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Upcoming Event: Strategies for Influencing Children

Missoula Forum For Children And Youth To Host Parenting Discussion

Oct. 08, 2012


University of Montana counseling Associate Professor John Sommers-Flanagan will lead a community conversation titled “Parents are the No. 1 Influence” from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16, on the third floor of the University Center. The discussion is presented by the Missoula Forum for Children and Youth in partnership with Missoula Underage Substance Abuse Prevention.

The first of a three-part Community Conversation Series, the discussion will address the importance of parents’ impact on youth. Research indicates that parents are the primary influence on children, including when youth make choices about engaging in risk behavior or experimenting with substance abuse.

“Parenting is a wonderful gift, but it also can be difficult at times,” said Brandee Tyree, MUSAP coordinator with the Missoula Forum for Children and Youth. “John Sommers-Flanagan will give concrete tips on how to influence your child’s behavior for the best. As a community we can support each other as parents, which in return supports our youth in making healthy decisions.”

The event is sponsored by UM, Missoula Indian Center, the Missoulian, St. Patrick Hospital Foundation and Montana Marketing Group. It is free and open to the public, and refreshments will be provided.

The Missoula Forum for Children and Youth and MUSAP work to support and enhance prevention efforts in the community.

For more information call Tyree at 406-721-3000 ext. 1021 or email

General Rules for Getting Your Children to do Chores

The following is an excerpt from “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen.”

If asked, most children and teenagers will readily assure you that “chores suck.” To make matters worse, parents don’t appreciate having butler, maid, and custodian responsibilities in addition to their regular parenting duties. This combination of factors helps explain why so many parents come to consultations complaining of their children’s noncompliance with chore requests.

When chores and chore completion are a concern, we typically teach parents about (1) the three-step approach to learning chores; (2) teaming to complete chores; (3) chore menus; and (4) chore contingencies. This problem-solving intervention is especially important because it illustrates how parents can collaboratively and authoritatively work with their children to accomplish family tasks.

The Three-Step Approach

Most children aren’t naturally inclined to do chores and aren’t particularly inclined to do them well. All too often, children will fail at their first assignment to clean the bathroom (or whatever project they’re assigned).

If parents want chore cooperation from their children, the following three steps may be helpful: (1) Demonstrate (by actively teaching) how to do the chore assignment they wish their child to do; (2) do the chore assignment with their child (while providing positive and encouraging comments); and (3) have their child complete the assignment with parental supervision and support. Also, because doing chores is not naturally pleasurable for most children, parents should model how good it feels to get the job done. Finally, parents need to support their child by making positive statements about the child’s performance and staying away from critical comments. Criticizing children when they’re engaging in an already-aversive task is an excellent way to destroy whatever remnants of motivation may still exist. This doesn’t mean parents need to pretend their children have done a fabulous job when they haven’t, but it does mean parents need to look for the positive and communicate in an encouraging way even when performance is less than adequate.

Parent: Getting my eight-year-old to help with chores is sometimes more of a chore than just doing it myself.

Consultant: It sounds like you’d like your daughter’s help around the house, if it wasn’t such a pain.

Parent: Right.

Consultant: May I share a few ideas?

Parent: Go ahead.

Consultant: [After explaining the three-step approach to learning chores, the consultant moves into ideas about keeping chore-related interactions positive:] Since doing chores can be a pain for both you and your daughter, let’s talk about how to make it more pleasant. Some of these ideas may work for you and some may not, but here are a few. First, consider doing chores together while you listen to music she likes. Second, try doing chores for a very short time period during which she can be successful, even five minutes might be fine to start. Third, set it up so that right after the successful five minutes you transition to something fun. This is so she’ll get the idea that you work first and then play and have fun. Fourth, while you’re both working ignore her off-task behavior and pay close and positive attention to her on-task behavior. Fifth, if her performance is disappointing, express that in the most positive way you can. Something like, “Sweetheart, I know you can be better help than you were today,” is enough. Be sure to avoid long lectures about non-helpfulness, because that could act as a reward. [The consultant writes out these ideas so the parent will have a reminder.]   

Teaming to Complete Chores

More often than parents prefer, chore completion is suboptimal. We like to think of it as an example of the two-steps-forward-one-step-back phenomenon. 

Children may need support and assistance to complete chores adequately. Some children will be slower at developing positive chore habits and others will be adversely affected by their attitude or mood. However, parents are better served if they stay positive and encouraging. It’s especially important to avoid the temptation toward negative character feedback (“Can’t you do anything right?”).

Thinking of chores as a family activity or obligation can help. It’s more motivating when all family members work to accomplish a goal in a particular time period. A friend of ours taught us the following technique:

Okay, we need to clean up and de-clutter the house. Tonight at six-thirty p.m., I’ll set the timer for thirty minutes and, as a family, we’ll all run around cleaning and picking up and putting things away. At the end of our thirty minutes we can order a pizza and a movie and celebrate our clean house.

Many parents will immediately object to the “time-limited family project” technique by stating, “Yeah, we’ve tried that and the kids just sit around and don’t really contribute. Then we end up doing all the work and we’re angry at the kids for loafing.” Of course, consultants should pay attention to this complaint and then try to help the parents reformulate chore activities to promote family success. Part of this reformulation will undoubtedly involve having the parents lower their chore performance expectations and praising or supporting their children for small contributions. It also might involve the natural and logical consequence of the parents eating pizza and watching a movie while the kids eat yesterday’s leftovers and go to bed early.

In situations where children have already learned specific chores but occasionally regress because of a bad mood or a bad day, additional teaming techniques may be useful. For example, a parent might be coached to offer something like the following:

How about I help you out tonight? We’re a family and we should help each other. I can see you’re not in the best of moods and I can relate to that because some days I hate to do chores, too. So, how about for tonight we work together and get this done in half the time?

Or, with teenagers who are high achievers and who maintain an exceptionally busy schedule, rather than completely dispensing with chore assignments, it might be more helpful to frame breaks from regular chore routines as a part of family support. For example,

I know you’re crazy-busy with homework and volleyball this weekend. How about if I take care of your kitchen-cleaning duties tonight and you can help me out sometime when I’m too busy and you’ve got free time?

The purpose of these family-teaming strategies is to help the children understand the underlying message: In this family we all contribute to maintaining the household, and because we’re on the same team we help each other and share the load when we can.

Chore Menus

It’s generally more effective for parents to give their children choices over which chores they’re assigned. For example, if Miguel perpetually is assigned the chore of scooping the dog poop in the backyard, he may eventually feel there’s no opportunity for career advancement (or personal choice) and so he may begin resisting his assignment. Now, if it’s Miguel’s designated dog and he agreed to scoop the poop for 12 years, more complex negotiation strategies may be needed. However, in most cases children experience greater freedom (which they desire) when they at least get to pick their poison (chore). Consequently, we advocate chore menus for children. These menus can be as simple as:  “Would you like to empty the dishwasher or collect and take out the garbage?” Or parents may make a master list and let each child sign up for several chores a week.

Chore Contingencies

Some parents vehemently argue that completing chores is part and parcel of being in a family and, therefore, children should do chores without compensation. In contrast, other parents believe chores should be linked to a weekly allowance or some other form of financial remuneration. If you’ve been paying attention to this point, you should anticipate our response to these polar perspectives: We believe both positions are reasonable and recommend a combination approach.

For many families, it works best if some designated chores are expected contributions to family life. These could be chores that are required as a part of daily living (e.g., washing dishes, de-cluttering, dusting, vacuuming, feeding the dog, etc). Other, less frequent chores could be reserved for when children want to make money. Obviously, consultants should work with parents to develop a system that best fits the individual family’s needs and the parents’ values.

Using direct power strategies may be necessary and appropriate when it comes to chore completion. For example, we recommend that parents use Grandma’s Rule (see Chapter 3) to clearly and concisely articulate their expectations that chore completion precedes recreation. A classic example of using Grandma’s rule is:  

When you finish unloading the dishwasher and wiping down the kitchen counters, then you can turn on the computer and play some games. 

Overall, as we think of chores, we’re reminded of a wise statement a colleague uses when working with mandated client groups. At the beginning of group he announces: “Well, I know we’re all required to be here, but we’re not required to have a bad time. So I hope we can make the best of it.” When parents lead with a good attitude and positive mood in the face of a required task, often children will begin to follow their leaders. This is the essence of role modeling.


The road to getting your chores done in Montana.

Respecting the Client’s Perspective – Even When We Think We Know Better

There are so many ways we can . . . as therapists . . . subtly (or less so) disrespect our client’s perspective. Here’s a small example from the revision of Clinical Interviewing (5th ed).

Interviewers can negatively judge or disrespect the client’s perspective in many ways. Very recently, I (John) became somewhat preoccupied about convincing a client that she wasn’t really “bipolar.” Despite my good intentions (it seemed to me that the young woman would be better off without the bipolar label), there was something useful or important for the client about holding onto her bipolar identity. Of course, as a “psychological expert” I thought it was ludicrous. I thought it obscured her many personal strengths with a label that diminished her personhood. Therefore, I tried my best to shove my opinion into her belief system. For better or worse, I was unsuccessful.

What’s clear about this example is that, despite our general expertise in mental health matters, as mental health professionals we need to work hard to respect our clients’ worldviews. In recent years practitioners from many theoretical perspectives have become more firm about the need for the expert therapist to take a back seat to the client’s personal lived experience. It’s now more important than ever for interviewers to acknowledge and embrace client expertness. This may be partly due to our increasing awareness (as mental health professionals and advocates) that clients may have very divergent views of themselves and the world.

In the end, who am I to tell my client that she is better off without a bipolar label? What if that label somehow, perhaps even in a twisted way, offers her solace. Perhaps she feels comfort in a label that helps explain her behavior to herself. Perhaps she is not ready—yet—to let go of the bipolar label. Perhaps she never will—and that may be the best outcome.

Whatever their theoretical orientation, effective interviewers respect their client’s personal expertise or perspective. We need that expertise. If the client is unwilling to collaborate with us by sharing her or his expertise and experience, we lose at least some of our potency as helpers.


John offers his brother-in-law some advice.

In Honor of Swin Cash

     I just saw an advertising on with WNBA player Swin Cash is showing off her strength and power and it reminded me of an old newspaper column I wrote back in 1999 or so. When I wrote it I got a 10 page single-spaced piece of hate mail from a man who evidently hated women. I hope role models like Swin Cash make this sort of topic obsolete. Here’s the old column from the Missoulian newspaper.

Chess for Girls

“America today is a girl destroying place. . . girls are encouraged to sacrifice their true selves” 

                                                                                —  Mary Pipher, Reviving Ophelia                       

I recently learned about a special version of the classic game of chess.  This new chess game is designed especially for girls.  While I was busy irritating my wife by doing that male channel-surfing thing (we get 4 channels) I came across an advertising for a product called: “Chess for Girls.” 

The ad began with a boy and girl playing chess.  The girl made a move and the boy quickly countered, “Checkmate!  What a stupid move!”  The girl whined back, “I hate this game.” 

The ad rolls on.  “Aren’t you girls tired of that boring old-fashioned chess game?  You should try. . . Chess for Girls!” 

Chess for girls is just a bit different than chess for the rest of us.  It uses some of the same playing pieces as regular chess, but also includes Barbie and Ken and is based to a large degree on how fashionably the contestants can dress up their chess pieces and the Barbies.

As the ad ends, the girl wins and the boy slumps away muttering something like, “That’s not real chess.”

Turns out I was watching a Saturday Night Live advertising spoof.  Nevertheless, I got the point and those of you who watch television should get the point too.  Our culture goes the extra mile when it comes to messing with girls’ self-esteem. 

Some friends of mine recently told me that their daughter’s gym teacher scolded her for “running like a girl.”  And the teacher didn’t mean it as a compliment.  My friends went straight down to the school to express their concern.  The gym teacher said “Aw, heck.  I didn’t mean anything by it.  You know, it’s just an old saying.”  Of course, the problem is that the old saying is an insult to girls and women.  No one says “You run like a girl” or “You throw like a girl” or even “You play chess like a girl” and means it as a compliment.

Another group of students (boys and girls) at one of our local high schools were told that the reason girls aren’t as good as boys when it comes to math and the hard sciences is because of hormonally-based male-female brain differences. It’s doubtful that statements like that help girls achieve in those fields.

I know some girls who are joyfully in touch with their power.  Some of them flex their muscles for me when I see them.  They want me to know all about their toughness, swiftness, and agility.  Sometimes they’ll challenge me to an arm wrestling match or to race them across the park–or even to a game of chess.  And they really want to win.  They want to show me their power.  Unfortunately, none of these powerful girls are over 12.  Rarely do any teenage girls I know ever flex their muscles.  Usually, they don’t want me (or anyone else) to know about their power.

We need to teach teenage girls that it’s okay to be strong and powerful and smart.  Too often girls are taught that the only arena in which they should compete is with each other for the attention and approval of males.  Girls need to believe that it’s okay for them to compete fully in sports, math, and life.  They won’t always be victorious, but they should never have second thoughts about giving it their best.

In Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher describes common experiences of strong and smart girls:

“Many strong girls have similar stories: They were socially isolated and lonely in adolescence.  Smart girls are often the girls most rejected by peers.  Their strength is a threat and they are punished for being different.  Girls who are unattractive or who don’t worry about their appearance are scorned.”

Our girls need to discover and take pride in who they are–no easy task in the face of the loud and persistent messages they get about who they should be.  Pipher and others have offered tips on how to help our girls embrace their identities and survive to adulthood:

  • Encourage girls to find a safe place to explore who they are and what they value.  Usually this place has to be at home or some other place where they can turn off the television and not be oppressed by prominent cultural messages.
  • Actively point out the injustices and absurdities of the ways women are portrayed in the media.  Help them love themselves and their bodies just as they are.
  • Encourage exercise, sports activities, and solid academic effort as sources of development and pride.  Downplay girl-identities based on boyfriends.
  • Moms:  Model self-confidence and pride in being a woman. 
  • Dads:  Affirm your daughter’s worth as your beloved child and as a wonderful female with much to offer.  Communicate to her that you think girls are great, not because they can be like boys and not because they can dress up real pretty.
  • Help girls learn to say no and set boundaries.  Unfortunately, many girls are so busy worrying about how other people are feeling that they have trouble focusing on their own wants and needs.

I have a dream that I’m playing chess with my daughter.  We’re playing the traditional version of chess (not the Saturday Night Live version).  My king is on the run. . . my daughter’s queen is chasing him down.  She makes her final move and claims her victory.  “CHECKMATE,” she roars with laughter.  I smile.  I’m thinking we both just scored a major victory.

What Happens When You Store Your Gazebo Skeleton Under a Big Willow Tree

For years Rita has been wanting to transform a found six-sided gazebo skeleton into a real-live functioning gazebo. This has resulted in her gathering together six people at various points in time to move the gazebo skeleton from one location to another. Early this June, the bad news happened. Rita’s gazebo skeleton was crushed by a falling piece of a big willow tree.

The other bad news is that now Rita may have to depend on her husband with no particular construction skills to build her a gazebo. This could prove to be problematic because he was wanting to follow the designs of Theordore Reich and build an Orgone Accumulator (this sounds worse than it is).


There are three basic forms of insomnia: (a) initial insomnia (difficulty falling asleep); (b) intermittent insomnia (choppy sleep); and (c) terminal insomnia (early morning awakening).

It’s typical for people to say it’s normal to sleep 8 hours through the night. It’s also typical for people to say things like, “We only use 10% of our brains.”

Since I’m awake and it’s the middle of the night, I’m inclined to wonder if I’m experiencing insomnia. I think the answer to that is “Yes and No.” Insomnia is also characterized by distress or impairment and I’m completely against being distressed about this and will be fine and (relatively) unimpaired tomorrow (but then, who am I to judge my own impairment?). Mostly, I’m against pathologizing the normal experience of occasional sleep disruption or, it might be even more accurate to say I’m against the pathologizing of just about everything. This sort of makes me against the DSM, but that’s not quite right either, as I find it a very interesting resource.

And now, having spent 2.5 hours grading papers and contemplating the internet, I must have overloaded my brain by using its 11th percent . . . and so it’s time to return to the world of sleep . . . a place where Carl Jung claimed to hear the voice of God . . . or something like that.

And . . . thanks to tonight’s insomnia experience and the homeostatic reality of life, I suspect I’ll sleep quite well tomorrow.