies an anonymous avenue in which to attack others. Cyber bullying can take the form of a fleeting post for others to see, or it can be tenuous ordeal which may lead to a heartbreaking outcome. There is a shocking growth in the consistency of national news stories where children are taking their own lives in reaction to bullying. The battle against online bullying is especially troubling to parents of the current generation as it is in an unfamiliar realm. Although there are a fair amount of parents who are literate in these online sites, there are many others who struggle. This article was written in hopes of educating parents both in the warning signs of cyber bullying and in ways to help their child deal with it.

1)      Be aware of your child’s mood – In many cases, the first indicator that can clue a parent into a bullying problem is a marked change in their behaviors and moods. Parents often dismiss child mood changes as just being another symptom of teenager-hood, but there could be a cause for the mood discrepancy that’s more concrete than teenage hormones. Have conversations with your kids, especially if you see changes in their mood.

2)      Keep an open line of communication – This is often an underrated aspect of identifying the issue at hand. Being available for your child to talk about what is bothering them will undoubtedly expedite the process in identifying bullying troubles. It goes without saying that teenagers are tough to talk to and can shut down easily, but reassurance that you are a sounding board for any issues they are having will help.

3)      Educate Yourself – One of the biggest issues parents face in dealing with cyber bullying is ignorance around social networking and other online aspects of a child’s life. This is not to say that parents must create a Facebook account and maintain it with the religious intensity that their teens do, but increasing awareness is always useful. Parents should be aware of how these websites work, and, if possible, have a way to keep tabs on their child’s activity. This point needs to be clarified: although parents have every right to monitor their child’s activity, it is a lesson in trust that makes it effective. Parents know best about their child, but if they prefer their privacy, be respectful of that and keep online interactions to a minimum. Keep the requests of bags of seed for you farm to your friends and let your child have their own space.

Now that you have identified that bullying is an issue for your teen, how are you going to help them through it?

1)      Always take the high road – Bullies are looking for a reaction, and when they get one, they will continue to exploit it. If you or your child is being bullied take what the bullying is saying with a grain of salt and ignore it. Like a hungry animal, once bullies realize they won’t get what they are looking for, they will usually move on.

2)      Never retaliate – It can be easy to think of a great dig for that short kid in chemistry class who posted that you smell like a bag of week old hot dogs, but it only hurts the situation. Responding to a bully not only keeps the cycle alive, but responding can easily turn from defense to bullying in return. Don’t stoop down to their level; remember that you are the victim.

3)      Always save incidences of bullying – The one good thing about cyber bullying is that it leaves a trail. It is important to make note and save the bullying incidents as they can be presented to authorities later on.

4)      Go to the authorities – With the recent increase in awareness of cyber bullying most schools and organizations have procedures in place to stop bullying. Let the teachers and authority figures utilize their training and put the ball in their court.

5)      Be thankful for what you have – In most cases cyber bullying is rooted in the insecurities of the bully. Bullies see what another kid has and attack them in order to make them feel better about themselves. It is important to not lose sight of what you have because it is often what causes you to be a victim. Bullies try to make strengths into weaknesses in order to brighten their outlook in their own mind. So the next time you have an issue with a bully, remember that it probably has way less to do with your 4.0 GPA and way more to do with their 1.3.

Categories: Uncategorized

I Swear I Will Turn This Car Around

February 7, 2012 Leave a comment

Undoubtedly if you are reading this, you are currently or once were a child; and possibly one of the lucky ones to have siblings. Now, while having siblings can be great in many aspects, it also has its downsides. You have to share with them, they have seen you at your worst, they usually know how to push your buttons and you have to share. All joking aside, those very same aspects of having siblings contribute to a very common and much more arduous aspect, fighting. There is not a parent in the world who hasn’t wished their children would stop fighting with each other. Fighting children is the quickest way to grate on parent’s nerves. It can be “he took that from me” or the ageless “she’s looking at me weird”, either way, Dad is screaming at the end. So what can a parent do to keep these arguments to a minimum? How can your children be more like “The Cleavers” and less like “The Simpsons?” Below are five tips to help limit the fighting and increase the sanity.

1) Penalty Box

I’m actually stealing this from a former client as it was very effective and ties in sports. When arguments broke out in the house, Dad, and hockey fan, would simply take the two offenders and place them in opposite corners. This eliminated the “he started it” argument and also provided a set in stone result: If you got into the fight, whether you started it or not, you were going to the box. Obviously this can be tweaked in many different ways, but the only alteration I would think to make would be an instigator penalty. If there is a definite instigator, or someone who went out of their way to start the fight, then add on an extra two minutes. This is an effective technique because it takes two to fight and this deals with both of them.

2) Daily affirmations

This is an effective technique that helps change the thinking. Daily Affirmations are written letters or verbal expressions to show an individual their value. When children fight, they get wrapped up in the moment and react, most of the time in a hurtful manner. By using daily affirmations, they have to think differently about that sibling and write or tell the sibling something they cherish about him or her. The key is parent proofreading. I worked with a family that tried daily affirmations, but Mom was not checking what was being written. After two weeks of the fighting only escalating, I asked to see the daily affirmations and found they were veiled insults such as “I guess you’re not that ugly” or “you smell slightly better than raw sewage.” Obviously, we tweaked the system and had Mom check the messages before they exchanged hands. After a week things started to improve.

3) Team Building

What better way to stop an argument between two kids than to put them on a task that requires teamwork? Chances are they will fight more at the start, but eventually they will figure out that they need to work together and the fighting becomes secondary…if they don’t kill each other first. The key is to make sure that the task is at least a two person job and it has to be carried out. If one is left doing all the work, then it will just make the fighting worse in the long run.

4) School is in session

This idea is rooted in a threat my father made to me and my siblings years ago. He never actually carried out with the punishment, but I have always been intrigued by its potential. When me and my siblings were fighting, my father told us we were each going to write him a 600 word paper entitled “How not to be an ass.” We never actually had to write the paper, but at the very least, it was an intriguing idea to me. Most children don’t like writing or anything that resembles school work, so it would act as a deterrent for future fights and it would also provide practice for children to help them become more proficient in writing. One of the necessities for this is a proactive parent that would read and possibly correct the papers. Parents will also have to be creative with new topics to write about, but that could put a funny spin on the punishment.

5) United Against a Common Enemy

If all else fails, you can always use the Herb Brooks approach. In 1980, Brooks was the coach of the US Men’s Olympic hockey team. The team was made up of college players who just months earlier were on opposite sides of storied rivalries. The team was in disarray and players were constantly fighting with each other as they were taught to do for their college. Brooks was struggling to find a way to unite his team. How could he get Boston College players to play effectively alongside Boston University players, or Minnesota players to play alongside North Dakota players? Brooks decided that the best way to unite his team is to unite them against a common enemy, himself. Brooks began to work his team to the bone. Frequent, hard hitting practices that would go on for hours. He would never compliment his players and would often criticize them. They eventually bonded together over his tyrannical reign and eventually won the gold medal, as portrayed by the movie “Miracle.”
This is an extreme measure for a parent to take, but it can be effective. If your children are fighting with each other, it is sometimes effective to take on the bad guy/girl role and exert your will. It ties into number three on the list nicely. If your children are fighting and the bad, evil parent makes them take on a large project, they can bond over how bad or evil the parent is. If it’s not done effectively, it could lead to more arguments than before, but at least your attic will be clean!
Christopher Curran M. A.

Categories: Uncategorized

Strength Based Believer

January 31, 2012 Leave a comment

One of the first things I learned at my current workplace is to be “strength based.” Strength based is the idea of focusing on the positives to empower the clients rather than the negatives which can tear them down. It may seem simplistic or even idiotic, but it does have some merit. When I first heard of strength based, I used to think it was ludicrous. I understood that staying positive would empower clients, but what if their actions did not warrant empowerment? How can you empower a child who just drew a picture of a classmate dying a horrible and graphic death? The answer comes from a twist in thinking. Instead of looking to punish negative behaviors, you must reward positives. In theory, rewarding positives encourages those behaviors while negative behaviors fade away. So when Tommy draws a horrible picture, use it as an opportunity to talk about his thoughts, compliment his drawing style and his use of drawing as a coping skill.
It is hard to be strength based because it is often the theme within our culture to just fix things or people. When I first started in the field, my main focus was to fix the problem, but often the problem I was trying to fix was a perceived problem by the social worker and a non issue for the family. When I get a referral for services, I get contact info, providers involved and a few little blurbs on the presenting issues. The presenting issues are the referral writer’s interpretation of the problems. When I first started, I would develop a game plan for myself. Sometimes I did so consciously, sometimes subconsciously, but I was not taking into account the families view. One example was a case I had involving a family of five, the two parents and their two younger biological children as well as an older child from father’s first marriage. The older child was the identified client and my referral sheet stated that I was to do psychoeducation around Aspergers because that was his diagnosis. I went into my first meeting with a large stack of papers and articles dealing with Aspergers, but realized I had jumped the gun. Upon entering the home, the mother was in nurse’s scrubs and explained that she was a nurse on the adolescent floor at Mass General and was well educated about Aspergers through work and her own research upon learning about the oldest son’s diagnosis. For a while I tried to stick with the psychoeducation piece as it was the presenting issue on the referral, but with time I learned it was fruitless. After multiple sessions that lead nowhere, I finally asked the family what they felt they needed to work on. From there on out I was able to help the family address the issues they wanted to work on. There was finally some improvement within the family after working on the issues they felt were pressing. By acknowledging the family as having strengths and not focusing on the problem, I was able to be much more effective.
From my personal experience and in my professional opinion, being strength based is a very effective method in helping others. It shows clients a side of themselves they can take pride in. It also limits the emphasis on the negatives within the family. By focusing on the positives, clients can build self esteem, learn positive behaviors and address problems without putting an emphasis on the negatives. It can be hard to see a silver lining, but the more you do it the easier it gets. Sometimes the positives can be absurd on the surface, but it is important to find the light in the darkest times. Think about it, if you had someone telling you how great you are as opposed to pointing out your mistakes, you might have a better outlook on life yourself.

Christopher Curran, MA

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The Helper and the Help-ee?

January 24, 2012 Leave a comment

One of the biggest issues people have with psychotherapy is that it’s an inexact science. A lot of people question the motives, expertise and compassion of therapists due to the media portraying them as being insensitive and distracted. An even bigger aspect is the amount of work clients have to do for therapy to be effective. Although therapists can be very helpful, their role is contingent upon the clients they see. If a client is open with the therapist, and is able to look at themselves with a critical eye, therapy can be very effective. If a client holds back from the therapist, or even sabotages their sessions, then a therapist is essentially useless. A therapist is a vehicle for the client to use, and its success is dependent on the honesty and openness of the client. For example, you don’t go to a mechanic and complain about the odd noise you have been hearing without mentioning your wrong turn into that swamp last week; that doesn’t give the mechanic the tools they need to fix your car. Similarly, if you go and see a therapist and neglect to bring up a traumatic event in the past, or a current stressor, then you are not allowing them the tools they need to be effective. Now I don’t want to give off the impression that nobody out there tells their therapist crucial information simply because a lack of trust, there are other factors which lead to the breakdown. Some people struggle with the intimacy of therapy. It can be very hard to walk in and talk to a complete stranger about the biggest issues in your life without knowing anything about them. Most therapists prefer relative anonymity in the therapeutic relationship as it keeps things professional and preserves the helper – helpee relationship. For example, it would be incredibly hard, if not completely impossible, to talk about your own problems when you know your therapist is going through a divorce, a death in the family, or another crisis in their life. It is hard to see a person in need in their own life as an effective helper in yours.

So there is a definite need to have a break between therapist and friend, but what happens when that break creates a seemingly unbridgeable gap between therapist and client? How can you connect with your therapist without violating the therapist’s privacy and preserving the professional relationship? I have often had this conversation with teenage clients who struggle to make connections with their individual therapists. The best way to combat this is to take control of the situation and ask your own questions. Ask questions that will let you know more about the therapist without compromising the professional relationship. Below is a list of questions former clients have used on me and other therapists, to build rapport:
1) What type of music do you listen to?
2) Favorite sport?
3) Favorite book?
4) Favorite Movie(s)?
5) Who would you pick to save the world, Batman, Harry Potter or Jack Bauer?
6) What would be your weapon of choice for the zombie apocalypse?
As you can see, I mostly work with kids and teens, but it doesn’t mean the questions are invalid for adults. Simple alterations can make these questions viable for adults, it just takes creativity. It is important to remember that personal, identifying questions will compromise the professional relationship, so be aware of boundaries. At the end of the day these questions can be more useful than a biopsychosocial assessment, because who wouldn’t want to talk about the effectiveness of Harry Potter’s wand in a Zombie apocalypse?

Christopher Curran MA

Categories: Uncategorized

Take a Deep Breath and Count to Ten

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment

As any person in the field of therapy can attest to, coping skills are a fundamental tool in reaching goals. Coping skills are essentially tricks and techniques to help a person deal with emotional and behavioral issues in the moment. In simpler terms, a coping skill is something to soothe, distract or reset a person in a time of need. For example, everybody has heard that when you are angry, take a deep breath and count to ten. Although most out there will refute its effectiveness, the fundamental idea behind it is simple and useful. Counting to ten takes the person out of the situation, allows the mind to properly assess the situation and then properly plan how to deal with the situation. The issue with counting to ten comes in its follow through. A prime candidate for this lapse is my younger brother. My younger brother had a little bit of a temper growing up so of course he was instructed to use the counting method. My brother simply saw it as a preliminary step before he would wildly throw haymakers. To this day, I have never heard anyone count to ten as fast or with such focused rage as my 8yr old brother. Obviously, everyone knows a person like this; a person who gets wrapped up in the moment and has a hard time staying within themselves. With the commonality of this raging person comes an understanding of what will calm them down. “Joey is mad he didn’t get a second slice of pizza” “oh just throw him a bread stick, he’ll be fine.”  “Laurie is upset her favorite contestant on American idol got voted off.” “Just put on her soaps she will be fine.” “Tony is pissed the Patriots took 6 offensive lineman in the draft and no linebackers.” “Oh just rub his tummy, he’ll be fine.” People have certain things that will make them feel better, and it simply takes the manipulation of these things to develop coping skills.

When I begin discussing coping skills with children, there are a couple questions I make sure I ask. The first is always if they have coping skills already. If they do, I assess the effectiveness of the coping skill. Coping skills can be ineffective because they are not suited to the child or they simply are overused and thus become “old” or “boring.” After talking about current coping skills, or lack thereof, I move into new coping skills and avenues where skills can come from. I put an emphasis on having the child direct the conversation because it is their skill and they should feel ownership of it. Music, sports and art are the three main avenues where coping skills are generated from. Listening to a favorite CD or writing a song is a great way of dealing with emotions for kids who love music. Anything from playing pick up basketball to simply throwing a tennis ball is effective for kids who enjoy sports.  Simple drawing or photography could be the secret to an artistic child dealing with a tough situation. When trying to develop new coping skills there are two main rules to follow: will it help and is it interesting or fun? A lot of things are one or the other, but the best coping skills are both. It must be effective enough to keep someone from escalating and also interesting enough to be utilized when things are not going well. The point is that although coping skills sound clinical and regimented, they are meant to be soothing and supportive. Anyone can come up with coping skills, it’s just a matter of being honest with yourself and having some creativity. If you have a hard time being honest with yourself and are not creative, you could always just count to ten.

Christopher Curran, MA

Categories: Uncategorized

A Teenage Ticking Timebomb

January 9, 2012 1 comment

When a person is asked what their most troubling time in their life was, it may take them a bit of time to decide. Was it that time they watched an ailing relative lose a battle with a sickness, or hearing they didn’t get into the college they wanted to? Maybe it was their first break up or getting into that habit of going to the gym. However, if you ask a parent of a difficult teenager, chances are the struggles they have experienced with their child are somewhere on the list. For a lot of parents, one of the hardest things to do is to establish the balance between safety and happiness for their child. The way parents walk this line has been examined by those in the field of psychology for decades and has been broken down into four major subsets.
Authoritarian parents are very strict and expect their word to be law. Authoritative parents have expectations, but where the authoritarian parents unyielding, authoritative parents explain the reasons for their expectations and are more understanding in dealing with their children. The third style of parenting is the permissive style, which puts power in the child’s hands and promotes the child to make their own decisions as a way of learning. The final style is uninvolved, which is essentially permissive without any concern for the child’s well being. Most believe that authoritative parenting works best, but it depends on the child. Although these styles are great mission statements for parents, they don’t really explain how to deal with every situation. Many parents try numerous tips and tricks in order to reach their teenager, but sometimes the easiest tactic is one that goes unnoticed.
As I stated in a previous blog, one of the major tools I use in working with teens is making a connection with them, which can also be applied to parenting. Making connections is integral in having a relationship with a teenager, and it is difficult for parents because they are often the most hated, unfair and selfish people on the planet, in the eyes of their children. Where a lot of parents go wrong is trying to force a connection with their teen; they will insert themselves into areas where teens are working their best to define themselves as individuals. If a teen shuts the door on a topic, don’t try to force your way in, look for another option. When your teen comes to you in one of those rare moments of hormone clarity and asks about something, jump on it. Although it could go back to fire and brimstone in mere minutes, that opening could provide the basis for a connection in the future. Another tip is to not bring up that connection in an argument. If “Eric” comes home in all his gothic glory complaining about how you placed a daily text limit of 300 on him and it’s unfair, don’t bring up the weekly chess match you share as a defense for you being a good parent. You are a good parent and bringing it up only poisons the connection in “Eric’s” dark, heavily mascara-ed eyes.
Connecting with teens is not an easy feat. It’s difficult to find a consistent interest to share with your teen because it’s hard for your teen to find a consistent interest themselves. One second, the Allman brothers are the greatest band ever, the next second Slayer is the human embodiment of pure awesomeness, only to be outdone by Lady Gaga a week later. This constant fluctuation is what allows teens to grow into well rounded adults. So when you see your daughter walking around town with highlighter green hair, a lip ring and gauges in her ears, don’t freak out and think that it’s the first step to her joining the circus. Instead, think of it being the first step to becoming a world renowned surgeon, because obviously she doesn’t get squeamish around needles.
Christopher Curran M.A.

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