Archive for the ‘parenting’ Category

Most of us have been deeply affected and disturbed by events of  December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut. Sadly, we’ve been through this too many times before, in recent history. Far too many times. However, this particular disaster has multiple dimensions of horror to it. When I read the news, I was unable to work for several hours, and the distraction I felt for the rest of the day has continued today. One well-known child psychologist I know simply abandoned his work and went home to his family. I have years of training, experience, and thought invested in my twin careers as cultural anthropologist and psychotherapist, all of which induce me to see this event as profoundly complex, and well beyond the grasp of any easy explanation. For that, I will wait.

My first thought is for those who will most identify with the victims* – children who did not die on that day but who heard the news. We are social animals, and that means we care about our children. We must, for they are us, and they are our future. It is in our genes and therefore in our hearts to have concern for their welfare; it cannot be otherwise. A partial solution for my own distress has been for me to write the following. (Please note that “children” here means anyone below the age of 18. However, adults are perfectly capable of becoming functional children in time of crisis, and will also respond to much that is helpful to actual children.)

Adults must care for children because they cannot do the job themselves. “Caring for” them simply means helping them grow up to be adults, so that the cycle of nurturing can be repeated. As caretakers, our first job is to protect children from anything they cannot handle: threats to their physical or emotional health certainly are legitimately our primary concern. Such protection is certainly not all that they need from us. It’s just the first thing. Our attempts to protect them will surely fail, multiple times, as they grow up. When that happens, we must stay on the job, as it were.

So, what can we do, when all of us are impacted by incomprehensible disaster and tragedy?

First, we take a little time to compose and calm ourselves

We do this because those who seek to assist others need to be sure they are not part of the problem.

It’s often helpful to distinguish a crisis – which requires immediate action – from a problem. With the latter we have time to work things through, and stay with the problem until we arrive at a conclusion we can live with. In the overwhelming majority of situations, a child who has been witness to the incomprehensible will be mostly fearful, and that’s usually a problem, not a crisis. With problems we have the luxury of going forward slowly and deliberately. Taking a little time to compose ourselves before turning to children will help us help them better.

Second, focus on the child

Take time to do what adults can do uniquely well for children: be receptive, interested, accepting, and calm. This leaves the conversational space open for the child to occupy, which is what they need. We don’t need to talk TO them so much as talk WITH them – and most of all to listen while they talk to us.

We may surely be having problems coping with what’s happened. These problems are best taken up with other adults. Children don’t need our problems, cannot make use of them, and may become overwhelmed by them. But, do realize that most children become fairly perceptive, at an early age, of the feelings of adults upon whom they depend, so they likely do know that we’re upset. The problem is just that what we show them of our distress needs to help them, not add to their own distress. With older children, showing some of your distress, overtly and in moderation, is usually appropriate and even helpful. It’s realistic, and it’s useful for them to see that it’s alright to have feelings and to share them. They also need a good example of how to do this without making a problem for others.

The younger the child the more they must be the focus. Our concern needs to be for them, as they actually are, not as we might imagine them to be. Don’t make a problem larger than it is. We do well to let the child show us what their problem (if any) is, rather than to make suppositions about it. The question we need to answer is: Are they in trouble, and if so what kind of trouble?

Most of the time, physical threat is not the issue – although fear of such threat well may be. If it is, what needs to be done will be fairly obvious to us: block the threat, in reality and in the child’s mind. What’s left after that is, in order of priority, emotional threat, then conceptual threat.

Emotional threat simply has to do with feelings the child has but cannot handle. People of all ages have feelings in reaction to what they are seeing, in reality or in their mind. Encourage the child to tell their story and their feelings will usually show well enough. We can then visibly recognize them, without amplifying them, and show the child that we can handle their having them. We thus become a container for what may be difficult for them to manage, alone. This simple act is often the most useful thing we can do.

Conceptual threat has to do with the child’s inability to make sufficient sense of what has happened. But how can we help them when we cannot make sense of something ourselves? The first key is to remember that the child’s viewpoint is not ours – they are not adult. Their ability to “understand”, on the best of days, is limited. We can work to help them construct a story about what happened that they can be reasonably comfortable with. It needs to be their story, however, and told on their terms and in their language. They construct it, and we can help them get it right. That doesn’t mean “accurate” so much as “acceptable” to them, emotionally.

The second key is to remember what their concerns actually are. Doing this well requires adequate insight into a child’s developmental status, of course, but in general, all children need to know that we are watching them, concerned about their welfare, and that this won’t cease. Demonstrating this is more important than saying it. We are their buffer against chaos, and they need to see and feel this. More concretely, when we help them construct an age-appropriate story about what happened, we can see that it ends with the statement that we adults are working to set things right, and will continue to work to protect them from harm as much as we can. How you say this to a four year old will differ greatly from how you say it to a sixteen year old, but the core message is the same.

Finally, work to restore a sense of normalcy

Children are concrete thinkers. A child’s world is small, and it is appropriate and manageable for them to be focused on immediate things. So, see that those things are in order for them. Daily life needs to be predictable and familiar, for the most part. When it’s not, it needs to be interesting and challenging without being overwhelming. Therefore, restore daily routines they know and like. Keep from them unwanted and unneeded exposure to aspects of the disaster which can too easily continue to intrude and disturb. It’s far more useful to emphasize, when the child has questions about this, that disasters are rare, and that adults actively watch for them, to keep kids safe as much as possible.

The most crucial part of that effort is you, as their caretaker. Keep yourself functioning and they will follow after you. Do what you usually do, every day. Convey to them that life does go on, even if it’s in a new place, or with new people, and they will see that they are a part of this, and return to their task of growing up. When that is achieved, we have done our best.

And stay with it. Things take time. Children will continue to think about and react to what has happened, and talk about it with other children. Continue to pay attention to what’s going on with them and their world, as is customary for you to do. Stay on the job, and they will move on through the challenge and thrive as well as possible, all things considered. We all want that, and we can all work to achieve it.


“victims” – We must acknowledge that the children are not the only living victims of this. Their families certainly come next in our concerns, and the first- responders who had to confront the awful aftermath of this disaster. Finally, let us acknowledge the family and relatives of the shooter, for they also are innocent and will be affected for the rest of their lives by all this. All need to know that we are thinking of them, and would offer willing offer them help were it possible for us to do so.

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I’ve just fielded a question on the Talk page of the Wikipedia article on PTSD. It’s a good question (a couple, actually), and my answer might be useful to repeat here. The visitor asks why the article says this:

“Children may develop PTSD symptoms by experiencing bullying or sexually traumatic events like age-inappropriate sexual experiences.”

The concern is the reference to “age-inappropriate sexual experiences” rather than “rape”.  “Why does it say that instead of simply rape?  The Webster dictionary defines rape is having sex with who is below a certain age [http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/rape%5B3%5D].  And what does age-inappropriate mean?  Would it be less dramatic if the person was their own age, instead of significantly older?”

My response (edited very modestly, for this venue):

I don’t have time to provide you with the reference citations which I’d like to offer, in responding to your questions, but  will respond using the knowledge I’ve acquired from many trustworthy sources in over 30 years of work in clinical and research psychotherapy, involving adults, adolescents, and children, many of whom had experienced what we call age-inappropriate sexual activity, often with negative consequences. I hope you’ll forgive my not backing up what I say with proper sourcing.

First, your questions are excellent ones. Please understand that casual language is often sloppy, and this won’t help us here. What the law, or the dictionary, defines as rape may well be different in important ways from a medical or psychological definition. The dictionary you cite appears to be giving a pseudo-legal definition. There is no “right” definition. Linguists write definitions (and dictionaries which contain them) on the basis of how people USE words. Philosophers and other thinkers are free, of course, to ”stipulate” definitions, as well. In formal, thoughtful writing, we usually stipulate definitions so that they help us with our thinking. They become tools, used to accomplish goals. That’s why legal people see “rape” differently than, say, anthropologists, or therapists. And note that even in groups of professionals in the same field, definitions can differ significantly.

So, let me begin by saying simply that from my perspective rape is always inappropriate (!), and is AGE-inappropriate when it involves a sexually immature individual. Note that physiological sexual maturity bares only a loose relationship to legal sexual maturity, and for good reasons (which I won’t take up here). If only some rape is ”age-appropriate”, as opposed to simply ”inappropriate”, it is also true that not all age-inappropriate sexual behavior is rape – which I think should be obvious, upon a little reflection. Inappropriate touching, for example, isn’t necessarily rape.

Age-inappropriate sexual experiences, in psychology/psychotherapy are those generally seen as those which involve an individual doing something sexual which is clearly not usual or expected for their age. This can be tricky to distinguish, however. Clearly, many, if not all, infants and children explore their sexual organs, and each others’, as well. This is normal, and generally harmless. At what point is something age-inappropriate occurring? There is no clear dividing line. It not dissimilar to the problem of distinguishing pornographic literature from erotic literature. I can offer no easy solutions to these problems.

That said, the key concept here is that sexual experiences involving children/adolescents who are not sexually mature ”can” have immediate and/or delayed long-term negative consequences. This is clearly cause for concern. It is very important to note that not only are not all sexual experiences children have inappropriate, not all of them cause any problem at all. Event consequences are driven by the degree of involvement, the nature of the act, whether or not there was coercion, how the child felt about it at the time, the reaction of adults who came to learn of the event, and so on. Many factors influence the consequences of a sexual experience involving a child.

We should never simply stipulate that something MUST be a problem (although this is commonly done in courtrooms). Rather, when we let the individual involved tell us of their experience and what it means to them, then we can know the real psychological consequences.

Well-meaning people can create a problem where none existed, with a child. Some individuals come through quite serious experiences with very little if any damage. Others are greatly hurt by what appear to be modest experiences. And, regardless of the consequences, those of us who come to learn of a given experience may have good cause for concern. It would be nice if we could view all this in simple terms, but I don’t think that would be accurate, useful, or intelligent.

Among the problematic consequences of age-inappropriate sexual behavior which we deal with in clinical psychotherapy are these:

* Lose of a child’s sense of safety: Loss of control over what’s done with your body is at the least unpleasant, and at worst traumatic. It may be difficult to feel safe in the world for some time after such an event.
* Loss of trust of key individuals in a child’s life: A sexually inappropriate relative becomes an untrustworthy relative. Children need families they can trust. A sexual abuse incident is one way to lose a functional relationship with a sibling, or a parent, or a grandparent. This can have long term consequences.
* Outright psychological trauma: When there substantial levels of fear involved, and the child is unable to resolve these feelings. enduring trauma may result. This is how once acquires PTSD.
* Premature sexualization of the child: This is the problem non-professionals usually forget or ignore or have no awareness of. Children introduced to sexual experiences before they are ready or desirous of them, may come to think that sex is a part of emotional intimacy. This may lead them to be sexual with other children, or other adults, in unwanted and unacceptable ways, and in ways that can damage others as well. I once knew a very pretty, charming 10 year old girl who had been removed from a succession of foster homes because she couldn’t keep her hands where they belonged. She had been “prematurely sexualized”. She thought what she was doing was OK, and her behavior led to repeated social rejection. This sort of thing is far more common than most people realize, and definitely one of the reasons why we’re concerned about age-inappropriate sexual behavior. It can lead to an child’s experiencing themselves as unacceptable to others in general, which can lead to depression, self-medication with various psychotropic substances, and other long-term damaging consequences.
* Disturbance to individuals associated with the child: Even when inappropriate sexual experiences are not a problem for a child, they can be for others. I dealt with a 9 year old boy once whose parents were quite upset because his female babysitter (age 13 – and not a relative) had climbed into bed with him late at night. They couldn’t imagine that he wasn’t somehow injured by this experience – clearly (one would think!) age-inappropriate sexual behavior. It turned out that he was only annoyed. He couldn’t make sense of what she was doing, and got up, went downstairs, and slept on the family sofa. Problem solved. All I had to do was calm down the parents, so they wouldn’t continue to disturb their son.

This is not intended to be a complete list, but I do believe it addresses most major issues.

Relative to a hypothetical age-inappropriate sexual experience, you ask “Would it be less dramatic if the person was their own age, instead of  significantly older?” It could well be, although “drama” is not the issue, as I’m sure you realize. The problem with older individuals is their misbehavior can lead to a needless and inappropriate distrust of all older people. Also, older individuals are likely to initiate more mature (and thus age-inappropriate) activities with younger individuals. At the same time one must note that in most cultures it is deemed appropriate for young, sexually mature hetersexuals to pair off such that the male is older than the female – one major research effort determined that the age difference deemed ideal by many cultures was about 3.5 years (with the male being older).

I will conclude my remarks by saying that I’m concerned about the tendency in some families, communities, and schools, to pathologize the normal. Two six year old girls simulating intercourse, because they are curious and cannot make sense of why adults would do this, do not really need a semi-hysterical, or punitive, or any other negative reaction from adults. I could cite other cases, many of them not so easy to think about…and that’s my point. A thoughtful examination of an event is a far wiser response than is a knee-jerk negative reaction of any kind. I prefer to act from knowledge rather than pre-drawn conclusions based on some principle rather than good data. It think that we don’t yet have all the knowledge about age-inappropriate sexual experiences that we’d like to have. The situation is clearly better than it has been in the past, without doubt, but we’re not finished out work, so to speak.

I hope my responses are useful to you. Thanks for your great questions!

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Grow up with inept parents and you’re apt to become a people-pleaser.

In families with parents who meet the essential needs of their children – which at the least are physical safety, physical support (food and health care), social inclusion, and training in self-management of emotions – children are primarily focused on themselves, which is appropriate. In families where parents are in any way significant incapacitated (due to mental or physical illness of any kind, or to physical absence), children usually learn unconsciously that certain of their behaviors have a better effect on their parents than others. The result? More functional parents – but at a price: one becomes to a degree a manager of one’s own parents.

This out-of-balance relationship will most likely produce a child who is focused-on-others, rather than self-focused – as healthy children ought to be (most particularly in their early years). In many cases, this will result in an adult who gets anxious if they cannot moderate the anxiety of important people in their lives. A common way for this problem to show up in someone’s life is that they make promises to others which they cannot keep, AND they do this compulsively. That means that they try not to do it but do it anyway.

In the end, neither the promise-maker or promise-receiver will be happy with this behavior.


Were you able to fix this people-pleasing behavior right away, the result would be that all concerned would be able to achieve long term comfort, something which is not possible when people-pleasing promises impact a relationship.


Such promises occur because of a desire to maximize immediate comfort for the other person. But this has clearly led to long term distress, as telling people only what they want to hear tends to distort the reality of the situation, and you set up expectations you simply cannot meet. Short term comfort and pleasure inevitably leads to long term distress for all concerned.

In some cases, this may be a simplification of the problem. One can fail to keep a promise in numerous ways, only one of which is making an unrealistic promise initially. For example, if you continuously play for immediate comfort, then today’s promises may come to preempt promises made previously, so that plans made yesterday get bumped from the schedule by today’s concerns. This kind of complexity is off-topic in this piece, just now. We’ll only consider, here, the simpler case of two people, and one promise or set of promises.


An important secondary aspect of the “unrealistic promises” problem has been that making this mistake, with its associated distressing outcomes, has NOT led to self-correction.

This is puzzling, at first. The brain is, after all, designed to learn from consequences. The puzzle is resolved when one realizes that such stuckness virtually always indicates some kind of OTHER, covert, value is influencing one’s behavior. Most often this has to do with unfinished business from one’s childhood, about which one is likely to be insufficiently aware. In this case, the covert value seems to be that of resolving one’s OWN excessive anxiety about the other person.

To put more plainly: people-pleasing turns out to be more about calming oneself than pleasing the other person. What a surprise, yes? But it makes sense. Children with inept (or worse) parents typically become scared – anxious. The learned people-pleasing is a way of resolving this anxiety, partially or wholly.

Dysfunctional parents are typically impulsive and emotionally volatile and/or depressed, and they usually have poor self-soothing skills. They do not function well as parents, and every kid NEEDS parents who function better than they do. Kids tend to learn that one can get immediate gains in parental function by doing anything which soothes their parents. Making unrealistic promises in the immediate moment is a way of doing this.


People-pleasing over-promising behavior learned in childhood will tend to generalize to all people who show any degree of anxiety – they will get “managed” by the same method acquired for managing parents. Such promises act to improve their immediate expectations of the future, and thus are calming. However, as with one’s parents, this doesn’t really fix any problem other than the immediate one of how the individuals involved are feeling now – and it well may not do that particularly well.

Fear is normal part of a working brain, and of a healthy childhood. So, too, is learning to manage such feelings so that they do not dominate the brain. But children who grow up focused on managing their dysfunctional parents do not typically acquire enough emotional self-management skills. In this area, they remain primitive.

The hook in all this – the force which drives this over-promising habit out into all corners of one’s life where one is apt to meet important, anxious people – is the ongoing anxiety one feels ONESELF about other people’s anxiety. As long as their anxiety triggers your own unfinished business about your parent’s anxiety, you’re hooked – driven to keep trying to manage things by the dysfunctional method of making unrealistic promises. Since you didn’t learn either good self-management of your own feelings OR appropriate responses to the anxiety of other people, when you were growing up, you are doomed to function in primitive ways as an adult. Not good.

In short, our dysfunctional behavior continue, in new settings, because something very old and (probably) familiar also continues: our anxiety and our inability to manage it better.


So…how are we to get out of this trap? How is NEW learning to be accomplished? This is a separate question altogether, and to understand the problem and its solutions we will need to look a bit at the mechanism of such learning. The good news that a knowledge of how the brain naturally works will lead us to solutions we would not have expected. They will be adult solutions, however, not child solutions. Understanding, patience, a degree of diligence, and a decent capacity for positive self-support will be needed. That’s not really a problem. Adults can do this thing, and the outcome will definitely be more pleasing than that of people-pleasing over-promising.

(to be continued)

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“She doesn’t understand me!”

“Nothing I say seems to get through!”

“He seems to be in his own world. He never really hears me…”

I seem to be hearing this from a number of people I work with, lately. I’ve heard it for years, actually, and I think there’s more going on with these complaints than is immediately apparent.

We all want to be understood, most particularly about matters which seriously concern us. For some people, it seems to be an especially critical issue. Why is this? The reasons usually aren’t obvious, but I think I know what’s going on in many cases.

Who we are, to ourselves – how we “see” ourselves – is intimately related to how others see us. First of all, we’re inherently social animals. Our brain finds other people just about the most intensely stimulating, meaningful, and valuable source of meaning available anywhere. This is true for many animals, but quite possible for none more than for us.

Our connection to other people goes far beyond this, however. Other people literally make us. Without our ever realizing it at the time, they tell us who we are in our earliest years of development – a time when we are intensely vulnerable, impressionable, and hungry to have a sense of ourselves that can be relied upon. From our primary caregivers, as we grow up, we learn behavior, language, how to dress, what to eat – all the details of being human. But more than this, we learn about ourselves: Are we worth listening to? Is what we want of any importance? Do our thoughts, our feelings, our actions have value to those who mean so very much to us?

These are absolutely vital, absolutely unavoidable questions. And they do get answers. Sadly, the answers too often are not good ones – not accurate, not useful, not even tolerable. Without our having any real say in the matter, we can too easily get inaccurate, damaging answers to these questions, when we are very young. This can cripple us for a very long time – perhaps forever.

Recently, in developmental psychology, there has been a growing interest in “the social construction of the sense of self”. It’s not a new idea, but recent research on what happens when a baby and its main parent don’t get along has shed new light on the matter. The topic has become particularly important in psychotherapy, for as we’ve better understood how critical is the relation between very young children and their parents we’ve also come to better understand some of the disorders we treat in adults.


What has this to do with someone’s having a sense of urgency about being understood? Well, consider what happens when we are NOT understood when expressing something important to us. When we were small, if we said “Mommy, I’m tired. I want to go home,” or “I don’t want to eat that!”, did we discover that we were understood when expressing ourselves? Did we feel respected?

As a small child, when we don’t feel understood, we tend to feel isolated. We may also feel devalued. In a worst case, we may feel intensely threatened. It is as if we are calling for help, and no one seems to be hearing the call.

This is precisely what has happened to anyone who’s had to endure parents who are unaware, insensitive, resistant, or absent, for sustained periods of her/his childhood. What they come to know is something no child should have to learn: they can be overlooked, ignored, and inappropriately left to their own resources. This feels bad because it is bad.

Certainly it is a simple fact that every child wants to grow up, to “do it myself”, in the immortal words of every feisty two year old. Yet at the same time, much of life is beyond their ability to manage, for years, and THAT part of life is the responsibility of their caregivers. What we cannot do for ourselves must be understood by our caregivers, and responded to.

Perhaps we can express ourselves about the matter, and sometimes we won’t be able to. In both cases, a caregiver needs to “get it” and to respond adequately to the need at hand, if a child is to grow up feeling like their universe is a good place for them.


We start our lives in relationship – literally bound to our mothers. After birth, we continue to be bound, in a link of utter dependence, which slowly diminishes, over the years. If, while we are young (say, in the first 5 years of life) a mother or other primary caregiver is too depressed, or angry, or distracted, or drunk, or distant in any other way, to respond to our distress calls, what happens?

We become frightened, and even terrified. Children in such a situation have lost their moorings, and they simply cannot cope. Left too long in this condition, or allowed to experience this too often, a child is at real risk for becoming traumatized. Many of my clients have had this experience. It’s effect on them has been bad – often profoundly bad.

Now, let’s return to the need to be understood. People who’ve experienced inappropriate parenting (and this term encompasses both neglect and abuse) know just how bad it can get when one is not understood. Everyone’s life experience is to a real degree unique, but the terror of being invisible to parents who SHOULD be seeing you and responding to you, is the same: it’s awful, traumatizing, life-changing, and unforgettable. Its effects can often be healed, with competent psychotherapy, but the learned sense of urgency about being understood may well remain in some form, for a long time.


What works is for an adult to come to understand that their vulnerability, should they NOT be understood in their present adult life, is not the vulnerability they endured in childhood. Their childhood really IS over. If they’re still responding out of a sense of BEING that neglected child, they cannot achieve this understanding. If their memory of their hurtful childhood is still capable of emotionally disturbing them – which will be seen should any current event “trigger” that memory – they WILL respond as if they were still that neglected child. They will be overtly dysfunctional, and they won’t have any choice about it – not at the time it’s happening.

However, when their memories are permanently quieted down (both recallable memory and that other kind – the memories we all have which can be triggered but not willfully recalled), they are free to experience their present safety and the full range of options of their adult existence. Such a “quieting down” is the goal and outcome of good psychotherapy.

Adults who have experienced this may still have to spend a little time training themselves, however. Once a child learns not to fall down when walking, they still have to learn to run. Once an adult no longer feels at times like a wounded little child, they still have to learn how to act and feel like a competent adult, in the context of communication which is not being heard (much less understood).


Competent adults give priority to expressing their own truths accurately and plainly, and THEN to being understood in their expression. Having made a reasonable effort to do this (and what is “reasonable” often has to be learned), they stop. Their work is over. Understanding takes two people, and at this point the other person’s work begins. The “other person” needs to be left to do it. The speaker doesn’t control the listener, and doesn’t need to, in fact.

If we were not understood in childhood it is usually because of the incompetence of our parents – and this incompetence is admittedly often accidental. Parents are people, and they have very real limits in their abilities, like all of us. Not all parents “show up” ready to function as competent parents. People with active drug/alcohol abuse issues, people with active mental illness (including depression, and unresolved childhood trauma issues of their own), are quite likely not to be able to achieve parental competence. They won’t adequately understand their child because they cannot or do not want to. The only option the child has in this situation is to keep trying to be understood. THAT is where they will likely learn to be obsessed with being understood, an obsession which they can very easily carry into their adult lives..

As a competent adult in an adult world, we will sometimes not be understood. It’s unavoidable. If one has made a reasonable effort to express oneself – to speak one’s truth in accessible language, then a failure to be understood is likely to be due to inability on the part of the listener: they cannot or do not want to understand.

So, if you’re having a problem being understood, take time to understand why. It may well have nothing to do with you at all, just as it may well have had nothing to do with you in childhood, if you had this problem then. Acquiring and maintaining an appropriate sense of personal accountability and responsibility (not the same thing at all) is a good part of being a competent adult. It’s worth working on until you get it more or less right. The secret is to do what is yours to do as well as you can, and to let others do the rest. Most of the time this will work. It can be trusted. It’s good to know this.

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