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Parenting Lessons from Horse Trainers

739035_2008-half-arabian-chestnut-mare_photo_1_1419540419_imgI walked out into the waiting room at work to meet a new family for therapy and they arrived in the waiting room at the same time. The father was pushing their 6-year-old son into the room. The son was very clearly afraid, hesitant and clingy. The father was irritated and dismissively said: “What are you afraid of? There is nothing to be afraid of. You’ve walked into waiting rooms before.”

I had never met this child but I intervened immediately, addressing him directly: “Would you like to stand here by the door for a bit until you feel OK?” He nodded shyly and clung to his father. Thankfully, the father followed my lead and stopped being demanding of his son. I then commented to the boy (also modeling emotional attunement for his parents): “You looked a little scared when you came in. It can be a little upsetting coming to a new place, can’t it? It can take awhile to feel safe.” He nodded his head again.

I then said hello to the parents and by that time the child was fine. He walked into the waiting room himself, checked it out and then calmly followed me toward my office. His fear and clinging disappeared and he was relaxed. Total elapsed time was about 30 seconds.

I recalled a saying used in horse training that applies directly to the patience and emotional attunement also needed for parenting:

“If you act as if you have 15 minutes, it will take all day. If you act as if you have all day, it will take 15 minutes.” 

Just as with horses and dogs, a lack of awareness of a child’s fears and impatience will merely escalate those fears. Pushing for progress in training will guarantee the opposite.

With that anxious child, all it took was someone to notice his fear and honor it. I allowed him to stay where he felt safe and get his emotional feet under himself, and he then was fine seconds later. I reflected his feelings, acknowledged them and validated them. It was normal for him to feel scared and I shared that experience with him.

Imagine if the father had kept forcing the child into the room, telling him there was nothing to worry about, and perhaps getting increasingly angry and agitated himself. It’s not hard to imagine the child having an angry tantrum, sobbing or otherwise becoming emotionally dysregulated. Instead of 30 seconds of delay, it could have turned into 30 minutes of upset.

And the parent would likely blame the child for behavioral problems.

Then the child gets labeled as having ‘ADHD” or “Oppositional Defiant Disorder” and his self-worth gets lower and his behavior worsens.

Long term, if the child and parent experience enough of these incidents, it leads to a strained relationship due to poor bonding or attachment.

Lack of emotional attunement is at the heart of insecure attachments or bonds in relationships.

So many parents — most in fact — are more focused on behaviors than emotions. They fail to notice very important information the child is sending in a rush to accomplish a task or have the child behave a certain way. They often get a negative result — upset kids, oppositional behavior, and arguing.

Of course, the parents in the waiting room were running very late for the appointment and were anxious themselves. That certainly did not help this child arrive in a new environment in a calm, relaxed mood. Again, parents might blame the child for becoming upset, not realizing their involvement in that incident.

I have experienced this “15-minutes rule” many times when dog training. When I want to give my dog a shower, I take some deep breaths and relax myself first. Then I calmly approach her and slowly lead her into the shower. If I try to rush the process and become impatient, she will resist, making the job take even longer. If she starts to get anxious, I pause and let her calm down before moving forward into the bathroom or shower.

The “15-minute rule” also applies in the therapy room when trying to push patients through an emotional experience too quickly can lead them to never fully feel safe being in those emotions.

For parents, learning to be aware of or attuned to a child’s emotions can improve a child’s behaviors in the short term and the strength of the relationship long term. Research also shows it leads to improved emotional intelligence, improved resilience and a a reduced incidence of anxiety and depression in adulthood. Big gains from such a simple skill — a skill that even horse trainers know about.

Lessons on Wildflowers and Gratitude on Mother’s Day

IMG_0398At a dinner party last night we discussed our mothers and what we had learned from them. I mentioned several lessons that I learned from my wonderful mother, Barbara, including hard work, courage and caring.

But while walking in the woods this morning I realized I also learned another important lesson that has helped me be emotionally healthy throughout my life. My mother taught me how to be grateful for the small wonders of life and this practice of gratitude has brought happiness to my life on a daily basis.

Yet my mother did not pontificate on philosophy, spiritualism or religion. How did she teach me this valuable lesson?

Every spring when I walk in the woods I think of my mother and search for the tiny spring beauties, the speckled dog-tooth violets and the reticent jack-in-the-pulpits on the woodland floor. She loved these May wildflowers and could identify so many plants, trees, birds and other natural wonders. A hike with her was a science lesson.

But most native wildflowers are not showy and are easily missed if one is not observant and patient. I realize now that a hike with my mother taught me to notice and appreciate even the most delicate and easily-over-looked delights. In this age of hyper-sonic movies and video games, this may be a lesson few learn today.

I believe these many woodland hikes with my mother were a training ground in gratitude. If we can notice tiny purple violets or experience the sound of raindrops on the leaf litter on the forest floor, perhaps this is preparation for recognizing and being joyful for other gifts — food, water, shelter, job, friends and love.

Of course, my mother also taught gratitude because she never said a negative thing about anyone and was rarely a complainer, despite many hardships, especially her many health conditions.

For years at the end of her life she had to wrap her arms and legs in heavy elastic bandages to prevent swelling from lymphedema and circulatory problems as a result of her breast cancer. Many others would have complained far more vocally. Yet she continued to garden, ride her bike daily, volunteer, travel and camp.

While I have many things to be thankful for — health, food, water, shelter, and a fulfilling career — I believe the practice of gratitude should begin with small things: the smell of apple blossoms on a damp spring day and thanks for being able to hike in the woods.

Too many of my patients over-focus on the negative aspects of their life, filling their brains with thoughts of real or imagined troubles and worries. They fail to notice the everyday parts of their lives that they may be grateful for. Perhaps they never had someone teach them this skill of noticing the wild violets and being grateful for another stroll in the spring woods.

Practice gratitude on this Mother’s Day! IMG_0398

What Type of Person Never Admits to Needing Therapy?

It is a truism in psychotherapy that those who actually should be attending therapy are the ones who rarely find their way into treatment.

In “Pack Leader Psychology” I categorized personalities into three types: Dominators, Submissives and Avoiders. Dominators are the types most likely to need therapy yet also least likely to seek treatment. However, the behavior of Dominators is also the most likely to send others into therapy.

Scratch the surface of anyone in therapy for common problems such as depression or anxiety or ADHD and you’ll usually find a Submissive or Avoider whose life has been made difficult by a Dominator.

This shows up in predictable ways such as:

  • a child with an intrusive, opinionated “helicopter parent” who develops behavioral problems or school attention problems due to the parent’s anxiety and over-control
  • a spouse who has been controlled, threatened or even abused by a partner and who is experiencing nervousness, anxiety and insomnia
  • a family member frustrated with a sibling who is attention-seeking, dramatic, and can never be wrong about anything
  • a spouse who believes she has to submit to her husband who argues about everything and cannot back down in a fight

Submissives and Avoiders come to therapy to find ways to cope with the Dominators in their lives. While I can certainly help these patients, especially by helping them be more assertive, my effectiveness is limited because the person who really needs therapy is not in the room.

I actually would love to require that everyone come to therapy WITH the person who is the source of their problems. That would really help the process along! All psychology is about human relationships, after all.

But getting Dominators to show up in therapy or stay in therapy for the long haul is the trick. Because of their strong reluctance to admit any faults, Dominators have great difficulty admitting that they might need therapy or might need to address any personal deficits.

Dominators can’t admit fault because they experience high levels of shame and, as a result, have great difficulty being accountable for their behavior. Challenge them on a mistake and they will lash out at others rather than take the blame.

Of course, if the Dominator were in therapy we could dig deeper and look at their insecure attachments to parents in their childhood to explain this self-protective behavior, but…

This leaves Submissives and Avoiders to seek help to address their own emotional problems that often developed as a result of the Dominator’s behavior. If the Dominator is “always right and never wrong” this sows chaos in the lives of those around them.

While Dominators are reluctant to accept blame, Submissives tend to be very self-blaming. These people-pleasers have learned to default to thoughts of self-criticism. Even if they have been treated terribly by a Dominator, perhaps abused physically or emotionally, Submissives may dismiss feelings of resentment or anger because they “shouldn’t feel that way.” The disconnect between the obvious reality of the Dominator’s inappropriate behavior and dismissal of the Submissive’s true emotions leads to confusion and a loss of authenticity or sense of self. Anyone would be anxious or depressed in that situation!

If you know someone who lacks accountability, does not like to be proven wrong, can’t apologize and hates criticism, you probably know a Dominator.

When I gently point out some behavior patterns in their lives, patients often come to the obvious conclusion themselves, saying: “Sounds like my wife/dad/sister is the one who should be in therapy.” Yep!

Was it depression or antidepressants that caused Andreas Lubitz to crash the Germanwings plane?

Was it depression or antidepressants that caused Andreas Lubitz to crash the Germanwings plane?

Antidepressant medications were found in Lubitz’s apartment, although there is no evidence he was taking them. Rather than blaming the depression, some writers are wondering if we shouldn’t blame the anti-depressants.

On the website Mad In America, David Healy, MD, argues in a blog “Winging it: Antidepressants and Plane Crashes that antidepressants double the risk of suicide. “They do so by causing psychosis, or by producing an agitation laced with suicidal or homicidal thoughts, or by producing an almost lobotomized state in which people will do things they would ordinarily never do, or by increasing blood alcohol levels if the person has had a drink.”

Remember that medical science does not know how antidepressants work or even if they do actually change brain chemistry in helpful ways. We do know that serotonin levels are not linked to depression, yet this neurotransmitter is what selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinepherine re-uptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are purported to alter.

What is most frightening to me about psychoactive drugs is this phrase from Healy’s post: “Once treated with a drug, a pilot is never the same again.” Many people do not realize that once most psychoactive drugs are ingested they permanently alter brain chemistry and functioning. Do we want pilots who are on or have been on these drugs? Or if they have been on the drugs, shouldn’t the FAA/NTSB be closely monitoring them?

Also on Mad In America, Julie Wood reports that at least 47 planes have crashed while the pilots were on antidepressants.

She provides extensive evidence of many other plane crashes that were or were likely to be suicides and shows a link between these crashes and psychoactive medication use.

Wood concludes:

  • Suicides involving aircraft are almost certainly under-reported;
  • The potential contribution of antidepressant medications to crashes is not being properly considered in crash investigations, and the FAA/NTSB are either unaware of, or are disregarding many side effects reflected in black box warnings;
  • Among the relevant side-effects that the FAA seems not to take into account are suicidal ideation and violent thoughts.
  • Commercial pilots are taking more antidepressant drugs, and lying about it more often, than the FAA acknowledges.

Big Pharma and physicians continue to pretend that psychoactive drugs are harmless “cures.”

Actually, they are far from harmless and they cure nothing.

Relationship Problems? Shame Is To Blame

I was conducting a therapy session for relationship problems with a married couple, their second, and the wife continually escalated to anger when any topic came up. Even when the husband kindly suggested they put their toddlers to bed before 10 pm so the couple could have some time together, the wife felt criticized and “attacked.” She failed to recognize his suggestion was an attempt to connect with her and was not solely a criticism. The root of their relationship problems was that her discomfort with feelings of shame led her to attack with anger.

In discussing this topic I’ll use the terms “Dominator” and “Submissive” that I describe in my book “Pack Leader Psychology.”

Dominators react to feelings of shame or low self-worth by attempting to control or dominate others so that they can manage, redirect or prevent shame-laden messages from affecting them. They have great difficulty admitting fault, apologizing, or being wrong. Dominators attack others with anger when they feel shame.

Submissives handle shame by attacking themselves with internal messages of shame: “See, you really are a loser. You need to change.”

Here is another example of how the feeling of shame plays out in relationships.

Janae, the Dominator wife, forgot to pick up the dry cleaning on the way home. David, the Submissive husband, asked if she picked up the dry cleaning. Rather than feeling the shame of her mistake and admitting her fault, she goes to great lengths to manage her pain. She makes excuses: “I had to work late” or “I didn’t think they weren’t going to be ready today.” Or she blames him: “You were supposed to text me to remind me.” Or she lashes out at him for an unrelated past mistake: “Well, you forgot to pick up the milk yesterday.” or “You should have taken them in last week.” These angry responses are “reactive emotions,” with shame as the “core emotion.”

To Janae, the feeling of shame is so intolerable that she must defend herself from experiencing it at all costs, even if it means damaging her relationship with her husband.

Shame plays out in minor ways like this or in major relationship problems, such as domestic violence. Dominators who go to the extreme of physical or emotional abuse cannot tolerate any sense of being criticized or rejected. The perception that their partner is withdrawing love in any way, no matter how minuscule, triggers their fearful reaction. So they become aggressively confrontational, to the point that they are then legitimately criticized and their partner does withdraw her love.

Sadly, Dominators then get exactly what they are working to avoid: The feelings of shame they dislike are now piled on even more deeply and intensely.

In my session with the couple, the wife eventually began crying, was resentful and stopped engaging in session. I could see she knew she had over-reacted, but she could not admit that. Even though I recognize the roots of shame underlying her behavior, it is difficult not to dislike a Dominator when she behaves in this way. I have to remind myself that those who need the most love often behave in ways that often drive love away. Finding compassion for these hurt people is essential, but can be a challenge for those in relationship with them who often trigger to anger themselves in response.

The other side of this relationship equation is the Submissive partner, who also is mishandling feelings of shame. He may take on more than his fair share of blame for the argument. He may learn to avoid directing shaming messages at his spouse because he fears her aggressive reaction. He wants to keep peace and will do anything to avoid causing a fight.

I also believe that because Submissives dislike the feeling of shame themselves, they avoid placing blame or shame on their partner. It’s as if Submissives know the pain of shame and want to protect their partners from it. This well-intentioned behavior, however, leads to a lack of assertiveness that enables the Dominator to continue to act out and avoid feelings of shame.

An attack-and-withdraw pattern then ensues in the relationship, leading to a painful and disabling feeling of disconnection.

If both partners could learn to manage feelings of shame in a healthy, self-compassionate and self-accepting manner, they would experience much less turmoil in the relationship. The Dominator would feel less urge to lash out at the Submissive. The Submissive would feel able to fairly criticize the Dominator and would not submit unthinkingly to the Dominator’s wrath. Both could be open and vulnerable about their feelings of shame with each other, which would lead to emotional intimacy, a closer bond and a deeper connection.

Shame is the root cause of most relationship problems and many other behavioral problems. It is sad that today so many people seem to have great difficulty handling this feeling in an emotionally healthy manner.