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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/

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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

 

 

 

Your Biggest Parenting Struggles

Twins Together Again

When Sara and I visited Ariel Goodman’s Intimate and Family Relationship class (COUN 242) at the University of Montana, we were instantly surprised.

First surprise? It was the first question: “What was the hardest thing you ever experienced as a parent?”

Second surprise? The second question: “What’s the hardest struggle that parents face today?”

The students made their interests clear from the start. They were curious about the biggest and most difficult parenting challenges. They wanted to know the worst, first.

This wasn’t exactly what we expected from the so-called snowflake generation. These “snowflake” students wanted to know what they needed to know to get themselves prepared. For me, that didn’t quite fit the stereotype.

Sara and I both answered their questions as best we could. If you listen to the podcast episode, you’ll likely catch our themes.

You can listen to the podcast on Libsyn: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

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

But Sara and I are only two people with two limited perspectives. This brings me to my question for you. Pretend you’re with these “snowflakers.” How would you answer their questions?

What was the hardest thing you ever experienced as a parent?

What’s the hardest struggle that parents face today?

If you have the time and inclination, let me know your answers here, on Facebook, or via email.

All my best to you in your parenting struggles (and joys).

John SF

Why Parents Spank Their Children and Why They Should Stop

John hair and rylee at one

Let’s start with some numbers. About 30% of children have been hit/spanked by their caretakers or parents before turning 1 year old. About 85% of parents use hitting/spanking at some point to “discipline” their children. Spanking and hitting children is common among American parents.

Many parents who spank their children do so for religious, cultural, or other reasons. Many parents who spank or use corporal punishment are, in many ways, wonderful parents. The purpose of this blog—and the accompanying podcast—is not to villainize parents who spank. Instead, the purpose is to explore the positive and the negatives of spanking and guide readers (or listeners) toward the possibility that there are better alternatives to teaching children. If you want to listen now, here’s the podcast link: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/ or https://itunes.apple.com/fr/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting/id1170841304?l=en

The next part of this blog is excerpted from the classic and popular book, “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen.” Just kidding. The book is neither classic nor popular. It also didn’t win any awards. But since I wrote the book, and I like it, I was briefly tempted to exaggerate its beauty and wonder. Now I’m back to reality. It’s a book. Some people find it helpful. But it didn’t make the New York Times bestseller list (yet).

Physical or Corporal Punishment (from Sommers-Flanagan and Sommers-Flanagan, 2011)

Physical or corporal punishment can involve hitting, pushing, slapping, washing children’s mouths out with soap, holding children down, and other physical encounters designed to obtain behavioral compliance. Corporal punishment always involves using direct power to reduce undesirable behavior.

Spanking is a particularly controversial topic with parents and when entering into a discussion about spanking practitioners are warned to use substantial sensitivity and tact (which we will discuss later). For now, we want to emphasize that our professional position on spanking and physical or corporal punishment is straightforward and based on psychological research and common sense. Kazdin (2008) provides an excellent description of what the research says about using punishment (including spanking):

. . . study after study has proven that punishment all by itself, as it is usually practiced in the home, is relatively ineffective in changing behavior. . . .

Each time, punishing your child stops the behavior for a moment. Maybe your child cries, too, and shows remorse. In our studies, parents often mistakenly interpret such crying and wails of I’m sorry! as signs that punishment has worked. It hasn’t. Your child’s resistance to punishment escalates as fast as the severity of the punishment does, or even faster. So you penalize more and more to get the same result: a brief stop, then the unwanted behavior returns, often worse than before. . . .

Bear in mind that about 35% of parents who start out with relatively mild punishments end up crossing the line drawn by the state to define child abuse: hitting with an object, harsh and cruel hitting, and so on. The surprisingly high percentage of line-crossers, and their general failure to improve their children’s behavior, points to a larger truth: punishment changes parents’ behavior for the worse more effectively than it changes children’s behavior for the better. And, as anyone knows who has physically punished a child more harshly than they meant to—and that would include most of us—it feels just terrible. (pp. 15, 16, 17)

For those of you who work with children and are familiar with the behavioral literature on punishment, Kazdin’s position on punishment is probably not new information. Virtually all child development and child behavior experts agree that punishment is ill-advised (Aucoin, Frick, & Bodin, 2006; Eisenberg, Spinrad, & Eggum, 2010; Gershoff, 2002). And if you’ve tracked the rationale for avoiding punishment closely, you may have noticed that we—and Kazdin—haven’t even mentioned two of the main reasons why punishment is inadvisable: (1) Punishment generally models aggression and (2) punishment involves paying substantial attention to negative behavior—which is why it often backfires and becomes positively reinforcing.

In the end, however, Kazdin’s position and all the research data in the world probably won’t convince many parents to stop using punishment. This is no big surprise: Using too much punishment can be habitual, irrational, and cultural—which is why we almost always avoid trying to engage parents in a rational argument regarding the merits and disadvantages of spanking.

We have additional resources on how to talk with parents in ways to help them see alternatives to spanking. These include:

The Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast, Episode 19 (10/23/17) on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/fr/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting/id1170841304?l=en

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

Appendix B, Tip Sheet 1: The Rules of Spanking, from “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen” http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1118012968.html

You can also check out Dr. Kazdin’s website and book at: http://alankazdin.com/

And here’s the description of the podcast:

Why Parents Spank Their Children and Why They Should Stop

What do you feel when your lovely child misbehaves and then the misbehavior continues or repeats? What happens when you feel terribly angry and just want to make your child’s behavior stop? What happens if you spank your child . . . and then . . . much to your relief, your child’s annoying behavior stops! In this episode, not only do Dr. Sara and Dr. John discuss the negative outcomes linked to spanking, John also annoys Sara so much that she takes the impressive step of turning off his microphone. Will John ever get to speak again? How long does his microphone time-out last? This episode includes a clip of what Cris Carter, former Minnesota Viking and Hall of Fame wide receiver, thinks about physical discipline. You also get to hear what Dr. Elizabeth Gershoff discovered in her meta-analysis of corporal punishment research.

When talking about B.F. Skinner and the science of negative reinforcement, for the first time in history, John says something that’s technically incorrect. If you’re the first person to correctly identify what John says that’s wrong, you will receive a copy of his book, “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen.” You can enter by posting your idea on the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast Facebook page or on John’s blog, at johnsommersflanagan.com.

 

 

Dealing with Your Grief before it Deals with You

Bulldog

When it comes to caring for our own mental health, most Americans are asleep at the wheel. There are road signs, signals, and exits everywhere, but most Americans are committed to keeping their eyes shut and snoozing right through anything remotely resembling mental health awareness.

Okay. This judgment is a too harsh. But, I’m thinking this way because, not long ago, I watched the film, Manchester by the Sea. Casey Affleck plays the lead character, Lee Chandler. Obviously the film got me a little worked up.

Early on, Lee Chandler’s negligence leads to his children dying in a fire. By any and every measure, this is a trauma and tragedy of immense magnitude. Chandler is emotionally desperate. He tries killing himself. He ends up choosing to live.

But how does Chandler handle his traumatic grief? He continues to drink alcohol and numb himself. He lives like an automaton. Who can blame him? His grief must be so huge that it can’t be addressed. Right? Well, not exactly.

Not long after his children die, Chandler’s brother dies. This is terrible and sad, but suddenly, Chandler gets a second chance. His 16-year-old nephew needs an adult role model. Chandler is the best option.

The film is about pain.  Chandler is devastated. I get that. But instead of showing a glimpse of what it might take to face grief, instead, the film shows Chandler studiously avoiding anything resembling counseling or psychotherapy or education or the possibility of any genuine human interactions that might be helpful.

To be blunt and unkind, Chandler is an emotional chicken. He doesn’t face his emotions or embrace an interest in improving himself or his relationships. He doesn’t do that before or after his traumatic grief. Why not? One reason might be because doing so would be against the cultural norm for real men. . . because real men avoid looking in the mirror and engaging in emotional self-awareness. Seriously? Is this all we expect of emotional development for men and boys? I hope not.

Chandler could have done better than that. We can all do better than that.

What do we know? There’s substantial scientific evidence supporting several ways Chandler might move toward addressing his grief, his depression, his alcohol abuse, and his damaged relationships. He could have been a better person a better man, and a better uncle.

Okay. I’ll calm down now. I understand this is just Hollywood . . . which is why I feel so free to attack Chandler for avoiding what might have been good for himself and his nephew.

All this brings me to my point. In the latest episode of the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast, Dr. Sara and I interview Dr. Tina Barrett about how to talk to children about death and loss. Then, in the following episode (watch for it next week), we interview her again about how to help children through the death of a loved one.

If you don’t know who Dr. Tina is, you should. I met her in the mid-1990s, hired her at Families First in about 1998, and have followed her amazing work ever since. In our podcast, she provides wisdom and guidance and insights about death and dying. I hope you’ll take time to listen (and avoid being like the character Lee Chandler). Tina has some great ideas that might just contribute to your (and your children’s) emotional development.

As usual, you can listen at iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

Or you can listen on Libsyn: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

Teenagers and Depression

Every year, every month, and every day, many teenagers complain of feeling down, depressed, or sad and some of them just act with immense irritability. You probably knew that. But, how many teens are experiencing symptoms of depression?

Estimates are wide ranging. The National Institute of Mental Health reported that approximately 12.5% of U.S. youth from 12-17 years-old experienced at least one episode of major depressive disorder. That’s a huge number of American teenagers (about 3 million).

Add to that the many more teenagers who complain of feeling depressed or down, but who don’t officially meet the diagnostic criteria for clinical depression. By some estimates, that brings the number to close to 50% of teens who are consistently bothered by sad, bad, and irritable feelings.

If you’re a parent of a teen, it’s easy to feel concerned about your teenager’s emotional health.

You may have questions like the following

  • Is my teenager clinically depressed or just going through the normal emotional ups and downs of adolescence?
  • Should I take my son or daughter to a mental health professional?
  • What about medications? Are any of the antidepressants safe and effective for teenagers?

The answers to these questions are complex. It’s hard to tell whether a teenager is in a normal emotional angst or experiencing something more insidious and chronic. And, the answer to the question about whether antidepressant medications are safe and effective with teens is a solid: “Maybe, but maybe not.”

In the latest Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast, Dr. Sara and I take on the serious topic of teenage depression. There are no laughs or giggles, but you’ll get to hear Sara ask me many questions about teen depression, and you’ll get to hear me try to answer them, which is sort of funny. You’ll hear the answer to my favorite trivia question: “What percent of children “recovered” from their depressive symptoms in the first-ever double-blind, placebo-controlled study of antidepressant medications?” And yes, once again, you’ll hear Sara find a way to mention sex during our podcast.

If you have teenagers yourself, or you know someone who has teenagers, or you’re a helping professional who works with teenagers, this podcast may be of interest or helpful to you. Check it out here on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

If you listen and like it, please share it, and then do us one little favor—rate the podcast on iTunes. That way Sara and I can keep climbing up the charts in reality—rather than just in our imaginations.

JSF Dance Party

Sleep Well in 2017 and Beyond: Podcast Episode 5

20160702_180444

High quality sleep drives nearly everything; it improves your memory, enhances emotional stability, and contributes to good health. This means that nap-time and sleeping through the night is equally good for children and parents. In episode 5, Sleep Well in 2017 and Beyond, Dr. Sara Polanchek shares her personal story of being an exhausted parent and how she turned to sleep to turn her life around. Our special guest, Chelsea Bodnar, M.D., a Chicago-based pediatrician and co-author of Don’t Divorce Us: Kids’ Advice to Divorcing Parents, will tell you how she gets her children to sleep and why sleep depriving your children is just as bad as feeding them doughnuts all day long.

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

Or Libsyn: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/sleep-well-in-2017-beyond

Please like it if you like it and comment if you have a reaction or to offer feedback.

The PPP Podcast is also on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PracticallyPerfectParenting/?hc_ref=SEARCH&fref=nf

For a couple other sleep-related blog posts, see:

https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2012/05/23/insomnia/

https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2012/06/08/insomnia-2-0-13-2/