All posts by johnsommersflanagan

Learning to Work Effectively with Parents

In anticipation of my upcoming workshop, I’m posting this short excerpt from our book: How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen.

Theory into Practice: The Three Attitudes in Action

In the following example, Cassandra is discussing her son’s “strong-willed” behaviors with a parenting professional.

Case: “Wanna Piece of Me?”

Cassandra: My son is so stubborn. Everything is fine one minute, but if I ask him to do something, he goes ballistic. And then I can’t get him to do anything.

Consultant: Some kids seem built to focus on getting what they want. It sounds like your boy is very strong-willed. [A simple initial reflection using common language is used to quickly formulate the problem in a way that empathically resonates with the parent’s experience.]

Cassandra: He’s way beyond strong-willed. The other day I asked him to go upstairs and clean his room and he said “No!” [The mom wants the consultant to know that her son is not your ordinary strong-willed boy.]

Consultant: He just refused? What happened then? [The consultant shows appropriate interest and curiosity, which honors the parent’s perspective and helps build the collaborative relationship.]

Cassandra: I asked him again and then, while standing at the bottom of the stairs, he put his hands on his hips and yelled, “I said no! You wanna piece of me??!”

Consultant: Wow. You’re right. He is in the advanced class on how to be strong-willed. What did you do next? [The consultant accepts and validates the parent’s perception of having an exceptionally strong-willed child and continues with collaborative curiosity.]

Cassandra: I carried him upstairs and spanked his butt because, at that point, I did want a piece of him! [Mom discloses becoming angry and acting on her anger.]

Consultant: It’s funny how often when our kids challenge our authority so directly, like your son did, it really does make us want a piece of them. [The consultant is universalizing, validating, and accepting the mom’s anger as normal, but does not use the word anger.]

Cassandra: It sure gets me! [Mom acknowledges that her son can really get to her, but there’s still no mention of anger.]

Consultant: I know my next question is a cliché counseling question, but I can’t help but wonder how you feel about what happened in that situation. [This is a gentle and self-effacing effort to have the parent focus on herself and perhaps reflect on her behavior.]

Cassandra: I believe he got what he deserved. [Mom does not explore her feelings or question her behavior, but instead, shows a defensive side; this suggests the consultant may have been premature in trying to get the mom to critique her own behavior.]

Consultant: It sounds like you were pretty mad. You were thinking something like, “He’s being defiant and so I’m giving him what he deserves.” [The consultant provides a corrective empathic response and uses radical acceptance; there is no effort to judge or question whether the son “deserved” physical punishment, which might be a good question, but would be premature and would likely close down exploration; the consultant also uses the personal pronoun I when reflecting the mom’s perspective, which is an example of the Rogerian technique of “walking within.”]

Cassandra: Yes, I did. But I’m also here because I need to find other ways of dealing with him. I can’t keep hauling him up the stairs and spanking him forever. It’s unacceptable for him to be disrespectful to me, but I need other options. [Mom responds to radical acceptance and empathy by opening up and expressing her interest in exploring alternatives; Miller and Rollnick (2002) might classify the therapist’s strategy as a “coming alongside” response.]

Consultant: That’s a great reason for you to be here. Of course, he shouldn’t be disrespectful to you. You don’t deserve that. But I hear you saying that you want options beyond spanking and that’s exactly one of the things we can talk about today. [The consultant accepts and validates the mom’s perspective—both her reason for seeking a consultation and the fact that she doesn’t deserve disrespect; resonating with parents about their hurt over being disrespected can be very powerful.]

Cassandra: Thank you. It feels good to talk about this, but I do need other ideas for how to handle my wonderful little monster. [Mom expresses appreciation for the validation and continues to show interest in change.]

As noted previously, parents who come for professional help are often very ambivalent about their parenting behaviors. Although they feel insecure and want to do a better job, if parenting consultants  are initially judgmental, parents can quickly become defensive and may sometimes make rather absurd declarations like, “This is a free country! I can parent any way I want!”

In Cassandra’s case, she needed to establish her right to be respected by her child (or at least not disrespected). Consequently, until the consultant demonstrated respect or unconditional positive regard or radical acceptance for Cassandra in the session, collaboration could not begin.

Another underlying principle in this example is that premature educational interventions can carry an inherently judgmental message. They convey, “I see you’re doing something wrong and, as an authority, I know what you should do instead.” Providing an educational intervention too early with parents violates the attitudes of empathy, radical acceptance, and collaboration. Even though parents usually say that educational information is exactly what they want, unless they first receive empathy and acceptance and perceive an attitude of collaboration, they will often resist the educational message.

To summarize, in Cassandra’s case, theory translates into practice in the following ways:

  • Nonjudgmental listening and empathy increase parent openness and parent–clinician collaboration.
  • Radical acceptance of undesirable parenting behaviors or attitudes strengthens the working relationship.
  • Premature efforts to provide educational information violate the core attitudes of empathy, radical acceptance, and collaboration and therefore are likely to increase defensiveness.
  • Without an adequate collaborative relationship built on empathy and acceptance, direct educational interventions with parents will be less effective.

Want to learn more? You can still sign up for the online (Zoom) 2-day professional workshop through the Families First Learning Lab: https://www.familiesfirstmt.org/umworkshops.html

Happy Songs Playlist

Good Sunday Morning,

My University of Montana COUN 195 Happiness class has compiled a “Happy Songs” playlist. I’m pasting it below, for your potential listening pleasure.

COUN 195 – Happiness Playlist

Each of these songs was selected by someone in our happiness class as contributing to happy feelings. Please be careful and use as directed because they could have the side effect of putting you in a good mood. [They’re listed alphabetically, and my apologies for typos.]

40 –A Song of Thanksgiving – U2

A Lovely Day – Bill Withers

Are You Bored Yet? – Wallows

Bacc Home – Blxst

Boondocks – Big Little Town

Brand New – Ben Rector

Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon and Garfunkel

Crocodile Rock – Elton John

December, 1963 – Frankie Valli

Don’t Worry, Be Happy – Bobby McFerrin

Feels Great – Cheat Codes

Gimme Three Steps – Lynyrd Skynyrd

Go Crazy – Chris Brown

Golden Embers – Mandolin Orange

Good Day Sunshine – Beatles

Got to Give it Up – Marvin Gaye

Hands Up – Sway

 Happy – Pharrell

Happy Together – The Turtles

Heavy – Birdtalker

Here Comes the Sun – Beatles

How Can I Keep from Singing? – Judy Collins

I can Dream About You – Dan Hartman

Is this Love – Bob Marley

Love Train – O’Jays

My Boy – Elvie Shane

My Life – Billy Joel

Nature – The Samples

New Light – John Mayer

New York, New York – Frank Sinatra

Peanut Butter Jelly Time – Buckwheat Boyz

Suit and Jacket – Judah and the Lion

The is the Day – The The

The Less You Know – Tame Impala

Too Much – Jack Harlow

Two Hours of Classical Piano — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0kVNMHo6fQ

Walk me Home – Pink

Waters of March – [Nova Version]

Ziggy Says – Ziggy Marley

The Book . . . Again

Just for fun, here’s a photo of a page from our Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning book. This page is the lead in to a section that focuses in on how to work with clients who are suicidal, but whom also may be naturally also experiencing irritability, hostility, and hopelessness. For info, go to the publisher, ACA: https://imis.counseling.org/store/detail.aspx?id=78174

Want to Learn More about Working Effectively with Parents? Sign-Up Now . . . or soon!

Working with parents in counseling can be terribly frightening or splendidly gratifying. Having more knowledge and skills is likely to up your odds of having a gratifying experience.

Next Friday and Saturday (January 29 and 30) I’ll be doing a two-day class/workshop on working effectively with parents. If you want more knowledge and skills in this important area, the workshop is a good start. You’ll learn about grandma’s rule, special time, mutual problem-solving, and many other “interventions” with parents. You’ll also learn a bunch of principles and strategies for connecting with parents, deepening rapport, and making the most of limited time.

Signing up for the workshop is easy. Just go to this website,

https://www.familiesfirstmt.org/umworkshops.html

Then scroll down to Session II, for more info, and go to the bottom of the webpage to enroll. Be forewarned, unfortunately, it’s not free.

I hope to see you there. Of course, “there” will be on Zoom, because that’s what we’re doing now. Nevertheless, it will be fun and engaging and informative . . . and you just might get a chance to role play with me for a demonstration. . . which is pretty much always a good time.

Three ways for dealing with Annoying Blog Posts

Just a heads up. I’ll be writing several posts about our new book this week. Be forewarned, these posts may be annoying. Annoying can happen when people feel enthusiastic. My apologies in advance.

In response to these upcoming posts from me (or annoying posts from others), you can apply one of three strategies.

  • You can respond with positive affirmation, sharing, and by empathically matching my enthusiasm. Keep in mind that positive affirmation may make me happy. The downside is you risk reinforcing my “new book posting” behavior.
  • You can respond with no response. That was a favored B.F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov strategy. Think of it as putting me on a pain-free extinction schedule.
  • You can respond with negativity or punishment. Skinner, Adler, and child advocates oppose punishment, because punishment can backfire, causing undesired behavior to increase, or triggering erratic behaviors.

True confession: When reading offensive or annoying posts, sometimes, even though I know better, I give into temptation, and respond with negativity. That’s nearly always a bad idea, mostly because option #3 of the preceding list is a poor extinction strategy. In one recent study, when social media posts received highere numbers of negative responses, the original social media posters responded back with even more posts. In other words, attention—even negative attention—acts as positive reinforcement and often increases the behavior toward which it was aimed. The take-home message is that, generally speaking, if you want to extinguish annoying blog posting behavior, following Skinner’s and Pavlov’s advice makes for good behavioral strategy.

Although I’m wary of the possibility of you all putting me on an extinction schedule, below is an excerpt from the Preface of our fancy new book. Right now the book is only available on the publisher’s website (https://imis.counseling.org/store/detail.aspx?id=78174), but I suspect it will soon make its way over to Amazon and the rest of the booksellers.

Preface

Writing a book about suicide may not have been our best idea ever. Rita made the point more than once that reading and writing about suicide at the depth necessary to write a helpful book can affect one’s mood in a downward direction. She was right, of course. Her rightness inspired us to pay attention to the other side of the coin, so we decided to integrate positive psychology and the happiness literature into this book. As is often the case when grappling with matters of humanity, focusing on suicide led us to a deeper understanding of suicide’s complementary dialectic, a meaningful and fully-lived life, and that has been a very good thing.

Before diving into these pages, please consider the following.

Do the Self-Care Thing

            In the first chapter, we strongly emphasize how important it is to practice self-care when working with clients who are suicidal. Immersing ourselves in the suicide literature required a balancing focus on positive psychology and wellness. While you’re reading this book and exploring suicide, you cannot help but be emotionally impacted, and we cannot overstate the importance of you taking care of yourself throughout this process and into the future. You are the instrument through which you provide care for others . . . and so we highly encourage you to repeatedly do the self-care thing.

What is the Strengths-Based Approach?

            Many people have asked, “What on earth do you mean by a strengths-based approach to suicide assessment and treatment planning?” In response, we usually meander in and out of various bullet points, relational dynamics, assessment procedures, and try to emphasize that the approach is more than just strengths-based, it’s also wellness-oriented and holistic. By strengths-based, we mean that we recognize and nurture the existing and potential strengths of our clients. By wellness-oriented we mean that we believe in incorporating wellness activities into counseling and life. By holistic we mean that we focus on emotional, cognitive, interpersonal, physical, cultural-spiritual, behavioral, and contextual dimensions of living.

You will find the following strengths-based, wellness-oriented, and holistic principles woven into every chapter of this book.

  1. Historically, suicide ideation has been socially constructed as sinful, illegal, or a terribly frightening and bad illness. In contrast, we believe suicide ideation is a normal variation on human experience that typically stems from difficult environmental circumstances and excruciating emotional pain. Rather than fear client disclosures of suicidality, we welcome these disclosures because they offer an opportunity to connect deeply with distressed clients and provide therapeutic support.
  2. Although we believe risk factors, warning signs, protective factors, and suicide assessment instruments are important, we value relationship connections with clients over predictive formulae and technical procedures.
  3. We believe trust, empathy, collaboration, and rapport will improve the reliability, validity, and utility of data gathered during assessments. Consequently, we embrace the principles of therapeutic assessment.
  4. We believe that counseling practitioners need to ask directly about and explore suicide ideation using a normalizing frame or other sophisticated and empathic interviewing strategies.
  5. We believe traditional approaches to suicide assessment and treatment are excessively oriented toward psychopathology. To compensate for this pathology-orientation, we explicitly value and ask about clients’ positive experiences, personal strengths, and coping strategies.
  6. We believe the narrow pursuit of psychopathology causes clinicians to neglect a more complete assessment and case formulation of the whole person. To compensate, we use a holistic, seven-dimensional model to create a broader understanding of what’s hurting and what’s helping in each individual client’s life. 
  7. We value the positive emphasis of safety planning and coping skills development over the negative components of no-suicide contracts and efforts to eliminate suicidal thoughts.

Last Call to Enroll in the U of Montana Happiness Class

My apologies for the redundant post . . . but as a counselor friend of mine likes to say, “Redundancy works.” Below is info on the upcoming (tomorrow!) UM Happiness class.

Fact: You can enroll in my Art & Science of Happiness (COUN 195) course through the University of Montana as a non-credit community participant? The course is fully online via Zoom.

When: Live on Zoom every Tuesday and Thursday from 1:00pm to 2:20pm (MST), beginning January 12 and ending April 27. You can attend live, or watch later.

What: You’ll hear and see lectures, demonstrations, video clips, small group lab activities, and role-plays.

Format: Because the course is online, live attendance isn’t required. Although I encourage live attendance, you can watch the course on your own schedule.

Cost: For community participants, the cost is $150 for the whole semester. That’s about $3.50 per instructional hour.

Why: You’ll get an amazing educational experience that just might increase your happiness in 2021. To enroll, go to: https://www.campusce.net/umextended/course/course.aspx?C=627&pc=13&mc=&sc

Please note: if you’re a University of Montana student (or want to become one) you can enroll in the course for three (3) semester credits. Go to Cyberbear, find the course (COUN 195), and enroll: https://www.umt.edu/cyberbear/.

Goodbye 2020 . . . You’re Nothing but History Now

Happy New Year!

As a method for putting 2020 behind me and focusing on a hopeful 2021, I engaged in some forward thinking (rather unusual for me) and wrote an op-ed piece for the Missoulian newspaper to be published TODAY! Below, I’ve pasted the beginning of the article, along with a link to the whole darn thing in the Missoulian. If you feel so moved, please share and like this. . . and I hope you experience the return of happiness in 2021.

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

The Return of Happiness: Your 2021 Guide

Usually a great source of snarky humor, the Urban Dictionary lists its top definition for 2020 as, “The worst year ever.” Sadly, even the Urban Dictionary couldn’t find creative inspiration from the horrors of 2020. Goodbye, 2020; you will not be missed.

. . . for the rest of the article, click below:

Details on The Return of the University of Montana Happiness Course

Did you know you can enroll in my Art & Science of Happiness (COUN 195) course through the University of Montana as a non-credit community participant? The course is fully online via Zoom.

When: Live on Zoom every Tuesday and Thursday from 1:00pm to 2:20pm (MST), beginning January 12 and ending April 27.

What: You’ll hear and see lectures, demonstrations, video clips, small group lab activities, and role-plays.

Format: Because the course is online, live attendance isn’t required. Although I encourage live attendance, you can watch the course on your own schedule.

Cost: For community participants, the cost is $150 for the whole semester. That’s about $3.50 per instructional hour.

Why: You’ll get an amazing educational experience that just might increase your happiness in 2021. To enroll, go to: https://www.campusce.net/umextended/course/course.aspx?C=627&pc=13&mc=&sc

Please note: if you’re a University of Montana student (or want to become one) you can enroll in the course for three (3) semester credits. Go to Cyberbear, find the course (COUN 195), and enroll: https://www.umt.edu/cyberbear/.

Assignments: If you’re taking the course for credit, you’ll have quizzes, required assignments, and tracked attendance; if you’re taking the course as a community non-credit participant, assignments and attendance will be optional and ungraded. However, I will strongly encourage you to participate in the small, online lab groups. That’s where you can talk in more detail about your happiness-related experiences.

Your Weekend Homework: The Return to Happiness

As we approach the end of 2020, many of us are looking forward–like never before in the history of time–to turning that calendar to a new page and a new year. Readers of the Washington Post were recently surveyed and wrote, 2020 has been exhausting, relentless, and heartbreaking. Let’s put 2020 behind us and never look back (other than to remind ourselves of mistakes we shouldn’t make again).

In honor of turning the calendar to 2021, I’m working on an Op-Ed piece titled “The Return to Happiness.” The point of the piece is to acknowledge how good it is to move on, but also discuss the nature of New Year’s resolutions and how to make resolutions that have a reasonable chance of being accomplished. In the end, I’ll be making a pitch for everyone to sign up for my University of Montana course “The Art & Science of Happiness.” Well, not everyone, but anyone who wants to have a cool online “university” experience that provides an opportunity to test out the best, evidence-based, approaches to happiness on planet earth.

The course starts in January, and, for the first time ever, will be offered to “community” participants as a non-credit experience. This means EVERYONE can sign up. The catch is that it costs $150. But if you do the math, that’s only $10/week or about $3.50 an hour to discuss, learn, experiment with, and establish new happiness habits for 2021.

Here’s a description of the course:

Over the past 20 years, research on happiness has flourished. Due to the natural interest that most Americans have for happiness, research findings (and unfounded rumors) have been distributed worldwide. Every day, happiness is promoted via online blogs, newspaper and magazine articles, Twitter posts, Instagram videos, TikTok, and through many other media and social media venues. Ironically, instead of increases in national happiness, most epidemiological research indicates that all across the U.S., children, adolescents, adults, and seniors are experiencing less happiness, more depression, and higher suicide rates. To help sort out scientific reality from unsubstantiated rumors, in this course, we will describe, discuss, and experience the art and science of happiness. We will define happiness, read a popular happiness book, examine scientific research studies, try out research experiments in class, engage in extended happiness lab assignments, and use published instruments to measure our own happiness and well-being. Overall, we will focus on how happiness and well-being are manifest in the physical, cognitive, emotional, interpersonal, spiritual/cultural, behavioral, and contextual dimensions of our lives.

Other things to know: If you take the course as a community, non-credit, participant, you won’t take the quizzes, or get graded, and assignments will be optional. However, you will be asked to participate in small group lab sessions designed to give you (and others) a chance to talk and listen to each other as you experience and experiment with specific happiness assignments.

If you’re interested, you can register at this link: https://www.campusce.net/umextended/course/course.aspx?C=627&pc=13&mc=&sc

If you know friends who could use a happiness boost for 2021, share this post with them. And if you’ve got questions, you know where to find me.

Have a fantastic weekend.

Coming In January: The Strengths-Based Approach to Suicide assessment and treatment Planning

As many of you know, Rita and I have been working on a suicide assessment and treatment planning manuscript to be published by the American Counseling Association. Today, we received a photo of the full (front and back) cover. Although we know you’re not nearly as excited about this book (coming in mid-January!) as we are, below, I’ve pasted the photo of the cover and the first part of the Preface.

Preface

Writing a book about suicide may not have been our best idea ever. Rita made the point more than once that reading and writing about suicide at the depth necessary to write a helpful book can affect one’s mood in a downward direction. She was right, of course. Her rightness inspired us to pay attention to the other side of the coin, so we decided to integrate positive psychology and the happiness literature into this book. As is often the case when grappling with matters of humanity, focusing on suicide led us to a deeper understanding of suicide’s complementary dialectic—a meaningful and fully-lived life–and that has been a very good thing.

Before diving into these pages, please consider the following.

Do the Self-Care Thing

            In the first chapter, we emphasize how important it is to practice self-care when working with clients who are suicidal. Immersing ourselves in the suicide literature required a balancing focus on positive psychology and wellness. While you’re reading this book and exploring suicide, you cannot help but be emotionally impacted, and we cannot overstate the importance of you taking care of yourself throughout this process and into the future. You are the instrument through which you provide care for others . . . and so we highly encourage you to repeatedly do the self-care thing.

What is the Strengths-Based Approach?

            Many people have asked, “What on earth do you mean by a strengths-based approach to suicide assessment and treatment planning?” In response, we usually meander in and out of various bullet points, relational dynamics, assessment procedures, and try to emphasize that the approach is more than just strength-based, it’s also wellness-oriented and holistic. By strengths-based, we mean that we recognize and nurture the existing and potential strengths of our clients. By wellness-oriented we mean that we believe in incorporating wellness activities into counseling and life. By holistic we mean that we focus on emotional, cognitive, interpersonal, physical, cultural-spiritual, behavioral, and contextual dimensions of living.

You will find the following strengths-based, wellness-oriented, and holistic principles woven into every chapter of this book.

  1. Historically, suicide ideation has been socially constructed as sinful, illegal, or a terribly frightening and bad illness. In contrast, we believe suicide ideation is a normal variation on human experience that typically stems from difficult environmental circumstances and excruciating emotional pain. Rather than fear client disclosures of suicidality, we welcome these disclosures because they offer an opportunity to connect deeply with distressed clients and provide therapeutic support.
  2. Although we believe risk factors, warning signs, protective factors, and suicide assessment instruments are important, we value relationship connections with clients over predictive formulae and technical procedures.
  3. We believe trust, empathy, collaboration, and rapport will improve the reliability, validity, and utility of data gathered during assessments. Consequently, we embrace the principles of therapeutic assessment.
  4. We believe that counseling practitioners need to ask directly about and explore suicide ideation using a normalizing frame or other sophisticated and empathic interviewing strategies.
  5. We believe traditional approaches to suicide assessment and treatment are excessively oriented toward psychopathology. To compensate for this pathology-orientation, we explicitly value and ask about clients’ positive experiences, personal strengths, and coping strategies.
  6. We believe the narrow pursuit of psychopathology causes clinicians to neglect a more complete assessment and case formulation of the whole person. To compensate, we use a holistic, seven-dimensional model to create a broader understanding of what’s hurting and what’s helping in each individual client’s life. 
  7. We value the positive emphasis of safety planning and coping skills development over the negative components of no-suicide contracts and efforts to eliminate suicidal thoughts.