relationships

10 Brave Questions to Ask Your Kids

10 Brave Questions to Ask Your Kids

By Courtney Hollingsworth, LPCbrave parenting

There are a lot of lists of fun questions to ask your kids floating around the web. Lighthearted and funny, they’re great! But here is a list of REALLY brave questions to ask your kids. They may sound straightforward and simple, but asking them, and being truly open to the answers (i.e. being vulnerable) takes real courage. The answers may really surprise you. Listen to them. Should you choose to ask your kids these questions, and I think you ought to, prepare yourself to accept their answers. Period.

-DON’T try to persuade them out of their answer.

-DON’T argue with their point of view.

-DON’T try to justify choices you or your partner have made.

-DON’T downplay the significance of what they’re sharing.

-DON’T laugh when they are serious.

These questions are learning opportunities FOR YOU.

They are not meant to be correcting opportunities. If you feel the urge to push back on their answers, notice where that desire is coming from and your own discomfort. Even if you don’t agree with your child’s perception of something, rather than attempting to change it, wonder why their perception or experience is different than yours. Perhaps even ask them.

Unfortunately, if you’ve already regularly interacted with your child in ways that have communicated (perhaps subtly) any of the following, then you can’t expect an authentic answer from them:

-Rejected their interpretation/perception/experience

-Refused to hear their thoughts or feelings

-Insisted they agree with you

-Assumed that because they are kids their input is inherently inaccurate or inconsequential.

-Invalidated their feelings

Ask yourself, or your co-parent, if these feel true of you. If so, go do your own work with a counselor to improve your own vulnerability in relationships, including with your kid(s).

10 Brave Questions to Ask Your Kids

  • If you could change one thing about your life, what would you change?
  • What is something you wish I would change?
  • What is something you wish your other parent(or caregiver) would change?
  • Do you feel like you can share most things with me? How about your other parent(or caregiver)? If not, is there something I can change?
  • What is something you dislike about our family or would change if you could?
  • Is there anything you’ve wanted to ask an adult about, but haven’t?
  • When you think about the biggest hurt you’ve experienced, what comes to mind?
  • Who are the people you trust the most and distrust the most, and why?
  • Has anyone ever made you feel uncomfortable?
  • Has anyone ever touched you in a way that felt uncomfortable or wrong?

The point of these questions is to have an open dialogue and invite your kid to share with you in ways they may not otherwise consider. Some of these questions may need to be tweaked based on the age of your kid, but I strongly believe every single one of these can be asked in some way at any age or stage. For a younger kid, one or two questions per conversation, more for middle-aged kids, and teens might be able to have one whole conversation, though maybe not depending on their personality.  And don’t ask these only once. Ask them every so often! And if your kid shares something that falls into the category of abuse, bullying, self-harm, etc. DO SOMETHING. If you aren’t sure what to do, ask your child’s school counselor, pediatrician, or make an appointment with a counselor.

Why Group Therapy Works, Part 4

by Sam Bearer, PLPC

We’ve already looked at how group therapy is a great way to help individuals make changes in their lives by choose to be radically vulnerable with the other group member, fostering in himself or herself an outlook of unconditional positive regard, and allowing the very personal, negative feelings about himself/herself or others to be shared and eventually challenged by the other group members.

This final piece focuses more on how the group can invest and intervene in the individual member’s life. Following the individual work of being open, the group now has the opportunity to disrupt radically the emotional foundations underlying each member’s coping behaviors that got him or her into therapy.

As the group gently and slowly does this work of disrupting the members’ coping behaviors, the internal dynamics of personal guilt and shame frequently rise to a conscious level.  At this point, every man I have seen who comes through our groups retreats back into his comfortable style of relating. It is nearly impossible in the early stages of work for the man himself to see this happening and do anything to stop it.  Often, he can no longer differentiate his personality, style of relating, and identity without an outside perspective or help.  It is no longer a conscious choice.  He may not have even noticed it happening.  But, I am willing to bet 99 times out of 100 that some other member in the group noticed.

The group is meant to be that outside reference point.

Once again, vulnerability comes into play here, because the group member who noticed should be willing to appropriately, with unconditional positive regard, call out his group mate.  This reintroduces all the dynamics of the personal work from part one: vulnerability, maintaining unconditional positive regard, and personal investment.  It also adds to it the gut check of interpersonal conflict. The group members are doing exactly as they should when they can reflect back both the positive and negative they experience in relating to each member.  This work engages members both internally and externally at once.  This may seem obvious, but it is so important, not to mention difficult.  We do this kind of thing in our lives all the time.  However, we are rarely fully engaging our awareness of both pieces simultaneously.  It takes hard work to build up this new skill.  Like learning a new language, we have to take many fumbling attempts to communicate this new way, and we usually struggle at it for a while.  The safety created in the group should promote and celebrate these attempts as well as normalize the experience as something everyone in the group is fighting to do better.  It takes time as well as higher levels of concentration, self-awareness, and intentionality than we generally are used to.

It needs to be said here that this process, in therapy as well as practicing these skills in life, will take some time to sink in.

This is especially true when you consider there are years if not decades of reinforced acting out behaviors that a client wants to change.  It is likely to require a proportionate amount of time and effort for this new way of relating or sense of self to take shape.  Other factors that might increase the length of time and work to be done might be connected to and complicated by experiences of abuse or trauma.  Though the progress may be slower than an individual may like and expect, small changes over time add up to big changes.  These small steps along the way should be highlighted and celebrated as part of the greater changes each client wants to see in his or her life.

 

Why Group Therapy Works, Part 3

 by Sam Bearer, PLPC

Group therapy is a great way to help individuals make changes in their lives.  There are several aspects of group work that help make these changes possible. The first two I’ve talked about focus on the client’s investment in the group process. The first is for each group member to choose to be radically vulnerable with the other group members. The second is for each member to foster in himself or herself an outlook of unconditional positive regard in which it is safe to share, feel, learn, and empathize within the group setting.

The next piece focuses more on how the group can invest and intervene in the individual member’s life. Following the individual work of being open, the group now has the opportunity to disrupt radically the emotional foundations underlying each member’s coping behaviors that got him or her into therapy. This is one of the most difficult parts of group work, but as is usually the case with therapy, it is essential for change.

Each member must allow the very personal, negative feelings about himself/herself or others to be shared and eventually challenged by the other group members.

These negative feelings are both bound up in and displayed by each person’s style of relating.  Almost without fail, these negative feelings have been activated within the first few sessions of group work because of conflicting expectations, styles of relating, radical vulnerability of some members but not others, etc.  However, they most likely have not been fully expressed.

This is so difficult for many reasons. The most common roadblock is that the learned responses to emotional stressors, also known as styles of relating or coping patterns, are so ingrained and automatic that slowing the process down into separate phases or component parts can be daunting.

Individuals often identify themselves as inseparable from their comfortable style of relating.

In our next blog, we will conclude this series on why group therapy works.

Why Group Therapy Works, Part 2

by Sam Bearer, PLPC

In the first part of this blog series, we looked at how vulnerability in a therapy group is key to unlocking positive change in our group members’ lives.  The second way group therapy works is by offering the experience of unconditional positive regard of the group for each particular member, both in a single instance of intentional vulnerability as well as consistently over time.  This experience becomes an emotional touchstone for a reality fundamentally at odds with, and outside of, the negative emotional experiences that so often serve as the foundation for addictive behaviors.  If we didn’t have these negative emotional realities, or had a better way of coping with them, we would not have to resort to our numbing drug of choice. 

The trouble is that at some point we learned to survive the negative emotional storm by using something to numb, and we became hooked. 

As a result, we have lost the internal resilience to be able to handle it.  This dulls our awareness to such a degree that we are no longer conscious of the emotions that drove us to use in the first place.  One unique way that group work helps to uncover these emotions and simultaneously provide an experience of unconditional positive regard is through playing out the relational patterns and dynamics that an individual learned in his family of origin.  However, because the group is not that same environment, the members of this “new family” will respond differently to an individual’s usual style of relating.  For many, this brings up all sorts of anxiety, but it also brings the possibility of learning different ways of coping with these anxieties in the here and now.  Each member experiences the other group members reflecting on how they are affected by each other’s stories and then learns how more accurately to process, reflect, and self-evaluate openly with the group. 

A person may never have considered the questions or perspectives that are shared by others, or he may receive empathy from the very kind of person he assumed would regard him as weak or unimportant.

 The way group therapy ties both of the dynamics of vulnerability and unconditional positive regard together is a safe environment.  This is in part created by the therapist but must be maintained and reinforced by the group.  If safety is not a common value of the group, it won’t be possible to adequately support members or appropriately challenge them, which I will talk about more in the next part of this blog.

Why Group Therapy Works: Part 1 

by Sam Bearer, PLPC

There is a lot of research out there evaluating the efficacy of group work to address lots of different issues. The evidence is clear that group work is tremendously effective in helping individuals make positive changes in their lives.  But why?  For the past two years, I have volunteered with a local ministry that runs men’s groups to address sexual addiction and acting out.  I have had the chance to observe and think about what makes these groups work.  This experience has helped me identify several different components that I believe are key to unlocking positive change in our group members’ lives.

The first is choosing to be vulnerable.  Every man that has come to our group has felt ashamed, isolated, and singled out by the experience of feeling trapped in his addiction or by being exposed in it.  The terrible discomfort of this experience may be enough to get him through the door and into therapy, but it doesn’t mean that the therapy will be effective.  The work each person has to do is to risk being totally open about his struggle in therapy.

Within a therapy group context, there is little room to shade the truth or hide parts of it.

One of the easiest and most prevalent ways of avoiding vulnerability is to share only the parts of the struggle that we have shared before, or can be framed as something that we used to struggle with or happened in the past.  So often, these past struggles are also very much present ones, but by placing it in the past, it puts convenient barriers up which it is easy to hide behind.  We have all tried to hide our struggles at one time or another.

At some point in our story, we learned it wasn’t safe to share and be vulnerable because someone close to us would exploit our weakness.

Group therapy is intentionally confronting this emotional reality and seeking to do the opposite.  Again and again, I have seen group members gently confront each other about whether or not individuals are sharing all of the impact of the story or just the safe parts.  When a group member deliberately and consistently chooses not to hide in this or other ways, it becomes possible for the other group members to empathize, connect with, and enter that individual’s experience in the present.  This willing vulnerability is a sign that change is already taking place in the group member as well as opening the door to the possibility of deeper, positive change.

Survival Tips for the Holidays

by Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC

Here are a few small tips for changing the ways you engage with your relatives around the holidays. It isn’t easy to change the ways we relate to people we’ve known most or all of our lives, but it is often worth the work. This list is by no means conclusive, but a good place to start.

Take people at their word.

Try to notice how often you are attempting to read between the lines of others’ words or times when you feel expected to know what someone else feels or wants without them actually saying anything. Reading between the lines or finding the hidden meeting is common in family systems that operate more passive aggressively. Taking people at their word forces others to speak up on their own behalf, say what they really mean, and address one another with respect.

Mean your words.

The reverse of taking people at their words is true as well. If you are frequently not saying what you truly mean, then feel upset when others are not doing as you want, odds are you were not meaning your words. Speak directly and kindly, and you can avoid many of the passive-aggressive communication games that conflict avoidant families tend to get bogged down in.

Check your expectations.

Holidays are filled with expectations and typically time with family is also, therefore holidays with family members can be a double whammy. It can become the perfect traffic jam of various expectations.

Know your limits.

Try to realistically assess your limits on various planes prior to making your holiday plans. Are there certain family members you have a lower tolerance for spending time around? Is your social/extroversion threshold depleted more quickly at family gatherings? Are there certain relatives’ houses where you become a worse version of yourself longer you stay? Does being around babies and toddlers bring out the worst in you? Is your alcohol tolerance lowered in family settings? Assessing your limits prior to making your plans can help you make a more informed choice, and perhaps plan action steps toward self-care when you can’t predict that your limits will be tested and or pushed.

Know your triggers.

This one is similar to knowing your limits, in that it can be helpful to do some self-assessment prior to walking into family dynamics that are laden with emotional landmines. Try to think about instances in the past when time spent with family has led to blow-ups, arguments, hurt feelings, or even the silent (or shouted) conclusion that you’ll never go back again. Try to see if there’s a pattern between these various situations. Do you tend to be triggered by your mom’s passive aggressive comments? Do you tend to be triggered by your brother’s constant bragging about his successful career? Do you tend to be triggered by your niece talking all of the toys leaving them for the other cousins? Whatever your triggers, knowing them in advance can help prevent them from being a surprise, or even activated at all.

Make a private game of unavoidable unpleasantries.

Now, this is a little bit nuanced because it needs to be done discreetly and with wisdom, but can be helpful in surviving unavoidable unpleasantries. However, if you and your spouse or sibling share a negative feeling towards a person or behavior, you can make a private game out of how often you have to witness or endure that behavior. For example: does your dad tend to condescendingly correct other peoples grammar? Making bets on how often that will happen during the time that you spend with him. Does your aunt make snide comments under her breath? Rather than fume as you, it can be a survival strategy to find a way to laugh about it. What makes this game nuanced is you certainly don’t want others to find out about it or extend it to the point of being disrespectful.

The Difference between Dangerous and Unsafe

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

Whether we are talking about job sites, relationships, or simply walking down the street, we routinely confront the question of safety.  The fact is that we live in a dangerous world, and safety is a real question for all of us.

I have recently struck upon a difference between dangerous and unsafe.  The world is a dangerous place, but it is not always unsafe.  In terms of relationships with other human beings, we are all dangerous to each other: we all have the potential to cause hurt, whether deliberately, by mistake, by ignorance, or by accident.  

What makes a person safe or unsafe is how they handle their dangerousness.  It’s what they do when they have caused hurt that makes the difference.

Driving a car is a dangerous thing in its very nature.  How I handle that responsibility is what makes the difference between being a safe driver and an unsafe (reckless) driver.   The reckless driver des not acknowledge the inherent dangerousness of driving a 2 ton vehicle at 40 miles an hour among dozens of other 2 ton vehicles.  A reckless driver does not consider what the other vehicles might be doing but demands his or her own way, and that everyone else must make way for their vehicle.  People who are reckless in relationship behave similarly, and they act in relationally unsafe ways.

I can get into a wreck whether I am a safe driver or not, but it is more likely and typically more severe when I am reckless.

Let’s talk about relationships.  My responsibility when I speak is ALWAYS to speak the truth and to be respectful. That responsibility never changes and is never removed.   If I speak to you harshly for any reason at all, I owe you an apology, period.  Having said this, I have to acknowledge that there are a lot of reasons I might speak to you harshly.  I might be having a bad day.  I might be in a hurry, or in pain.  You may have done something to offend me.  You might have made a mistake that affected me somehow.  You might have been a jerk toward me and I responded in kind.  In this, I am dangerous: I have a lot of potential to hurt you.  

What makes me safe or unsafe is how I handle that responsibility both before and after I cause hurt.  

I am a safe user of words when I consider the words and tones I am willing to use, when I resist the tendency to speak in anger or harshness.  I can still get into a “wreck” so to speak:  I am still capable of speaking in hurtful ways.  When I am safe, I will do so less often and with less intensity, and I will stop myself sooner.

When I do cross that line, what happens next is important.  If I blame you or say you deserved it, I am creating an unsafe environment.  If I refuse to acknowledge the hurt, I am creating unsafety.  If I tell you you’re too sensitive or that you’re making a big deal out of nothing, I am creating unsafety.   If I say “I’m sorry, but…” I’m actually saying, “This is why I ‘m not sorry,” and I am creating unsafety.

What makes me relationally safe is when I own my responsibility and the fact that I broke my responsibility, and I genuinely apologize for crossing a line.  When I am open and accepting of the fact that I am human and fallible, I am more willing to be called out on misbehavior and better able to resist the defensiveness that naturally arises.  If I can accept my own humanity, I am likely more able to accept your humanity and we can have a human conversation. 

We are always dangerous to each other, but it is never a foregone conclusion that because we are dangerous, we are unsafe.  As we pay attention to the dangerousness of living and interacting with other human beings, take up our responsibility for conducting ourselves appropriately, and own our mistakes and limitations, we engage in “safe driving”.  So… buckle up, it’s dangerous out there.

Seven Desires of Every Heart

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

In their book, The Seven Desires of Every Heart, Mark and Debra Laaser outline the following seven universal desires that every person has – regardless of age, gender, culture, or religious background:  

  • To be heard and understood  

This includes thoughts, feelings, needs, struggles, and opinions.

  • To be affirmed (specific and concrete acknowledgement of someone’s strengths)

This includes specific and concrete acknowledgement of one’s strengths.

  • To be blessed

Not only being affirmed for specific strengths and things we do well, but knowing that we are worthy and loved just for being who you are (not what you do).

  • To be safe

This includes physical, mental, emotional, and sexual safety.  

  • To be touched

We never outgrow the need for non-sexual touch and particularly a lack of confusion between sexual and non-sexual touch.  

  • To be chosen

  • To be included (more of a community aspect than “to be chosen”)

This is more of a community aspect than “to be chosen” above.

When you think about your own life and experience, how have these needs been met or left unfulfilled for you?  Perhaps it would be helpful to read that list again.  Often, when needs are met, we are not even explicitly aware that we had the need because it was inherently satisfied.  However, when our needs are not met, it can be overwhelming and stir within us very strong emotions.  We can become angry with the person not meeting our needs. We can become angry with ourselves for having the need.  Or think there must be something wrong with us for having the need in the first place. Unmet needs, particularly in childhood, can shape us deeply.

If you can identify one or more needs above that have been left unfulfilled in childhood, in a previous stage of life, or currently, I would encourage you to consider – what does it look like to grieve that unmet need?  Perhaps it looks like naming what has been left unfulfilled and allowing yourself space to sit in the sadness of the fact that you, as a human being, have a fundamental need that has not been met.  Can you give yourself permission to do that?

The motivation for considering these unmet needs in your life is not to point a finger of blame for pain you have experienced, but rather to grow in awareness of how your heart and mind have been shaped and how that impacts the way you engage in relationship with yourself and others.  And to consider where there is cause for rejoicing…and where there is a need to grieve.  Doing so ultimately allows us to live whole-heartedly and connect more fully with others.

What Not to Say to Someone Struggling

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

Sitting with someone else in their pain can be hard.  We don’t know quite what to say. We want to fix it. Make them happy. Change their perspective so it doesn’t seem as bad. Keep them from wallowing in their pain. Or maybe we just don’t want them to bring us down. Feel their pain. Or for something to be required of us due to their struggle.  

This blog is for myself as much as it is anyone else, because sometimes – when someone else is struggling – we say things without even realizing how hurtful or unhelpful they might be.  In hopes of reducing the number of times this happens for all of us, I offer this list of “what not to say to someone who is struggling”:

  • “Just wait until…”

“You’re struggling with being single?  Just wait until you’re married, then life gets hard…”
“You’re struggling with being a new parent? Just wait until you have three kids…”
“You’re stressed out working part-time?  Just wait until you’re working full-time…”

Just wait until.  It can be hard not to compare our struggles to those of others, can’t it?  When someone else expresses a difficulty and we feel that our current position has more challenges, more pain, more stress, it’s difficult to meet that person where they are and offer empathy.  It is easy to diminish the pain of others when we don’t fully know what it is like being in their shoes.  We are all different. We have different strengths and weaknesses; different personalities that make certain things harder for some than others; different support networks; and we’ve had parents and teachers who have equipped us differently to handle life’s challenges.  If we are farther along in a particular life situation (relationships, parenting, working, etc.), it is easy to forget that the first time at something is often the hardest.  There are lessons you learn along the way that lead and guide for future increased responsibility, depth of relationship, etc.  If we had more supportive, loving, present parents than others, we forget that that makes a profound difference in our ability to handle stressors.

If you find yourself saying “just wait until” …what keeps you from being able to step out of the place of comparison, see the other’s struggle where they are, and offer a response of empathy?

  • “At least…”

“You’re struggling with paying your bills on your current income? At least you have a job…”
“You’re struggling with pain your parents caused you? At least your parents are still alive…”
“You’re struggling with being a parent?  At least you were able to have kids… “

At least. I find myself saying this to a friend when I want to point to what is still good or what didn’t happen that could have made their situation even worse.  At times, this can be helpful. Putting situations in perspective and finding things to be grateful for is not bad.  But when I consider my motivation for saying “at least”, it is often because I am afraid of feeling the other’s pain or “giving them permission” to sit in the pain of what is happening.  When I say “at least”, I am indirectly saying – “you can’t be sad/disappointed/angry/etc. about ____, because it could have been worse.”  Instead of validating their emotion in response to a bad situation and being with them in it, I basically said “you just need to be grateful it wasn’t worse.”  

What keeps you from giving the other space to feel their emotions before pushing them into a place of gratitude?  

  • “It’s only/You’re just…”

“You’re struggling with your husband being deployed? It’s only 3 months…”
“You’re in 10th grade and sad you just broke up with your girlfriend?  It was just a high school relationship….”
“You say you’re struggling with depression?  You’re just sad…”

“It’s only” and “you’re just”.  These are the phrases of minimization.  Of invalidation.  Communicating there is no reason to feel what is being felt.  Or at least to the extent that they may be currently felt.  Thinking that if they only had my perspective, they would see it’s not that big of a deal.  And again, while it can often be helpful to frame our experiences within the context of a bigger picture or in light of gratitude, I ask us to consider our motivation when inviting another to do so.  Does it help us avoid having to acknowledge that what they are going through is hard for them? Do we view our suffering as greater and therefore need to make sure others know that what they’re going through isn’t that big of a deal?  Can we be humble enough to consider how they, unique as they are, might be feeling this pain?

What keeps you from validating another’s pain rather than minimizing what they are experiencing?

If you read the responses above and a specific interaction with a friend or acquaintance came to mind, know that you are not alone.  Feeling another’s pain is uncomfortable. Often scary. And awkward. It requires something of us in that we have to see life from the other’s perspective and feel things on behalf of someone else.  

What keeps you from being able to step out of comparison, give someone space to feel their emotions, or validate their pain?

Why Communication Skills Can’t Save Your Marriage

by Jason Pogue, PLPC

In 6th grade I remember we had a day set aside where we watched videos on bullying in order to promote awareness and prevention. As part of this educational program we were taught how to communicate our feelings using “I” statements, and some small pieces of what we now call assertiveness training. Though I’m thankful this is even a part of some school curriculum, I’m not so sure it works. The next time I actually ran into a bully my heart was racing a little too fast to remember my “I” statements and the strategies for assertiveness.

It is a prolonged myth in popular culture and even in the field of counseling that teaching communication skills is effective at creating connection in distressed relationships.

Most of the research shows what my 6th grade self knew – our physiology takes over in the moment and our “skills” go out the window. So does that mean we are doomed to distress? Absolutely not. It is possible in the midst of our distress to really get at the heart of the matter and connect with one another, but it takes hard work. When something cues up our “fight or flight” response our emotional system (limbic) has already processed what’s happening multiple times before our rational system (prefrontal cortex) even comes online to explain what’s happening. From there we make a decision – and if our relationship is distressed we likely make a decision that is confusing to our partner. Take the following example:

Sarah is angry at John because she feels she is doing all the chores and he comes home and just sits on the couch. Really underneath it all Sarah feels she isn’t appreciated and seen for who she is and all she’s doing – but instead of being able to connect with this deeper place, John only experiences her anger coming after him. So, John responds by going into his ‘shell.’ He shuts down out of fear, freezing and hoping desperately to not make another wrong move. Deep down he feels like he can never get it right – like maybe something is just fundamentally wrong with him – but though this happens inside what John shows on the outside is further avoidance. He shuts down, closes up – his face goes blank and he has no words. This makes Sarah even more scared she is losing John, and so Sarah tries even harder to get her man back – so she pokes harder to try and get him to respond. But, this makes John feel even more paralyzed with fear and shame, and he shuts down even more…and round and round we go!
The point is, we can have all the communication skills in the world, but when we are dealing with the most important relationship in our life – the person to whom we put our trust that they will be there for us and available to us in our time of need – when it feels like they aren’t we can be hi-jacked by deeper waters that render our “skills” mostly meaningless.

The key is finding a way to meet one another in this deeper place with an open posture, seeking to understand why they are there and meet them in the chaos to connect instead of self-protect.