In 1990, when I moved back to Missoula, Montana to join Philip and Marcy Bornstein in their private practice, my goal was to establish a practice focusing on health psychology. I believed deeply in the body-mind connection and wanted to work with clients/patients with hypertension, asthma, and other health-related conditions with significant behavioral and psychosocial components.
Turns out, maybe because I was the youngest psychologist in town, all I got were referrals from Youth Probation Services, Child Protective Services, local schools, and parents who asked if I could “fix” their children’s challenging behaviors.
I’d say that I made lemonade from lemons, but it turns out I LOVED working with the so-called “challenging youth.” There were no lemons! The work led to our Tough Kids, Cool Counseling book (1997 and 2007), along with many articles, book chapters, and demonstration counseling videos. Over the years I’ve had the honor of working extensively with parents, families, youth, and young adults.
In about 10 days, I’ll be in Ypsilanti, Michigan doing a full-day professional workshop on “Tough Kids, Cool Counseling.” If you’re concerned about the title, don’t worry, so am I. In the first few minutes of the day, I’ll explain why using the terminology “Tough Kids” is a bad idea for counselors, psychotherapists, and other humans.
Just in case you’re in the Eastern Michigan area, the details and links for the conference are below. I hope to see you there . . . and hope if you make the trip, you’ll be sure to say hello to me at a break or after the workshop.
When: Friday, March 10, 2023, 8:30 AM – 5:00 PM EST
Where: Eastern Michigan University Student Center, Second Floor – Ballroom B Ypsilanti, MI 48197
Counseling so-called “tough kids” can be immensely frustrating or splendidly gratifying. The truth of this statement is so obvious that the supportive reference, at least according to many teenagers is, “Duh!” In this workshop, participants will sharpen their counseling skills by viewing and discussing video clips from actual counseling sessions, discussing key issues, and participating in live demonstrations. Attending this workshop will add tools to your counseling youth tool-box, and deepen your understanding of specific interventions. Over 20 cognitive, emotional, and constructive counseling techniques will be illustrated and demonstrated. Examples include acknowledging reality, informal assessment, the affect bridge, the three-step emotional change trick, asset flooding, empowered storytelling, and more. Four essential counseling principles, counselor counter-transference, and multicultural issues will be highlighted.
I had an awesome day yesterday with many amazing Missoula educators. I always respect and admire educators for their willingness to enter classrooms with large groups of young people. I have many reasons upon which I base the belief–that educators deserve respect and admiration–not the least of which is my lived experience of having occasionally stepped into a classroom with young people. One of my memories is of hearing panic in my own voice, while asking the regular classroom teacher, “You’re not leaving me alone in here, are you?”
Sadly, now is a time in American society when teachers seem not to receive the respect and admiration I think they deserve. For multiple reasons (many of which strike me as misleading and political), it seems like there has been distrust sown between teachers and parents. Yesterday, I spent the day with over 400 teachers, counselors, psychologists, administrators, custodians, and other school personnel who attended sessions I offered. I was honored to be there. Being with them not only strengthened my trust in them, but also renewed my hope in the world.
Here are the powerpoints for my workshop on “Working Effectively with Parents”:
I have a political platform. I’m not running for public office, but I still share my platform when it seems appropriate and the time is right.
Tomorrow will be an appropriate and right time for me to share my platform.
The nice thing about having your own personal political platform is that it never involves committee meetings. I don’t have to vote or risk rejection of my excellent ideas. I am solely responsible for my personal political platform.
A while back, I got into trouble for expressing my political views in a newspaper Op-Ed piece. The Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education contacted the University of Montana Legal Counsel asking her to issue me a stern warning. Apparently, I was supposed to have a line along with my Op-Ed byline saying something like, “The views expressed herein are solely the views of John Sommers-Flanagan, and not representative of the University of Montana.”
Clearly, I was in the wrong and admitted so. Not having the UM disclaimer statement was an oversight for which I was, as usual, solely responsible.
But I was still annoyed, and so I wrote the UM Legal Counsel and asked her if I should include similar comments the next week when keynoting the Montana statewide “Prevent Child Abuse” conference. I explained that I was going to “come out” against child abuse. Would OCHE be okay with that? I was also going to recommend one (among many) evidence-based solution for child abuse that involves increased government provision of financial and material support to low income families. I went on to note that I’m pro-mental health and against violence. Should I disclaim the University of Montana in all my books, articles, speeches, and conversations? I told her she could share my questions with OCHE. Fortunately, her judgment is better than mine and she just emailed me back with a calming, soothing, and understanding tone.
All this is a lead-up to tomorrow.
Tomorrow is the First Annual Missoula Summit on Education. Luckily, Dr. Erica Zins, the 2017 Montana School Counselor of the Year and current MCPS Student Services Coordinator, asked if I would be willing to provide a presentation for the Summit. I eagerly said yes, yes, yes, choose me! Now I have the good fortune of getting to do three separate talks tomorrow.
My talks are titled, “Weaving Evidence-Based Happiness into the Lives of Students and Educators” at 9am and repeated at 12:15pm and then “Engaging and Working Effectively with Parents” at 2:15pm. They’re all in the Sentinel H.S. auditorium. I’ve got about 210, 175, and 100 MCPS staff signed up for my talks. . . which is humbling because many MCPS staff have already heard most of my stories and jokes.
I never told Erica that my true motive for being so eager to talk at the Summit was related to my personal political platform. Tomorrow, I will have three chances to begin workshops with my short stump speech. I’m stoked about this. Just in case you’ll be missing tomorrow’s event, here’s a written version of the highly anticipated stump speech.
Nothing is more important for American prosperity and success than teachers and other public-school employees. Everything runs through education. Think about it. Economic vitality? We need people with knowledge, skills, and business acumen. Healthcare? Who wants uneducated healthcare personnel? As far as I’m concerned, the smarter and more well-educated my doctor is, the better. How about the environment? Only through education can we learn to be great stewards of the earth. And relationships? We need awareness, knowledge, and skills to create better marriages and families, be better parents, and have healthier, empathic, and equitable relationships with all people—including the full range of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and identities.
To summarize, my platform is EDUCATION. EDUCATION in general, and PUBLIC EDUCATION in particular . . . along with all the school personnel that make education happen. They need and deserve support, appreciation, and pay raises.
And . . . to make the OCHE people happy, I will also be emphasizing: Although I am a proud University of Montana faculty member and huge supporter of, and believer in, the University of Montana, I am solely responsible for the views on education expressed in this blog, as well as the views I will express tomorrow at the Summit.
For anyone interested, here’s a draft version of the Weaving Happiness . . . ppts:
IMHO, usually parents spank their children for one (or more) of several reasons.
They have come to believe that spanking “works.”
They have been told or educated about reasons for spanking, such as the old “spare the rod, spoil the child” message.
They experienced spanking themselves and have concluded, “I got spanked and I turned out okay.”
They are unaware of other discipline strategies they can use to get positive results, without hitting their children.
Each of these reasons are myths or the results of misinformation. If I wanted to get into a debate with parents who spank their children, I could easily win the argument based on logical and scientific reasoning. But, ironically, in winning the argument, I would lose the debate . . . principally because most parents who spank aren’t open to logical argument about whether or not spanking is a good thing. Instead of winning the debate, I’d be rupturing my relationship with the parents.
Over the years, I’ve learned to avoid rational argument and scientific evidence, and tell parents about these 7 “secrets” instead:
Acknowledge that parents and child development researchers agree on one point: Spanking is usually effective at stopping or suppressing misbehavior in the moment.
If you have spanked your child in the past, you are not a bad person; you’re just a parent who’s trying to make a positive difference.
Most parents who spank their children have mixed feelings about hitting their child before, during, and after the spanking.
I’ve never met a parent who wants to spank their children more; nearly all parents are looking for ways to spank their children less
Even though it’s hard for some parents to believe, from the scientific perspective, spanking is linked to far too many negative outcomes to justify its use. In particular, spanking has adverse effects on mental health, emotional well-being, and child, adolescent and adult behaviors. The science on this is very one-sided in that there’s lots of science indicating spanking has negative long-term effects and very little evidence linking spanking to anything positive in the long run.
If you want to spank less, you’ll need to identify, practice, and implement alternative discipline strategies. . . and that will be hard; it will take time, energy, and patience.
It might help to think about learning to spank less as a sacrifice you make because you love your children. No doubt, learning and practicing alternatives to spanking won’t be the first or last sacrifice you make to be a parent. But, using alternatives to spanking might be the most long-lasting contribution you can make to your child’s future well-being and success.
Medical and scientific organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and nearly every professional group on the planet, advise against using corporal punishment (including no spanking). However—and this is incredibly important—the recommendations are NOT anti-discipline. In fact, mainstream scientific views are consistent with parents as leaders, authority figures who set limits and deliver natural and logical consequences to help children learn what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. Children need their parents to set limits, because children (including teenagers) are not very good at setting healthy limits for themselves.
As my former doctoral students would attest, I’m passionate about teaching parents not to spank their children. I’m also passionate about teaching parents how to use constructive and educational approaches to discipline.
Several years ago, doc students in our Counseling and Supervision program started teasing me for being preoccupied with corporal punishment in general and spanking in particular. Somehow they found my concerns about adverse mental health outcomes linked to spanking as entertaining. They were very funny about it, and so although I was somewhat puzzled, mostly I was entertained by their response, and so it was, as they say . . . all good.
Despite their occasional heckling about spanking and despite my BIG concerns about the adverse outcomes of corporal punishment, I haven’t really done any direct research on the effects of spanking. Maybe one reason I haven’t done any spanking research is because Elizabeth Gershoff of UT-Austin has already done so much amazing work. In an effort to help make her work more mainstream, today I published an article with the Good Men Project titled, “How to Discipline Children Better Without Spanking.” The article begins . . .
“As children across the country headed back to school, some students in Missouri returned to find corporal punishment, with parental approval, reinstated in their district. They joined students in 19 other states where corporal punishment is still legal in schools. At home, most American parents—an estimated 52%—agree or strongly agree that “it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking” Parents hold this opinion despite overwhelming scientific evidence that spanking is linked to mental, emotional, and behavioral problems. In a well-known and highly regarded study of over 1,000 twins, Elizabeth Gershoff of the University of Texas at Austin found that spanking was linked to lying, stealing, fighting, vandalism, and other delinquent behaviors. Gershoff’s findings are not new.”
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.
The place to click if you want to learn about psychotherapy, counseling, or whatever John SF is thinking about.