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Changing Challenging Behaviours in Children: How Do We Respond?

A good friend of mine recently told me a story from his childhood of being a youngster with challenging behaviour at school. He was, and still is, one of the brightest minds I know, nevertheless teachers found him difficult to manage at times. In reflecting on his experience, he shared that being “good” consistently got him nowhere and nothing, whereas when he behaved poorly and then improved on his behaviour for a day he would be rewarded immensely. As a young boy he figured out how his environment would respond to different patterns of behaviour and his behaviour became influenced by that.

As I listened to his story I thought of many families I had seen wherein parents seemed to miss opportunities to consistently notice, praise and reward good behaviour. In many instances, this occurs because we are programmed to expect good behaviour naturally and actively respond to undesirable behaviour. However, if we step back we might ask ourselves: What motivation would a child have to demonstrate good behaviour consistently if that behaviour is seldom noticed and reinforced by those around them? Additionally, we should also recognise that even when parents respond to undesirable behaviours with anger, this negative response represents some form of attention, which they have been eager for and not in receipt of when they have behaved well. It seems then that balancing the scales in terms of paying more attention to desirable behaviours and reinforcing those behaviours is a key element for parents to consider taking on board.

Does Punishment have a place?

While punishment may not be the primary disciplinary strategy that we suggest to our parents, we are certainly not saying that it does not have its place. However, to be effective it has to be delivered in a particular way – otherwise, it could do more harm than good to the child’s psychological well being. For example, in some families I have worked with, parents may have allowed inappropriate behaviours to go unchecked for extended periods and then at their breaking point of frustration they crack down all at once with often excessive forms of punishment that may not have been proportionate to the most recent display of challenging behaviours. It is as though the parents were saving up the punishment and then made the decision to spend it all at once.

Parents, of course, have the best of intentions even when life seems to get in the way – however, the key to developing greater consistency in the child’s behaviours is by increasing the consistency in the parental response as well. In fact, the research tells us that inconsistent parenting may place children with oppositional tendencies at risk of greater anti-social behaviours in the teenage years and later in life.

Relying too heavily on punishment tends to create more challenges than it solves problems. When parents overuse punishment, children are less inclined to be honest about their behaviours and their motivation shifts from striving towards more desirable behaviours to avoiding punishment at all costs. What I find most unfortunate about an overreliance on punishment is that it also has negative long-term implications for the parent-child relationship whereby fear becomes a feature of that relationship, which in many instances is not what parents intend.

For punishment to be effective it has to be used as little as possible; occur immediately after the child displays unwanted behaviour; be carried out in a similar manner each time; be handled in a calm business-like way (making it about the behaviour and not the child being “bad”); and be of short duration.

The take home message here is that focusing on children’s positive behaviours and consistently reinforcing those efforts goes a long way to increase the frequency of those desired behaviours. Often times within this process, undesirable behaviours lose their strength and the frequency of such behaviours decreases. Changing our parenting perspective can go a long way in helping us win greater cooperation from children. If you believe you could use support in improving your parenting response or would like support in managing your child’s challenging behaviours, contact our team at Drop of Life Psychology Clinic.

By: Matthew McKenzie B. Psych. (Hons.), M. Psych. (Clinical) (Dist.)

Psychologist, Drop of Life Psychology Clinic

 

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The Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy

My therapy dog Gizmo has shown me how helpful animal assisted therapy can be. Gizmo will greet his visitors enthusiastically and instantly becomes friends, especially with children, though he also tends to warm the hearts of many adult clients. It’s a fact that owning a dog can change an individual’s life by giving them a reason to stay active while reducing stress and improving their general health. Interacting with dogs can have a direct influence on health, from lowering blood pressure and increasing levels of serotonin to help feeling emotionally better. Therefore, it is no surprise that dogs in clinical settings can be beneficial for a client’s well-being and can have a positive influence on his or her therapeutic progress. Therapy dogs

So what exactly is a therapy dog?Well, a therapy dog is a dog that unlike service dogs, provides people with therapeutic contact, usually in a clinical setting, to improve their physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning. Typically, therapy dogs’ training and certification enables them to work in public places. Therapy dogs are usually not assistance or service dogs, but can be one or both with some organization. The systematic use of therapy dogs is attributed to Elaine Smith, who noticed that patients responded positively to his Golden Retriever, after which she founded Therapy Dogs International (TDI) in 1976 in order to train dogs to visit institutions such as hospitals.  

Being around therapy dogs has been shown to have beneficial effects on people’s mental and physical health. For children as well as adults who struggle with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues, being able to spend time with a dog or other animal can help improve their quality of life. Research has shown that just 15 minutes of bonding with an animal sets off a chemical chain reaction in the brain, lowering levels of the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol and increasing production of the feel-good hormone serotonin.

Some therapy dogs for children with autism are even trained to recognize and interrupt self-harming behaviours or can help to de-escalate an emotional meltdown. To illustrate, the dog might respond to signs of agitation or anxiety by gently laying on his or her lap or leaning against the child. Animals in particular can be soothing for those with difficulty using language. They communicate with children and adults on a non-verbal level, and that connection helps to improve their feelings of self-worth, confidence and self-esteem.

The use of therapy dogs in psychology clinics
Animal assisted therapy is one form of animal based therapy that is commonly used within psychology clinics. AAT is a guided interaction by a trained professional between a client and an animal of which the purpose is to help someone cope with a health problem. Academic research supports the following potential benefits of therapy dogs in psychotherapy: 

  • A therapy dog facilitates rapport between clients and the psychologist. 
  • The dog’s non-judgmental nature may help clients feel more comfortable trusting the psychologist. This can aid clients to disclose more during therapy sessions as they perceive it as a safe environment. 
  • A therapy dog can act as a transitional object for clients. This allows clients to convey feelings through the animal rather than addressing the psychologist directly.
  • Therapy dogs can lower anxiety and therefore motivate clients to fully engage in therapy sessions. 
  • The interaction with a therapy dog might encourage clients to get in touch with their feelings. 
  • The dog’s presence may reduce perceived physical as well as mental pain.
  • They provide unconditional acceptance, which can reduce stress and anxiety for the client and the client’s family or friends. 

(Braun, Stangler, Narveson, & Pettingell, 2009; Havey, Vlasses, Vlasses, Ludwig-Beymer, Hackbarth, 2014)

I hope you’ve found this blog useful. If you have any further question or would like to experience a therapy dog assisted session, please call Drop of Life and book in an appointment with Wendy. 

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Overcoming Childhood OCD: The Family Facing and Fighting Together

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)is a common and debilitating disorder that affects many children and adolescents (roughly 1-4%). The disorder usually involves the child’s experience of obsessions which are intrusive thoughts, images or impulses that are quite distressing and for some children this leads to compulsions which are rituals that are performed repeatedly in an effort to alleviate the distress that comes from the obsessions. Both obsessions and compulsions can take up a significant amount of the child’s time and often gets in the way of daily functioning at home, school and in their peer relationships. 

OCD, even more so than other anxiety-based disorders, tends to impact significantly on families and this is particularly because so many of the obsessions and compulsions often take place within the home environment. Parents often get pulled into the OCD experience with the child, whereby they begin to perform rituals with the child or for the child. This process is called Family Accommodation. Parents and other family members do not accommodate because they believe the OCD rules are true, however in an effort to prevent high levels of distress and an often chaotic response from the child suffering with OCD, they make massive adjustments to the way the family would typically function. Family accommodation increases the experience of stress within the family and unfortunately makes the child’s OCD more severe over time. 

Fortunately, there have been significant advances over the last decade in our understanding of OCD, the factors that maintain it and how best to approach treatment. In working with children with OCD I take an evidence-based approach which is Cognitive-Behavioural Therapythat specifically involves Exposure and Response Prevention. In this form of therapy, I work with the child to take small gradual steps towards facing their OCD fears (the Exposure), while not engaging in the rituals which OCD tells them is necessary to alleviate the distress (the Response Prevention). In the process of treatment, children learn to tolerate distress and they also learn to let go of beliefs they may have about their responsibilityfor things that in reality are not within their control. For example, through treatment a child may learn that engaging in a 1-hour bedtime routine will not prevent something bad happening to a beloved parent, the child will also learn to tolerate the anxiety that comes from such a thought, and they will learn that the anxiety will pass on its own without any need for rituals. 

Because OCD impacts so much on family functioning, I get the whole family on board from the very start, providing good education about OCD and how it works, then getting the whole family to make a commitment to work together as a team to fight the OCD. This treatment approach is dynamic and flexible and very often can be incredibly fun for the young person even while they face some of their most challenging fears. At times, I may do sessions in the child’s home since for many children the OCD is centred around the home environment. We want to make the treatment experience as similar to the child’s daily experience with the OCD as possible.

The role of parents and other family members in treatment is just as important as the role I play as a therapist. It can be challenging for parents to decrease accommodation, especially when it has become an automatic part of the way the family works. However, even making small changes every day makes a big difference in the long run. It is often an incredible experience for children with OCD and their families to re-discover aspects of life which they had been missing out on for so long because of OCD. OCD is challenging, but there is solid evidence that a good dose of treatment can go a long way and overtime it is possible for a child with OCD to be OCD free! For more information about OCD and treatment options please feel free to contact us at Drop of Life Psychology Clinic.

 

By: Matthew McKenzie, B.Sc. (Hon.), M.Sc. (Dist.)

Provisional Psychologist, Drop of Life Psychology Clinic

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HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Happy New Year!


It's that time of the year where we start afresh and make plans and goals for the new year. Which might be useful to have a discussion about WILL POWER. This year, I'm introducing a planning and goal setting program, which is online, and it discusses the steps to get you organised. So, it very poignant to perhaps talk about News Year’s Resolutions, Goal Setting and the link with motivation and willpower so we can continue our good intentions throughout the year. Typically, we see a considerable decline in our plans after the first month and if you’re lucky you will still be going in February, then we tend to start losing motivation and sight of our goals. Firstly ‘what is willpower’? Willpower is basically the ability to resist short term gratification or temptation for long-term gain. There has been lots of research on this topic with most people having heard about the experiment that was done with young children and the marshmallows, if not here is the link (https://youtu.be/QX_oy9614HQ). These children were followed throughout their lives and the study concluded that those children that were most successful in life were the ones that were able to delay gratification.
Willpower is like a super power and it can be strengthened, and it also can get depleted. It is similar to a muscle that gets fatigued short term however strengthened long term. The best part about willpower is that typically it is never completely lost, because that's when you lose hope. So, if you still have hope you still have will power.
How do you top up or strengthen your will power, so you can continue to achieve or maintain your New Year’s Resolutions?
1. Stress Management - The number one thing that I think depletes Will power faster than anything is not managing your stress well. It is exhausting mentally and physically to be in a state of constant ‘fight or flight’.
2. Organisation and Planning – Having a plan that is meaningful to you which means it is aligned with your values.
3. Role Model or a Mentor – Someone that you refer to for inspiration and ‘hope’ when your willometer is getting low. In my Planning Program I call this your Brain Trust.
3. Setting up a Habit – Take the pressure off your mind by setting up some good habits as this will free up a huge amount of time and energy.
4. Sleep – Sleep is a vital part of maintaining willpower, if sleep is an issue seek out some solutions or see your GP to rectify – everything appears clearer after a good nap.
5. Meditate – Turn your mind and body down a notch or two and gain clarity.
6. Ownership of your Goals - knowing that you and you alone are the only one who can make them happen. If you own your where you're at, and why you're there, how you got there and take responsibility for it you will increase willpower.
7. Believing - that you have lots of willpower, believing you have resources and resilience is also another way to increase your willpower. Knowing if you have hope you have willpower.
I hope this helps you stay on track this year and gets you one step closer to living the life you know you deserve.

Nat x

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ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE OVER THE CHRISTMAS PERIOD

It's Christmas time! That time of year that can be either blissfully happy or incredibly stressful.  It’s also the time of year where we tend to see people be just that little bit kinder and more respectful to others.  If I had my way I would make this ‘Christmas spirit’ continue for 365 days of the year. Not only does it make us feel better but research supports that developing an ‘attitude of gratitude’ can increase happiness, reduce depression and strengthen resiliency.

Researchers such as Bruce Lipton’s have given us an insight into epigenetics, which is the study of changes in organisms caused by the modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.  Lipton’s research discusses his manipulation of environments that gene cells are in, leading to different outcomes to the SAME gene. Further stating that by simply changing the environment that the gene is in changes the outcome of the gene expression. Leading to the debate that we have more control than we originally thought over our own health and projection in life.  This type of research goes onto discuss the impact on an ‘attitude of gratitude’ on a person's brain.  Giving us proof that grateful people experience reduce blood pressure, less chronic pain, have increased energy levels and even live longer lives. 

There is a whole science now behind gratitude and how repetition and practice can change our beliefs and overall sense of self.  It makes logical sense the better we feel about ourselves and our environment and have higher self-esteem which means we would tend to be more prosocial and thus making us more connected to those around us.  However there is no scientific proof that has been replicated over and over that gratitude actually rewires our brain and produces dopamine and serotonin, these feel-good neurotransmitters activate the happy part (not the official term

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