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What Therapy and Astronauts have in Common

You’ve probably heard that astronauts practice their work underwater, right? I remember learning that as a child and thinking it was “so cool,” because I could then pretend that I was an astronaut the next time I went swimming. ;^) Remembering this recently, I was struck by how similar this is to therapy. Keep reading and I’ll explain.

Before going into space, astronauts practice and practice and practice. They practice the things they’ll do, the experiments they’ll run, and the hardware they’ll install. But since their work in outer space will be conducted in a zero-gravity situation, the astronauts have had to come up with a way to simulate zero-gravity here on Earth. To this end, they have built enormous pools for practicing their work, because the buoyancy of being underwater simulates the zero gravity of outer space. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s close enough, and it allows them to get more skilled and confident in their tasks.

So, therapy. Therapists help clients identify skills that need strengthening, provide education when needed, and sometimes, our offices can be very much like an astronaut’s pool. Problems with your Mother-in-law? We’ll role-play your last conflict and you can practice gentle assertiveness. Trouble staying calm when your toddler is acting like a wild animal? You be the toddler and I’ll be the parent, and we’ll experiment with different responses. Perhaps the client is a 4th grader who has difficulty navigating around a bully-we’d practice what she could say the next time the bully calls her a name. And sure, it isn’t exactly the same, but it’s about as similar as outer space and a pool. What’s exactly the same is you. You (or your kid) are present in both situations. Any thinking and feeling about the problems, with a focus on thinking positively and practicing solutions, will help train your brain to move automatically towards those solutions in future experiences. If you can practice and get skillful in the simulation, then you’ll be a step closer towards responding the way you’d like in the real world.

Many Thanks to NASAExplores for the use of the above photo.

How Does Play Therapy Work?

A dad I know asked me about play therapy the other day. Does it really work? How does it work? How can play be therapy?

“Oh,” I said, “Good Question!” ;^)

Children aren’t cognitively or verbally able to process everything that happens to them in their lives (shoot, neither am I!) nor do they have the cognitive or linguistic development for insight-oriented talk therapy (what most adults are doing in their individual therapy sessions). Therefore, children find healing and growth some other way. Enter play therapy.

Play therapy does work, and my favorite explanation of how play therapy works is this: it gives the child the opportunity to re-experience and/or communicate about something from their normal life, in a context that is (a) safe, (b) under their control, and (c) associated with different emotions. There’s some fancy neurological stuff going on when this happens, but the upshot is that it allows the child to re-experience something in a way that heals.

Let’s consider a hypothetical example… Little Johnny’s father drinks beer every night and basically ignores his family when he drinks. Johnny comes to my office one day and selects the family dolls. He finds my miniature beer cans (yes, I really do have miniature beer cans) and puts one in the father doll’s hands. Then he has the child doll take the beer can from the father and hide it. Do you see what’s going on here? In Johnny’s real life, he might want to take the beer from his father, but he cannot safely do so. In the play therapy setting, he can pretend to do the thing he wants to do, and he can feel control over the whole situation in a way he never can in real life. The other major component of how this works is that while he is re-experiencing this, his brain is firing up the same neural connections that fire up in real life-but this time Johnny is in a different emotional state. He’s calmer and feeling less of whatever uncomfortable emotions he typically feels when his father drinks-and this is very healing.

Want a real-life example? From my own life, of course, I can’t share real client stories. My toddler daughter has curly hair. Our nightly hair-brushing is frequently an unpleasant chore (and trust me, I’ve tried every product/trick/approach known to mama.) But the upshot is that sometimes she fusses–a lot.  Some time ago, I gave her the brush and let her brush my hair. She loved this and we now do it regularly. When she brushes my hair, she grins and laughs and says: “Mama: CRY!” So I whimper and cry and say all of the phrases she usually says to me when I brush her hair, all to her great delight. Honestly, I didn’t think much about it the first few times we did that, but eventually I caught on-she’s creating her own little play therapy routine. Now every time we play that game, although I’m “crying” on the outside, I’m smiling inside… play therapy works! 

Teaching Kids about Emotions

Teaching emotional intelligence is an enormously important thing for a parent to do. But how? For younger kids, it’s all about giving them the language to conceptualize and communicate about their experiences. This is worth repeating: kids must acquire language tools that will allow them to (a) conceptualize their experiences, and (b)
share/communicate about them-and the child’s emotions are a very important part of their experience. So, it’s important to teach this stuff, and luckily, it’s also pretty easy. 

Step 1: Identify your own most common emotions. You can choose from a very wide variety of emotions (happy, annoyed, silly, angry, loving, sad, excited, frustrated, anxious/worried, joyous), but pick 3 basic ones to start. 

Step 2: Start describing your own emotions, and say why you are feeling them. (out loud, in front of your child.) Deliver this information in an emotionally neutral way, as much as possible. It may help if you first identify predictable times/events when you feel those feelings, so that you’ll be prepared with a bit of a script. (For
example: annoyance while driving, joy at the end-of-the-day-reunions, feeling silly or happy during playtimes…) 

Step 3: At essentially the same time, begin reflecting for your child what emotions you think they might be feeling
at any given moment. For example: “Ooh, you look really frustrated.” or “You look like you’re feeling proud of yourself for that!” If you have a child with a good attention span for discussion, you could add in an extra sentence that clarifies what s/he was doing that suggested a particular emotion. For example: “You’re yanking on that strap and
yelling-I can tell that you are really frustrated!” Also at this stage-start describing emotions you observe in other people around you.  “Look Susie, Billy is crying. He feels sad because you grabbed his toy.” Or, “Wow, John, look at Grandma’s big smile-you really made her feel happy when you said that.” (Note: for those of you thinking: “You
can’t make anyone feel a particular emotion… I agree with you-but this is a conversation with a small child. They’re learning vocabulary and observational skills. We’ll save the higher level self-actualization lesson for 4th grade. ;^) ) 

Step 4: After you’ve been describing your own emotions and reflecting your child’s emotions for her/him for a few
weeks, start asking your child if they are feeling a particular emotion. For example: Oh, “did that loud noise scare you?”  or “Are you feeling angry that I took that away from you?” The goal here is simply to support their understanding and use of emotional vocabulary. 

Step 5/Level 2: Once your child begins to use emotions in their daily vocabulary, give yourself a pat on the back! Annnddd…  now you’re ready for level two… time to begin talking about how you manage your emotions.
For example, you might say: “When I feel scared, I take a deep breath and talk about it with someone I love.” Or “When I feel angry, I take a deep breath, close my eyes and count to 10.” (side note: taking a deep breath is both an ancient wisdom and a modern miracle-a technique that we’ve know about for eons, and one that modern research repeatedly
finds to be effective in managing many things.) Anyway, this conversation teaches your child some all-important coping skills (for dealing with the inevitable stressors of life) while underscoring the message that you are an empathetic and supportive parent.) 

Allright, there ya go! Good luck, and take care. 

Update: a silly (but cool!) graphic to illustrate this entry: 


Top Parenting Conflicts, part 1

It can be such a relief to know that other people are struggling with the same challenges that you are. It can also be
comforting, in a way, to find out that there are problems out there
that you don’t have. (well, it’s true!) To that end, this post is the
first in a multi-part series about the most common parenting conflicts.

I did a small survey and have summarized the results below. (In other
words, this is neither scientific nor exhaustive.) But I think you’ll
find common ground all the same.

Typical areas of conflict between parents:

  • Discipline: (strategies, thresholds, undermining vs united front.)
  • Anxiety: (differing levels and differing triggers)
  • Self-care: (Who gets personal time! Who is getting more! There is Never Enough!!)
  • Sex: (hormones, feeling over-touched, the importance of reconnection.)
  • Lifestyle issues: (diet, TV, language, work vs play)
  • Balance and Sharing: (household labor, ‘owning’ the kids, reading parenting books, extended family, role modeling, competing for love.)

Steps that can help:

  • Define a common problem.
  • Use “I” statements. Avoid blame and ‘making wrong.’
  • Active listening skills (body language, focus, “uh huh,” rephrasing, empathetic response.)
  • Reach out. Ask friends, family, professionals. Ask for help. Ask
    for camaraderie. Ask for distraction. Ask for advice. Both parents must
    reach out!
  • Acceptance, compromise, communication.
  • Counseling. You get the help of an ‘expert’ with training and
    experience in these exact issues, plus a dedicated hour each week to
    focus on growth.

In future posts, I will delve a little deeper into the different categories. First up: discipline. Come back for more!

Oh, Good Question!

Earlier this week I had an initial appointment with a physical therapist. Towards the end of our visit, he gave me some instructions for things to do at home. I sortof understood, but wanted clarification, so I asked a question. This is where things went downhill.

Apparently, my question was a dumb one. I know this because the PT told me so. He tilted his head, raised his eyebrows, smirked a bit, and then repeated what he’d just said, with extra emphasis. The overwhelming message was “You should not have asked that-you should have been able to figure it out. Something must be wrong with you if you had to ask that question.”

Really? Really?

In the Beyond Birds and Bees workshop, I tell parents to first respond to their kid’s questions about sex by saying “oh, good question!” While there are many reasons to do this, the primary reason is that it reinforces to your child that you are an askable parent. I think I want this PT to take my class. ;^)

From the perspective of the well-informed, basic questions can seem a little funny. But let’s remember 2 things-1, to be “ignorant” simply means that the person hasn’t learned it yet. And 2, each of us also started out with small steps, teasing out nuance and learning how to make our own inferences. If 1 + 2 = 3, does 2 + 1
also equal 3? …that sort of thing. That equation looks laughably simple now, but it was a lot harder when you were 5.

As parents, we know that learning is a life-long process, and that no one is an expert in everything. Children who are encouraged to ask questions, who see their parents acknowledging that they don’t know everything but will work to find answers-those kids are better prepared for a successful adulthood. Kids who don’t get that-the ones
who are made fun of for asking “dumb” questions-will stop asking questions. It’s sad, too, because as the questions stop, the learning slows. At the end of the day, the people who asked questions are the people who will know more.

So this week, in whatever you do, consider responding to every question with: “oh, good question.” Because, really, they are all good questions.


Is your school-aged child being teased? Kids can really be mean to
each other, and when our kids hurt, we hurt, too. The older they get,
the harder it is to fix things for them. The good news is that there
are concrete, positive steps you can take to help your child handle
Respond to this problem on two levels.

  1. First, focus on your child’s emotional needs. Don’t rush to
    problem-solving too fast. Allow your child to feel their feelings and
    vent them in a safe place with a safe person (you!) Actively listening
    (which includes eye contact, focus, repeating back, and empathetic
    noises like “uh-huh,” etc.) will actually provide a measure of relief.
    It feels good to tell your story to someone who cares and is really
  2. Then, when your child is done venting, ask if he wants your help,
    and if so, how he wants you to help. You may discover that all they
    wanted was to talk about it. That really happens! Even kids sometimes
    just want validation, not problem-solving. Alternatively, your child
    might ask for a “fix.” Depending on your child’s age, a phone call to
    parents or teachers, etc might be appropriate. However, no one can
    really make them stop, so we’d better move on to level two.

One of the most important things we parents must do for our kids is prepare them for The Real World.
The Real World is imperfect and full of unfairness, bullies, and
cheating. Much as we might like to, we cannot shield our kids from
teasing (or other unpleasantness) for their whole lives. It will find
them, so we’d better teach them how to deal with it on their own.

Here are steps to take and lessons to teach your child in order to
better equip him to deal with teasing (or other crummy peer behavior).

  1. Overall ego-strengthening. If a child feels anxious about a
    particular aspect of themselves, they are likely to react more when
    teased. The reaction is the teaser’s reward. (This is why some people
    say to “just ignore them”). But, a child who can recognize her own
    diverse strengths will have an easier time internally rejecting the
    rude comments. If your child doesn’t feel sensitive or vulnerable to a
    comment, they won’t react. This makes it less ‘fun’ for the teaser, so
    it won’t happen as much.
  2. Humor. Nothing disarms like humor. There’s a great scene in the old Steve Martin movie “Roxanne
    where his character (who has a very large nose) makes fun of a guy who
    had made fun of his nose. Steve Martin embarrasses his teaser by
    humorously pointing out that the teasing comment was uncreative and
    common. What a way to reclaim the upper hand!
  3. Insight into the other person’s possible motivations. It helps to
    know, for example, that kids sometimes tease because they feel insecure
    themselves. This also emphasizes the important life lesson “It’s not
    about you,” which can be powerful and life-changing.
  4. Teach your child the power of not being defensive. “Yeah,
    I’ve got a big nose. And, I’m the 4th grade champion at basketball.
    Wanna play?” In this example, the child being teased acknowledges the
    truth in what the bully is focusing on (which eliminates any ‘sting’,
    and the shifts the power) then refocuses the conversation onto an
    aspect of himself where he is powerful and capable.

I hope that these ideas are helpful. For more information, or to ask
questions, leave a comment or send me an email through the website!

Kids, Food Additives, and ADD/ADHD

The February 2008 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics has an article in it that I found to be practically earth-shaking. The journal’s editors and the article’s author, Alison Schonwald, MD, FAAP, review a very recent British study that looked for possible links between hyperactivity and food preservatives and/or artificial colorings. And the short answer is-they found it.

This study, which is described by the AAP editors as “a carefully conducted study in which the investigators went to great lengths to eliminate bias and to rigorously measure outcomes” concludes that there is a connection between hyperactive behavior and food preservatives (particularly sodium benzoate) and artificial food colorings.

Just to repeat myself a third time-this reliable, peer-reviewed, double-blind etc etc etc study found a connection between some of the foods that our kids eat (the junky, chemical-laden ones) and hyperactive behaviors. Wow.

Of course, this isn’t news to some. Parents have anecdotally found this link themselves over the years. It’s just that this is the long-awaited “scientific study” that ‘proves’ it.

Another interesting note in the AAP article-they state that they were skeptical in the past and now acknowledge that they were wrong.

Did you feel that tremor? ;^)

If you’d like to read the AAP article, or the full text of the original British study, they can be found here:
Please note that I have no connection with this website nor the association behind it. (But I do think their ideas are very interesting!)

Update: Here is a link to another article describing a food-ADHD connection.

Update #2:  Here are the food colorings that were connected:

• Tartrazine (E102): Yellow food coloring

• Quinoline yellow (E104): Yellow Food coloring

• Sunset yellow (E110): Orange yellow coloring

• Carmoisine (E122): Red food coloring

• Ponceau 4R (E124): Red food coloring

• Allura red (E129): Red food coloring

• Sodium benzoate (E211): Artificial preservative

Keeping the Calm

Parenting is really hard work. Some days are harder than others, and
everybody loses their temper sometimes. The parents I work with
acknowledge this truth, but also want to grow and change. They want to
lose their tempers less frequently, and when they do succumb-they want
the overall experience to be yet further muted. So how to stay calm is
an important, and common topic in my office-especially for those
parents who didn’t have role-models for calmness in their own

Today’s post is taken with permission from the newsletter of
Celebrate Calm, written by Kirk Martin. Kirk is a father who has
created a program to help families, schools, and churches better
respond to kids with ADHD. Here’s what he says about how to keep the
calm in your home:

Control yourself. Realize that we cannot control our
kids, nor should we want to. Our primary job as parents is to control
ourselves and model proper behavior. How many of us throw our adult
tantrums when something goes wrong, then expect our children to remain

Make a conscious choice to remain calm no matter what your child or
spouse does. Screaming, or withdrawing emotionally, only makes the
situation worse. When we are calm, we can problem solve instead of
creating more problems.

Have self-respect. We are not responsible for our children’s
behavior, attitudes and actions. If my son is in a bad mood, so be it.
I choose not to give in to or join his pity party. If your child comes
into the kitchen barking orders and being rude, you are not obligated
to respond. Walk away calmly, go about your business and let your child
know when he’s ready to talk and be polite, you’ll help him with

If my son refuses to do his homework, then he will suffer the
consequences at school. Our children need to learn that they are
responsible for their choices and I am responsible for mine.

Assume a calm posture. Each time I enter my teenage son’s room, I
ask myself, “Do I want to have a conversation or a confrontation?”
Instead of standing in his doorway barking orders, I sit down and put
my feet up on the ottoman. It is impossible to yell and lecture when
you assume a calm posture.

Take care of yourself first before trying to take care of others.
Exercise, walk your dog, pray, listen to music, whatever helps you be
calm. Make a decision that no matter what your child or spouse does,
you are only responsible for your actions. This liberates parents and
frees children to be responsible for their choices.

Be the calm. When your home is spinning out of control, draw others
into your calm by sitting down and coloring or reading a book. Let
everyone else know that you are in control. You’ll be surprised at how
your children (and spouse!) begin to calm down once you do.

I absolutely love the image of the father sitting down in a chair,
feet up, to have a conversation with his son. The tone and likely
outcome of the conversation will be so much better as a result of the
father’s proactive choices. And actually, this trick would be useful in
many different relationships-spouses included. Another trick in the
same category is to purposefully slow your physical movements-a lot.
This is especially true when parenting toddlers, as they absorb our
energy directly. If, for example, your toddler is misbehaving and you
need to pick her up-try doing it in slow-motion. It’s likely that she
will (a) not get even more wild in response to your response…, and (b)
hopefully absorb some calm, quiet energy instead.

One final thought of my own… while all of the above suggestions are
good, I suggest working on taking care of yourself first. When self
care is lacking, everything else is harder to handle. It’s almost
impossible, for example, to stick with a conscious choice to stay calm
if you’re stressed, hungry, and tired to begin with. So, getting
yourself back up to the ‘baseline’ is first, and then you can tackle
the other steps.

Good luck!

Turning Bratz into Teacherz

“What should I do about those Bratz dolls?”

As a parenting
coach, I hear this question from time to time. Many parents find them
offensive–whether due to their clothing, makeup, or accessories like
the party bus with a hot tub and martini glasses. It’s not just parents
that worry, either: the Bratz dolls were specifically named in a report
by the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the
Sexualization of Girls, who stated that it was “worrisome when dolls
designed specifically for 4 to 8 years olds are associated with an
objectified adult sexuality.”

So, what’s a
parent to do? Refuse to buy them? Outlaw them at home? But what about
when she goes to a friend’s house? And she wants them for her birthday!
Here are some suggestions.

Keep these thoughtz in mind:

  • Remind yourself
    that you only get to wage a certain number of battles in your parenting
    lifetime–so it’s smart to pick and choose them. Temper your response
  • As offensive as
    you may find them to be, playing with Bratz doesn’t automatically do
    harm. Really! It’s not on the scale of, say, eating lead paint. Rather,
    their effect is on your daughter’s mind, her assumptions, her beliefs
    and values. And that effect, thank goodness, can be mitigated by an involved parent.
  • This is a teachable moment. Consider this an engraved invitation to talk to your daughter about at least one important belief, family value, or social construct.

Actionz to take:

  • Ask your
    daughter questions. What does she think of their clothes/makeup? How
    old does she think the dolls are? (Most kids say pre-teen or teen.)
    Does she know anyone that age who looks like that? If she saw a
    real-life person dressed in a short mini-skirt, fishnet stockings and a
    feather boa, what would she think of them? Does she think a real girl
    her age should dress like that? Why/why not?
  • Share your
    concerns. Calmly discuss your top 2 or 3 complaints with your daughter.
    Very important note: remember to present your opinions in gentle terms.
    If she identifies with the dolls, and you are overly critical of
    them–she may well experience your criticism as personal. It might be
    helpful to be prepared to throw in something positive about the dolls.
  • Compare and
    contrast how the dolls spend their time with how real pre-teens/teens
    spend their time. The Bratz motto is “Passion for Fashion”… ask your
    daughter about what she really feels passionate about. (also: where are the adults? Who bought that party bus?)

One last
thought–this is an opportunity to role-model that it’s possible for
parent and child to disagree, to discuss calmly and to still love each
other afterwards. You’re planting seeds of many varieties right
now–most importantly: (a) we can still discuss when we don’t agree, and
(b) it’s good to think critically about the messages/values we
encounter in our lives. Truly, those life lessons are some of the most
important and healthy ones we can teach our children. Let me know how
it goez.

What Kids Really Want for Christmas

In their book Unplug the Christmas Machine, authors Jo Robinson and Jean Staeheli say that kids (deep-down… sometimes way deep-down) want the following 4 things for Christmas, and I definitely agree.

  1. A relaxed and loving time with their family.
  2. Realistic expectations about gifts
  3. An evenly paced holiday season
  4. Reliable family traditions

What a list, huh!?! Surely this is a “Christmas list” that any parent would love to get!

Note: The book (Unplug the Christmas Machine) is a great
one. Click on the link below to read more or to purchase it.  FYI, the
quote above is reprinted with permission from Alternatives for Simple
Living – – 800-821-6153.