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Ya Know, You’re Just Like Your Father!

June 13, 2012 1 comment

As autonomous individuals we all strive to find our own form of independence, distinct and separate from our parents. This may come out in many forms, including the way we dress, our hair style, our taste in music or our interests and hobbies. However, there is a piece within us all that also strives to be somewhat like our parents. To be able to relate to our caregivers. Typically, our morals, beliefs, and coping skills are heavily influenced by what our parents teach us and model for us growing up. Our parents play an important role in the way we view ourselves and interact with the world around us.

However, what happens when our parents do not get along? Divorce plays a crucial role in a child’s development. What’s more is when a child is left in a predicament in which one parent is constantly degrading the other in front of the child. Parents, especially when divorced, can sometimes be left with a sense of bitterness that the child is left to hear and cope with.

Let us take this idea a step further. I’ve worked with many families of ugly divorces and I’ve noticed one thing that parents do that can be detrimental to bond development and behavior.

What happens when a parent dislikes the other parent so much that they compare the child’s negative behavior to that of the disliked parent?

 For example, a mother I had worked with in the past was left by her husband for a life of drugs and petty crime. The mother felt abandoned and betrayed in that the man she loved and stood by would leave her and her family for something like that. Her daughter, who grew up idealizing her father developed negative behaviors because she had trouble dealing with the loss of her dad in her life. Mom, who was desperately trying to protect her from what she thought was a similar path of her father, compared her to the father in saying that she, “was going to be a loser just like her father.” Or, would say, “what you’re doing is something your father would do.”

Another example, is of a mother who divorced her husband because he was locked away for 2 years due to drug distribution. The child was 7 at the time and was 11 when I began seeing the family. The mom admitted that she felt resentment towards her child because he looked, spoke, and even wrote like her ex-husband (their signatures were eerily similar). It got to the point at which every time the child would do something she considered wrong, she would be unable to tolerate him because of the similarities of the two.

So why do parents compare their child to the negative parent while speaking so poorly of them?

When a parent speaks negatively about the other, that parent typically believes they are doing it to provide proper guidance for the child and protect them. In discussing the negative aspects of the parent they wish to keep their child from harm by outlining for the child what their lives could look like. These parents believe that they can instill good judgment and proper behavior simply by vocalizing their anger and distaste for their ex. However, these parents are unaware of how counterproductive this method truly is. In fact, parents typically mistake their child’s increased negative behavior as rebellion and opposition which can, and typically does, perpetuate the situation.

So what do parents needs to know when they find themselves engaging in this type of behavior?

First:

Your child to some degree idealizes you both.

Although children try to establish their own identity by doing things that rub you the wrong way (dying their hair green and growing a Mohawk comes to mind) they still get their values and morals from you. Your parents are you caregivers. No matter how bad or neglectful a parent can be a child only has two parents. Sometimes we don’t get the parents we want, but children still hold them to their idealized standards. When a parent speaks so poorly of the other and then compares the child to the “bad” parent you are destroying the vision the child has for that parent and they can then internalize themselves as being “bad.”

Second:

By degrading and negatively labeling the other parent you are telling your child that half of who they are is “bad.”

Remember that genetics plays an important role in the creation of your child. Your child gets half of their genetic material from you and half from the other parent. When you tell your child that their other parent is “no good” you are telling the child that half of them is “no good” too. When a parent tells their child that their mother or father was a “no good, drug dealing, loser” we forget that the child does understand that they have inherited a portion of their mother/father’s genes. The child then can believe that they too are a “no good, drug dealing, loser.”

Third:

If you compare your child’s characteristics to a disliked parent, your child must live with that reminder for the rest of their lives.

Suppose your child barely knows or even dislikes the other parent as well (as in the second example above). The mother then points out that the “bad” parent has a similar signature to this parent. By coupling the child’s negative view of the parent to their own signature, it could be a daily reminder of a dark side of their being. They have inherited something they dislike, but must live with.

Knowing what your child might be thinking, where do we go from here?

When working with families of messy break-ups, especially those with children involved. It’s important for the parent to be honest with themselves and identify some of the counterproductive behaviors they are engaged in. Keeping these tips in mind when you feel yourself getting caught up in comparing your child to something you view as bad can help save your relationship with your child and keep the child thinking positively about themselves.

First:

Never verbalize that you’re comparing your child to someone you dislike.

When you do that the child will own the negative behaviors and resent you for the comparison. Keep the thoughts to yourself if you have them and seek out help to assist in dealing with these feelings. I don’t want to minimize the importance in recognizing that something about your child reminds you of someone you dislike. It’s important to be honest about it to yourself, but never take it out on your children.

Second:

If you find yourself having to be honest with your child in communicating something negative about the other parent, keep the conversation light. Do not insult the other parent and do not make the conversation heavy and angry. Take time to explain your viewpoint and leave harsh negative language out.

Third:

Remember that when you’re talking to your child they may still have positive feelings for the person you dislike. Validate those feelings for your child and don’t try to change their mind. Work with what your child is saying to you and make it a learning opportunity. The idea is not to have your child on your side. There is no winning team with families. Work together and let the child know it’s okay to have positive feelings for someone you don’t like as long as the thoughts are positive and cause no harm to anyone.

As your parents undoubtedly told you, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Keeping this in mind you can have a beneficial conversation with your children even if you dislike the other parent. Comparing your child to someone you dislike can only hurt your child and even though you may think that you’re saving them from future failure and distress. You may be causing more harm now than you think.

Categories: Uncategorized

Family Conflict: What Were We Fighting About Again?

April 11, 2012 2 comments

To get where you are going you have to know where to begin. This is the same for families in conflict. Often, in my work, I come across families that are in some state of conflict. However, the common complaint that every family has is that they don’t know where to start or how to begin the healing process. This often perpetuates conflict and feelings of being overwhelmed.

Realizing that there has to be a starting point is only a piece to this complicated puzzle. Another major caveat is trying to understand the underlying cause of the conflict. Conflict can take many forms, whether it is due to disagreements in wants or needs, a struggle for control in the home, or a difference in overall opinion on a given topic. These, although valid in their own right, are typically the tip of the metaphoric iceberg that is family conflict. In my experience, there tends to be something more hiding beneath the murky waters. Something that is much bigger and much more profound that has yet to be discovered or touched upon. Sometimes, conflicting families use the aforementioned common arguments to distract from “the untouchables” of the family conversation. In other words, families use these more superficial arguments as a means of distracting or excusing themselves from having the truly difficult conversations about the underlying issues. Typically this is an unconscious act. Smoke screens are created to dim and shade out the more emotionally charged underlying issues.

For example, the family has a common close relative that has recently passed away. All members of the family are feeling strong emotions and are trying to navigate the grieving process, but are having a difficult time communicating their emotions and providing support for one another (underlying issue).   For one child, the tragedy of the situation is causing him to perform weaker in school. This causes an argument in the home that escalates into fighting because the child is showing some signs of behavioral and academic problems (superficial). The family then becomes focused on arguing about the child’s grades because as long as they are fighting about the academic performance they are momentarily distracted from the grieving process and emotions associated with grief. For the time being, the family has something else to worry about and focus on.

In this instance, the family is using their current arguments to ensure family survival. The act of superficial conflict creates a means of expressing frustration, but keeps them from having to confront the underlying pain. “I don’t have time to grieve the loss; I’m too worried about Timmy’s grades!” “I can focus on the divorce later. Right now I’m focused on paying the bills. Everything’s so expensive!” Families tend to focus on using distraction as a coping skill and as long as the pain is averted for the time being, the family can function with relatively little emotional damage.

The challenge, then, becomes twofold. First, assisting the family in identifying the difference between the superficial and underlying arguments by clearing the smoke. The second, assisting the family, in communicating effectively to reduce the use of negative coping skills and foster communication and support.  In doing so, the family can minimize or extinguish distractive conflict and focus on personal growth and understanding, improving the overall dynamic.

It’s one thing to work on conflict in families, it’s another to attempt to identify and understand it. As with anything else, understanding conflict takes time and an ability to introspect (a talent that improves with practice). As the proverb states, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” as does the path to understanding and resolving family conflict.

A Great Way to Define Who You Are

March 2, 2012 2 comments

Our Second Psych Nerd: Dr. Kenneth Texeira Ph.D.

Kenneth Texeira Ph.D. Is a coordinator and Psychology Professor at Quincy College in Plymouth.  His PhD is from Fordham University in Applied Developmental Psychology.  He has worked with research teams from Johns Hopkins University, Duke University and he has published academic articles in the areas of end of life care, spiritual needs, and bioethics. His primary focus is on personality and spirituality and how they are associated with mood.

 

I am a researcher and a professor of psychology.   When people find out what I do I am often asked if I am reading their minds or analyzing them.  In the past I used to say no, however I have  never found a way to make people feel at ease by explaining that I really can’t do that unless they tell me a great deal of personal information.  So, after many a skeptical reception to why I cannot read minds, I have given up, and now I just tell people I can read minds and  am doing it to them at that very moment.  I usually make a very intense face and do a Freud impression which looks something like a mad scientist (evil genius hand gestures are helpful), and I listen very carefully and shake my head at some imaginary information I sucked telepathically from their unconsciousness.  After a few seconds, people usually see how awkward and impossible it is and we have a good laugh.

Recently, though, it dawned on me that I do read people and the idea is not that farfetched at all.  Everyone does this.  When you meet someone for the first time you automatically process a ton of information about them.  You probably know fairly quickly whether if you like the person or not and if you ever want to deal with that person again.  What we are doing is forming impressions about personality.  The purpose of this article is to provide the reader with a theoretical framework to help provide insight into ourselves and to learn to categorize other people in a deeper and more meaningful way.  I hope that this will give the reader a perspective into how to better predict behavior and sharpen the skills that you use all of the time.

The internet is awash with many personality tests.  Every so often I have observed  waves of tests through social media that tell you what type of superhero you are, what celebrity you are and even which type of snack food you represent.  There are other tests that are more serious sounding, but just about as accurate.  I get asked what sign I am pretty often.  I usually say a “yield sign,” but in all seriousness astrology is another way people try to gain insight about themselves.  There is a even a personality test on my placemat every time I go to my favorite Chinese restaurant.   I recall that I am a snake so I should beware the monkey.  From my decade of research in the area I have concluded that there are better ways to understand personality.  The tests described above are flawed and inaccurate, but they provide some entertainment.

If everyone that was born on the same day or on the same year was similar maybe there would be some truth to these tests, but I don’t think there is any foundation to the prediction of behavior in astrology or on the Chinese zodiac.  So what is a good and useful psychology test of personality?  First, lets define personality.  Personality refers to an unobservable quality present within the individual that is thought to be responsible for that individual’s observable behavior (Whitbourne, 2005).  Prediction of behavior is the goal of psychology so it is no wonder that most of the famous psychologists were also personality researchers.  Freud, Erikson, and others were all interested in personality.

Perhaps the most dominant theory in personality today is trait theory.  McCrae and Costa (1988) define personality traits as a set of characteristic dispositions.  There has been a great deal of research over the last 60 years on how many factors (or pieces) there should be in personality, but the following five factors tend to work pretty well.

The five factors include extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, conscientiousness and agreeableness (Costa & McCrae, 1992).  An easy way to remember these is to think of the word OCEAN.  Each of the five factors begins with one of these letters.  Now let me explain what these factors are and what they represent.

Openness to experience refers to an active imagination and preferences in variety in the environment.  In an earlier version of personality a researcher named Eyesnick wrote of this trait in a very fond and interesting way.  He believed that openness to experience was an important part of the personality in order to learn new things, and even to have religious and spiritual experiences.  Each trait is on a continuum. For example, my father is very low in openness.  My dad loves routine; if he goes to a restaurant he always orders the same thing.  He would not want to try an exotic food and when asked if he will eat squid he always says, “no I won’t eat anything that won’t let go of my plate first.”

The next personality trait is conscientiousness.  Whether you realize it or not, when you show up to a job interview you are trying to look as neat and organized as possible.  We want to be on time, dress nicely, bring a nice mistake free resume, and even take notes.  Conscientiousness is a quality you would want in an executive assistant, the person preparing your taxes, and hopefully the auditor that files them at the IRS.  Attention to detail is a big part of this but so is achievement motivation.  People who want to do a good job on something because they have to,  will have a high dose of this.  If you are struggling with a teenager (or spouse) who doesn’t want to find a job you may wish that this trait could be given in pill form.

Extraversion is one of my favorite personality traits because there is no other psychological theory that is more associated with positive mood or happiness than this one.  People who are high in extraversion have emotional stability.  They tend to be warm, outgoing, and like positive engagement with people.  On the other hand people who are low in this trait tend to have more difficulty in themselves and with other people.  I happen to be really extraverted and teaching classes for me is fun and exhilarating.  If you don’t like meeting new people, or simply really need a large amount of alone time you may not be high on this trait.

Agreeableness reflects a tendency toward being open and straightforward.  Those who are high on this trait tend to nurture others and are sensitive to interpersonal conflict.  If you like to debate points and find yourself disagreeing and in interpersonal conflict you may be on the low side of this continuum.

The last personality trait is neuroticism.  Every character in the show Seinfeld was very high in this trait.   People who are high in this trait have an increased sensitivity to negative stimulus in the environment.  If you think about it, most of the information that you receive on a daily basis is neither good or bad.  We have to decide whether or not we see the information as good or bad.  If you order coffee and they are out of your favorite sweetener you will lose your mind if you are high in neuroticism.  Grey (1991) theorized that extraversion and neuroticism may reflect a part of your brain responsible for approach or avoidance.  Someone high in neuroticism has extra sensitivity to this avoidance system so they process information as negative and withdraw from situations more frequently.     Being very low on any of these traits including neuroticism is not necessarily a good thing.   Adolescents who get into trouble with the law tend to be very low in neuroticism.  It’s ok to have a healthy fear of consequences but if fear cripples us then we may want to get some help in this area.

Now that you have all of the five big factor traits in a understandable format let’s take this one step further.  I like to think of the late and wonderful Bob Ross when I explain this theory to my students.  Remember the guy who painted the happy little tree? That was Bob, if he is not a good example for you, think of a painter.  What if each one of these traits were like a color on a painters pallet?  We can paint a person’s personality.  We will have combinations of any of these traits and it makes us all unique.  These tend to be stable and not very changeable, so since we cannot do much to change our personalities, we can examine how our personality fits into the world we create for ourselves.

Categories: Uncategorized

Finding the Beauty in the Unexpected

March 2, 2012 Leave a comment

I recently met with a mother who is currently having trouble trying to understand her child and some of the reasons why he does what he does. During our session she expressed how difficult it can be to raise a child with a disability. We discussed some of the ways in which she categorizes disability and what the concept of “disability” means to her. She expressed a feeling of sadness, but also stated that she feels as though she has accepted some of the difficulties that her life may bring. She mentioned a poem by Emily Pearl Kingsley entitled, “Welcome to Holland.” The theme of the poem is how being the parent of a child with a disability is unexpected and challenging, yet special and rewarding. The poem compares raising a child with a disability to planning a trip to Italy. The family waits their whole life to take this one trip. A trip to a place they have planned and dreamed of. The family makes sure they plan every minute. Hours of research and time goes into planning for this trip. Then, they get on the plane, fly for hours, and once they touch down the stewardess greets them at the door and says, “Welcome to Holland!” The family then becomes upset and confused because they were supposed to be in Italy. They’ve waited their whole life to get there, only to have something different happen. The family, in the end, sees the beauty of Holland, and although it may not have been expected, they find value in their new destination.

Hearing this story makes me think of some of the struggles that families must go through when trying to make sense of how their lives have turned out. Sometimes we may feel as though we’ve been cheated in some way; that somehow our life hasn’t turned out the way it was supposed to.

Keeping this in mind, I wonder what it is that you value in your life? How are you able to show yourself that there is beauty in some of the things that may not seem so special? Do you ever take time to sit back and work on yourself?

As you read this, I want you to think about the very first post ever written on this blog. It discusses resolutions for the New Year and things to keep in mind when making a New Year’s Resolution. Take some time and reflect on how far you’ve come. Have you continued to make progress towards those goals? If no, then why not? What’s getting in the way of making that precious step towards a better you?

The idea behind Emily Pearl Kingsley’s poem is to help put into perspective what it is like for parents who raise kids with disabilities, but it can be expanded upon much further. It is really a metaphor for anyone who feels as though things just didn’t work out the way you wanted them to.  As a result, let us take a first step towards getting you there!

1.)    Identify what is bothering you or something you’d like to change about your life.

Sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to. SO WHAT! Make your own fate. If things don’t work out there is always a way around it! Stay positive and be innovative. Sitting down and accepting this is not going to get you anywhere closer to your goal. In some cases, it’s as simple as changing your attitude towards the situation.

2.)    Stop with the negative self talk!

We call this ruminating. Stop talking yourself out of things. Keep yourself positive and shut down that inner voice that tells you how bad or how hard something is. We already know it’s hard, but if it was easy it wouldn’t be worth it right?

3.)    Take that scary first step.

Nobody is going to do this for you. Move forward with confidence. In fact, it’s normal to feel scared – it would be weird if you didn’t. Accept the fact that the worst that can happen is you fail (use that as a learning experience), the best thing is that you will succeed and achieve your goals.

4.)    Take a moment after to praise yourself.

As adults, it is hard to find positive reinforcement. While we were growing up, our parents and teachers gave us gold stars when we did something nice. As adults, our bosses expect that a paycheck at the end of the week is good enough to say job well done. So, that being said, adults must put in effort to allow ourselves to be rewarded. If you don’t do it, then nobody will.

The poem may discuss the outlook of raising kids with disabilities, but it does much more in communicating the feelings associated with having your life turn out a bit different than what you had anticipated. So the next time you’re coming off that runway, upset that you won’t have the opportunity to visit the Coliseum, remember that if you take a moment to really look around, Holland’s a pretty beautiful place too.

Effective Goal Setting: How To Make Your Goals More Attainable

February 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Effective goal setting is the key to success. However, we often make goals for ourselves that are counter-productive to what we truly wish to achieve. Setting goals ineffectively can lead to adverse outcomes and can sometimes cause more confusion than relief.  Here are some tips on how to successfully make goals.

1.)    Clearly define what you want to accomplish.

Don’t make goals that are ambiguous. Clearly define what it is that you are looking to do. If goals are too vague you won’t have a place to start, let alone know how to get there. By making goals that are easily defined you can then take the proper steps to understand how and where to go.

2.)    Make goals that are realistic and accomplishable.

Too often individuals make goals that are too idealistic and, quite frankly, hard to attain. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have a goal of one day living in a 1.8 million dollar home with a fleet of high-end Mercedes in your driveway (if that is what is important to you). However, how about starting off small? How about we start off with goals that may include getting a job in a field you enjoy, gaining the proper education or skill set to gain proper experience, or simply, setting a priority list (which is the perfect segue into the next point).

3.)    Set priorities (Make To-Do lists!)

Although you may have a nice set of goals that you would like to accomplish, there may be too many to choose from. Why not set priorities to help you organize what exactly you would like to achieve? Try not to list, as your first priority, achieving your vision of an ideal family. Why not set a goal of having a family get-together at least once a week? Ask your family members to not schedule anything in their planners on one specific evening per week and have the family gather. Then, work from there. Make a tangible set of goals for your family to accomplish. Now that you have the family getting together once a week, try to focus on another aspect of your family functioning, such as the conversation in the home. Then maybe set a goal of having a weekly movie night. As you progress through the list of goals, it will help facilitate a new dynamic in the home, and may make your top priority an easier and more fluid transition.

4.)    Set timelines/deadlines

It is one thing to have qualitative goals to work towards (that is, observational goals that cannot be touched or gauged numerically), but being able to quantify portions of these goals (having goals that you can set a numerical value to) helps to set the pace and give you something to work for. Deadlines and timelines provide consistency and give the goal maker a sense of organization, predictability and consistency. If your attitudes towards goals are more “laissez faire” than “get me there,” it becomes harder to stay motivated and involved. Setting timelines and deadlines also helps you stay focused. For example, if you know that a school paper is due on a particular date, you are more likely to get that paper accomplished by or before that date. On the other hand, if a teacher states that you can pass in a paper at any point during the semester, how many people do you think will be writing their paper the night before the semester ends?   Setting timelines and deadlines to accomplish goals assists in helping the goal maker more properly organize and prioritize their ambitions.

5.)    Do not set goals that overlap or negate one another.

In other words, you should not set goals that may have a negative impact on one or more of your other goals. If your goal is to buy a house for $400,000, but you only make $50,000 a year, than the goal that you set does not align with the practicality of your life. It may be reasonable to set a goal of obtaining a $400,000 home, but if you are basing this goal solely off of an incomparable income, than your goal is missing a few steps. You need to realign your goals and set smaller steps in between.

6.)    Your goals should have a positive attitude.

Try and stay “strength based.” Focus on the positive side of the goals. Do not set goals with a negative connotation. Negative thinking leads to negative experience. If you feel dark emotionally, the day may feel a bit more cloudy than usual. However, the opposite works as well.  If you attack your goals sheet with a positive outlook, you will feel better and more motivated to accomplish these goals as you progress.

Goals are an important aspect in one’s life. Goals are what help us organize and achieve some equilibrium in our lives. Although these are not listed above, here are some other very important facets of getting goals accomplished. First, WRITE THEM DOWN. Write down goals so you can not only remember them, but you can also organize them into a more tangible list. USE SUPPORTS, if necessary. Although there are many goals that you may be privately working on, don’t be afraid to ask others for help or support in accomplishing some of them. You have friends and family in your life for a reason. Don’t forget they are there! REWARD YOURSELF. You’ve accomplished some goals, you deserve something special. Positive reinforcement is a great way of continuing positive behavior. However, don’t reward yourself with something that will, again, negate one of your goals. Just because you’ve obtained your goal of losing 10 pounds through proper eating and exercise does not mean you should reward yourself by binge eating because “you deserve it.” Find other ways to constructively reward yourself.

Use these techniques and you will find that setting and attaining your goals is easier than you thought.

Categories: Uncategorized

The Art of Fighting: 7 Ways to Resolve Conflict

February 2, 2012 Leave a comment

As a family therapist, one of the major concerns families have is the amount of arguing that occurs in the home. Sessions tend to focus on how family members get into disagreements which then rapidly escalate into verbal fighting. Mainly, families report that a simple disagreement over either an idea or action tends to follow a particular path: disagreement à anger à shouting à complete disregard for finishing the conversation. I argue that this path leads to neither cooperation nor resolution. How then, do we express our difference of opinion without getting into shouting matches while at the same time getting our point across? Below is a list, with explanations, of how to handle the art of fighting.

1.)    Stay in control.

No matter how hot the issue gets, stay calm. Mindfulness, your ability to focus on the present and be in control of your actions, plays a key role here. You have very little, if any, control over other peoples actions, but you have complete control over your own. Understanding that concept will enable you to remain cool, calm, and collected. Do not allow emotions to take control of your actions, no matter how upset you become.

2.)    Be Respectful.

Whether or not you like, or even respect, the person you are in conflict with, be respectful. This is not only a good practice to maintain a level of civility and organization within the moment, but will also make you feel better about how you handled the situation later on. It is easy to say, “I said what I said because that person pushed me to it,” or, “I said it because I don’t respect the person, so why should I care.” This may make sense to you in the moment, but what about after? Telling someone off or degrading them simply because you are in conflict may appease the instinctive Id inside us all, but does little for our sense of morals and sense of self. If you treat the other person with respect, you will respect yourself later on for taking the high road.

3.)    Don’t Yell!!!

Easy to say, but difficult to accomplish. I begin this section by asking a question (a question I pose to all families I work with when discussing argument behaviors); why yell? Why is it that when we get into conflict we feel we need to yell at the other person? From a biological standpoint, yelling can release tension and excess energy. Yelling can also be a good stress reliever. When angry, sometimes we just want to scream. I’m not arguing against yelling, in fact, I believe it to be a good coping skill when used appropriately (maybe the topic of another article). However, when fighting with another person, yelling at that person has the adverse effect. If yelling to release stress, do it in an environment that is safe and give others fair warning (so as not to panic them). If yelling at someone, only one thing can happen, that person’s defenses go up. With defenses comes the opposition both intentional and unintentional and reciprocal yelling ensues. However, yelling from a behavioral standpoint suggests that the person is simply trying to be heard. We yell because we feel the other person is not listening to us. Therefore, subconsciously we feel that the louder we yell the more likely the person will be forced to listen to what we have to say; also a misconception.

Understanding why we yell is only a piece to the puzzle, however. Next is taking that knowledge and applying it to the art of fighting to understand why we SHOULD NOT yell. If we do not yell, we force ourselves to remain in control and mindful rather than be ruled by emotions. Second, if there is no yelling there is no reason for a person’s guards to go up, which then translates into more openness for discussion. Thirdly, if there is no yelling it forces you to listen to one another and be heard. If you feel your side is being listened to then you don’t have to get loud to make others hear you.

4.)    Listen to what the other person is saying.

If you are in conflict with someone, it’s probably because you disagree, at least somewhat, with what that other person is saying or doing. However, there is a reason behind why the other person feels or acts in a particular way. Listen to that “why.” Validate the person and where they are coming from, which may be difficult depending on the subject matter of the conflict. Staying strength based and looking for meaning within the language of their behavior is a healthier perspective to take. Perhaps there is an angle that you have overlooked that may put some sense to their thoughts or actions. Just because they think or act differently than you doesn’t mean they’re inherently wrong.

5.)    Keep the argument in the present

What you are arguing about is reflective of the current issue in the current moment. There is nothing worse than arguing about an issue just to have past conflicts thrown in your face, so why do it to the person you are fighting with? Making a reference to past issues is used as a means of one-upping a person to prove how right you are and how wrong the other person is, collectively. By using historical ammunition against the person you are fighting with you are simply trying to prove that you are overall “more right” than that person. This distracts from the current argument and blurs the conflict. Keep the argument focused on the current issue. If you find that you are using past arguments and conflicts as a means of proving your righteousness in the current conflict, maybe it’s because you have unresolved issues that need to be handled at a later time.

 

6.)    Do not use “YOU Statements”

“You Statements” are another way of throwing blame at another person and cause the person you are having conflict with to raise their defenses. “You Statements” equal blaming and make the person feel in the wrong. They are a way for the individual to not take any ownership of their part in the argument. As stated in a previous article, “5 Ways to Get Your Ideal Family,” every person in every argument has to take some type of responsibility for the argument. As a means of doing this drop the “You Statements” and replace them with “I Statements.” Instead of telling the person what they have done wrong, discuss how the incident or conflict makes YOU feel. Take out anything from the argument that even uses the word “You.” In doing so, the person you are in conflict with does not have their defenses raised because they are not feeling entirely blamed for the conflict.

 

7.)    Commit to resolve the issue

This final piece can be the hardest to commit to because sometimes it is harder to resolve a conflict when people feel strongly about their position. However, make a personal commitment to resolve the issue, and let the other person know this, both verbally and through your behaviors. This may mean that you win the debate, but it also may mean that you both agree to disagree. The key, however, is to not let the issue linger by not finishing and defining the end of the discussion or walking away. Walking away is easy because it provides a behavioral statement that says, “I’m done with this conversation,” but it also communicates that the other person is no longer worthy of your time. Also, by not finishing the conversation it adds to the historical ammunition for later arguments. Commit to resolve the conflict so both parties know where they stand and can move forward in a healthy manner.

In conclusion, fighting is something we all do. Fighting is inherent in relationships and at some point you will find yourself in a heated argument. If used properly, the points above can help you remain in control and ensure that a healthy relationship remains intact when all the smoke clears.

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How parents and counselors can communicate effectively with young children: Developmental theory as a guide

January 30, 2012 3 comments

First Psych Nerds Post by Dr. John Calicchia.

As a counselor of young children many parents frequently ask me how to communicate effectively with their children.  Similarly, as a counselor educator students often ask me how does developmental theory inform and guide counseling practice?  These seemingly disparate questions essentially have the same answer: developmental theory is necessary to understand critical stages but, more importantly, what modalities of expression and communication the child is able to use.  In order to effectively communicate with children and to permit developmental theory to guide our practice we must understand the “languages” children speak as they mature. The purpose of this article is to share with the reader a framework for understanding and using developmental theory to speak to children in the nonverbal language they know best: action based play and fantasy.

In order to simplify the multidimensional complexity of human psychological and physical development, theorists have attempted to describe maturational processes in one domain at a time. Students routinely study developmental theorists that have examined cognitive, psychosocial, moral, psychosexual, and interpersonal development to name but a few.  The problem students have with developmental theory is they tend to view only a single domain of the child’s development at a time. As good counselors we seek to view a child from a holistic lens and understand a child’s thoughts, emotions, personality, and worldview concurrently.  If we ask ourselves what commonalities do most or all of the developmental theorists share in their view of children we begin to understand and conceptualize a mega-developmental model to guide our work with children as parents and therapists (for further information on this perspective please read Santostefano & Werner).

If we look at the world of the very young child between birth and two years of age we see a variety of maturational progressions that theorists have described using stages and issues. Where theorists share common ground is that the child experiences all of these developmental issues in the same modality of body based action.  During this early developmental level a child does not have access to language or to play, therefore, they experience and construct meaning of the world through rituals of physical action.  Regardless of the developmental issue being negotiated the child of this age has only one venue from which to engage the world.  In order to effectively communicate with a child of this age we don’t need language or even pretend play. We need to physically interact in a nonverbal manner to communicate with the child.  We tend to forget that we experienced the world from our caregivers for two years without using language or play. This nonverbal action-oriented mode of expression in understanding is available throughout one’s lifetime but is dominant during this phase of development.

Around the age of two children are beginning to understand and use language, however, the preferred mode for engaging the world is based in fantasy and pretend play. During this period children are compelled to symbolize and animate as they construct meanings of the world around them. Eventually, children of this age began to use the rich environment of pretend play and fantasy to learn and negotiate developmental challenges. During this phase children still actively make use of the action based mode previously discussed and they also have access to some use of language although this mode does not become fully dominant till the teen years. If you observe children in the two through six age range it is obvious that action and imaginary play are the preferred languages that they “speak”.  In order to effectively communicate with a child of this age we don’t need much language. We do however need to recall and use our earliest forms of communication: action and imaginary play.  As with the nonverbal action-oriented mode this “imaginary play” form of expression is available throughout one’s lifetime but is dominant during this phase of development.

Around the age of six, when children are entering first grade, they become more focused on the outer world and are dominated less by play and fantasy themes. At this age children have developed solid language skills and become enamored with industry and production as they advance in school. However, the modes of action and imaginary play are still very active.  Children of this age will rarely sit idly and talk, they still prefer to speak and to communicate while in action and play. In order to effectively communicate with a child of this age we need to be able to integrate action, play, and language.

As a parent or counselor we now see the world of the preadolescent child filled with developmental stages that all need to be negotiated through action, imaginary play, and language.  Children have little difficulty speaking these three languages because they are developmentally pre-wired to do so.  In my experience it is often adults that have been so long dominated by the language mode they forget their abilities to communicate in other ways.  Parents and novice counselors of young children often don’t realize that their dominant use of language is not effective in communicating with young children.  Children I have worked with often express their understanding of the adult world as being filled with language they do not understand.  Often children will draw pictures or play to show that adults are speaking to them in a language they do not understand.  Do you remember the teacher in the Charlie Brown cartoon? Do you remember the voice with unintelligible fast-paced droning language? Children I have worked with have drawn pictures of adults with “big mouths” that are perceived in the same way.  Is it any wonder that I frequently hear from parents “I don’t understand… it seems as if they’re not listening to me or don’t understand what I am saying”. Could it be that we are not speaking to children in a language they can understand.  I frequently tell my students that using only language, without action/play, to speak to a child would be akin to counseling an adult using a foreign language they did not understand.  Let us turn to a brief commonsense strategy that counselors and parents can use to effectively communicate with young children.

First, when you’re attempting to communicate with a child don’t focus on language, in fact, don’t say anything. Observe what the child is doing by attending to their actions and imaginary play without speaking. (As a guideline I often tell beginning counselors to observe themselves on tape and limit themselves to the same number and type of words the child is using.  The tapes usually reveal the adult counselor using far too much language and not enough action and play.) As you observe the child you should easily be able to determine what developmental modes of expression and themes a child prefers using.  Second, using body based actions and imaginary play, naturally integrate the issues you wish to convey to the child without resorting to language or rupturing the child’s interactive play.  Let me share with you an example from a personal rather than clinical perspective that illustrates these two points.

I recall when my firstborn daughter was two and 1/2 years old and, as parents, my wife and I were attempting to persuade her to relinquish her pacifier. We tried “speaking” to our daughter about the various reasons why a big girl should not use a pacifier.  Despite our well-intentioned and creative verbal attempts we were unsuccessful and became frustrated.  As I thought of the situation from the perspective of a professional counselor I felt foolish.  I also felt that my daughter was ”tuning me out” since I had not the courtesy to speak to her in a language she understood. The next day I sat down for five minutes and just watched my daughter play with her animal farm. She was taking the farm animals and other assorted toys, showing them the way home, and making them a proper bed on the farm.  After my daughter understood that I was not going to say anything (much to her relief I might add) she invited me to play with one of the farm animals. We had fun and I also felt connected with my daughter. However, I still needed to promote my agenda for discontinuing with the pacifier but now I had a new modality to communicate my concerns.  Rather than saying a word, I looked for a way to use the play farm characters and the theme of taking them to bed.  A small brown Beaver with large front teeth grabbed my attention.  I aptly named him “Bucktooth Beaver” and grabbed a play pacifier from a doll’s crib.  We made a bed for him on the farm and I put him to bed while imploring “Bucktooth” to give up his binki (pacifier) like a big Beaver should.  Soon Bucktooth began spitting out his binki before he went to bed since it was bad for such beautiful teeth.  Needless to say, my daughter thought this was hilarious and entertaining.  She recruited me daily up to her farm to play “Bucktoothed Beaver”.  Not surprisingly, after a week my daughter relinquished her pacifier noting that it was bad for her teeth.  In retrospect, had I noted her developmental need for play early on I would have had much better success and less stress trying to rid her of the pacifier habit.

In summary, developmental theory not only informs us of stages, issues, and needs, but of the child’s ability and preference to communicate in a modality other than language.  Children negotiate developmental issues through action, imaginary play, and language.  Each child’s unique makeup determines the balance and preference for these modalities since development is inescapable and all children will need to act, play, and speak as they construct meaning of their world.

 

Dr. John A. Calicchia began at Bridgewater in 1993 in the Department of Counselor Education where he served as a faculty member, Graduate Program Coordinator and Department Chair before joining the Psychology Department in the Fall of 2007. He has taught a variety of courses including applied pre-adolescent counseling, research methods, and legal and ethical issues. Over the past 20 years, his research and clinical practice have focused mainly on children and adolescence and Dr. Calicchia has an eclectic array of peer-reviewed articles, presentations, and a co-authored book. Dr. Calicchia is a Licensed Psychologist/Health Service Provider in the state of Massachusetts and has special training in child and adolescent psychology. He completed his pre-doctoral internship and post-doctoral fellowship in clinical child psychology at McLean Hospital and served as a Child & Adolescent Psychologist at McLean Hospital & Harvard Medical School.

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