Category Archives: Personal Reflections

Talking with Kids about Trauma and Tragedy

             All too often, very bad and traumatic things happen in the world. Many of these terrible things find their way into the news. This can be shocking and depressing not only for the people who were directly affected, but also for the general public. We are often repeatedly exposed to words and images that can trigger emotional and behavioral reactions in adults and children. Below is a short list with brief descriptions of how adults can help children deal effectively with traumatic information from the news and other media sources.

TALKING WITH CHILDREN: CONVERSATIONS ABOUT REALITY

The first step in talking with children is always the opposite of talking. LISTEN. Listen for how children have been affected. Listen for what they’ve seen and heard. Listen for their fears and fantasies. Listen for their personal coping strategies and solutions.

It’s important to listen closely, but if you listen too hard for children to talk about trauma, you run the risk of making them think they SHOULD be traumatized. If this happens, then children often will start giving you what they think you want . . . they’ll start talking about trauma. Therefore, a big challenge for adults is to listen in a balanced way.  Don’t spend too much time everyday encouraging children to talk about their deepest fears. If you do, it’s possible that everyone will get more and more scared — including you!

Perhaps the biggest deal when talking with kids about real tragic events, is being able to answer their questions. They may ask you terribly hard questions, like, “Will there be a plane crashing in our neighborhood?” or “Do you think a shooter might come to our school?” or “Will I be safe at home?” or “Teacher, are you scared?”

Children often ask very good and very hard questions. An important guideline for teachers, parents, and counselors is to stay balanced. This means you can admit to being scared — as long as you also admit to being strong. Some children can quickly pick up on false reassurance, which is one reason why I’m not in agreement with Dr. Joyce Brothers who suggested after 9/11 that it was a good time to lie to your children. Instead, I recommend acknowledgement that the world is not always a safe place, but that you’ll do everything you can to be strong and help keep the child or children safe.

With preschoolers, there are some conversational topics that are best to avoid. For example, there’s no need to go into graphic detail about specific injuries, etc.  This is similar to the fact that very young children don’t need to know all the details about sexuality. It’s better to speak generally about violence and destruction. It’s also very important to protect your children from too much exposure to media coverage of violent events.

It’s also important to never forget about focusing on children’s strengths. Listening first provides you with a foundation for giving children feedback about their strengths. Be sure to listen for children’s strengths . . . and then reflect them back. You can also encourage children to tell you about their strengths – including both ways they’ve handled hard things in the past and ways they might handle hard things in the future.

 PLAYING WITH CHILDREN: REENACTMENT, PRETEND PLAY, AND MASTERY

Younger children will typically play out or reenact their traumatic experiences. For preschoolers pretend play will be the dominant way they deal with the trauma of what they’ve seen and heard. Around 9/11 children were likely to build towers and have them knocked down. They also enacted play activities involving airplanes, police, terrorists (or other “evil/bad” people). If they’ve been exposed to images and heard about school shootings you might see some play activities involving guns and death and loss. For the most part, it’s best to just sit back and watch children as they enact these scenes. By allowing them un-directed play time and some nondirective commentary, you’ll be helping them take their first steps toward healing (more information on non-directive play is included on the “Special Time” tip sheet on this blogsite).

On the other hand, sometimes children get stuck in the same repeated play pattern. This more chronic form of play is referred to as post-traumatic play. When children seem genuinely stuck repeating pretend interactions through non-interactive play that provides no apparent gratification, you may need to interact with them in ways that help them get un-stuck. You might want to try these strategies: (a) have the child stand up and take some deep breaths before resuming play; or (b) interact with the child in a way that disrupts the pattern (for example, you might ask, “what would happen if . . . ?”).

Obviously, rigid post-traumatic play patterns indicate a need for professional assistance.

 DRAWING WITH CHILDREN:  CAPTURING THE FEAR ON PAPER

Children’s fears can seem big and intimidating. That’s true for people of any age. Maybe that’s why, for adults and older children, writing about specific fears and trauma can be so helpful. Somehow, writing things down on paper can help to put it in perspective.

Younger children aren’t able to use the written word effectively for personal journaling. That’s where drawing comes in. When children color, draw, paint, or sculpt their fears, the fears become more manageable.

 STORYTELLING STRATEGIES

Storytelling is a very powerful tradition and technique for dealing with many human problems and challenges. Stories can be designed or obtained through published materials. In response to tragedy, it can be helpful for children to hear stories of bravery under difficult or perilous conditions.

If you choose to invent your own stories, be sure to create a story with a main character and a clear beginning, middle, and ending. If you’re comfortable with it, you can even have the children help invent characters and their own stories.

There are many ways to encourage children to make up stories of their own. The advantage of this is that you get to listen for the dynamics of the children’s story and so it provides some assessment information. As a counseling technique, it’s possible to use a pretend radio or television show. You can invite children to be guests on your “show” and interview them about their experience or have them share a story.

 HELPING WITH TRANSITIONS:

Separation anxiety is a common reaction that children have to stressful news or situations. This means children may have trouble saying goodbye to their parents and being left at school or day care. In most cases, it’s best for parents, children, and staff to develop an individualized goodbye and hello routine for drop-offs and pick-ups. These routines will be less necessary as time goes by, but it’s good to have goodbye and hello rituals there when you need them. For example, having a hello and goodbye song, transitional objects, and other objects of comfort can ease the pain of separation.

 HAVING FUN: USING DISTRACTION, HUMOR, AND PLAY TO MOVE PAST TRAUMA

Don’t forget, it’s easy to pay way too much attention to the traumatic news and ignore regular daily play routines. Don’t fall into this trap. It’s good to keep kids active and keep them having fun. It’s good to be prepared with some games, songs, or activities that you can rely on to engage children and help them forget about the bad news for a while.

 LEARNING ACTIVITIES: MASTERY THROUGH EDUCATION, SAFETY, AND SERVICE

Not only does life go on after a trauma; it’s important for life to keep getting better. Ways to move forward include (a) continuing with educational, skill-building, and stress management activities, (b) promoting safety strategies and skills, and (c) involving children in basic service activities . . . possibly even service activities that include teaching other children strategies for coping with trauma or difficult situations.

 GET HELP AS NEEDED

It’s a sign of strength to get help when it’s needed. You may notice specific reactions or experiences in children or yourself that indicate it’s time to for professional assistance. Some of the primary symptoms of trauma and vicarious trauma that can develop in these situations include the following:

  • Repetitive and intrusive thoughts and images.
  • Sleep problems: Insomnia, nightmares, and night terrors.
  • Separation Anxiety and clingy-ness.
  • Specific fears/phobias.
  • Hypervigilence.
  • Regression.

 SELF CARE NOW AND INTO THE FUTURE

Remember to take good care of yourself so you can be of greater help for others. This could involve many different activities including vigorous exercise, maintaining healthy eating and sleeping routines, and scheduling time for social contact and social support.

This Tip Sheet was written by John Sommers-Flanagan, Ph.D., professor of Counselor Education at the University of Montana.

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When Giving Gives Back

For several years Rita has been having first year counseling students do at least five hours of “volunteer” work with our local day treatment center for clients (or consumers) who struggle with chronic mental disorders. This year Rita is on sabbatical and so the task fell to me. To be honest, I was ambivalent about the assignment, mostly because the logistics seemed challenging. I had to arrange two separate organizational visits to the mental health center for about 15 students with different schedules before the volunteering could start and I struggled to make these happen in a timely manner. I secretly wondered if arranging this experience would be worth the hassle.

On Monday, October 29, I finally met the first group at the Day Treatment program and was emotionally transported back to the early 1980s when I was worked in a Day Treatment program and then as a recreation therapist at a 23-bed private psychiatric hospital. I listened as a staff member gave us the most unstructured orientation ever. He eventually told us that he was a “client” at the center before becoming staff. He told the students they were free to just drop in and hang out whenever. I could feel the students’ anxiety rising at the thought of just hanging out and so I asked a few questions and told a couple stories to take up time and they asked questions of their own. In an odd mix of awkwardness and genuineness and anxiety, I felt the wish to just hang out with the day treatment clients myself.   

But instead of hanging out, the reality of other responsibilities started pressing forward and I left with unresolved emotions. I decided to deal with those emotions by writing a small check to support the River House Day Treatment Member Fund. I wrote the check and sent it off.

After completing their five volunteer hours, our students are required to write a short essay about their experience. Today, I’ve spent much of my day reading these essays. They are amazingly open and appreciative of the experience. Some samples:

“I am always humbled by the willingness of others to not only be open with me and to share with me their experiences but also by the ‘sameness’ of a lot of human experiences and suffering.”

“It felt good to share in the humanness of it all- bad days, favorite things, boyfriends, girlfriends, family, and trying to find meaning even when our stories are so different.”

“The clients were not only positive and loving toward the staff members, but also towards me as a volunteer. Every client I was able to talk to complimented something about me and they were constantly complimenting each other.”

“The clients I talked with accepted me in to their community and openly shared their experiences with me. This allowed me to see the world, in a small way, through their eyes.”

Every essay has emphasized the positive environment, the loving-kindness of staff and patients, and the surprise and joy of making deeply human connections. I also received an excellent formal thank-you note from the program director (for the small donation). In it she enclosed a short note from the clients or members of the Day Treatment Center. They wrote:

Thank you so much for the monetary gift. We appreciate it so much. Your students have blessed us with their presence and we have enjoyed them. I hope that we can give the students a fresh perspective on how a special place such as River House can do good and help its members. I hope you will always feel welcome here and thank you for all you do, mentoring the students and giving gifts to us.

This letter and the feelings I get when I read “Your students have blessed us with their presence . . .” was much bigger than what I gave. That’s the same message I keep getting from my students. They went with minimal expectations, a little angst, and to clock their required hours. But instead of just completing a simple assignment, they received an experience so meaningful that many of them have are extending their volunteer work far beyond the required five hours.

This is a fabulous example of how giving can give back much more than what was originally given. This is probably what Adler meant by Gemeinschaftsguful.

Thank-you to the River House staff and members for . . . BLESSING US with YOUR presence.

Song Lyrics for the Election

In my own wacky mind I’m thinking it might be a good idea to listen to some social justice lyrics on election day. Here are a few that came to me. Feel free to offer your own.

Ten Top Song Lyrics for Election Day . . .

  1. It’s a beautiful day; don’t let it get away . . . without voting (Bono)
  2. What kind of father would take his own daughter’s rights away? And what kind of father might hate his own daughter if she were gay? (Pink)
  3. Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard? (Paul Simon)
  4. So often have I wondered where these homeless brothers go, down in some hidden valley where their sorrows cannot show. (Don McLean)
  5. . . . our children are watching us, they put their trust in us, they’re gonna be like us; so let’s learn from our history, and do it differently (Dixie Chicks)
  6. Cause I’m bluffin’ with my muffin; I’m not lying; I’m just stunnin’ with my love-glue-gunning (Lady Gaga)
  7. I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter, but my will gets weak and my thoughts seem to scatter. But I think it’s about forgiveness. (Don Henley)
  8. It’s just a theory. A particular set of assumptions. It’s just a theory; an educated guess, a conclusion not forgone (Tracy Chapman)
  9. After changes upon changes we are more or less the same. After changes we are more or less the same (Paul Simon)
  10. In times like these and in times like those, what will be will be and so it goes . . . and it always goes on and on and on and on and on. On and on and on and on and on it goes, hmm (Jack Johnson)

Hey — We just got a grant to help prevent student assault at the University of Montana — Very cool.

I’m just writing a note here with a link to a news story with video about a new grant we just got in the Department of Counselor Education. Although it means more work, it also means more work for the good of the campus and for the good of women and men who suffer from assault. Yeah. I guess I’m saying this is a difficult topic, but it’s a place where there’s room to do lots of good stuff.

Here’s the link:

http://www.abcmontana.com/news/local/UM-Receives-300K-Grant-to-Prevent-Assaults-on-Campus-171259111.html

 

Sexual Assault Prevention at the University of Montana

Hey. I’ve got a letter to the editor in the Montana Kaimin out today. I even managed to work in some profanity appropriately geared to college students:). Check it out at: http://www.montanakaimin.com/opinion/letters-petsa-and-personal-responsibility-1.2906452#.UFtDo665W1w

The past two days (9/19 & 9/20) the Missoulian has run articles about an organization named Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE) and their criticism of the University of Montana required Personal Empowerment Through Self-Awareness (PETSA) video series designed to reduce and prevent the incidence of sexual assault. In particular, SAVE has complained that the U of M PETSA video series is not evidence-based. Being a scientist, this was of concern and so I immediately checked the SAVE website and discovered that SAVE is an organization that is not even REMOTELY related to evidence-based programming for sexual assault prevention or anything else. Their entire raison d’etre is to protect men from being falsely accused of intimate partner violence and sexual assault. Their website includes internal inconsistencies and videos that (unlike the PETSA series) have not been vetted by anyone other than the organization itself or other “believers” that men are somehow unfairly targeted.

SAVE claims to only be interested in the truth and scientific evidence. And they say U.S. law have evolved to the point that ANYONE can be convicted of sexual assault or intimate partner violence? Now, being male myself, I’m all about fair treatment for men and so this places me in a precarious position. If I oppose SAVE, am I opposing my own best interests?

Well . . . I’m going out on a limb here to say the SAVE folks are just plain wacky. They say they are only after the truth and that they support evidence-based approaches, but there is ABSOLUTELY NO EVIDENCE that changing laws to make it harder to prove sexual assault would result in a safer and less abusive environment in the U.S.

Although I think it’s important to acknowledge that false allegations happen and it’s important to address these false allegations through legal means, instead of sticking to the facts, SAVE relies on rhetoric and sensationalist debunking of a few incorrect statistics to lead people to believe that false reporting is the rule and not the exception. This phenomenon—when someone accuses someone else of perpetrating something they’re doing themselves—is referred to as projection.

My first big concern is that the Missoulian, in reporting this as news, has given SAVE a semblance of validity that it doesn’t deserve.

My second big concern is that the hard working creators of the PETSA videos will be criticized based on hysterical accusations from an organization using political rhetoric framed as science. Based on viewing 2 SAVE videos online and comparing them to the PETSA production it’s obvious that PETSA is vastly more evidence-based than SAVE – Talk about blatantly false allegations

http://www.montanakaimin.com/opinion/letters-petsa-and-personal-responsibility-1.2906452#.UFtDo665W1w

 

A White Male Psychologist Reflects on White Privilege

I’m a white male writing about white privilege. This irony makes the task all the more challenging.

Gyda Swaney asked if I would write this piece. This brings me mixed feelings. I am honored. I met Gyda in 1981 and I like and respect her as a person and as a Native American leader in Montana. But the fact that she thinks I might have something useful to say to psychologists about white privilege is humbling. Rarely have I been asked to write about something I know so well and understand so little.

On Invisibility

The challenge begins with the definition. White privilege is defined as an “invisible package of unearned assets” (see McIntosh, 1988 or 2001 for more on this).

As a white, male, psychologist, and university professor, I’m pretty much a white privilege poster boy. Consequently, white privilege, by definition, is generally invisible to me . . . although I do occasionally glimpse it from the corner of my eye or notice its shadow if I sneak up on it when it’s not looking. In fact I think I just saw it – as evidenced by my certainty that I can write a sentence as silly as this last one and get it published in the Montana Psych Association Newsletter.

Like most things invisible (think UFOs, Harry Potter with his invisibility cloak on, ghosts) white privilege is problematic and controversial. This is because white privilege is not always invisible; it’s selectively invisible. It’s obvious to many (e.g., oppressed minorities), but beyond the awareness of those who are busily experiencing the luxury of their unearned assets.

Common Responses to White Privilege

This brings up what may be the most fascinating and disturbing component of white privilege: When the idea of white privilege is brought to the attention of those to whom it’s invisible, it typically evokes a response of defensiveness combined with anger, hostility, outrage, and occasionally guilt. And as we know from our work in psychology, dealing with people who are feeling angry, hostile, outraged, and guilty is very difficult.

There’s something about white privilege that has the potential to make everyone angry.

Personal Reflections

Although White privilege precedes me and I hold no responsibility for its origins, I was born into it and have lived with it every day for nearly 55 years. Even my birth, characterized by greater-than-equal access to healthcare, is an example of my white privilege.

Maybe that’s a phrase that captures much of the white privilege experience—greater-than-equal. My whiteness and the whiteness of most Montana psychologists affords us greater-than-equal treatment, greater-than-equal power, greater-than-equal access, and greater-than-equal perceptions of ourselves. But privilege is complicated . . . and so it’s possible that we also have a greater-than-equal means of denying our privilege.

Privilege grows in complexity when we look at all the different factors that contribute to a more privileged status in one person and a less privileged status in others. My wife consistently reminds me of my male privileged status and although I’m inclined to deny this along with my white privilege, I know better. I was born male and being born male is like being dealt an ace as your first card in a round of Texas Hold-Em. In most cultures it’s clear that to be male is to be superior. That’s the case even though, as most males know, being handed an expectation of superiority isn’t always comfortable or easy. Paradoxically or dialectically, being a white male cuts both ways and isn’t only an unearned asset or gift, it’s also an unearned burden. It’s a burden like having to carry too many gold coins and diamonds to the bank. The weight of gold hurts your back and the diamonds cut your hands, but it’s ridiculous to complain about the fact that you have to carry a treasure to the bank.

Solutions

There are no easy ways to make white privilege quickly materialize and become visible. The resistance and pain associated with being told: “You’ve got unearned assets” is natural, partly because most people hold the perception that they’ve worked very hard to get what they deserve. Here’s a short list of ideas:

  • Teaching and learning about Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack is a good place to start. One of the items from her knapsack is:

“I can swear, or dress in secondhand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, poverty, or illiteracy of my race.”

  • Damn. That’s a nice privilege.
  • Teaching and learning about white privilege can be dangerous and so courage is another important factor in dealing with white privilege. Boatright-Horowitz and Soeung (2009) titled their commentary in the American Psychologist, “Teaching White Privilege to White Students Can Mean Saying Good-bye to Positive Student Evaluations.” When I recently posted about white privilege on my blog, I received one response that was so rabidly irrational it was frightening. Speaking out against the status quo always risks blowback.
  • A big part of the solution is to stop clinging to ideas about white superiority and instead, openly embrace and value the lessons we learn from other cultures. We should actively seek out other cultural perspectives. That isn’t about making the other culture better than ours . . . it just places it on the same, equal cultural footing where it belongs.
  • It’s also important to work on calming our anxiety over displacement from the top of the economic and power pyramid. We all get displaced someday; denying reality is dysfunctional. Actively sharing power along with values of egalitarian personal and community relationships is functional. This is part of the very important personal and communal work we need to do.

In closing, I’m painfully aware that I write this short column from a position of unearned privilege in a cabin on former Crow country on the beautiful Stillwater River; thank you Gyda Swaney, for handing me this challenge and opportunity.

This essay was published in the Montana Psychologist Newsletter in September, 2012.

The White Privilege Piece for the Montana Psychological Association

Michael Smerconish did a feature on White Privilege today on CNN. It was excellent and reminded me of this piece I’d written on White Privilege about 4 years ago. Check it out if you like this sort of thing.

A White, Male Psychologist Reflects on White Privilege

I’m a white male writing about white privilege. This irony makes the task all the more challenging.

Gyda Swaney asked if I would write this piece. This brings me mixed feelings. I am honored. I met Gyda in 1981 and I like and respect her as a person and as a Native American leader in Montana. But the fact that she thinks I might have something useful to say to psychologists about white privilege is humbling. Rarely have I been asked to write about something I know so well and understand so little.

On Invisibility

The challenge begins with the definition. White privilege is defined as an “invisible package of unearned assets” (see McIntosh, 1988 or 2001 for more on this).

As a white, male, psychologist, and university professor, I’m pretty much a white privilege poster boy. Consequently, white privilege, by definition, is generally invisible to me . . . although I do occasionally glimpse it from the corner of my eye or notice its shadow if I sneak up on it when it’s not looking. In fact I think I just saw it – as evidenced by my certainty that I can write a sentence as silly as this last one and get it published in the Montana Psych Association Newsletter.

Like most things invisible (think UFOs, Harry Potter with his invisibility cloak on, ghosts) white privilege is problematic and controversial. This is because white privilege is not always invisible; it’s selectively invisible. It’s obvious to many (e.g., oppressed minorities), but beyond the awareness of those who are busily experiencing the luxury of their unearned assets.

Common Responses to White Privilege

This brings up what may be the most fascinating and disturbing component of white privilege: When the idea of white privilege is brought to the attention of those to whom it’s invisible, it typically evokes a response of defensiveness combined with anger, hostility, outrage, and occasionally guilt. And as we know from our work in psychology, dealing with people who are feeling angry, hostile, outraged, and guilty is very difficult.

There’s something about white privilege that has the potential to make everyone angry.

Personal Reflections

Although White privilege precedes me and I hold no responsibility for its origins, I was born into it and have lived with it every day for nearly 55 years. Even my birth, characterized by greater-than-equal access to healthcare, is an example of my white privilege.

Maybe that’s a phrase that captures much of the white privilege experience—greater-than-equal. My whiteness and the whiteness of most Montana psychologists affords us greater-than-equal treatment, greater-than-equal power, greater-than-equal access, and greater-than-equal perceptions of ourselves. But privilege is complicated . . . and so it’s possible that we also have a greater-than-equal means of denying our privilege.

Privilege grows in complexity when we look at all the different factors that contribute to a more privileged status in one person and a less privileged status in others. My wife consistently reminds me of my male privileged status and although I’m inclined to deny this along with my white privilege, I know better. I was born male and being born male is like being dealt an ace as your first card in a round of Texas Hold-Em. In most cultures it’s clear that to be male is to be superior. That’s the case even though, as most males know, being handed an expectation of superiority isn’t always comfortable or easy. Paradoxically or dialectically, being a white male cuts both ways and isn’t only an unearned asset or gift, it’s also an unearned burden. It’s a burden like having to carry too many gold coins and diamonds to the bank. The weight of gold hurts your back and the diamonds cut your hands, but it’s ridiculous to complain about the fact that you have to carry a treasure to the bank.

Solutions

There are no easy ways to make white privilege quickly materialize and become visible. The resistance and pain associated with being told: “You’ve got unearned assets” is natural, partly because most people hold the perception that they’ve worked very hard to get what they deserve. Here’s a short list of ideas:

  • Teaching and learning about Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack is a good place to start. One of the items from her knapsack is:

“I can swear, or dress in secondhand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, poverty, or illiteracy of my race.”

  • Damn. That’s a nice privilege.
  • Teaching and learning about white privilege can be dangerous and so courage is another important factor in dealing with white privilege. Boatright-Horowitz and Soeung (2009) titled their commentary in the American Psychologist, “Teaching White Privilege to White Students Can Mean Saying Good-bye to Positive Student Evaluations.” When I recently posted about white privilege on my blog, I received one response that was so rabidly irrational it was frightening. Speaking out against the status quo always risks blowback.
  • A big part of the solution is to stop clinging to ideas about white superiority and instead, openly embrace and value the lessons we learn from other cultures. We should actively seek out other cultural perspectives. That isn’t about making the other culture better than ours . . . it just places it on the same, equal cultural footing where it belongs.
  • It’s also important to work on calming our anxiety over displacement from the top of the economic and power pyramid. We all get displaced someday; denying reality is dysfunctional. Actively sharing power along with values of egalitarian personal and community relationships is functional. This is part of the very important personal and communal work we need to do.

In closing, I’m painfully aware that I write this short column from a position of unearned privilege in a cabin on former Crow country on the beautiful Stillwater River; thank you Gyda Swaney, for handing me this challenge and opportunity.

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

John Sommers-Flanagan (Ph.D., 1986, University of Montana) is a clinical psychologist and counselor educator at the University of Montana. His blogsite, featuring material on counseling, psychotherapy, and parenting is at: johnsommersflanagan.com.