Carrying the anxiety ball and the relationship seesaw

An interesting thing about relationships is that there often seems to be a finite amount of anxiety or other emotion around a certain topic within the relationship.

For example, if one partner is carrying all the anxiety about finances, the other partner often seems much less concerned about finances.  The more the worried partner can let go of the anxiety the more the other partner begins to worry and the more the partners meet in the middle.  And conversely, the more the relaxed partner can worry; the more relaxed the worried partner can become.

This can be true of many different emotions about many different topics.

The same concept is true with our relationships with our kids too.

If the child is unconcerned about completing homework, studying for tests, keeping their schoolwork caught up and organized—guess who picks up the ball?

As the child becomes a teenager, this usually leads to resentment from the child who feels the parent is meddling and/or being a helicopter parent.  The best way to deal with this, is to have the child pick up the anxiety-about-homework-ball him or herself.

Often relationships become sort of artificially polarized this way.

In other words, for example, let’s say Suzie and Tom (if you ask them individually) very much agree on how to parent their children.

They both agree that children need limits but should be able to exercise some age appropriate choice and control.

But somehow they have ended up playing different roles with Suzie playing “bad cop” and Tom playing “good cop.”

Suzie and Tom both think they are responding to the other parent.

Suzie thinks she has to be extra tough because Tom is so lenient.

Tom thinks he has to be especially lenient to counterbalance Suzie’s toughness.

The longer this goes on, the more polarized they become (picture them each moving further and further towards the opposite ends of a seesaw).

In my work, I sometimes suggest that the parents switch roles (this really throws the kids for a loop, who by now have learned which parent to go to, for the answer they want).

However by just working together as opposed to trying to counterbalance each other, both parents can move to a more comfortable position in the middle.

Do you notice any issues that have become polarized this way in your relationships?

Do you feel yourself being bad cop or good cop, even though you know that isn’t necessarily where you want to be?


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How to communicate with kids more effectively: “I don’t speak whinese!” The importance of tone for productive communication

I used to often tell my kids when they were whining, “I don’t speak whinese…” that I couldn’t listen to them when they whined, but I would be happy to listen to them if they could speak normally.

Tone makes such a huge difference in whether or not we get our message across.

This is important for children and adults to be aware of.

I will discuss below how easy it is to not realize we as parents need to make a concerted effort to teach this to our children (for our own sakes as well as theirs).

How highly emotional states can disrupt communication and how to increase the effectiveness of our communications

Think about how much easier it is to take someone seriously when they are speaking calmly versus when they are ranting and raving.

When someone is yelling or in a highly charged emotional state, their right brain (the emotional side of the brain) often takes control and the more rational (left) side of the brain seems to take a back seat.

Since the language centers are largely in the left side of our brains, this often means we literally are not able to speak as fluently when we are upset as we can when we are calm.  This of course, means we are more likely to say things we don’t mean or not communicate well.

So it is no surprise, that as an audience to an upset person we often tend to assume someone is being somewhat irrational when they are in a highly emotional state, and we sometimes miss the merit in what they are saying.  We are more likely to dismiss their possibly legitimate points.

So there are at least two reasons to try to stay calm to increase the effectiveness of your communication: your brain allows you to communicate better when you are calm, and people have learned to tune out others more often when they appear to be highly emotional (of course both of these things are not always true).

Teaching and modeling good communication to our children

However a funny thing often happens when we are parenting our children, which contradicts this.

Because we love our children so much and tend to be more patient with them than we are with other adults, and because we have been conditioned to respond to their crying in their infancy, when they become verbal, we sometimes mistakenly reinforce whining, and our children’s emotional outbursts or tantrums.  In a sense, we have been conditioned to respond to crying and we condition them to continue.

Because whining is annoying and we want it to stop, we often do the opposite of what I am suggesting is generally true of communication, we pay attention to the whining and tantrums (remember even negative attention can be reinforcing).  If we give in when our children whine and throw fits, we reinforce it.  Whining, unnecessary crying and tantrums become the currency of our households.   Even if we get angry with them or punish them, it can reinforce the behavior in negative way (children sometimes like to see they can have such a powerful effect on their parents, even if it is negative-especially when they are feeling powerless).

This scenario develops initially out of necessity.  When our children are infants and/or cannot communicate through speech we have to respond to their crying, because that is the only way they can communicate.  When (and in some cases if) they learn to communicate through speech and as they mature and get more adept at it, we have to try to wean them from the earlier form of communication (now unnecessary crying and fits).  Sometimes parents get so caught up in that negative cycle they don’t realize it is continuing longer than it needs to (parents of multiples, parents whose children are very close in age are often caught in this cycle for longer than they need to be, because child crying gets the attention, initially out of necessity.  Because the parents and the children have mutually conditioning each other crying remains the currency even after there are better forms of communication available.

It is necessary for the parent to change the currency, disrupt the cycle and teach and  model more effective, adaptive and mature forms of communication.

If instead of giving in to whining or tantrums, we try to calmly teach our children (it may not be possible or advisable during a tantrum) by example and by our words, that they are much more likely to be listened to, taken seriously and possibly even get what they want if they can present themselves reasonably and calmly, we may be able to teach them a valuable lesson and decrease the whining and fits as well and change the currency of our households to a much more palatable one: calm and effective verbal communication of our needs, feelings or wishes.


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Feeling Stuck, Becoming Unstuck

Many people seek out therapy or counseling when they are feeling stuck.

Obviously, if they felt like they could fix it on their own, they would not be in my office. But it is often helpful to gain an outside perspective when trying to overcome this type of challenge.

People often feel stuck when despite having figured out why they do something (for example repeat a negative pattern over and over again like choosing an inappropriate partner, or rekindling a relationship they know is not healthy or choosing to be in relationships with people they can rescue or take care of etc) they still can’t seem to stop doing it.  They will say, “I know why I keep doing this, and I know that I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it, I still feel this way and then it happens again and again.”

Understanding what needs to change, but feeling unable to make the necessary changes can be frustrating and disappointing. By working with a psychologist, counselor or therapist like myself, people can often identify and address the barriers to change so that they can leave the negative behaviors behind.

Some of the main ingredients of change are insight (or new information), motivation and time (see my blog post  “Making Changes, the Ingredients of Change“).

One reason negative behavior is repeated, often lies in an upsetting experience from the past. It is usually necessary to understand how this past event affects our current behavior as a first step (see my blog post “Getting to the Root of the Problem”). This is the insight or new information—the connection we make between our current behavior and an experience from the past that is driving it.

The logical part of our brains can figure out what we are doing wrong, but sometimes the emotional part just won’t listen to reason and allow us to make the necessary changes.

When this happens it is sometimes necessary to help the emotional side of the brain communicate better with the logical side of the brain, so that the emotional part of our brain and the logical part of our brain can be on the same page (or work together towards the same goal, versus being at cross purposes).

One way to do this is through the use of a technique called EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (Click here for more information about EMDR).

Through insight oriented therapy, talk therapy, and/or cognitive therapy (sometimes including the use of EMDR as a tool in counseling) people can gain the insight to help facilitate making the changes they need to to become unstuck.

If you are stuck and looking for a Scottsdale psychologist or counseling in Scottsdale, I would be happy to help you become unstuck. Feel free to Contact me Today to Set up an Appointment

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My take on “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder”

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (or ADHD or ADD) aside from the controversy about its possible over diagnosis etc, is in my opinion not well named.  I don’t think those who suffer from this suffer from an attentional deficit, it is more of an attentional regulation problem.  It seems that for people with ADD, there are two stops on their attention dial—off and on, whereas those of us who don’t have ADD tend to be able to regulate our attention better.

If I had to name it, I would call it: Intolerance of Boredom Syndrome, because I think that more accurately describes this condition.

For all of us, it is easier to pay attention to something that interests us, versus something we find boring.  Those of us who do not have ADD, may find our attention wandering, and may have to force ourselves to pay attention in a boring class, but we can do it.  For the person with ADD it can be almost impossible to pay attention to something they find boring.  (As with many things there are degrees of ADD and some are more able to compensate with intelligence, or a good memory.)  Those with severe ADD would almost do anything to avoid being in a situation where they are bored.  This explains a number of things that people with ADD do.

For example, let’s talk about procrastination.  Procrastination serves at least two purposes for those with ADD.  It delays a noxious task and it makes the task more inherently interesting (will I be able to get the paper done before 8 am on Tuesday?)

Similarly people with ADD tend to be disorganized.  It is clearly boring to spend time organizing things, so the person with ADD doesn’t do it, or at the very least procrastinates organizing.

Also people with ADD often do not go through a long process in a step by step fashion following established procedures, they often try to find short cuts because they find the process tedious.

Living with someone who has ADD can be very frustrating because what seems so easy to the rest of us, is not for them.  It is hard to watch someone you care about, who can’t seem to get out of his or her own way, does not seem to learn from his or her mistakes and is constantly causing him or herself to get into trouble, not complete tasks and frustrate those around him or her.

Living with ADD can cause life-long self-esteem problems because of the very thing described above.  In their frustration people sometimes say things like, “What is wrong with you?” “You are smarter than that!” or “You are so lazy!” Long term self esteem issues often lead to depression.

Unfortunately school environments are designed in such a way that is especially challenging for the person with ADD/ADHD.  People with ADD do not do well in situations when they are forced to pay attention to something they don’t want to at a time they don’t want to.  This is especially hard for those who also have the hyperactivity component (not all do, there is a primarily inattentive type and a hyperactive type).   The student with ADD may function better if they do not have to sit in a chair and listen to a lecture about math or engineering.  They tend to learn better if they can learn by doing or learn something that interests them that incorporates what they need to learn (for example learning about statistics by calculating the batting average of their favorite baseball player versus by doing a worksheet that is meaningless etc). Students with ADD function better if they can learn the same material at a different time, a time when they find it easier to pay attention or are more interested in learning that particular topic (which may not be the time the class is held).

People with ADD tend to have obsessive interests.  Whatever seems to capture their interest at any particular time becomes all-consuming.  The trouble is, that at some point they become bored and find something else, which leads to unfinished projects and lots of supplies for different interests that eventually go unused (not to mention the effect this has on the organizational challenges for the person with ADD who now has more stuff to add to the chaos).

People with ADD also tend to lose things.  This is because they aren’t paying attention to where they put things (because that is boring), they are forgetful and/or they are distracted by something else which draws their attention away and because they don’t tend to have an internal structure (for example “I always put my keys on this hook.”)

Thankfully with medication, some strategies, some support, and a lot of understanding many people with ADD can function quite well.  Often those with ADD find careers that suit their style and in which they use their symptoms to their advantage.

Many of us have symptoms of ADD some times and I firmly believe that the internet is making us more and more that way!!

The internet seems to feed distractible behavior-how many times have you sat down at the computer to check something and walked away 20 minutes later not having gotten to it?

What do you think? What strategies have you found to deal with ADD or live with someone with ADD?

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