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Benefits of knowing and understanding your family

When people are asked about what really matters in their lives, relationships are usually mentioned. After our basic physical needs are met it is the quality of our relationships that most influences our quality of life. How do we think about this? Is it just the current relationships we are in that matter to us and to our mental health?

In my previous blogs, I have discussed the benefits in terms of mental health of knowing your intergenerational family story. Here we delve further into this drawing on Dan Siegel’s research into how our brains and minds work.

Dan Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine with training in pediatrics and child, adolescent and adult psychiatry. He is a pioneer in the field of interpersonal neurobiology an interdisciplinary field that invites all branches of science and other ways of knowing to come together in order to understand the human experience.

His research has led him to conclude that:

1. we are profoundly interconnected

2. relationship is essential to our development

3. interpersonal relationships shape our brains from infancy to old age

4. mind is not something you own, it is shared between people

5. mind is a relational process that essentially regulates the flow of energy and information

6. identity is not contained so much within an individual but between individuals

It has long been thought that our early experiences define who we are. The relationships we have with our parents have a big influence on our development. The research on attachment between parents and children shows that the nature of this attachment influences how a person relates to others and their relationship with their child, passing on patterns through generations.

Dan Siegel points out something really interesting about this: the best predictor of a child’s security of attachment is not what happened to their parents as children, but rather how their parents made sense of those childhood experiences.

This highlights how knowing and understanding your family is shaping both your own relationships and that of the future generations. This challenges the long-held idea that our early experiences defined who we are. Interpersonal neurobiology holds that our brains are constantly being reshaped by new relationships.

I think this is good news we can change our brains, lives, and relationships as well as the relationships of the future generations by working on understanding our families and relationships.

I would like to leave you with something to think about. People seem to think of anxiety as a personal quality, something within them. When you think about how profoundly interconnected we are, how does this impact on your thinking about anxiety?

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Anger Issues

 Some of the most common issues seen in children who come in to the clinic are behavioural. Aggression in the form of yelling, throwing things, and hitting out are the most common complaints.  

Such behaviours cause frustration at home, damage to items, loss of friendships and at more extreme ends can result in the loss of school placements.

So what can you do about it? 

The first thing to understand is…that all behaviour serves a purpose. That means, that in the absence of an alternative, the ‘undesirable’ behaviour will rear its ugly head…to get a point across - loudly!

Of course, there are many reasons why children (and adults) show anger, frustration, and other challenging behaviours; but notwithstanding more serious causes, the most common reasons children use challenging behaviours are:

-    As a way to communicate: “I don’t know how to express my inner feelings using words, so if I yell… I will let you know about the anger I feel!”

-    To escape an overwhelming situation: such as “I can’t handle all of the busy-ness of the classroom and I need to leave - asap! When I begin to scream or throw things…i can predict that someone will get me out of here.”

-    To have a need met: such as “I am tired….and I don’t want to keep shopping….so if I have a tantrum in the supermarket… then you will take me home.”

Parents are often lost as to what is causing their child to behave in ways that result in so much chaos. They can blame themselves, or experience a loss in confidence. Difficulties in a child’s behaviour can sometimes also be a reflection of what is going on around them, at home or at school. A good way to begin solving the behavioural puzzle is to understand the way our brain works. As Dr Daniel Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson describe in their book “The Whole Brain Child”, the following formula will help.

Left Brain = Logic

Right Brain = Emotion

Upstairs Brain = Thinking (Reasoning)

Downstairs Brain = Safety (fight-flight)

Some tips for using the whole brain child approach include:

1. CONNECT (left brain) before REDIRECT (right brain):

Listen to your child’s feelings, empathise…”I can see that you are sad…”, use touch “let me give you a hug”. Once they have calmed down because they feel understood, cared for, seen and heard by you - then they are more likely to comply. Only then, involve them in problem-solving.. “so what could you try different next time to help mummy /daddy understand what you need?”… offer some solutions using minimal words if they are stuck. If they begin to get upset once again, then try connecting again. Wait 20-30 minutes or so before approaching the subject again.

2. Name it to tame it: help engage the logical (upstairs) brain - tell them what is happening so they understand and develop the emotional language to talk about it again in future. “ I can see that you are angry because you had to put that toy away…your arms are crossed and you are scrunching your face”.

3. Use it or lose it: giving your child opportunities to practice their problem solving skills will build their rational brain and help them to gain confidence in their ability to come up with good solutions.

4. Engage don’t enrage: remember, that once calm, it is possible to accidentally trigger another reaction (downstairs brain). Therefore use logic to keep the upstairs thinking brain engaged.

5. Move it or Lose it: use exercise and play to keep their bodies moving, get rid of excess energy from the downstairs brain and help them to stay calm.

6. Rewind and Remember: Later that day..but whilst still fresh, try “replaying the movie”. Talk about what happened, pause, rewind and fast forward to the parts that you need to process with them.

7. Remember to remember: Help your child by practicing the new skills they have learned. “Remember when we get angry…we can try to breathe in through our nose and out through our mouth”.

8. Feelings come and go: use mindfulness skills to teach your child to let go of thoughts…by watching them float by. Make it a game.

9. Sift: What sensations…images…feelings….thoughts….do you notice..when…you are happy?…..sad….angry…..

10. Exercise mindsight: practice self regulations skills - deep breathing, relaxation…make it fun. Give them tools they can use when needed.

11. Enjoy each other: Connection is the most fundamental human need. If your child and you do not feel close to each other, then your influence will not be well accepted. If you have a good relationship then discipline is easier.

12. Connect through conflict: When experiencing conflict, use it as a teaching moment…

b2ap3_thumbnail_SummaryofTheWhole-BrainChildbyTheMontessoriNotebook.png

 

Seeking support when normal strategies do not seem to make a difference is important. There is no parenting manual…there is only a school called life. Remember each day that as long as what you are doing is ‘good enough’, then you are doing great. Children are resilient and will blossom given the right circumstances - as Dr Daniel Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson teach “Connection before Redirection” can result in many difficult behaviours being avoided!

Credit: Montessori Notebook and Shutterstock for the images.

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The Teenage Brain

Last month, I attended a seminar hosted by Dr Kate Owen called ‘Understanding your Teenager’. Dr. Owen discussed practical and useful information regarding how to communicate effectively with teenagers, as well as information regarding how the teenage brain works.

There are two crucial times in your child’s life when they require your attention the most – the first 3 years of life and the adolescent years. However, your child requires different types of attention in these two periods. In the first 3 years, they require you to help them develop basic learning and cognitive skills. In their teenage years, your child requires emotional support and guidance. The teenage years are a time for learning values, developing personal characteristics and a sense of ‘Who Am I?’. All of this is critical for who they will develop into as an adult.

Although your teenager may be looking and trying to act more like an adult, their brain is far from being a fully developed adult brain yet. In fact, the brain does not fully mature until the age of 25 (on average). During the teenage years, the ‘thinking’ part of the brain shuts down to re-wire itself for roughly 3 years. Therefore, the ‘emotional’ part of the brain (the amygdala), which is connected to impulses, emotions and, aggression, takes over. This is the same brain of the brain which is dominant that your child from the ages of 3-7 years old. So those tantrums that happened when your teenager was a child are about to make a comeback!

This ‘emotional’ part of the brain being dominant explains why your teen's behaviour might sometimes seem more erratic or emotional in their adolescent years. The amygdala is on high alert but lacks a filter for reasoning. So, if you have a blank, expressionless face, your teenager may interpret this as hostility or aggression. This is also why your teenager may struggle to express how they are feeling. They could be acting up and you may ask them “What is wrong you?” or “Why are you acting like this?” and they will not have the ability to articulate how or why they are feeling or acting that way.

Every parent is bound to have some difficult times with their teenagers. Here are some tips for effectively improving communication and navigating those difficult times with your teenagers:

  1. Adjust your expectations: You need to be realistic about what your teenager can emotionally understand. Remember, the reasoning part of their brain is on shut down, so complex decision making and emotional regulation are not their strong suit.

  2. Communication: Communication is key! Talk to your teenager like you did when they were 3-7 years old, as they are now dominated by that same part of the brain. Give them simple instructions (one thing at a time) and lots of eye contact.

  3. Body language: Remember that your teenager’s amygdala is on high alert, so they are scanning their environment for ‘danger’. Make sure you have an open and friendly facial expression, tone of voice and body posture.

  4. Calm the body and mind: Teenagers are better at communicating when they are calm. Try practicing some heart focused breathing techniques to regulate the body.

    Heart-focused breathing is about directing your attention to the heart area and breathing a little more deeply than normal. As you breathe in, imagine you are doing so through your heart, and, as you breathe out, imagine it is through your heart. (In the beginning, placing your hand over your heart as you breathe can help you in directing your focus to your heart). Breathe in about 5 to 6 seconds and breathe out 5 to 6 seconds. Be sure your breathing is smooth, unforced and comfortable. Although this is not difficult to do, it may take a little time to become used to it, but eventually, you will establish your own natural rhythm.

    If you find that your teenager is agitated and worked up, try going for a walk or throwing a footy with them. This will help to release cortisol and regulate the body.

  5. Look after yourself: You cannot be emotionally present for your teenager if you are not calm yourself. Remember, your teenager is scanning you, and emotions can be contagious! Make sure that you practice self-care for yourself so that you can have effective communication with your teenager.

If you are struggling with your teenager and would like some more information, call us on 55 207 705 to make an appointment with one of our psychologists. For more information regarding Dr. Kate Owen, visit https://www.drkateowen.com/

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How Trauma Affects the Brain

Earlier this month, I attended training conducted by Blue Knot which focused on how to work therapeutically with complex trauma clients. It astounded me just how much trauma can affect sufferers; not only in emotional and behavioural aspects, but in neurological aspects as well.

So, what is trauma? Trauma is a state of high arousal in which normal coping mechanisms are overwhelmed in response to the perception of threat. There are many types of trauma, such as attachment trauma, developmental trauma and, single incident trauma. The training that I attended focused on the effects of complex trauma, which is when someone has endured multiple types of trauma. It is the product of overwhelming stress which is interpersonally generated. Examples include ongoing abuse (e.g. by a family member), community violence, war and, genocide. Complex trauma has long term impacts on the victim, as well as their family, friends, children and future generations.

Complex trauma has profound effects on the brain. Specifically, the emotional part of the brain (the amygdala) is overactive due to constantly being in survivor mode. As a result, the memory part of the brain (the hippocampus) is constantly activated which means the client is always running on adrenaline. For those clients who cannot remember their trauma, their hippocampus may have shrunk as a result of their trauma. Because the amygdala and the hippocampus are constantly running a hundred miles an hour, this affects the thinking and planning part of the brain (the cerebral cortex) and can cause it to go offline. This means that for some trauma survivors, they struggle to plan and make decisions in meaningful aspects of their life.

Because the brain operates a differently for trauma survivors, they may find themselves being in a state of hyper-arousal (rapid heart rate; shaking and can’t sit still) or hypo-arousal (flat affect; feeling numb or like they might collapse). If you are a trauma survivor and you think you might be hyper-aroused, try standing up and ‘shaking it out’ by shaking your arms, legs and, body. This will help to release the cortisol in your body. You can also practice doing long exhales, which will help to slow your heartbeat down. If you feel like you are in a state of hypo-arousal, try going for a leisurely walk to increase your heart rate. You can also practice increasing your inhale by taking a long inhale and taking short outbreath. It may help if you make a short ‘ha’ sounds when exhaling.

If someone has endured complex trauma, it is important that they seek support from a professional who can engage in trauma-informed practice. The five key principles of trauma-informed practice include safety, trustworthiness, collaboration, choice and, empowerment. A lot of these principles pose an emphasis on giving the client a say in their therapeutic process, as it is important that they feel involved in choice-making and have a sense of control over their life.

If you would like to book an appointment with one of our psychologists for trauma therapy, call us on 55 207 705.

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Farewell Drop of Life!

It is with mixed emotions that I write this letter. As some of you know, I will leave the clinic this week as I am moving back to the Netherlands to be closer to my family and to continue working there in the mental health field. This was not an easy decision to make because Drop of Life has meant so much more to me than just a workplace.

Let me take this moment to express my gratitude for all the support and kindness that I have received from all of you. I am so lucky to have met you all and to call you my friends.

A special thanks to Natalie Turvey, who has been my supervisor for the last 1.5 years. Under your guidance, I have learnt so much more. I can honestly say that you have been the main source of my significant growth in the field of psychology by inspiring me to challenge myself and take on new opportunities while working under the roof of Drop of Life.

It has been such a pleasure to work with you all!

 

You and I will meet again, When we’re least expecting it, One day in some far off place, I will recognize your face, I won’t say goodbye my friend, For you and I will meet again.” -Tom Petty

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