All posts by johnsommersflanagan

The U of Montana Department of Counselor Education does “The Office”

To view, go to: http://youtu.be/eM8-I8_1CqQ

 

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Flaws in the Satanic Golden Rule

summer-13-long-shadow

Nearly always I learn tons of good stuff from my adolescent clients. A few years ago I learned what “Macking” meant. When I asked my 16-year-old Latino client if it meant having sex (I gently employed a slang word while posing my question), his head shot up and he made eye contact with me for the first time ever and quickly corrected me with a look of shock and disgust. “Macking means . . . like flirting,” he said. And as he continued shaking his head, he said, “Geeze. You’re crazy man.”

The next half hour of counseling was our best half hour ever.

I’m not advocating using the F-word or being an obtuse adult . . . just pointing out how much there is to learn from teenagers.

More recently I learned about the Satanic Golden Rule. A 17-year-old girl told me that it goes like this: “Do unto others as they did unto you.”

Now that’s pretty darn interesting.

Ever since learning about the Satanic Golden Rule I’ve been able to use it productively when counseling teenagers. The Satanic Golden Rule is all about the immensely tempting revenge impulse we all sometimes feel and experience. It’s easy (and often gratifying) to give in to the powerful temptation to strike back at others whom you think have offended you. Whether it’s a gloomy and nasty grocery cashier or someone who’s consistently arrogant and self-righteous, it’s harder to take the high road and to treat others in ways we would like to be treated than it is to stoop to their level to give them a taste of their own medicine.

There are many flaws with the Satanic Golden Rule . . . but my favorite and the most useful for making a good point in counseling is the fact that, by definition, if you practice the Satanic Golden Rule, you’re giving your personal control over to other people. It’s like letting someone else steer your emotional ship. And to most my teenage clients this is a very aversive idea.

After talking about the Satanic Golden Rule many teenage clients are more interested in talking about how they can become leaders. . . leaders who are in control of their own emotions and who proactively treat others with respect.

An excellent side effect of all this is that it also inspires me to try harder to be proactively respectful, which helps me be and become a better captain of my own emotional ship.

Stuff Barry Says (and does)

This blog is in honor of my friend, Barry Johnson, who doesn’t read my blog. I met Barry in August of 1972. I was carrying my gym-clothes in a paper bag. Barry noticed, but never made fun of me to my face. That’s a good way to start a life-long friendship.

Barry turned 55 today. Whenever I see him he suggests book titles to me. This time his suggestion was, “55 and Suicidal.” This is Barry’s idea of an excellent self-help book title. He told me that the fact that there’s no confusing 55 with midlife (which remains possible at 50) makes 55 much more emotionally painful. He also told me that being 55 and past mid-life is liberating because basically his life is over and so he can say and do whatever he wants. And Barry is an expert in eating and so I think this statement had something to do with him being able to eat whatever he wants . . . which is what he has always done except for when he briefly lived in Montana and decided to face that experience by doing a Melon-only diet (Watermelon only one week, followed by Cantelope-only). Barry is no longer an advocate for either Montana or the Melon diet.

Barry has funny ideas. He’s single. He’s a biofeedback practitioner turned real estate agent. He’s a gun-toting liberal. Sometimes he starts snorting uncontrollably when he’s laughing hard.

I think Emerson or someone said that consistency was the hob-goblin of little minds. Barry has a big mind with room for contradiction. He’s also one of the kindest people I’ve ever known. He’s been one person I can count on to make terrible fun of me . . . which he typically does exactly when my ego needs deflating.

It feels like big-minded Barry has been my friend forever. One of my next life goals is to convince him to try a little exercise and a healthy diet. I’ve been doing this for a couple decades and failing, but “Hey Barry” if you’re out their reading this I’m writing this because I love having you as a friend and so you should start eating right and exercising to take care of my own selfish needs.

There. That should do it.

Happy 55th Birthday Barry. Live long and prosper.

A New Book in the Mail

Even though it’s only a textbook, it’s still pretty darn exciting when a new book arrives in the mail with our names on it. It will never be a NYT best-seller, but it’s far and away the funniest book there is out there on Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories. . . which is sort of a funny claim to be making anyway.

And so a small glimpse of this pure excitement, here’s a sneak peek at the . . . yessss . . . the Preface!

Preface

(from Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice, 2nd edition, John Wiley & Sons, 2012)

One morning, long ago, John woke up in the midst of a dream about having written a theories book. Over breakfast, John shared his dream with Rita. Rita said, “John go sit down, relax, and I’ll sit behind you as you free associate to the dream” (see Chapter 2, Psychoanalytic Approaches).

As John was free-associating, Rita tried to gently share her perspective using a two-person, relational psychotherapy model. She noted that it had been her lived experience that, in fact, they had already written a theories text together and that he must have been dreaming of a second edition. John jumped out of his seat and shouted, “You’re right! I am dreaming about a second edition.”

This profound insight led to further therapeutic exploration. Rita had John look at the purpose of his dream (see Chapter 3, Individual Psychology); then he acted out the dream, playing the role of each object and character (see Chapter 6; Gestalt Therapy). When he acted out the role of Rita, he became exceedingly enthusiastic about the second edition. She, of course, accused him of projection while he suggested that perhaps he had absorbed her thoughts in a psychic process related to Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious. Rita noted that was a possibility, but then suggested we leave Jung and the collective unconscious online where it belongs (see the Jungian chapter in the big contemporary collective unconscious of the Internet).

For the next week, Rita listened to and resonated with John as he talked about the second edition. She provided an environment characterized by congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathic understanding (see Chapter 5, Person-Centered Theory and Therapy). John flourished in that environment, but sneakily decided to play a little behavioral trick on Rita. Every time she mentioned the word theories he would say “Yesss!,” pat her affectionately on the shoulder and offer her a piece of dark chocolate (see Chapter 7, Behavioral Theory and Therapy). Later he took a big risk and allowed a little cognition into the scenario, asking her: “Hey, what are you thinking?” (see Chapter 8, Cognitive-Behavioral Theory and Therapy).

Rita was still thinking it was too much work and not enough play. John responded by offering to update his feminist views and involvement if she would only reconsider (see Chapter 10, Feminist Theory and Therapy); he also emphasized to Rita that writing a second edition would help them discover more meaning in life and perhaps they would experience the splendor of awe (see Chapter 4, Existential Theory and Therapy). Rita still seemed ambivalent and so John asked himself the four questions of choice theory (see Chapter 9, Choice Theory and Reality Therapy):

  1. What do you want?
  2. What are you doing?
  3. Is it working?
  4. Should you make a new plan?

It was time for a new plan, which led John to develop a new narrative (see Chapter 11, Constructive Theory and Therapy). He had a sparkling moment where he brought in and articulated many different minority voices whose discourse had been neglected (see Chapter 13, Developing Your Multicultural Orientation and Skills). He also got his daughters to support him and conducted a short family intervention (see Chapter 12, Family Systems Theory and Therapy).

Something in the mix seemed to work: Rita came to him and said, “I’ve got the solution, we need to do something different while we’re doing something the same and approach this whole thing with a new attitude of mindful acceptance” (see Chapter 11, Constructive Theory and Therapy and Chapter 14, Integrative and Evidence-Based New Generation Therapies). To this John responded with his own version of radical acceptance saying: “That’s a perfect idea and you know, I think it will get even better over a nice dinner.” It was at that nice dinner that they began articulating their main goals for the second edition of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice.

 

Serious Advice for Parents of Teens

When Parenting Teenagers — Age Matters

Most parents easily recognize that when it comes to parenting, age matters a great deal.  If you’re not convinced, try giving your teen a nice, cuddly hug, preferably in public.  Not surprisingly, what’s fun and rewarding for one age group, is stupid, incomprehensible, or embarrassing for another.

Teens can be especially challenging for parents. Forgive the blunt language, but the truth is:  Teens often think adults in general, and their parents in particular, don’t know squat.  When I recently shared this well-known fact with a teenager, she gently corrected me by saying, “I think what you mean to say is that adults only know squat.”  I just rolled my eyes and said, “Whatever.”

In contrast to some of my teenage friends, I happen to believe that adults usually do have their squat together.  Therefore, I’ve written a short guide (with attitude) for anyone who has the daunting task of communicating with teenagers.

Principle 1: Always remember, on average, adults are usually smarter and wiser than teenagers.  This fact comes with a certain responsibility.  It means we should strive to really act like we’re smarter and wiser than teenagers.  This means, unfortunately, we have to act mature.  Sometimes we have to go the extra mile when trying to understand today’s youth.  It also means quickly forgiving them when their brains seem to malfunction.

Think about what it means to be more mature – and maybe even wiser – than your teenager.  Think of how to demonstrate your adult maturity in a way that your teen will respect.  Be concrete and specific.  For example, don’t think: “I’ll show my wisdom and maturity by trying to be more patient when he talks on and on about skateboarding.”  Instead, think something like: “I’ll make a point of asking him about his skateboarding at least twice a week. Then, if he’s up for talking, I’ll pay attention to him for at least 5 minutes before I change the subject or get distracted with something else.”

Principle 2: Many teenagers have a special invisible antenna that sticks out from the top of their head. Don’t bother looking for this antenna because it’s invisible.  It’s a “Respect Antenna.”  It functions to instantly ascertain whether a given adult likes or respects a given teen.  Consequently, although teens may act like they’re not paying any attention to you, they’ll still be able to psychically determine whether or not you like and respect them.  And if their invisible antennae signals that you don’t like or respect them, they’ll treat you miserably. Oh yeah. One more thing about this: Like everyone else, the teenager invisible respect antenna regularly malfunctions.

Principle 3: Many teens have dysfunctional eye rolls that appear completely beyond their voluntary control.  For some unknown reason, these eye rolls are triggered when adult authority figures make serious comments.  If you notice teens having this eye roll problem try your best to treat them with the sympathy they deserve.  This means you should smile while looking deeply into their eyes with every ounce of kindness left in your heart. You may think your teen is being disrespectful, but really she or he really needs your sympathy for this problem.

Principle 4: Teenagers are insecure.  Often, they cover their insecurity with a thin veneer of self-confidence and bravado.  This veneer has the effect of making adults assume that young people are confident or overconfident. Such an assumption can cause adults to back off and not offer help, when sometimes, help is exactly what your teen needs.

Principle 5: Young people are very good at tuning out adults while following the sometimes incredibly bad advice of their peers.  The best weapon we have against this sad trend is to sit and listen to young people as they talk about their lives, while, at the same time, resisting the impulse to give them our sage advice.  After listening for a considerable length of time, it can be effective to dress up one of your good ideas as one of their bad ideas and pretend that they came up with it.  If this subtle technique for influencing young people gathers no moss, then you may be forced back into the Dr. Science approach.  The Dr. Science approach essentially involves informing the youth that you know more than they do and therefore they MUST abide by your wishes.  This approach is usually effective only if you have way more money and way more valuable property than the young person.

Principle 6: Scientific research has clearly shown that, down deep, young people really want positive relationships with adults. . . AND that they greatly profit from such relationships.  Try to ignore the fact that adults conceived and conducted this research.  Instead, just go right on doing your best to develop positive relationships with as many teenagers as possible and go right on assuming they want those relationships.

Principle 7: In the end, you’ll find that communicating with teenagers is a lot like baseball.  In professional baseball, if you get a base hit 3 out of 10 times you go to the plate, you have a great chance of getting voted onto the All Star team.  The same is true for communicating with teens.  If you’re a lifetime .300 hitter, your child will probably eventually vote for your induction into the parental Hall of Fame!

If you want additional information about how to communicate more effectively with teens, we recommend parent education classes. You might discover several things: (a) there are other parents out there, besides you, who are struggling and want a better relationship with their teens; (b) many parents (and maybe even the class leaders) will have great ideas about how to improve your teen communication skills; and (c) by meeting with parents and talking opening about our challenges, we’re conspiring to prove that we’re indeed wiser than our teenagers.

[This blog is adapted from an old newspaper article in the Missoulian and from “The Last Best Divorce Workbook” (written by John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan and published by Families First Missoula, 2005)]

Thoughts on Sharing Parental Power

The following parenting strategy is an excerpt adapted from “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen” (http://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1328919870&sr=8-1). As with all techniques, this is just a tool and it may or may not fit with your personal family situation.

Give Information—Then Back Off

Most parents, at least initially, feel drawn toward actively and directly teaching life lessons to children. After all, as adults, we have far more accumulated wisdom than children and therefore it makes perfect sense to tell them what decisions they should make and warn them of potential life dangers. Many parents also use direct power strategies of lecturing, criticism, praise, and advice-giving to teach their children important life lessons. Unfortunately, life lessons based on direct power are often ineffective.  This is likely true because, as Carl Rogers might say, children are more interested in learning about life based on their own experiences rather than learning indirectly from parental lectures.

Praise, punishment, lectures, advice, and criticism are external means of influence (Glasser, 2002). When talking with parents, we usually emphasize that praise and punishment strategies involve “outside-in” or external learning. Punishment is a message from the outside that tells children they’ve done something wrong; praise is a message from the outside that tells children they’ve done something right.

All learning is partially outside-in and partially inside-out. Children can learn from what others say (often through praise and punishment) and they can learn from their own judgments of their own direct experiences. Generally, children’s developmental issues (e.g., individuation, identity formation) make it desirable for parents to intentionally use inside-out learning strategies with their children, at least some of the time.

Inside-out learning emphasizes personal experience and judgment rather than judgments imposed by others. Most parents agree that, although they want their children to be open and sensitive to others’ opinions, they want their children to have an internal sense of direction and integrity even more. Unfortunately, using direct power to tell children what to think often backfires.  Some children oppose their parents simply for the sake of opposing their parents. In these cases, children seem to gain a sense of identity through opposition or rebellion instead of learning to personally reflect on their experiences and then consciously choose their own behaviors.

Troy’s Three Choices

Troy, a teenage boy, came for counseling. Troy was in conflict with his parents about his relationship with his girlfriend. His parents were concerned and had made it clear that they disapproved of the girlfriend and of his relationship with her. This communication left Troy feeling deprived of his personal choice and so he stubbornly clung to his relationship despite the fact that he also had doubts about whether the relationship was a good fit for him. As we worked in counseling, it became clear that Troy had three general choices: (1) He could comply with his parents’ wishes and discontinue the relationship; (2) he could oppose his parents and insist on his right to have this relationship; or (3) he could think about his parents’ opinions as information and then step back and critically evaluate the relationship himself and decide what he thought was best. We discussed the most challenging outcome of all: that he might end up agreeing with his parents and terminate the relationship and then they (and he) might think they had “won” the power struggle.

As a result of our discussions, Troy decided he wanted a joint meeting with his parents. During the meeting he effectively communicated to them that they had made their position and their concerns very clear. He then emphatically asked them to back off so he could decide how to proceed with his relationship. In the end, Troy broke off the relationship and thanked his parents for giving him the space and time to make his own decision.

This case illustrates the give information and then back off technique. The parents communicated their concerns directly. Although they were initially overbearing about what their son should do, eventually, with encouragement, they backed away and gave their son time to independently consider the issues. In essence, by backing off after expressing their concerns, they also communicated trust in their son’s ability to make a reasonable decision. One problem underlying this situation is the fact that after expressing concerns, it’s often difficult for parents to keep their mouths shut and let their children make their own decisions on their own timeline rather than the parents’ timeline.

Asking Permission

Troy’s parents might have been even more influential if they had started the process by asking Troy if they could share their opinion with him. For example, they might have asked: “Would you like to hear our thoughts on how your relationship seems to be going?”

By asking for Troy’s permission, a new power dynamic is intentionally established. The new dynamic includes some of the following characteristics:

  • The parents give a signal to Troy that they have important information they’d like to share with him, but they’re giving this signal before they provide the information.
  • Asking permission gives Troy a sense of empowerment. He may choose to (a) receive the information, or (b) reject the information. He’s less likely to feel as though his parents are shoving the information down his throat.
  • Even if Troy initially rejects the information by saying “I don’t want to hear what you think” or “I know what you’re going to say,” he can still change his mind and ask for the information later.
  • If the parents approach Troy with an attitude of concern, he may feel cared for, which is always a good thing in a parent–child relationship.
  • If the parents can respect Troy’s right to reject the information, paradoxically, he may become more open to hearing their opinion later.
  • Overall, by asking permission, the parents are at least expressing partial faith or trust in Troy and his problem-solving ability.

Exceptions

There are exceptions to every rule. This particular problem-solving technique provides an excellent foundation for exploring exceptions to all indirect and problem-solving strategies. Because these approaches intentionally and explicitly give away parental power, they should be used only when parents feel at least somewhat comfortable trusting their children with the problem-solving process. For example, if Troy’s girlfriend is obviously abusing drugs and pulling Troy toward a destructive lifestyle, it may be necessary for the parents to insist on more extreme and directive steps. These steps might include:

  • Family therapy
  • A drug/alcohol intervention
  • More intensive supervision of Troy’s behaviors
  • Severe limitations regarding Troy’s freedom outside the home contingent upon specific communication and “checking-in” standards
  • Involvement with law enforcement (if appropriate and/or warranted)

Although not exhaustive, the preceding list provides a sense of how the nature of the parent–child relationship and the parents’ trust in their child’s judgment interact with the level of directiveness.  More directive, limit-setting, and monitoring parenting approaches may be necessary, depending on the severity of the situation.

Anti-Bullying Tips for Parents

Tip Sheet 11: Anti-Bullying Tips for Parents

Although some educators and individuals refer to bullying (and being bullied) as a normal part of growing up, for many children (and parents) bullying is quite simply a traumatic nightmare. This tip sheet offers ideas for dealing with this perplexing and persistent social problem in schools and neighborhoods.

1. Encourage your child to communicate openly to you about his or her bullying experiences. This will be difficult because you will instantly want to contact the bully’s parents or “beat up” the bully, neither of which is recommended.

2. Open communication includes empathy and asking your child what she or he has done to try to stop or cope with the bullying. Avoid blaming and avoid taking action on behalf of your child (unless the level of bullying aggression makes an intervention necessary and then only do so with the support of school personnel, law enforcement, or other appropriate community members).

3. Help your child understand that being bullied is not his or her fault. Although sometimes bullies increase their bullying when children react, reacting to bullies should not become a reason to blame the victim for increased bullying.

4. Help your child identify different strategies for dealing with bullies, recognizing that some strategies will work better than others for individual children. Strategies might include (a) avoiding and/or ignoring the bully; (b) hanging out with friends and not being alone and vulnerable (parents can help children develop new social connections); (c) connecting with school or community personnel who can help with bullying; or (d) using humor to defuse bullying situations. Encouraging your child to fight back is not recommended as it usually results in increased bullying frequency and longevity.

5. Use your child’s school as an ally and resource. Although you should be careful about approaching the school without your child’s permission, often school personnel will have ways to address bullying, in general, that don’t identify you or your child (and thereby increase bullying likelihood). Also, encourage your child to speak with trusted school personnel (school counselors or school psychologists are a good start).

6. Become more present and available in your child’s life. This might mean volunteering at school and even having casual, face-to-face contact with the bully (not to confront the bully, but to help make your presence in your child’s life a reality to the bully and bystanders).

This list is just a start. Additional information on how parents can help their children with bullying and other issues is available in the book, “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen” by John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan