Category: Emotional Well Being

A Strange Perspective on Strength

A number of years ago, I had two patients come into my office, one after another. The contrast between the two has remained with me for a number of years.  It helped me learn something about strength.

The first one was a young man who was tall and what we would call, “well built.” He had the size of a football player. What he didn’t have was much emotional strength.  Every time I suggested something to him as a way to cope with his problems, he had a reason not to do it. Sometimes he said that it was “too hard.”  Sometimes he complained that it would take too much effort. It quickly became clear to me that this young man was unable to face very much. Even though we would have regarded him as being strong and capable, which was true of his physical abilities, it was not true of his emotional abilities.

This become even clearer with my next patient. This was a girl who had struggled for years with a major medical problem. She had tolerated and survived many medical procedures. On the day she came to see me, she was having a spinal tap. She regarded that procedure as just something else that had to be done. I asked her how she tolerated the pain and her response was that, “it really didn’t last too long.” What a difference between these two people. He was physically strong, but had little emotional capacity to tolerate any discomfort. She was physically compromised but had the grit and tenacity to cope with the most painful of procedures.

It was interesting to me that she did not see herself as strong or brave. She just saw her treatment as what had to be done. He saw himself as being strong, and was insulted if I suggested that he had any kind of weakness.

I wish we could begin to value emotional strength. I wish we could understand how much value it has for our lives. I wish we could spend as much time and money developing this type of grit and of resilience. I also hope that we can begin to value it in others and in ourselves.

When your Child is Worrying (Part 2)

In an earlier blog, I discussed anxiety in children.  Most of us don’t want to think about the fact that children can worry. It’s not our idea of childhood.  Parents’ innate responses are to comfort and protect.  The way to handle childhood fears is actually the opposite of that.  As I explained earlier, firm parenting is key to addressing your child’s fears.

Here are some more suggestions about what to do:

  • It is important to remember that anxiety often has a ruminating quality to it and it can dominate your child’s thoughts. You should not foster this by constantly talking with him/her about it.  Put limits on the conversation,  so you can help your child learn how to do that.  You might say, “I understand that you are worried about flying, but that is not happening for two months, so I will not talk with you about it now” and then don’t.
  • Our general treatment for specific fears is to have children face these fears. That is the only way they can get past them, so the fears don’t have an ongoing impact on their lives. Since this is a stressful process, I usually suggest that you only use this technique when other areas of your child’s life are relatively stable. And you will want to do it in a step-wise fashion. For example, for children who are afraid to go upstairs by themselves, I have them practice walking upstairs first with a parent present. They start with 5 steps and then increase daily. When they finally get upstairs, I have a parent at the bottom of the stairs. The child starts by staying upstairs and counting to five. Then I have parents increase the task until the fear is totally overcome. The important thing is to do only a small step at a time.  In this way, your child can overcome a specific fear, but at the same time feel very successful.
  • Obviously, using punishment or shaming will make anxiety worse, not better.
  • If your child’s sleep is disrupted for more than 2 weeks, I recommend seeing a therapist soon.  For my patients, I use this as a red flag that the anxiety is reaching a point where a  professional opinion is needed.


Your Child is Worrying! What Should a Parent Do? (Part 1)

All of us worry at some point in our lives. Most of the time, parents are surprised when their children, even preschoolers start worrying. We have this idea that childhood should be carefree, but that isn’t the reality for some children.

So where does this anxiety come from?  We inherit a predisposition to how we respond to stress. Some of the tendency to be anxious may run in the family and then be triggered by some kind of stress. In other children, it can be a direct result of trauma. We usually don’t think about trauma as occurring in children, but we are becoming much more aware of it. Things such as accidents, medical procedures, family disputes and obviously abuse all can trigger anxiety in children.

You can see anxiety in your children for a number of reasons. Sometimes, specific events are frightening for them, like thunderstorms or having to ride in an elevator. Other children are shy and have difficulty in new or public situations. Some worry about everything, starting most sentences with, “What if…” I often find that a bright child can come up with many “What ifs.”  They also can develop fears as a result of news coverage of a tragedy or natural disaster. Some develop stomachaches, some have difficulty leaving home, some are clingy to adults and others have problems sleeping.

My concern is that the family response is often the opposite of what needs to happen. Parents feel sorry when they see their child suffering so much. They want to comfort and protect their child. This is a natural response, but one that will not help stop the cycle of anxiety. In fact, it will make it worse.

Parents want their child to understand that there is nothing to worry about, so they spend a great deal of time discussing why thunderstorms or elevators aren’t dangerous. Sometimes, parents try to avoid the frightening situation or try to protect their child (“It’s OK, you don’t have to talk to the waiter. I’ll order your meal”).

Children who are afraid don’t need explanations. Fears are emotional, not rational. No rational explanation will help. The first step for parents is to realize that indulging their child’s fears will not help at all. In fact, it just reinforces them. A child might think, “If Mom thinks there is a reason to be afraid and we avoid the elevator, it must be really dangerous.”

Here’s the first step to take:

  • The most important thing you can do is to establish firm parenting. Your child needs to realize that you are stronger than his/her thoughts. You are the one who is in charge of life. For example, your child does not need to worry about someone breaking into the house, because security is your job and you are quite good at it.  You, as parents, are the ones who decide if a weather situation is dangerous or not. Basically, you relieve their fears by being the ones in charge and making the decisions.

This firm parental presence is the best way to reduce a child’s anxiety. It should not just occur in a specific situation but should be an overall approach to parenting.

In my next blog, I will review some other ways to help your child cope with anxiety but strong parenting is the foundation of all the rest.


Many types of treatment for psychological distress talk about using gratitude as a way of coping. It is included in the mindfulness approaches to well being. It is a powerful tool to help us over the “speed-bumps” in our lives.

It may have another application. There was a recent article in Psychological Science (June 2014, Vol.25 ,6, pg. 1262-1267) that did some testing of the concept of gratitude and the results were interesting. These authors were interested in how people behave with money. We know that spending money can often have an emotional component. For example, people who are experiencing some sadness tend to spend money more impulsively than those who are not emotionally down. The standard thinking is that in order to delay gratification (in this case resisting spending money), people would have to exert a large amount of self-control. It is hard not to impulsively buy something that we see and want. We want it NOW!  It certainly seems hard to resist! If you are sad, you may not have the energy to resist.

These authors found that gratitude could have the opposite result. People who practiced gratitude were much more able to resist impulsive spending with a lot less effort. They were able to focus on longer term goals instead of resorting to impulse buying. Imagine how helpful it would be if you didn’t always need to struggle to resist the impulse to spend!

They also found that the results weren’t just because the people were in a good frame of mind. Their study showed that gratitude really made the difference.

What should you do?

Practice gratitude, not only because it is helpful in your emotional life, but it will also be helpful in your financial life!

What You Need to Know About Pink Horses!

There is an example that I use fairly often in my practice and that is to tell people not to think about pink horses. What they quickly realize is that they are actually thinking about pink horses! So what is the significance of this example?

It is an important concept in working with behaviors. Very often, I hear parents tell their children, “Don’t do that!”  But telling them what NOT to do is self-defeating and counterproductive.  Just like telling you not to think about a pink horse has put that idea into your mind, telling your child to not jump on the couch may have just reinforced that behavior.

Another example of this is when we decide to embark on plan to change our behaviors. We may start dieting with the belief that we will give up all desserts. Just in thinking about giving these up, we may actually think about it more. How many times have we decided not to do something and then immediately gone out and engaged in that behavior. In part, it’s the pink horse problem.

So, what should we do?

Instead of focusing our thoughts on what NOT to do, we should focus on what to do. You will notice this in many good preschools, for example, where the teacher says, “I like how your feet are on the floor,” rather than telling them to stop squirming. In a similar way, instead of trying to give up desserts, start by deciding to eat more vegetables, for example. Thinking about what not to do is self-defeating. Thinking about what TO DO is empowering.

Are there other ways to use this principle?

Yes, this principle can be used in a variety of ways and situations. People have started using affirmations to help guide their behavior. Since these are usually positive statements (“I will notice people’s kindness to me today”), they really serve to impact our thought patterns. In a similar way, I like to use “rules” to help children learn behaviors. For example, I give children the rule that they need to greet other children when they see them at school; this is particularly needed if the child is having problems with social interactions.

In adults and sometimes in children, we see pronounced amounts of negative self-talk.  For example, “no-one likes me,” or “I’m not good at anything.” One of the approaches to address this type of self-criticism is to start with something positive to substitute.   Sometimes, we can do this ourselves and sometimes we can coach our children to make these thought changes.

Remember, think positive thoughts for behavior change.  (Notice, I did not say, “No pink horses!”)

Why Are So Many of Our Children Anxious?

That’s the question my sister recently asked me.  Teens in high school now have soaring rates of anxiety.  College students now also have highly anxious and this is increasing regularly.  The question is, “Why?”

There are several reasons, and it is easy if we look at the “greatest generation” (people born between 1910-1925) for comparison.

  • People in the “greatest generation” had things they believed in. My father believed in the US Government.  He is a true “patriot” in that he believed in the fact that we were the “good guys.”   Subsequent revelations have indicated that that is not exactly true.
  • People believed in the free market system. My father worked for the same company for his whole career.  He believed that they produced the best product, had the worker’s interests at heart and that they would do “right” by the country.  Unfortunately, none of that is true.
  • People believed in the church. Recent revelations have shown that the church could not be trusted as well.
  • People believed in heroes.   My father believed that Joe Paterno and Penn State were heroes.  Unfortunately, that proved not to be true.  Sports figures?  Movie Stars?  Politicians?  There are many others we can name, but we can’t name too many people who we truly regard as heroes.  Instead, this generation has Homer Simpson and the disgraced adults in the public eye.
  • People believed that regulators would keep us safe.  Then there was Flint, and many other examples.

So the problem for children and teens becomes, who can we trust?  Who is running our world?  Some have turned to each other and found bullying emails instead.

So, are you worried yet?  You can see how our young people don’t feel that they have any security in their life.  It is the role of parents, teachers and other adults to provide safety nets for our young people.  They will need to develop their own emotional strength to deal with a very complicated world.


Did you ever think that there was a connection between your behavior and downspouts? Those two seem like they are totally unrelated!  Downspouts take water from your gutters and direct it away from the building. The result is that there is a trench in the ground that gets deeper each time it rains. The water, then, is more likely to go down that trench.

Our behavior is the same. We develop patterns of thoughts that immediately go down the usual trenches. These might be thinking about all the mistakes we have made, or on grudges we are carrying. It also might be about changing our diet and quickly going back to junk food.  In each case, we seem to revert back to the same trenches.

Change is difficult! In order to successfully change, we have to develop a new trench.  We do that just like downspouts—keep using the new one, making it deeper each time.  One time will not be enough.

You’ve heard that it takes three months to develop a new habit. This is why. It takes time and practice to develop new patterns. You also know that at the start, it is hard to stay with a new behavior or way of thinking. Of course it is. The thoughts want to go back to the old, deeper trench. Your job is to not get discouraged, but to keep sending them back to the new one, making it deeper and deeper. Then, this will become the “new normal” for you.

People sometimes let one instance of reverting back trip them up. They think their new diet was ruined by one hot-fudge sundae. No one gains back 20 pounds from one sundae! The problem is that they do not go back and continue working on the new trench.

If you have a behavior or thought pattern you want to change, start working on a new trench. Start with just one, because it is a difficult task. And keep practicing your new patterns. Soon, they will become your regular patterns!

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