That time when I conducted a scientific research study designed to test the effectiveness of using hypnosis to break down the space-time continuum and transport 18 people to the future so they could fill-out perfect March Madness brackets.

Flower in Bricks

You can probably tell by the title of this post that I’m pretty stoked about scientific research right now.

I typically don’t do much empirical research. That’s why it was a surprise to me and my colleagues that, about six weeks ago, I spontaneously developed a research idea, dropped nearly everything else I was doing, and had amazing fun conducting my first ever March Madness bracket research project.

My research experience included a roller coaster of surprises.

I somehow convinced a professor from the Health and Human Performance department at the University of Montana to collaborate with me on a ridiculous study on a ridiculously short timeline.

My university IRB approved our proposal. Seriously. I submitted a proposal that involved me hypnotizing volunteer participants to transport them into the future to make their March Madness bracket selections. Then they approved it in six days. How cool is that?

I managed to network my way onto ESPN radio (where we called the study ESP on ESPN; thanks Lauren and Arianna) and onto the Billings, MT CBS affiliate (thanks Dan).

And, this is the teaser: with only 36 participants, the results were significant at the p < .001 level.

Damn. Now you know. Scientific research is so cool.

Of course, there’s a back-story. While you’re waiting in anticipation to learn about those p < .001 results, you really need to hear this back-story.

Several years ago, while on a 90-minute car ride back from Trapper Creek Job Corps to Missoula, my counseling interns asked me if I could hypnotize someone and take them back in time so they could recall something that happened to them in a previous life. I thought the question was silly and the answer was simple.

“Absolutely yes.” I said, “Of course I could do that.”

Questions followed.

My answers included a ramble about not really believing in past lives and not really thinking that past life hypnotic regression was ethical. But still, I said, “If someone is hypnotizable, then, I’m sure I could get them into a trance and at least make them think they went back to a previous life and retrieved a few memories. No problem.”

Have you ever noticed that once you start to brag, it’s hard to stop. That’s what happened next, for several years.

Somewhat later in another conversation, I started exaggerating bigly. I decided to extend my imaginary prowess into a fool-proof strategy for generating a perfect March Madness bracket. I said something about, “Brains being amazing and that you can suddenly pay attention to the big toe on your right foot and, at nearly the same time, project yourself not only back into your 7-year-old self, but forward in time into the future. That being the case,” I waxed, “it’s pretty obvious that I could hypnotize people, break down the space-time continuum, and take them to a future where all the March Madness basketball games had been played and therefore, they could just copy down the winners and create a perfect March Madness bracket.”

Through this process, I would turn a one-in-a-trillion possibility into absolute certainty.

I enjoyed bragging about my imaginary scenario for several years. That is, until this year, when, I decided that if I was set on bragging bigly, I should also be willing to put determined it was time to put my science where my mouth is (or something like that). It was time to test my hypnosis-space-time-continuum hypothesis using the scientific method.

We designed a pre-test, post-test experimental design with random assignment to three conditions.

Condition 1: Education. Participants would receive about 20 minutes of education on statistics relevant to making March Madness bracket picks. My colleague, Dr. Charles Palmer, showed powerpoint slides and provided insights about the statistical probabilities of 12s beating 5s and 9s beating 8s, and “Blue Blood” conferences.

Condition 2: Progressive Muscle Relaxation. The plan was for Daniel Salois, one of my graduate students and an immensely good sport, to do 20 minutes of progressive muscle relaxation with this group.

Condition 3: Hypnosis. I would use a hypnotic induction, a deepening procedure, and then project participants into the future. Instead of having everyone fill out their brackets while in trance, I decided to use a post-hypnotic suggestion. As soon as they heard me clap twice, they would immediately recall the tournament game outcomes and then fill out their brackets perfectly.

Unfortunately, on short notice we only recruited 36 participants. To give ourselves a chance to obtain statistical significance, we dumped the progressive muscle relaxation condition, and just had the EDUCATION and HYPNOSIS conditions go head to head in a winner-take-all battle.

Both groups followed the same basic protocol. Upon arrival at the College of Education, they were randomly assigned to one of two rooms (Charlie or me). When the got to their room, they signed the informed consent, and immediately filled out a bracket along with a confidence rating. Then they received either the EDUCATION or HYPNOSIS training. After their respective trainings, they filled out a second bracket, along with another confidence rating.

We hypothesized that both groups would report an increase in confidence, but that only the EDUCATION group (but not the HYPNOSIS group) would show a statistically significant improvement in bracket-picking accuracy. We based our hypotheses on the fact that although real education should help, there’s no evidence that anyone can use hypnosis to transport themselves to the future. We viewed the HYPNOSIS condition as essentially equivalent to raising false hopes without providing help that had any substance.

IMHO, the results were stunning.

We were dead on about the EDUCATION group. Those participants significantly increased their confidence; they also improved their bracket scores (we used the online ESPN scoring system where participants can obtain up to a maximum of 320 points for each round; this means participants got 10 points for every correct pick in the first round, with their potential points doubling in every round, and concluding with 320 points if they correctly picked the University of North Carolina to win the tournament).

Then there was the HYPNOSIS group.

HYPNOSIS participants experienced a small but nonsignificant increase in their confidence. . . but they totally tanked their predictions. We had a participant who picked Creighton to win it all. We had one bracket that had Virginia Tech vs. Oklahoma State in the final. We had another person who listed a final score in the championship game of 34-23. When I shared these results to our research class, I said, “The HYPNOSIS participants totally sucked. They did so bad that I think they couldn’t have done any worse if we had hit them all on the head with a 2 x 4 and given them concussions and then had them fill out their brackets.”

So what happened? Why did the HYPNOSIS group perform so badly?

When told of the outcome, one student who had participated offered her explanation, “I believe it. I don’t know what happened, but after the hypnosis, I totally forgot about anything I knew, and just wrote down whatever team names popped into my head.”

My interpretation: Most of the people in the HYPNOSIS group completely abandoned rational and logical thought. They decided that whatever thoughts that happened to come into their minds were true and right.

It’s probably too much of a stretch to link this to politics, but it’s hard not to speculate. It’s possible that candidates from both parties are able, from time to time, to use charisma and bold claims to get their supporters to let go of logic and rational thought, and instead, embrace a fantastical future.

Another faculty member in our department offered an alternative explanation. She recalled the old Yerkes-Dodson law. This “law” in psychology predicts that optimal arousal (or stress) is linked to optimal performance. In contrast, too much arousal or too little arousal impairs performance. She theorized that perhaps the hypnosis participants had become too relaxed; they were so under-aroused that they couldn’t perform.

It seems clear that the hypnosis did something. But what? It wasn’t a helpful trip to the future. Some friends suggested that maybe they went to the wrong year. Others have mocked me for being a bragger who couldn’t really use hypnosis to break down the space-time continuum.

What do you think? Do you have any potential explanations you’d like to offer? I’d love to hear them. And, if you have any ideas of which scientific journal to submit our manuscript to, we’d love to hear that as well.

Teenagers and Depression

Every year, every month, and every day, many teenagers complain of feeling down, depressed, or sad and some of them just act with immense irritability. You probably knew that. But, how many teens are experiencing symptoms of depression?

Estimates are wide ranging. The National Institute of Mental Health reported that approximately 12.5% of U.S. youth from 12-17 years-old experienced at least one episode of major depressive disorder. That’s a huge number of American teenagers (about 3 million).

Add to that the many more teenagers who complain of feeling depressed or down, but who don’t officially meet the diagnostic criteria for clinical depression. By some estimates, that brings the number to close to 50% of teens who are consistently bothered by sad, bad, and irritable feelings.

If you’re a parent of a teen, it’s easy to feel concerned about your teenager’s emotional health.

You may have questions like the following

  • Is my teenager clinically depressed or just going through the normal emotional ups and downs of adolescence?
  • Should I take my son or daughter to a mental health professional?
  • What about medications? Are any of the antidepressants safe and effective for teenagers?

The answers to these questions are complex. It’s hard to tell whether a teenager is in a normal emotional angst or experiencing something more insidious and chronic. And, the answer to the question about whether antidepressant medications are safe and effective with teens is a solid: “Maybe, but maybe not.”

In the latest Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast, Dr. Sara and I take on the serious topic of teenage depression. There are no laughs or giggles, but you’ll get to hear Sara ask me many questions about teen depression, and you’ll get to hear me try to answer them, which is sort of funny. You’ll hear the answer to my favorite trivia question: “What percent of children “recovered” from their depressive symptoms in the first-ever double-blind, placebo-controlled study of antidepressant medications?” And yes, once again, you’ll hear Sara find a way to mention sex during our podcast.

If you have teenagers yourself, or you know someone who has teenagers, or you’re a helping professional who works with teenagers, this podcast may be of interest or helpful to you. Check it out here on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

If you listen and like it, please share it, and then do us one little favor—rate the podcast on iTunes. That way Sara and I can keep climbing up the charts in reality—rather than just in our imaginations.

JSF Dance Party

Calling All Parents

This post is an invitation for you to participate in a research study. We’re evaluating the effects of listening to the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcasts.

To participate, click on the link below. You’ll be taken to an anonymous online survey. It has 57 items and should take you 15 minutes or less to complete. If you’ve already listened to some or all of the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcasts, that’s okay, you can still participate. Just click on the link and get started:

Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast Survey — Pretest

After filling out the survey, sometime during the next week you should listen to episode 2 (Practically Perfect Positive Discipline, Part I) or episode 5 (Sleep Well in 2017) [or both] of the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcasts. To find the podcasts, go to iTunes https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2 or go to Libsyn:  http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/.

After listening to the podcast, please click on the link below and complete the questionnaire again.

Parenting Podcast Post-Test

If you want to be entered in a drawing to win a copy of the book, “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen,” either “like” or comment on the podcasts using Facebook or Libsyn between now and April 30. The winner of the book will be announced on May 1, 2017.

Thank you very much for helping us with this research project. We will post a summary of the results when we’re finished.

Sincerely,

John SF

John and Davis Improve their Moods
John and Davis Improve Their Moods

Handouts from South Carolina

This past Thursday I had the honor of offering a full-day workshop on “Tough Kids, Cool Counseling” to the South Carolina Association of School Psychologists. For anyone who has misplaced their handout or who wants additional content, I’m including two handouts in this post.

The first handout includes all the powerpoint slides (except the cartoons and empowered storytelling).

SCASP 2017 for Handout  

The second handout includes additional content corresponding (mostly) to the content in the powerpoint slides.

SCASP Extra Handout

For more information, you can check out our Tough Kids, Cool Counseling book, published by the American Counseling Association, https://www.amazon.com/Tough-Kids-Cool-Counseling-User-Friendly/dp/1556202741/ref=sr_1_10?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1491153299&sr=1-10&keywords=sommers-flanagan:

Tough Kids Image

Or you can check out our book on working effectively with parents: https://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1491153770&sr=1-4&keywords=sommers-flanagan

 

Goodnight, South Carolina

Some days . . . the news is discouraging. Some days . . . evidence piles up suggesting that nearly everyone on the planet is far too greedy and selfish. On those days, I can’t help but wonder how our local, national, and worldwide communities survive. It feels like we’re a hopeless species heading for a cataclysmic end.

Sunset on StillwaterBut then I have a day like yesterday. A day where I had the honor and privilege to spend time hanging out with people who are professional, smart, compassionate, and dedicated to helping children learn, thrive, and get closer to reaching their potentials. I’m sure you know what I mean. If you turn off the media and peek under the surface, you’ll find tons of people “out there” who wake up every day and work tremendously hard to make the world just a little bit better, for everyone.

For me, yesterday’s group was the South Carolina Association of School Psychologists. They were amazing. They were kind. About 110 of them listened to me drone on about doing counseling with students who, due, in part, to the quirky nature of universe, just happen to be living lives in challenging life and school situations. The school psychologists barely blinked. They rarely checked their social media. They asked great questions and made illuminating comments. They were committed to learning, to counseling, to helping the next generation become a better generation.

All day yesterday and into the night I had an interesting question periodically popping up in the back of my mind. Maybe it was because while on my flight to South Carolina, I sat next to a Dean of Students from a small public and rural high school in Wisconsin. Maybe it was because of the SCASP’s members unwavering focus and commitment to education. The question kept nipping at my psyche. It emerged at my lunch with the Chair of the Psychology Department at Winthrop University.  It came up again after my dinner with four exceptionally cool women.

The question: “How did we end up with so many people in government who are anti-education?”

Yesterday, I couldn’t focus in on the answer. I told someone that–even though I’m a psychologist–I don’t understand why people do the things they do. But that was silly. This morning the answer came flowing into my brain like fresh spring Mountain run-off. Of course, of course, of course . . . the answer is the same as it always has been.

The question is about motivation. Lots of people before me figured this out. I even had it figured out before, but, silly me, I forgot. Why do people oppose education when, as John Adams (our second President) said, “Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower classes of people, are so extremely wise and useful that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”

The answer is all about money and power and control and greed and revenge and ignorance. Without these motivations, nearly everyone has a “humane and generous mind” and believes deeply in funding public education.

Thanks to all the members of the South Carolina Association of School Psychologists, for giving me hope that more people can be like you, moving past greed and ignorance and toward a more educated and better world.

Good night, South Carolina. It’s been a good day.

 

When Teens Talk Back

Sara P Boy Photos

A big thanks to Rick McLeod for inventing this title for a class he taught many years ago at Families First in Missoula.

For tips on how parents can handle it when teens talk back, listen to the latest episode of the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast. You can catch it on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

Or Libsyn: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

Here’s the blurb for When Teens Talk Back:

In this episode, Dr. Sara decides to consult with Dr. John about her hypothetical “friend’s” teenage and pre-teen boys, who coincidently, happen to be the same ages as Sara’s own children. Other than being a disastrously bad consultant, John ends up complaining about how disrespectful our culture is toward teens. This leads Sara and John to affirm that, instead of lowering the expectation bar for teens, we should re-focus on what’s great about teenage brains. Overall, this turns out to be a celebration of all the great things about teenagers . . . along with a set of guidelines to help parents be positive and firm. Specific techniques discussed include limit-setting, do-overs, methods for helping teenagers calm down, role modeling, and natural, but small consequences.

If you want more info on this topic, check out the re-post below, originally posted on psychotherapy.net

A Short Piece on Disrespecting Teenagers

We have an American cultural norm to disrespect teenagers. For example, it’s probably common knowledge that teens are:
• Naturally difficult
• Not willing to listen to good common sense from adults
• Emotionally unstable
• Impulsively acting without thinking through consequences

Wait. Most of these are good descriptors of Bill O’Reilly. Isn’t he an adult?

Seriously, most television shows, movies, and adult rhetoric dismiss and disrespect teens. It’s not unusual for people to express sympathy to parents of teens. “It’s a hard time . . . I know . . . I hope you’re coping okay.” Stephen Colbert once quipped, “Nobody likes teenagers.” Even Mark Twain had his funny and famous disrespectful quotable quote on teens. Remember:

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

This is a clever way of suggesting that teens don’t recognize their parents’ wisdom. Although this is partly true, I’m guessing most teens don’t find it especially hilarious. Especially if their parents are treating them in ways that most of us would rather not be treated.

And now the neuroscientists have piled on with their fancy brain images. We have scientific evidence to prove, beyond any doubt, that the brains of teens aren’t fully developed. Those poor pathetic teens; their brains aren’t even fully wired up. How can we expect them to engage in mature and rational behavior? Maybe we should just keep them in cages to prevent them from getting themselves in trouble until their brain wiring matures.

This might be a good idea, but then how do we explain the occasionally immature and irrational behavior and thinking of adults? I mean, I know we’re supposed to be superior and all that, but I have to say that I’ve sometimes seen teens acting mature and adults acting otherwise. How could this be possible when we know—based on fancy brain images—that the adult brain is neurologically all-wired-up and the teen brain is under construction? Personally (and professionally), I think the neuroscience focus on underdeveloped “teen brains” is mostly (but not completely) a form of highly scientifically refined excrement from a male bovine designed to help adults and parents feel better about themselves.

And therein lies my point: I propose that we start treating teens with the respect that we traditionally reserve for ourselves and each other . . . because if we continue to disrespect teenagers and lower our expectations for their mature behavior . . . the more our expectations for teenagers are likely to come true.

John and his sister, Peggy, acting immature even though their brains are completely wired up.

Peg and John Singing at Pat's Wedding

Revisiting the 3-Step Emotional Change Trick — Including a Video Example

One of my current students asked where she might find a video example of the 3-Step Emotional Change Trick. Since I made up the Emotional Change Trick in 1997, the answer was easy: No such video exists.

Then I remembered that this past summer, while putting together video content with Wiley for our Clinical Interviewing text, I did a video demo of the 3-Step ETC with a 12-year-old girl. Due to space considerations, the footage didn’t make it into the text, but Wiley sent me a copy of the 6:44 minute clip.

Keep in mind that the girl in this video is exceptional. She’s the daughter of some friends and she agreed to be filmed for educational purposes. My sense is that she could have taught me the 3-Step ECT, but I tried to make it look like I was teaching her anyway.

Here’s the youtube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITWhMYANC5c

And below you can read a version of the Emotional Change Technique adapted from Tough Kids, Cool Counseling:

*************************

The Three-Step, Push-Button Emotional Change Technique

            An early and prominent Adlerian therapist, Harold Mosak, originally developed and tested the push-button technique as a method for demonstrating to clients that thinking different thoughts can effectively change mood states (Mosak, 1985). The purpose of Mosak’s technique was to help clients experience an increased sense of control over their emotions, thereby facilitating a sense of encouragement or empowerment (Mosak, 2000, personal communication).

            Mosak’s push-button technique can be easily adapted to work with young clients. When we implement this technique with younger clients, we are playful and call it an emotional change trick. When using this technique with teenagers, we describe it as a strategy for gaining more personal control over less desirable emotions. In essence, the three-step, push-button, emotional change technique is an emotional education technique; the primary goal is to teach clients that, rather than being at the mercy of their feelings, they may learn some strategies and techniques that provide them with increased personal control over their feelings.

The following example illustrates Adlerian emotional education principles and Mosak’s push-button technique expanded to three distinct steps.

Case example.  Sam, a 13-year-old European American boy, was referred because of his tendency to become suddenly stubborn, rigid, and disagreeable when interacting with authority figures. Sam arrived for his appointment accompanied by his mother. It quickly became obvious that Sam and his mother were in conflict. Sam was sullen, antagonistic, and difficult to talk with for several minutes at the outset of the session. Consequently, the Three-Step, Push-Button Emotional Change Technique (TSPB) was initiated:

Preparation/Explanation.

JSF:     I see you’re in a bad mood today. I have this . . . well, it’s kind of a magic trick and I             thought maybe you’d be interested. Want to hear about it?

S:         (Shrugs).

JSF:     It’s a trick that helps people get themselves out of a bad mood if they want to. First, I need to tell you what I know about bad moods. Bad moods are weird because even             though they don’t really feel good, lots of times people don’t want to get out of their bad mood and into a better mood. Do you know what I mean? It’s like you kind of want to stay in a bad mood; you don’t want anybody forcing you to change out of a bad mood.

S:         (Nods in agreement.)

JSF:     And you know what, I’ve noticed when I’m in a bad mood, I really hate it when someone comes up to me and says: “Cheer up!” or “Smile!”

S:         Yeah, I hate that too.

JSF:     And so you can be sure I’m not going to say that to you. In fact, sometimes the best thing to do is just really be in that bad mood—be those bad feelings. Sometimes it feels great to get right into the middle of those feelings and be them.

S:       Uh, I’m not sure what you’re talking about.

JSF:     Well, to get in control of your own feelings, it’s important to admit they’re there, to get to   know them better. So, the first step of this emotional change trick is to express your bad feelings. See, by getting them out and expressing them, you’re in control. If you don’t  express your feelings, especially icky ones, you could get stuck in a bad mood even    longer than you want.

As you can see, preparation for the TSPB technique involves emotional validation of how it feels to be in a bad mood, information about bad moods and how people can resist changing their moods or even get stuck in them, hopeful information about how people can learn to change their moods, and more emotional validation about how it feels when people prematurely try to cheer someone up.

Step 1: Feel the feeling. Before moving clients away from their negative feelings, it’s appropriate—out of respect for the presence and meaning of emotions—to help them feel their feelings. This can be challenging because most young people have only very simplistic ideas about how to express negative feelings. Consequently, Step 1 of the TSPB technique involves helping youth identify various emotional expression techniques and then helping them to try these out. We recommend brainstorming with young clients about specific methods for expressing feelings. The client and counselor should work together (perhaps with a chalk/grease board or large drawing pad), generating a list of expressive strategies that might include:

  • scribbling on a note pad with a black marker
  • drawing an angry, ugly picture
  • punching or kicking a large pillow
  • jumping up and down really hard
  • writing a nasty note to someone (but not delivering it)
  • grimacing and making various angry faces into a mirror
  • using words, perhaps even yelling if appropriate, to express specific feelings.

The expressive procedures listed above are easier for young clients to learn and understand when counselors actively model affective expression or assist clients in their affective expression. It’s especially important to model emotional expression when clients are inhibited or unsure about how to express themselves. Again, we recommend engaging in affective expression jointly with clients. We’ve had particular success making facial grimaces into a mirror. (Young clients often become entertained when engaging in this task with their counselor.) The optimal time for shifting to Step 2 in the TSPB technique is when clients have just begun to show a slight change in affect. (Often this occurs as a result of the counselor joining the client in expressing anger or sadness or general nastiness.)

Note: If a young client is unresponsive to Step 1 of the TSPB technique, don’t move to Step 2. Instead, an alternative mood-changing strategy should be considered (e.g., perhaps food and mood or the personal note). Be careful to simply reflect what you see. “Seems like you aren’t feeling like expressing those yucky feelings right now. Hey, that’s okay. I can show you this trick some other day. Want some gum?”

Step 2: Think a new thought (or engage in a new behavior). This step focuses on Mosak’s push-button approach (Mosak, 1985). It’s designed to demonstrate to the client that emotions are linked to thoughts. Step 2 is illustrated in the following dialogue (an extension of the previous case example with John and Sam):

JSF:     Did you know you can change your mood just by thinking different thoughts? When you think certain things it’s like pushing a button in your brain and the     things you think start making you feel certain ways. Let’s try it. Tell me the funniest thing that happened to you this week.

S:         Yesterday in math, my friend Todd farted (client smiles and laughs).

JSF:     (Smiles and laughs back) Really! I bet people really laughed. In fact, I can see it makes you laugh just thinking about it. Way back when I was in school I had a friend who did that all the time.

The content of what young people consider funny may not seem particularly funny to adults. Nonetheless, it’s crucial to be interested and entertained—welcoming the challenge to empathically see the situation from the 13-year-old perspective. It’s also important to stay with and build on the mood shift, asking for additional humorous thoughts, favorite jokes, or recent events. With clients who respond well, counselors can pursue further experimentation with various affective states (e.g., “Tell me about a sad [or scary, or surprising] experience”).

In some cases, young clients may be unable to generate a funny story or a funny memory. This may be an indicator of depression, as depressed clients often report greater difficulty recalling positive or happy events (Weerasekera, Linder, Greenberg, & Watson, 2001). Consequently, it may be necessary for the counselor to generate a funny statement.

S:         I can’t think of anything funny.

JSF:     Really? Well, keep trying . . . I’ll try too (therapist and client sit together in silence for about 20 seconds, trying to come up with a positive thought or memory).

JSF:     Got anything yet?

S:         Nope.

JSF:     Okay, I think I’ve got one. Actually, this is a joke.  What do you call it when 100 rabbits standing in a row all take one step backwards?

S:         Huh?

JSF:     (repeats the question)

S:         I don’t know.  I hate rabbits.

JSF:     Yeah.  Well, you call it a receding hare line.  Get it?

S:         Like rabbits are called hares?

JSF:     Yup.  It’s mostly funny to old guys like me.  (JSF holds up his own “hare line”)

S:         That’s totally stupid, man (smiling despite himself). I’m gonna get a buzz cut pretty             soon.

When you tell a joke or a funny story, it can help clients reciprocate with their own stories.  You can also use teasing riddles, puns, and word games if you’re comfortable with them.

We have two additional comments for counselors who might choose to use a teasing riddle which the client may get wrong. First, you should use teasing riddles only when a strong therapeutic relationship is established; otherwise, your client may interpret teasing negatively. Second, because preteen and teen clients often love to tease, you must be prepared to be teased back (i.e., young clients may generate a teasing riddle in response to a your teasing riddle).

Finally, counselors need to be sensitive to young clients who are unable to generate a positive thought or story, even after having heard an example or two. If a young client is unable to generate a funny thought, it’s important for you to remain positive and encouraging. For example:

JSF:     You know what. There are some days when I can’t think of any funny stories either. I’m sure you’ll be able to tell me something funny next time. Today I was able to think of some funny stuff . . . next time we can both give it a try again if you want.

Occasionally, young clients won’t be able to generate alternative thoughts or they won’t understand how the pushbutton technique works. In such cases, the counselor can focus more explicitly on changing mood through changing behaviors. This involves getting out a sheet of paper and mutually generating a list of actions that the client can take—when he or she feels like it—to improve mood.

Sometimes depressed young clients will need to borrow from your positive thoughts, affect, and ideas because they aren’t able to generate their own positive thoughts and feelings. If so, the TSPB technique should be discontinued for that particular session. The process of TSPB requires completion of each step before continuing on to the next step.

Step 3: Spread the good mood. Step 3 of this procedure involves teaching about the contagion quality of mood states. Teaching clients about contagious moods accomplishes two goals. First, it provides them with further general education about their emotional life. Second, if they complete the assignment associated with this activity, they may be able to have a positive effect on another person’s mood:

JSF:     I want to tell you another interesting thing about moods. They’re contagious. Do you  know what contagious means? It means that you can catch them from being around other  people who are in bad moods or good moods. Like when you got here. I noticed your  mom was in a pretty bad mood too. It made me wonder, did you catch the bad mood from    her or did she catch it from you? Anyway, now you seem to be in a much better mood. And so I was wondering, do you think you can make your mom “catch” your good mood?

S:         Oh yeah. I know my mom pretty well. All I have to do is tell her I love her and she’ll get all mushy and stuff.

JSF:     So, do you love her?

S:         Yeah, I guess so. She really bugs me sometimes though, you know what I mean?

JSF:     I think so. Sometimes it’s especially easy for people who love each other to bug each other. And parents can be especially good at bugging their kids. Not on purpose, but they bug you anyway.

S:         You can say that again. She’s a total bugging expert.

JSF:     But you did say you love her, right?

S:         Yeah.

JSF:     So if you told her “I love you, Mom,” it would be the truth, right?

S:         Yeah.

JSF:     And you think that would put her in a better mood too, right?

S:         No duh, man. She’d love it.

JSF:     So, now that you’re in a better mood, maybe you should just tell her you love her and spread the good mood. You could even tell her something like: “Dude, Mom, you really   bug me sometimes, but I love you.”

S:         Okay. I could do that.

It’s obvious that Sam knows at least one way to have a positive influence on his mother’s mood, but he’s reluctant to use the “I love you” approach. In this situation it would be useful for Sam to explore alternative methods for having a positive effect on his mother’s mood.

Although some observers of this therapy interaction may think the counselor is just teaching Sam emotional manipulation techniques, we believe that viewpoint makes a strong negative assumption about Sam and his family. Our position is that successful families (and successful marriages) include liberal doses of positive interaction (Gottman et al., 1995). Consequently, unless we believe Sam is an exceptionally manipulative boy (i.e., he has a conduct disorder diagnosis), we feel fine about reminding him of ways to share positive (and truthful) feelings with his mother.

To spread a good mood requires a certain amount of empathic perspective taking. Often, youth are more able to generate empathic responses and to initiate positive interactions with their parents (or siblings, teachers, etc.) after they’ve achieved an improved mood state and a concomitant increased sense of self-control. This is consistent with social–psychological literature suggesting that positive moods increase the likelihood of prosocial or altruistic behavior (Isen, 1987). Because of developmental issues associated with being young, it’s sometimes helpful to introduce the idea of changing other people’s moods as a challenge (Church, 1994).  “I wonder if you have the idea down well enough to actually try and change your mom’s mood.”

Once in a while, when using this technique, we’ve had the pleasure of witnessing some very surprised parents. One 12-year-old girl asked to go out in the waiting room to tell her grandmother that she was going to rake the lawn when they got home (something Grandma very much wanted and needed). Grandma looked positively stunned for minute, but then a huge smile spread across her face. The girl skipped around the office saying, “See.  I can do it.  I can change her mood.”

One 14-year-old boy thought a few minutes, then brought his mom into the office and said “Now Mom, I want you to think of how you would feel if I agree to clear the table and wash the dishes without you reminding me for a week.” Mom looked a bit surprised, but admitted she felt good at the thought, whereupon I (John) gave the boy a thumbs up signal and said, “Well done.”

Step 4.

At this point, readers should beware that although we’re describing a Three-Step technique, we’ve now moved to Step 4. We do this intentionally with young clients to make the point that whenever we’re working with or talking about emotions, surprising things can happen.

In keeping with the learn-do-teach model, we ask our young clients to teach the TSPB procedure to another person after they learn it in therapy. One girl successfully taught her younger brother the method when he was in a negative mood during a family hike. By teaching the technique to her brother, she achieved an especially empowering experience; she began to view herself as having increased control over her and her family’s emotional states.

Author, Speaker, University of Montana Professor