Over the past several weeks I’ve provided a flurry of short professional talks. In an effort to keep up, I’m posting a one-page handout from my presentation at the Pediatric Mental Health conference in Fairmont on April 29, 2022. If you’re into parenting and/or working with parents, this handout and content may be of interest.
Remember: Parents are Facing Immense Challenges: Many parents are isolated and reluctant to reach out for support they need. Many parents feel super self-conscious and judged by American society, not to mention grocery story onlookers. Some children can access porn on the internet before they can tie their shoes. Children have more mental health problems than ever before in the history of time. No wonder parents are just a bit hypersensitive to criticism.
Use Your Common Wisdom and Take Time to Make Empathic Statements: Never say, “I know how you feel” or imply that parents are being silly or dumb (even if you think they are), or react to parents out of irritation. Instead, make empathic statements like, “You’re managing a lot” or “The challenges parents face today are bigger than ever.” As time permits, listen to a story the parent tells you and follow that with an empathic summary before offering ideas.
Know Your Buttons – Cultivate Self-Awareness: Be aware of things parents say that push your buttons and be aware of how you react. Make a personal plan to deal with these a little better every day. Replace your judgments with compassion for parents. Stay calm.
Teach Parents a Brief Problem-Solving Model They Can Use with Their Children: Join with parents to discuss problems and solutions. Hope and believe along with parents for positive outcomes: “I know you can do this.” Remember the five steps: (1) identify the problem, (2) generate alternatives, (3) review and rank the alternatives, (4) select one or more, and (5) evaluate what you tried. Consider giving a mutual problem-solving tip sheet: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/tip-sheets/
Last week I got a press query to answer a few questions for an upcoming article in Parents magazine. The questions were sent to a broad spectrum of media reps and professionals. There was understandably no guarantee I would be quoted in the magazine.
No surprise, I wasn’t quoted. But my media connection was thoughtful enough to send me the article (it came out a couple days ago). IMHO commentary in the article was really good, and so I’m including a link to the article below.
Although I like the article, I have one objection. The authors immediately pathologize children’s anxiety. In the second sentence of the article, they write, “Both conditions (separation anxiety and social anxiety) are treatable with the proper diagnosis.” Using words like “conditions” and “treatable” and “diagnosis” deeply medicalizes children’s anxiety and is a bad idea. Separation anxiety and social anxiety are NOT necessarily mental disorders. It would have been better to start the article by noting that given our current global situation of uncertainty–with COVID, and other sources of angst all around us–it’s normal and natural for children to feel anxiety.
This blog post has three parts. First, I’m including a link to the article. Second, I’m including my responses to the media query. Third—and I think the best part—is a old handout I wrote for helping parents deal with children’s anxiety and fear.
Here are my responses to the magazine’s questions:
What is anxiety, in a nutshell?
Anxiety is a natural human emotional response to stress, danger, or threat. One thing that makes anxiety especially distinctive and problematic is that it comes with strong physiological components. Other words used to describe anxiety states include, nervous, worried, jittery, jumpy, scared, and afraid.
Anxiety usually has a trigger or is linked to an activating situation, thought, or physical sensation. Hearing about COVID in the news or seeing someone fall ill can activate anxiety in children (and adults too!).
Anxiety is often, but not always, about the future because people tend to worry about what will happen or what is unfolding in the present. Even when children feel anxious about the past, they tend to worry about how the past will play out in the future.
How has COVID-19 affected children mentally? Has there been an uptick in anxiety-related conditions?
COVID-19 is a stressor or threat because of its implications (it can kill you and your loved ones) and because of how it affects children situationally. During my 30+ years as a professional psychologist, anxiety in children, teens, and adults has done nothing but increase. COVID-19 is another factor in contemporary life that has increased anxiety.
In some ways, the fact that more children are feeling anxious can be a positive thing. I know that sounds weird, but anxiety is mostly normal. A professor of mine used to say that the old saying “Misery loves company” isn’t quite true. What is true (and supported by data) is that misery loves miserable company. In other word, people feel a little better when their problems are more universal. When it comes to COVID-related anxiety, we should all recognize we’re in good company.
What are the symptoms of social anxiety in kids?
Social anxiety is defined as fear of being scrutinized or negatively evaluated by others. Symptoms can be physical (headaches, stomach aches, shaking, etc.), emotional (feeling scared), mental (thinking something terrible will happen), and behavioral (running away). Social anxiety is usually most intense in anticipation and during exposure to potential social evaluation. Of course, almost always, anxiety will make us imagine that everyone is staring at us—even though many other kids are also feeling anxious and as if everyone is staring at them.
What are the symptoms of separation anxiety in kids?
Separation anxiety occurs when children leave or part from a safe person or a safe place. Leaving the home or leaving mom or dad or grandma or grandpa will often trigger anxiety. The symptoms—because it’s anxiety—are the same as above (physical, emotional, mental, behavioral); they’re just triggered by a different situation.
How can you help children cope with anxiety–both in general and specific to each condition?
Children should be assured that anxiety is a message from your brain and your body. When anxiety spikes, there may be a good reason for it, just like when a fire alarm goes off and there’s really a fire and there’s physical danger and getting to a safe place is important. Children should be encouraged to identify their safe places and their safe people.
However, sometimes anxiety spikes and instead of a real fire alarm, the body and the brain are experiencing a false alarm. When there’s no immediate danger and the anxiety builds up anyway, it’s crucial for children to have a plan for how they’ll handle the anxiety. Having a plan to approach and deal with anxiety is nearly always preferable to letting the anxiety be the boss. Leaning into, facing, and embracing anxiety as a normal part of life is very important. We should all avoid taking actions designed to run away from or avoid anxiety. Developing a personal plan (along with parents, teachers, and counselors) for dealing with anxiety is the best strategy.
And, finally, here’s my tip sheet for helping with children’s anxiety
How to Help Children Deal with Fears and Anxiety
Manage Your Own Anxiety and Negative Expectations: If you don’t have and display confidence in your own preparation and skills, YOUR WORRIES and negative expectations will leak into the child. Additionally, if you don’t show confidence in your child’s coping abilities, that lack of confidence will leak into them too!
Use Storytelling for Preparation and to Teach Coping Strategies: “Let’s read, Where the Wild Things Are.” Afterwards, launch into a discussion of how people deal with fears.
Focus on Problem-Solving and Coping (especially as preparation): “How do you suppose people manage or get over their fears?”
Instead of Dismissing Feelings, Use Soothing Empathy: “It’s no fun to be feeling so scared.”
Show Gentle Curiosity: “You seem scared. Want to talk about it?”
Provide Comforting Reassurance or Universality (after using empathy and listening with interest): “Lots of people get afraid of things. I remember being really afraid of dogs.”
Offer Positive (Optimistic) Encouragement: “I know it’s hard to be brave, but I know you can do it.”
Have and Show Enormous Patience (connection—and holding hands—reduces anxiety): “Yes, I’ll help you walk by Mr. Johnson’s dog again. I think we’re both getting better at it, though.”
Set Reasonable Limits: “Even though you’re scared of monsters sometimes, you still have to be brave and go to bed.”
Model how to Sit with and through Fear (No negative reinforcement!): One thing that’s always true is when fear is big, it always gets smaller, eventually. “Hey. Let’s sit here together and watch our fear go away. Let’s pay attention to what makes it get smaller.” (This might include direct coping skill work . . . or simple distraction and funny stories).
Plan and Model Anxiety Management Skills: Specific skills, like deep breathing, aid with coping. Once you find some techniques or skills that are better than nothing, start to practice and rehearse using them. This can be for preparation, coping during the anxiety, or afterwards. “Let’s sit together and count our breaths. Just count one and then another. And we’ll try to find our sweet spot.”
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.
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
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,
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.
In the Department of Counseling at the University of Montana we offer regular workshops for our students and for counseling, social work, and psychology professionals. This “Spring semester” (even though spring semester starts in January, at the U of MT we still call it spring, probably because we start wishing very hard for spring at some point in January), we’ve got a three-part workshop series. You can sign up for one, or two, or all three sessions.
I’m posting this because I’m doing my workshop completely online in the beautiful spring month of January. That means you can come—even from a very long distance. Although there’s a fee involved (sorry about that; we use the fees to support our departmental operations budget), you can also get 13.0 hours of professional continuing education credit. My plan is to make the workshop as engaging, practical, and fun as humanly possible.
Here are the details (I’m doing Session II, meaning it will be even more “springy” than session I):
Session II: Friday, January 29 – Saturday, January 30, 2021, 9:00am – 5:00pm
Working Effectively with Parents with John Sommers-Flanagan, Ph.D.
Parenting has always been challenging, but now, with ubiquitous social media influences, the global pandemic, and increasing rates of children’s mental health disorders, parenting in the 21st century is more stressful and demanding than ever before. As a consequence, many parents turn to mental health, healthcare, and school professionals for help with their family problems. However, partly because parents can be selective or picky consumers and partly because children’s problems can be complex and overwhelming, many professionals feel ill-prepared to work effectively with parents. This class will teach participants a model for working effectively with parents. The model, which has supporting research, can be used for brief individual consultations or longer-term parent counseling. Practitioners who want to work with parents will learn methods for quick rapport, collaborative problem formulation, initial interventions, and optional follow-up strategies.
Understand a consultation model, with supporting research, for working effectively with parents.
Learn skills for brief individual consultations or longer-term parent counseling.
Utilize methods for quick rapport, collaborative problem formulation, initial interventions, and optional follow-up strategies.
John Sommers-Flanagan is a professor of counseling at the University of Montana, a clinical psychologist, and author or coauthor of over 100 publications, including nine books and numerous professional training videos. His books, co-written with his wife Rita, include Tough Kids, Cool Counseling, How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen, Clinical Interviewing, the forthcoming Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning: A Strengths-Based Approach, and more. John is a sought out keynote speaker and professional workshop trainer in the areas of (a) counseling youth, (b) working with parents, (c) suicide assessment, and (d) happiness. He has published many newspaper columns, Op-Ed pieces, and an article in Slate Magazine. He is also co-host of the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast and is renowned for his dancing skills (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fippweztcwg) and his performance as Dwight, in the Counseling Department’s parody of The Office (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eM8-I8_1CqQ&t=19s).
One nice thing about having my own blog is I get to post whatever I want. Sometimes that means I suffer from my own bad judgment. But not today.
Today, I’m posting a link to a fresh, new article in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. The article is titled, “Our False Promise of Justice.” Not only is this article timely and compelling; not only is it well-reasoned and compassionate; not only is it balanced and beautiful prose; it’s also written by Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, my youngest daughter, who happens to be an attorney, a graduate of Stanford Law School, and a pretty fantastic person. Okay, so now I’m just bragging.
Despite my bragging, the preceding information is all true. At least IMHO.
If you read it and like it, please do me the favor of sharing this article with your friends and on social media.
By most estimates, moms have had it rough this year. Day care centers are closed and moms are working from home; at the same time they’re homeschooling, keeping their children from watching porn on the internet, and sanitizing everything. And then there’s that former reality television star who perpetually gets himself in the news, rambling in front of cameras about treating the novel coronavirus with disinfectants in the body. In an optimal world, mothers would get celebrated way more than once a year. In a decent world, they’d be able to protect their children from exposure to Donald Trump.
Looking back 50 years or so, my own mother—she’s in a care facility now—was a mysteriously effective role model. She was more submissive than dominant, never hit me or raised her voice, didn’t directly boss anyone around, but indirectly gave my sisters and me VERY CLEAR guidance on what behaviors were expected in our home, and out in the world.
Rarely did my mother explicitly tell us how to behave. But once, when an African American family moved into our all-white neighborhood, she proactively, quietly, and firmly sat my sisters and me down and told us we would always treat them with respect. We did. When my mom got serious, we never questioned her authority.
One time, she was driving and a car squealed past us in a no-passing zone. She sighed, glanced over at me, and said, “I’ll be very disappointed if you ever drive like that.” For the next 5 decades, including my teen years, my friends and family have ridiculed me for my slow, conservative driving. I watch my speedometer, stop at yellow lights, and slow down at uncontrolled intersections. My mother said it once, I remembered what she said, and I still don’t want to disappoint her.
Without a stern word, my mother taught us to love our neighbors (even when they were annoying), showed us how to treat everyone with kindness and respect (even when they didn’t deserve it), and modeled how we could be generous with our time and energy by focusing on the needs and interests of others.
Once, when the family was out watching Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a sex scene started. Immediately, my mom elbowed my dad, and I was ushered from the theater. My mom didn’t want me to see or hear things that might lead me down the wrong path. She would cover my eyes and ears (literally) to stop me from being exposed to negative influences.
All this leads me to wonder how my mother would handle the disastrous role-model-in-chief. Mr. Trump is a mother’s nightmare, spewing out perverted values on a daily basis.
My mother’s first strategy would be to not let me hear whatever terrible ideas Trump gets out of his brain and into his mouth. She would have blocked me from watching news pieces about Mr. Trump’s playboy models, paid off porn stars, shitholes, Pocahontas, pussy-grabbing, gold star families, and references to women as pigs.
As much as my mother would have hated Mr. Trump’s sexist and racist words, she would be even more apoplectic about his poor character. If we saw or heard Mr. Trump counterattacking his critics, she would have sat us down, and talked about how an eye for an eye will leave us all blind.
If my mother caught us reading Trump’s tweets, she would have gathered us around the kitchen table for a spelling lesson. She would explain, “there’s no such word as unpresidented,” the phrase “twitter massages” makes no sense, “smocking guns” is just wrong, “the Prince of Whales” is from Wales, and journalists cannot win the “Noble prize.” She would never allow us to utter the word covfefe in our house.
My mother would be deeply offended by Mr. Trump’s incessant lying. If she were parenting us right now, every day she’d find a way to show us how we should admit our mistakes, take personal responsibility, and resist the temptation to blame others. She would talk about truth-telling. She would explain that Mr. Trump being President is a tragic mistake and that we should all work very hard to make sure this tragic mistake ends, so this malevolent man cannot continue to abuse women, minorities, and the American people.
But, for parents like my mother, Mr. Trump offers small advantages. As a teaching device, horrendous role models work quite well. In the end, and with one sentence, my mother would steal away all of Trump’s past and future influence. She would say, “I’ll be very disappointed if you ever act like that man.”
Even though I’m a Montana Grizzly, being back in Bozeman is always nice. Today, Rita is insisting that we go out to Burger Bobs before my evening workshop for the Thriving Institute. To be honest, Burger Bobs sounds a little heavy for my pre-workshop meal. I’m nervous, but I guess we’ll see if that’s a mistake or not.
For those in attendance (or those not in attendance), here’s the ppts for tonight. They’re like, “amazing” or at least I hope you think so.
I’m feeling a little nervous about going back to Bozeman this coming Thursday, November 14. This time, instead of continuing on with my latest streak of suicide and happiness presentations, the focus is on something I love even more: Parenting. I’m nervous because I obviously need help and support for coming up with titles to my talks. Somehow I’ve claimed that I’ll be taming beasts this Thursday. Looking back, I’m wondering why I made up such a grandiose sounding title. Ugh. Help wanted.
Despite my own anxiety, I’ll be presenting on behalf of Thrive, a very cool parenting education and children’s support organization in Bozeman. The event is called the Thriving Institute.
In anticipation of Thursday’s talk, I’m re-posting a blog from last year. It’s about children and anxiety, and it’s got an accompanying podcast. Here’s the re-post!
Facing fear and anxiety is no easy task. It’s not easy for children; and it’s not easy for their parents. Here’s a short piece of historical fiction that captures some of the dynamics that can emerge when you’re helping children face their fears.
My nephew turned his pleading fact toward me. He was standing on the diving board. I was a few feet below. We had waited in line together. Turning back now meant social humiliation. Although I knew enough to know that the scene wasn’t about me, I still felt social pressure mounting. If he stepped down from the diving board, I’d feel the shame right along with him. My own potential embarrassment, along with the belief that he would be better served facing his fears, led me to encourage him to follow through and jump.
“You can do it,” I said.
He started to shake. “But I can’t.”
Parenting or grand-parenting or hanging out with nieces and nephews sometimes requires immense decision-making skill. I’d been through “I’m scared” situations before, with my own children, with grandchildren, with other nephews and nieces. When do you push through the fear? When do you backtrack and risk “other people” labeling you, your son, your daughter, or a child you love as “chicken?”
This particular decision wasn’t easy. I wanted my nephew to jump. I was sure he would be okay. But I also knew a little something about emotional invalidation. Sure, we want to encourage and sometimes push our children to get outside their comfort zones and take risks. On the other hand, we also want to respect their emotions. Invalidating children’s emotions tends to produce adults who don’t trust themselves. But making the decision of when to validate and when to push isn’t easy.
I reached out. My nephew took my hand. I said, “Hey. You made it up here this time. I’ll bet you’ll make the jump next time.” We turned to walk back. A kid standing in line said, “That’s okay. I was too scared to jump my first time.”
Later, when the line had shrunk, my nephew wanted to try again. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll walk over with you.”
He made the jump the second time. We celebrated his success with high-fives and an ice-cream sandwich.
Like all words, the words, “I’m scared” have meaning and provoke reactions.
Sometimes when parents hear the words, “I’m scared” they want to push back and say something like, “That’s silly” or “Too bad” or “Buck-up honeycup” or something else that’s reactive and emotionally invalidating.
The point of the story about my nephew isn’t to brag about a particular outcome. Instead, I want to recognize that most of us share in this dilemma: How can we best help children through their fears.
Just yesterday I knelt next to my granddaughter. She was too scared to join into a group activity. She held onto my knee. We were in a public setting, so I instantly felt embarrassment creeping my way. I dealt with it by engaging in chit-chat about all the activity around us, including commentary about clothes, shoes, the color of the gym. Later, when she finally joined in on the activity, I felt relief and I felt proud. I also remembered the old lesson that I’d learned so many times before. In the moment of a child’s fear, my potential emotional pain, although present, pales in comparison to whatever the child is experiencing.
If you’d like to hear more about how to help children cope with their fears, you can listen to Dr. Sara Polanchek and me chatting about this topic on our latest Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast. Here are the links.