relationships

Breaking through the Barriers of Teenage Communication

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By Alicia Cox, MA, AMFT

Being a teenager can be very confusing and emotional at times. This can make it difficult for a parent to understand how to approach their teen and how to develop a strong bond with them through this stage of their life. There are several factors you should keep in mind when connecting with your teenager to help make sure you are creating a space that is empathetic and understanding.

As we develop, we have several psycho-social milestones we are expected to complete at by the end of each life stage. The milestone that teenagers are trying to develop is their individual identity. Teenagers are beginning to separate their identity from the identity of their family. Friends begin to have a larger influence on them than their parents, so it is important for parents to find a balance where they are giving the teen their space, but are still available when teens need more than their friends can provide.

We know now that human brains do not fully develop until we are in our mid-twenties. The area of the brain that is still maturing through our teen years and into our mid-20’s is the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for executive functioning, which includes planning, attention, inhibition and working memory (process actions that are happening to you in the present moment).  This can make it much more difficult for teenagers to be organized and use self-control.

In our teen years, we also rely heavily on our amygdala for processing information about the world around us. This is the area of the brain that is responsible for our emotions. Processing information in the emotional center of the brain can cause teens to react with stronger emotions in situations where an adult may not react so strongly.

Keeping these facts in mind, here are some tips to use when trying to establish better communication between you and your teen:

  1. Create a safe space: You will want to create an environment for your teen that lets them know you are open source to talk to that is free of judgment. This may include not reacting strongly to what they are saying and holding off on giving advice unless they ask for it.
  2. Active listening: This can be as easy are nodding and saying “Uh huh” as they are speaking or repeating important points back to your teen. These are skills many therapists use. It can let your teen that you are connecting with them so they feel more open to sharing.
  3. Withhold your impulse reactions: When they admit to something that you disagree with, withhold your gut reactions as best as you can. If this means leaving the room for a couple minutes to collect your thoughts, tell your teen you need to take care of something really quick and leave the room. Come back and rejoin the conversation when you feel like you have a clear mind. Reacting impulsively can sometimes close a teen off.
  4. Make time for your teen: Being available to your teen consistently is very important in establishing a more open relationship.
  5. Give them space: It is sometimes most effective to let them approach you. Once you have put some of these skills into motion, your teen will start to know they can rely on you and will learn to come to you with any conflicts in their life. If you are really concerned and they are not coming to you, you can always ask if they are doing okay and if there is anything they want to talk about but don’t come off as pushing too hard for them to speak up. That can work against you and cause them to close off even more.
  6. Check in with yourself during the conversation: Make sure your body language isn’t giving the impression that you are closed off (arms crossed, not looking at them in the eye) or that you are holding a judgment (expression on your face when they say something that elicits an emotion).

All these tips are things that will need some rehearsal so it is important to be patient once putting this into practice. It may be helpful to practice these skills on other people in your life before using them with your teen.


References

Johnson, S. B, Blum, R. W & Gleed, J. N. (2009) Adolescent maturity and the brain: the promise and pitfalls of neuroscience research in adolescent health policy. Journal of Adolescent Health, 43 (3), 216-221.

Newman, B. M. & Newman, P. R. (2008) Development through life: a psychosocial approach. (10th ed.). Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Publishing.

Sather, R. & Shelat, A. Understanding the teen brain. University of Rochester Medical Center Health Encyclopedia. Retrieved from: https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/

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On Parenting: A Classroom for Healing the Generational Conflict Cycle

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“…The universe is part of this one cry,
every life is noted and is cherished,
and nothing loved is ever lost or perished.”
Madeleine L’Engle, A Ring of Endless Light

By Jason Briggs, MA

According to the Global Survey of Violence Against Children put out by the United Nations, “every year, between 500 million and 1.5 billion children worldwide endure some form of violence”. 1 Alice Miller, PhD, is a psychologist, sociologist, philosopher and renowned author of many books on child abuse describes in her book, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Societies Betrayal of the Child, how past child abuse is meted out against children in innumerable ways and typically by parents who assume consciously or not, a “for your own good” maxim.  Miller shows how the many parenting approaches endorsed in western society produce a multi-generational conflict cycle, through overt and covert trauma bonds. These bonds within the child/caregiver relationship are felt and aren’t impacted by analytical thought so they touch all our families equally, regardless of educational level, socio-economic status, race, etc. This blog will explore one aspect of this generational conflict cycle and be a part of a series of blogs with some solutions offered in each blog. The goal is to help parents identify and begin healing to eventually resolve the generational conflict cycle. (See Alice Miller’s book: For Your Own Good: Hidden Roots of Cruelty and Violence in Child Rearing for exploring the ways this cycle is perpetuated.)

The generational conflict cycle begins when parents with unhealed emotional wounds unconsciously attempt to get their own emotional needs met by their children. Parents will do this both consciously and unconsciously and often see their children through the veil of their own unfinished business (by bypassing this aspect of their powerful inner life), which consists of “…past internalized perceptions, which are ‘frozen’ and usually stemming from childhood.” The effects on children are they must idealize their parents to survive as their own healthy needs go unmet, the ability to soothe themselves is further perceived as hopeless, and the true self (the entire access to ones innate inner life: feelings, thoughts, wants, needs, choices, decisions, beliefs, sensations, dreams, fantasies) goes into hiding in the unconscious while a false self emerges. This child’s false self is the one that complies and relates from the parental emotional wounds as solidified judgments, which are projected onto their children, seen predominately as children’s misbehavior, oddities, attitudes, or any other judgement. This is the way a parent unconsciously ends up placing the emotional needs of the parent above their children’s emotional needs and maintains the generational conflict cycle.

Emotionally neglected children, commonly grow up to be adults who in turn, emotionally neglect their inner emotional world and those of their children. Our neglected emotional and psychological needs by the now adult parent are automatically passed on to the next generation. This generational conflict cycle, when denied, operates as generational conflicts maintained in the parent/caregiver/child relationship and takes many forms (See Alice Miller’s book: Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Societies Betrayal of the Child, for exploring more in depth ways we function in society to hold power over children, to the betrayal of children).

As parents, cultivating a mindful stance that addresses the neglect of our own unmet emotional needs helps shift the parenting stance from mindless to mindful. The hope of making this shift from the mindless to the mindful means choosing to end the bypassing of doing one’s own inner work and being self-responsible for the condition of one’s own mind. One way to do this is by choosing to see our pain as an opportunity for healing and growth, rather than a curse. Exploring that opportunity as a healing choice means to begin addressing one’s own generational conflict cycle, regardless of the time, patience, and persistence required. Therapy that helps promote healing maintains that parents focus on certain essentials to recovery, by: 1) slowing down and understanding the steps in going from ‘zero to sixty’, 2) learning about projection and it’s guises (projection is an emotional wound that is seen in another, because it is been denied in ourselves), 3) seeking therapy that focuses on experiential work that at some point includes body awareness work, 4) learning about the nature of the psyche, what constitutes its dynamics, and explore if and when a self-help approach is limiting our efforts to heal (as we may be unknowingly perpetuating a belief  that we must do our inner work alone), 5) being willing to learn about mindsight research in attachment and effective parenting (see Daniel Siegel’s work), and the way the caregiver’s role, emotions, and psyche condition impact our children’s healthy and unhealthy development, 6) exploring new and creative ways to heal and nurture ourselves as parents, as the cause for our truly being there for our children, 7) being willing to cultivate understanding and compassion in our healing and growth process, as parents.

All parents have a thankless job with most never consciously wanting to harm their children, and appealing to that truth, I see this daily in service to my clients who are parents, and see this is true, being mostly out of awareness. The generational conflict cycle may mean we need help in understanding its causes, effects, and what heals it.  One way to explore essentials to healing it is to enjoy a great read by Charles Whitfield, MD, researcher and psychotherapist from Atlanta, Georgia, titled, Boundaries and Relationships, Knowing, Protecting, and Enjoying the Self. For help with understanding these skills more experientially by using emotional, psychological, or spiritual disciplines, ask yourself, “Is it time to give a gift to myself and my children by seeing my own emotional and psychological pain as a classroom for learning about my inner life?” For me, the answer is an unequivocal YES! Before I cultivated a proper focus on addressing my own unmet emotional and spiritual needs, I was a smiling, charming and successful parent but was only one half alive, meeting only my physical and mental needs! We are here to live life fully and with joy. As parents, one way of taking steps toward that fullness of life is to explore our choices for healing, and when ready, to decide to begin to explore what it means to see parenting as a classroom for healing our own generational conflict cycle.


References

Miller, Alice (1984). Thou shalt not be Aware, society’s betrayal of the child    Toronto, Canada. Collins Publishers

Miller, Alice (1997).  Drama of the Gifted Child, the Search for the True Self   Garden City, New York.  Basic Books

Trout, Susan (1990).  To See Differently, Personal Growth and Being of Service Through Attitudinal Healing. Three Roses Press

Whitfield, Charles (1993).  Boundaries and Relationships, Knowing Protecting and Enjoying the Self.  Health Communications, Inc.

https://www.compassion.com/poverty/child-abuse.htm United Nations, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children. Toward a World Free From Violence: Global Survey on Violence against Children, October, 2013.

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The Voices Within, Part 1

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By Paul Hubbard, MA

Voice Dialogue work is a psychotherapy modality developed by Drs. Hal and Sidra Winkelman Stone. It has roots in Jungian psychology and involves accessing different sub-personalities like the inner child and the inner critic, among many others. Most people go through their lives more strongly identified with particular sub-personalities, or primary selves, while generally dis-identifying from other, more opposite sub-personalities, or disowned selves.

In Voice Dialogue work one learns to identify both their primary selves, and their disowned selves. The primary selves are the part of the personality that one tends to be more identified with. For example, the selves that help one to better fit into and/or be more successful within a social circle or in the world in general that one moves in.

In Jungian terminology, the disowned selves are a part of the shadow (Stone & Winkelman, 1989). The shadow represents the aspects of “ourselves that we do not know or refuse to know, both dark and light. It is the sum total of the positive and negative traits, feelings, beliefs, and potentials that we refuse to identify as our own.” It is the “part of us that is incompatible with who we think we are or who we are supposed to be.”

In our relationships, we tend to attract others who reflect the disowned aspects of ourselves. The more these various aspects have been disowned or more deeply buried in the unconscious the stronger the reaction tends to be when we encounter others who live out more overtly the disowned parts of ourselves. “We can be helpless victims to the multitude of relationships in our lives that reflect our disowned selves or we can accept the challenge of these relationships and ask: ‘How is this person or this situation, my teacher?’”

What is common to all sorts of relationships is that people get in bonding patterns which are parent-child energetic dynamics wherein one person tends to be more heavily identified with a parental role and the other person tends to be more heavily identified with a child role. Bonding patterns happen in all types of relationships, including, but not limited to romantic relationships and actual parent-child relationships. The parental sides tend to be more power oriented and the child sides tend more towards vulnerability.

One of the goals in therapy using voice dialogue work involves accessing the aware ego, which is the part of oneself that has some separation from the sub-personalities and can even, through increased awareness, be aware simultaneously of two or more very different parts of oneself, like parental and child aspects, or our power and vulnerable sides. This is not necessarily an easy process and can be hard work at times, but it is possible even though generally one is not aware of a bonding pattern until after it expresses. With development of the aware ego, one can avoid getting into bonding patterns as intensely and then get out of them more quickly when they do occur. A key to this awareness is understanding the role of vulnerability in a relationship and how a disowned or unconscious vulnerability can be a trigger for going into a bonding pattern. If only one of the two people in the bonding pattern has some awareness that a bonding pattern is happening then it is much easier to avoid it being so painful. Having a sense of humor and being able to laugh is a good indicator of accessing the aware ego.


References

Richo, D. (1999). Shadow Dance. Boston, MA: Shambala

Stone, H. & S. Winkelman (1989). Embracing Our Selves. San Rafael, CA: New World Library

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The Components of Trustworthy Relationships

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By Cassandra Vogeli, Psy.D. Candidate, M.A.

“Life isn’t fair. But Relationships can be.” – Janet Hibbs (2010)

In her book, Try to See it My Way: Being Fair in Love and Marriage, Janet Hibbs outlines the importance of fair give and take within relationships. We each come into life from families with various ideas about what is fair, what we are entitled to (constructive and destructive), and how to go about getting such needs met. Unfortunately, sometimes these ideas about fairness and the ways we go about meeting our own needs can end up working against our closest relationships and us.  Nagy & Krasner (1986) suggest that in order to create healthy and balanced relationships as well as get our needs met in a way that is constructive within our relationships; we need to understand our own fairness model. Hibbs (2010) outlines four very useful and practical elements in the process of being fair within relationships; first I will outline them below and then use them in an everyday example so that you can see what they look like in action.

  • The first is a concept called, reciprocity. Reciprocity as defined by Hibbs is, “The balance of mutual care and consideration.” Reciprocity is the act of giving to a partner or relationship with trust that they will reasonably give back in some way at some time. Be aware not to mistake this with tit-for-tat giving, where one might say, “I will do this for you (ONLY) if you do this for me”; this type of giving erodes trust.
  • The second concept is acknowledgment. Acknowledgement, although often undervalued and overlooked, is kind of a one-two punch for constructively giving in a relationship. It serves to give credit to your partner, affirm their good intentions, as well as validate their reality. This means putting yourself in your partner’s shoes and recognizing their effort or positive intentions.
  • Next there are (fair) claims. Fair claims are part of an earned entitlement based on past giving within the relationship, to ask for one’s needs to be met, or to request certain destructive behaviors to end. In order for a claim to be “fair” it should: (1) be realistic (2) not take advantage of your partner’s trust and (3) it must be earned between the two relating individuals.
  • The last element outlined by Hibbs is trust. Trust is created through each of the aforementioned: reciprocity, mutual acknowledgement of efforts and intentions, as well as fair claims. Trust can be built or depleted through different acts of reciprocity, acknowledgment, and fair claims. Trust grows when needs are considered, even if they are not met, this is important to remember. The more trust that exists within a relationship, the more a healthy “closeness” can exist between the couple (Hargrave & Pfitzer, 2003). Hibbs’ summarizes trust beautifully: “In a healthy relationship, you’re able to give freely and trust that you’ll receive care in return.”

Now let’s see these four elements of fairness in action. In the first example I will outline a situation in which reciprocity, acknowledgement, fair claims, and trust are not utilized:

Consider the couple James and Sara, who have been married for 12 years.  One evening Sara is working late, so James decides to cook dinner and have it ready when Sara arrives home. Sara enters and is so pleased to find dinner on the table for her.  After the couple finishes eating, Sara enters the kitchen and James sits down on the couch to wind down from the day. Upon entering the kitchen Sara sees a gigantic mess awaiting her, dishes everywhere, food all over the floor and counter tops, pans coated with a layer of sticky residue, and all she can think is, ‘why does he always make such a mess when he cooks!’ Trying to hold it together, Sara begins to clean the kitchen silently hoping that James will join in to help her. By the time she wades through the mess by herself, she is fuming, and her attempts to curb her aggression are futile. Unable to ignore the bubbling aggression, she explodes at James. “You always make a huge mess when you cook! You never clean up after yourself!” Triggered by her aggressive outburst James retorts, “You never appreciate anything I do, nothing is ever good enough! I tried to make dinner for you as a favor and this is the thanks I get?” Sara, still fuming, shoots back, “I didn’t ask for this! I would have rather picked up a pizza on the way home then have to clean up this mess!” The fight escalates and the emotional “bank account” within the couple system is eroded.

Now let’s look at how this situation may have gone using the four elements of fairness Hibbs outlines:

This time when Sara enters the kitchen she decides to handle things a bit differently.  Using acknowledgement, she states, “I appreciate you making dinner for me, I know you did it as a favor because I had a long day.” Not disregarding her own feelings, she makes a fair claim, “I am exhausted after today. Could you clean the kitchen for me?” James tired as well, acknowledges Sara and also makes a claim, “I bet you’re tired, I apologize for making such a big mess. I’m really beat as well, would it be okay with you if we left the dishes tonight and did them in the morning?” Sara acknowledges his effort and agrees while she also makes a claim for James to be more conscious of making a mess when he cooks and the couple leaves the situation having built trust and reciprocity, instead of putting more stress on their relationship. Following these guidelines may help to ensure that we grow from mistakes and shortcomings, rather than depleting our relationships unintentionally.

If you are interested in learning more about fairness within relationships, or about your own fairness model, I recommend checking out “Try to See it My Way” by Janet Hibbs. It is a wonderful book full of great resources and hands on exercises to really help your self-awareness and your relationship with your partner grow. Happy reading!


References

Boszormenyi-Nagy, I., & Krasner, B. R. (1986). Between give and take: A clinical guide to contextual therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Hargrave, T. D., & Pfitzer, F. (2003). The new contextual therapy: Guiding power of give and take. New York: Routledge.

Hibbs, J. B., Getzen, K. J. (2010). Try to see it my way: Being fair in love and marriage.

Penguin Group, New York, NY.

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