Category Archives: Parenting

Feeling Anxious? Learn the One and Only Method for Self-Regulation

Back in 1980, one of my supervisors at Woodside Hospital in Vancouver, WA, gave me a big compliment. At the time, I was a recreational therapist in a 22-bed psychiatric hospital. In a letter of recommendation, the supervisor described me as having a special knack for translating complex psychological phenomena into concrete activities from which patients could learn. To be honest, I really had no idea what I was doing.

But I think he was onto something about me and my personality. I like to integrate, summarize, and boil down information into digestible bits. Sometimes I have to get the facts to play Twister to get otherwise incompatible perspectives to fit together. This tendency is probably why I’ve written textbooks on clinical interviewing and counseling theories.

Today, I’m tackling anxiety, anxiety reduction, and self-regulation. This feels more personal than usual, mostly because I’ve been dysregulated, more or less, since November 9, 2016.

After reading and thinking about anxiety and anxiety reduction for 30+ years, I’m strongly leaning toward the position that there’s only one, single, universal method to achieve self-regulation. The method is Mary Cover Jones’s counterconditioning. You probably already know that I think Mary Cover Jones is fabulous.

As a means of exploring this unifying method, I recently did a podcast on it with Sara Polanchek. I’ll write more later, but for now, if you’re interested, check out the podcast. It’s the latest episode (7/19/18 release date). You can listen on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

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

If you do listen, please let me know what you think. That way I can continue with integration and synthesis by incorporating your thoughts into my thoughts. I’ll bet you can find many different ways to communicate with me.

If you don’t listen, no worries, I’ll just keep hanging out here in my personal echo chamber.

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Everything You Already Knew About Sex (But were afraid to talk about)

SistersI’ll never forget the night my sisters saved my life. I was 12-years-old. My sisters were babysitting me while my parents were out. They said, “Sit down, we’ve got something serious to talk about.”

I was a compliant little brother. But because my sisters enjoyed dressing me up like a girl, as I sat down, I was hoping I wouldn’t have to get all dressed up again. To my surprise, their serious topic had nothing to do with girls’ clothing and everything to do with what’s underneath girls’ clothing.

They pulled out a gigantic book. In our family, it was called the DOCTOR book; we only got it out when someone was sick. I started to worry, mostly because I wasn’t feeling sick.

They opened the book and showed me anatomically correct pictures of naked men and women. Then I started feeling sick. While looking at various body parts they explained the relationship between male and female sexual organs. I remember thinking “There’s no way this is true.” My sisters, one 17 and the other 14, suddenly looked much older and wiser. I quickly I was not the smartest person in the room (but I already knew that). They explained: “Mom says it’s Dad’s job to tell you about sex stuff. But Dad’s too shy to talk about it. So tonight, we’re telling you everything.” And they did.

At some point in their explanation that night they explained that a “rubber” was a condom and a condom was a method of birth control and that my penis could get big and send out little invisible tadpoles that could get girls pregnant. Suddenly, I understood several jokes that my fellow seventh graders had been laughing about the week before. My sisters were providing knowledge that was essential to the social life of adolescence. But maybe more than anything else, I remember them saying: “Sexual intercourse is very special. You only have sex with someone you really love.” That philosophy may not fit for everyone, but it’s worked out pretty well for me.

If you’ve got children, you should put your fears and shyness aside and directly discuss sex and sexuality with them on an ongoing basis. If you don’t, you can bet they’ll learn about sex anyway, indirectly and from other people, like their cousin Sal or a pornography website. Given this choice, most parents decide, despite their discomfort, to talk about sex with their children.

In contrast to what I got from my sisters, sex education in America is generally a crapshoot. With social media, the internet, and television’s preoccupation with sexual innuendo, it’s easy for children to absorb less-than-optimal sexual ideas. In a National Public Radio interview, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Andrew Hudgins spoke about his sex education from jokes:

“One of the things I talk about in the book [The Joker] is what I learned from the taboo subjects my parents never told me about: sex. So I learned about it from jokes and had to figure it out backwards. … It’s very much a hazard. And because you get a ton of misinformation, you get a ton of misogyny built into your brain at a very early age when your brain is still forming and it can cause long-term complications.” (from NPR interview, Weekend Edition, Saturday, June 8, 2013)

In contrast to Hudgins, I got lucky one evening 49 years ago. I didn’t get any misogyny built into my brain. Instead, I learned about sexuality and relationships from two people who deeply cared about me and whom I respected. I’d love to be able to clone my sisters into universal sex educators so they could magically educate all the boys in the world on how to respect women, which, in the end, is much more important than being able to accurately find a vagina in the big DOCTOR book of life.

Teaching children about sex should begin early. There are many natural opportunities for discussing sex with your children – including television, grocery store magazines, and, more often than we like, politicians who engage in questionable sexual behaviors. Other opportunities occur around ages four or five, when young children begin talking, sometimes excessively and inappropriately, about poop, pee, penises, and vaginas. Although addressing such topics with your children can be uncomfortable, you should begin this process while your children are still interested in listening to you. About 10 years later, when your children begin thinking about sex from a different perspective, they may be slightly less impressed with what you have to say.

Of course if you’d rather not deal with the issue, you can always use the approach my parents used. Just give me a call. I’ll put you in touch with my sisters.

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For more information on sex education and parenting, you can check out our Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast episode on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2 or Libsyn: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

Self-Regulation is Central

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Self-regulation is central to nearly everything in life. I suppose maybe that’s why Dr. Sara Polanchek and I have been ruminating on it so much in our Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast series. In fact, the podcast that became available today is more general and less parent-focused than is usual. Again, that’s because self-regulation or self-control in the fact of outside forces or stressors is so important for everyone.

To read my more general self-regulation blogpost, click here: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2018/06/04/the-secret-self-regulation-cure-seriously-this-time/

To listen to the podcast on iTunes, click here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

To listen on Libsysn, click here: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

And finally, here’s a description of the podcast that’s live today!

The Secret Self-Regulation Cure (Seriously, this time)

For this Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast you should just let yourself relax, let go of all expectations, and tune in. You can even practice being bored, because one part of the secret to self-regulation is that it’s all about embracing your boringness (Spoiler alert, Sara gets bored at the end). Another way of putting this, is that the deep secret to self-regulation (which John shares in this episode) is to repeatedly focus on one comforting thing that is—or becomes—boring (for you science types, that means focusing in on one comforting stimulus). Another big part of the secret to self-regulation is mindful acceptance. Of course, you probably know that mindful acceptance is from Buddhist philosophy, but the concrete application of mindful acceptance involves accepting the fact that you will always get distracted and won’t ever be able to meditate or use progressive muscle relaxation perfectly. You can only strive to be imperfectly mindful (and you shouldn’t even strive to hard for that).

If you make it through this podcast episode without falling asleep, then you might be able to answer one of the following questions:

  1. According to Herbert Benson, What are the four parts of the “relaxation response.”
  2. What’s the problem with counting sheep as a method for dealing with insomnia?
  3. What was the spiritual mantra that John shared?

And if you can answer one of these questions and be the first person to post it on our Facebook page, then you will win something—something in addition to having that warm, positive feeling of having been the first person to post the answer.

Here’s the link to our Podcast Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/PracticallyPerfectParenting/?hc_ref=ARRyCtUkbbKwI1usTfQpgCtCAHB3Pi4EVR3fikiq3gd5A-C07BjG7mY7Lqtel9x2jiA&fref=nf

 

 

The Secret Self-Regulation Cure (Seriously this time)

The Road“I’m in suspense,” Sara said. “I’ve been in suspense since the last time we recorded, because John said he had this big secret and I don’t know what it is.”

Partly Sara was lying. She wasn’t in much suspense, mostly because the “last time we recorded” had been only five minutes earlier. But, as I’m sure you realize, capturing and magnifying in-the-moment excitement is the sort of behavior toward which we Hollywood podcasting stars are inclined.

Sara stayed enthusiastic. When I told her that I thought every self-regulation and anxiety reduction technique on the planet all boiled down to a single method that Mary Cover Jones developed in 1924, she said things like, “That’s exciting!” and “I love Mary Cover Jones.”

[Side note] If you end up needing a podcasting co-host, be sure to find someone like Sara who will express enthusiasm even when you’re talking about boring intellectual stuff. [End of side note.]

Mary Cover Jones was the first researcher to employ counterconditioning with humans (although she rarely gets the credit she deserves—but that’s another story). Counterconditioning involves the pairing a desirable (pleasant or comforting) stimulus with a stimulus that usually causes anxiety or dysregulation. Over time, with repeated pairing, the pleasant feelings linked with the desirable stimulus are substituted for the anxiety response. Eventually, the person who has experienced counterconditioning can more comfortably face the undesirable and previously anxiety-provoking stimulus.

My belief is that counterconditioning is the first, best, and only approach to self-regulation and anxiety reduction. Put another way, I’d say, “If it works for self-regulation, then what you’re doing is counterconditioning—even if you call it something else.”

I know that’s a radical statement. Rather than defend my belief and philosophy, let me move on and describe how you can begin using counterconditioning to make your life better.

Let’s say your goal is for you to experience more calmness and relaxation and less agitation and anxiety. That’s reasonable. According to Herbert Benson of Harvard University, you need four things to elicit the relaxation response.

  1. A quiet place
  2. A comfortable position
  3. A mental device
  4. A passive attitude

Benson was studying meditation way back in the early 1970s. Okay. I know I’m digging up lots of old moldy stuff from the past. But take a deep breath and stay with me.

Let’s say you’re able to find a quiet place and a comfortable position. If you’re a parent, that might be tough. However, even if you find it for 12 minutes as you lie in bed, waiting for sleep, that’s a start. And really, all you need is a start, because once you get going, you don’t really even need the quiet place and comfortable position. On airplanes, I use this all the time and it’s not quiet and I’m not physically comfortable.

The next question that most people ask is: “What’s a mental device?” or, “Is that something I have to strap on my head?”

A mental device is a mental point of focus. In Benson’s time and in transcendental meditation, the popular word for it was “Mantra,” but Benson’s research showed that it can be almost anything. One mental device (that’s actually physical) is deep breathing. Another one is to sit comfortably and to think (or chant) the word OM. Benson also found that simple words, like the numbers “one” or “nine” also were effective. But, as I mentioned on the podcast, you can use other words, as long as they are—or can become—comforting. For example, I know people who use the following words:

  1. I am here
  2. Here I am
  3. Peace
  4. Shalom
  5. Banana

For those of you with religious leanings, you might want to use a specific prayer as your mental device. For those of you who are more visually inclined, you could use a mental image as your mental device. For those of you who are physically-oriented, you could use progressive muscle relaxation or body scanning.

The point is that all you need is a point . . . of focus.

Now comes the hard part. Because we’re all human and therefore, imperfect, no matter how compelling or comforting or soothing your mental device might be, you won’t be able to focus on it perfectly. You will become distracted. At some point (and for me it’s usually very early in the process), you’ll find your mind wandering. Instead of focusing on your prayer, you’ll suddenly realize that you’re thinking about a recent movie you saw or a painful social interaction you had earlier in the day or your mind will drift toward a future social situation that you’re dreading.

What’s the solution to the wandering mind?

Well, one thing that’s not the solution is to try harder.

Instead, what Benson meant by a “passive attitude” is that we need to gently accept our mental wanderings and distractions. More commonly, the words we use for Benson’s passive attitude are “Mindful acceptance.” In other words, we accept in the moment of distraction and every moment of distraction, that we are humans who naturally become distracted. And then, after the noticing and after the acceptance, we bring ourselves back to the moment and to our chosen mental device.

On the podcast, Sara asked, “What if, as I try to focus on my mental device, I notice that all the while I have an inner voice talking to me in the background?”

What an excellent question! The first answer is, of course, mindful acceptance. For example, when you notice the inner voice, you might say to yourself, I notice my mind is chattering at me in the background as I focus on my mental device. Then, without judging yourself, you return to your mental device. A second option is for you to find a more engaging or more soothing mental device. Perhaps, you need two mental devices at once? For example, that might include a soft, silky blanket to touch, along with your “I am here” mantra.

As Mary Cover Jones illustrated over 90 years ago, the counterconditioning process is a powerful tool for anxiety reduction and self-regulation. I happen to think that it’s the only tool for anxiety reduction and self-regulation. Whether you agree with me or not isn’t important; either way, don’t let anything I’ve written here get in the way of you identifying and using your own cherished mental (or physical) device. At first, it might not work. It will never work perfectly. But, like Charles Shulz was thinking when he created Linus’s special blanket, life is way better when you live it with a comforting counterconditioning stimulus.

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For more information about Mary Cover Jones, you can go here: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2011/11/25/a-black-friday-tribute-to-mary-cover-jones-and-her-evidence-based-cookies/

Or here: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2017/07/17/brain-science-may-be-shiny-but-exposure-therapy-is-pure-gold/

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As I write this (6/4/18), the podcast isn’t quite up yet . . . but will be soon!

To listen to The Secret Self-Regulation Cure on iTunes, go here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

To listen to The Secret Self-Regulation Cure on Libsyn, go here: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

To check out our podcast Facebook page, go here: https://www.facebook.com/PracticallyPerfectParenting/

Working with Parents Across Cultures

This morning I have the honor and privilege to present an ACA Education session on working with culturally diverse parents. Part of the presentation is business as usual. Sara Polanchek and I will take turns talking about some of the ways in which we work with parents. This content is mostly linked to the “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen” book.

But what’s exciting this morning is that two of our U of Montana doc students will intermittently offer cultural commentary on how to work with parents who are culturally diverse. Maegan Rides At The Door and Salena Beaumont Hill are the doc student co-presenters. I have already learned much from them . . . and will be learning more this morning. To share the learning, the powerpoints are here: ACA Parenting 2018 REV #274

What’s Happening at the 2018 American Counseling Association Conference in Atlanta?

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The American Counseling Association annual world conference is coming to Atlanta next week (4/25-29) . . . and so am I.

This year, the ACA conference includes inspiring keynotes, 500+ unique sessions and up to 33.5 hours of CEs. I’m honored to be a part of this exciting learning and networking event. Here’s a link to general conference information: https://www.counseling.org/conference/atlanta-2018

As a part of the 500+ sessions, I’m involved in several events and would love to see you there. Here’s where you can catch me.

On Wednesday, April 25, I’m doing a full-day (6 hour) workshop titled, Tough Teens, Cool Counseling. There are plenty of seats left and you can get registration and other information at the ACA conference website: https://www.counseling.org/conference/atlanta-2018/sessions-events/pre-conference-learning-institutes

On Friday, April 27, from 2 to 3:30pm in Room A313, Kindle Lewis, Kim Parrow, and I will present: Building Therapeutic Relationships: The Heart of Evidence-Based Counseling

On Saturday, April 28, from 10:30 to Noon in Room A410, Sara Polanchek, Maegan Rides At The Door, Salena Beaumont Hill, and I will present: Using (Magic) Words to Influence Challenging Parents . . . With Cultural Commentary

Also on Saturday, April 28, from 1pm to 2pm, John Wiley and Sons is having an event in the Exhibit Hall to launch the publication of 3rd edition of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice. There will be coffee and cookies. Although I was tempted to select excerpts of this exciting new textbook and offer dramatic readings, instead, Rita and I will just be low key at the Wiley booth, meeting and greeting people, and answering any questions that might come up about the book or about life. Please come have a cookie with us so that we’re not standing there awkward and alone.

Last, but far more than least, on Saturday night I have the honor of receiving the Don Dinkmeyer Social Interest Award. The ACA National Awards event is from 6-7pm at the Omni Hotel at CNN Center, in the International Ballroom E & F.

Whether you attend ACA or not, I hope you’ll join the 55,000 members (and me) in working to facilitate greater mental and emotional health around the world.

The Secret Self-Regulation Cure: A Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast

Rocks and Trunk Up

Often, parents and professionals place too much emphasis on children’s surface behaviors, such as “being patient and polite” or “high academic, athletic, or music/art achievements.” This isn’t terrible, but it misses an important idea. In fact, being a patient, polite, high achiever requires several different foundational skills or abilities. One of these foundational requisites is: Self-regulation.

In the latest Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast, Dr. Sara Polanchek and I talk about how to help children develop self-regulation skills. Aside from being fun and hilarious (I’m mocking myself here), this podcast includes useful (but not necessarily “secret”) information.

You can listen on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

Or you can listen on Libsyn: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/the-secret-self-regulation-cure?tdest_id=431110