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Play Therapy: How to Play With Kids and Be More Present

Nathan Watkins, LMFT was on The Right Fit podcast with Michelle Pomeroy, talking about play therapy. Please click here to listen and learn!

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Give the Gift of Love

Do my kids know I love them? Should I tell my children everyday that I love them? Is it enough to give them hugs and kisses or should I be doing more to show my love? What else can I do to connect emotionally to my kids? These are just some of the numerous questions I get asked by parents. If you’ve asked these questions, or ones along the same lines, you are not alone! While there are many parenting books, there is not one way to parent a child. Children are unique, and therefore, need to be parented in different ways. What works for you may not work for your sister or your neighbor. 

That being said, there is one thing that all children need: love. A healthy attachment to parents, and an underlying feeling that they are loved and supported, are fabulous stepping stones for a successful future. Many parents question how to adequately show love for their children in such a busy and screen filled world. The best way to show love for your children is to find out how they feel loved. 

Gary Chapman is the author of the book “The Five Love Languages.” This book is about the love languages that couples feel and how to use those to connect in  your relationship. His book “5 Love Languages of Children” is a fantastic tool for any parent who is wondering how to effectively show love to their child. It talks about ways to identify your child’s love language, how to then show it, and discipline through that love language.  There is power in realizing the specific way that your child needs to feel love. If you don’t know what category they fall into simply ask them! Opening up that line of communication can be a great way to get to know your child. 

Another great book about identifying and talking about emotions is John Gottman’s book “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.”  In this book parents are coached through different ways to talk to their child about emotion and then how to regulate said emotion. It is a fantastic read for any parent who wants to know more about emotion and how to teach their child about that. 

Many times an inability to talk about emotion stems from the way you were taught to talk about and process emotions growing up. We know from years of research that creating a loving relationship at home is one of the best indicators of future success. If you are struggling with identifying your own emotion, and unpacking that is difficult, coaching your child through difficult emotions may be too hard. Therapy is always a great place to learn tools that will emotionally strengthen you, and will allow you to then strengthen your relationships with your children and spouse. 

Now get out there! Tell your kids you love them. Give them a hug. Make their bed for them. Buy them a candy bar. Go for a walk with them. Find the specific way they feel loved and show it to them in that specific way. It will be a great exercise for both of you. 

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“You’re So Strong!”

Few phrases will cause such an immediate, intense, almost visceral reaction from me as, “You’re so strong!” It’s a phrase that I have heard countless times over the last few years. On the surface, it sounds like a compliment that I possess the ability to hold and manage more than you would expect, and I work to receive this message as the one the sender is trying to convey. What it feels like the person is saying is that they are unable to deal with my sadness, grief, frustration, anger, or whatever emotion, and they need me to be strong because the emotions make them uncomfortable. I’m left feeling alone and dismissed.

In the early days of grief, the feelings of being overwhelmed with the “business” of death can feel paralyzing. Often, there are seemingly endless tasks that need to be completed within a very short amount of time. Sadly, most of these tasks require the next of kin, so that leaves the people that are in the midst of intense shock, grief, disbelief, anger, frustration, or whatever mishmash of emotions to navigate yet another emotional load; it can feel like too much.

The feeling of being alone is scary. Navigating really strong emotions without support and guidance is treacherous, we might make decisions or take actions that are counter to our actual needs because of the disorientation that strong emotions can evoke. So what can we do, as the person in the midst of a seemingly never ending emotional storm and as the person watching someone we care about struggle to fight the onslaught of emotional waves? Be there, be present, and be willing to listen. You can’t take away their pain for them, you can be that safe place where they don’t have to pretend to be “ok” or “fine”.

Providing people with the chance to not be strong, to be authentic and genuine with the feelings they are experiencing, no matter what those may be, can be just the thing that we all need to do truly develop that strength. If you are struggling finding that internal strength to deal with loss or grief, or just need that safe place to discover your strength consider reaching out to a therapist. You are strong! We can help you think it, feel it, and believe it!

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Tips for Parents of LGBTQIA Youth

LGBTQIA youth face unique mental health challenges as they struggle to reconcile their faith, sexual identity, or gender identity. If you are a parent of an LGBTQIA youth moving towards accepting your child’s identity, I would like to share a few thoughts. In this blog post, I will discuss the importance of familial support to LGBTQIA youth. Then, I will share simple, practical actions to support your child through this moment.


LGBTQIA youth who question their identity hide who they truly are for fear of being rejected by their families. LGBTQIA youth worry about hurting their parents and family members who believe that being gay is immoral and sinful. But when LGBTQIA youth hide their identities, they pay a high cost. It undermines their self-esteem and self-worth. New research shows that families and caregivers significantly influence their LGBTQIA youth’s risk and well-being. The Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition reports that LGBTQIA teens who experience family rejection are eight times more likely to die by suicide than LGBTQIA teens accepted by family. Data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) shows that LGBTQIA teens who are rejected by their families are six times more likely to have high levels of
depression, three times more likely to use illegal drugs, and three times more likely to be at increased risk for HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases.


Conversely, studies show that LGBTQIA youth who are accepted by their families experience overall physical and emotional health. It also helps them to develop higher self-esteem and value their inherent sense of worthiness. Furthermore, LGBTQIA youth accepted by their families are less likely to be depressed, use illegal drugs, or attempt suicide. Family acceptance also helps LGBTQIA youth create healthy beliefs about their life outcome. They believe that they will be happy, productive, and have a good life with family support. If you are motivated to support your child through this acceptance journey, but unsure what to do, you are not alone.


Finally, parents, you may be struggling with your emotions, and that’s ok and normal. However, it is critical to emphasize that parents’ or caregivers’ actions and words have a powerful impact on their children’s well-being. If you’d like to foster a more supportive environment for a LGBTQIA child or teen, here are a few things you can do.

  1. Show love and affection.
    LGBTQIA youth worry about being loved by their parents or caregivers. The question that they may be asking themselves is, “Am I loved? Am I lovable?” Don’t hesitate to tell your child, “I love you.” Also, show your child displays of physical affection. These actions will promote a secure attachment between you and your child.
  2. Reach out and listen
    Your child may interpret long periods of silence as a sign of anger. It will feel uncomfortable to talk about your teens’ sexual orientation or sexual identity but reach out to talk to them about their experiences. Listen to what they have to say and respond with empathy.
  3. Happy future
    Parents, accepting your LGBTQIA youth allow them to envision a happy future as an LGBTQIA adult. A positive narrative about the future is essential to counteract isolation, hopelessness, risky behaviors, and suicide ideation.
  4. Stand up for your child.
    Remember, as a parent, your words are powerful. Through your journey and your child’s journey, you may hear some negative comments from families and friends. When you hear these negative comments, it is an opportunity to practice courage and let others know that you will not
    accept insults, teasing, or discrimination against your child. Insist that family members and friends treat your child with respect or rethink the very definition of family and friends.
  5. When you know better, do better.
    As human beings, we are always evolving and growing. As parents, we also make mistakes. Do not try to be perfect but try to be human. American poet Dr. Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Parents, your LGBTQIA child needs your love. They are afraid and worried that you might never love them. They need a secure attachment bond to become physically and emotionally healthy adults.

References:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, June 21). LGBT Youth. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/lgbthealth/youth.htm. 

Sanders, R., & Fields, E. L. Tips for Parents of LGBTQ Youth. Johns Hopkins Medicine.
https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/tips-for-parents-of-
lgbtq-youth. 

Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition. (2017). Utah Suicide Prevention Plan 2017-2021.
https://www.health.utah.gov/vipp/pdf/Suicide/SuicidePreventionCoalitionPlan2017-
2021.pdf. 

Resources:
Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)
https://pflag.org/chapter/pflag-salt-lake-city

Utah Pride Center
https://www.utahpridecenter.org

Equality Utah
https://www.equalityutah.org/mission

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Common Unhealthy Family Dynamics

In my own experience, I have become aware that I spend a lot of time avoiding a normal and healthy human experience – having emotions. As a therapist, I encourage my clients to connect to their emotions. I am a firm believer that you cannot give away what you do not have. With that being said, I am on my own journey to connect with myself and others more deeply. Learning to manage emotions, vulnerability, and honesty are essential skills learned at home. Growing up, I was not taught these skills. I have spent my adult years learning how to experience and process emotions with healthy expression. There are many different ways one can learn to manage emotions and identify feelings.

Family therapy is an excellent approach. It is common for families to fall into dysfunctional communication patterns with each other. Typically, people fall into these traps to avoid feeling. This can feel more comfortable in the moment; however, it is not beneficial to the person or the family in the long run. Facing emotions and connecting with others can feel scary and uncomfortable. It does not always look pretty and can be messy. Having a therapist guide the process can make it more tolerable and give family members greater insight into what is not working and to what is working in the family system. 

Below are examples of dysfunctional communication techniques that families fall into instead of being honest with one another. All of these communication techniques are ways to avoid emotions and confrontation. When I learned to identify these patterns, I discovered I was also missing out on connection, love, and intimacy with my family members and other loved ones. This awareness has helped improve my relationship with myself and others. As you read through these examples, I encourage you to ask yourself if you identify with any of these patterns. If so, then ask yourself, “what am I missing out on in my relationships?”. When a therapist asked me these questions, it struck a chord within me, and I realized some things needed to change. I hope this can be a good start for whoever needs to read this, as it was to me.  

  1. The Blame Game   

Failure to take accountability for one’s actions and emotions leading to the inability to validate another person’s experience. 

Example:

Sister: “My feelings were hurt when you yelled at me”  

Brother: “I reacted like that because you egged me on”

  1. Being Right

 Defending oneself instead of finding a middle ground.

Example:

Partner (1): “I do not like the way you made our bed. It needs to be done this way.”

Partner (2): “I was trying to help; I knew you would be busy this morning”.

Partner (1): “Thanks, but it’s not done the way I like it.” 

  1. Changing the Game  

Deflecting from the issue or question.

Caregiver: “I told you that your room needs to be cleaned before you can go to the movies with your friends”

 Child: “Jane hasn’t cleaned her room and she is out with her friends”

  1. Playing the nice guy

Making other people feel comfortable at the risk of your own beliefs, values, and/or needs.

Example:

An example of this would be a mom that confided her young adult child about her fight with his dad. The child listens and comforts his mom even though he feels uncomfortable and now feels pressured to take sides. 

  1. Gossip 

Talking about someone when they are not present instead of direct confrontation.

Example:

Brother: “Mary is always fighting with mom and getting her way because mom is scared of her”.

Sister: “Yeah, it’s annoying and mom just lets it slide”.

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Tips & Ideas to Help Your Child Navigate Difficult Times

2020 has been filled with unpredictable outcomes and unknowns. Covid-19 has changed the way we live, work, and go to school. Stressful times can be challenging to navigate, and children do not always have the words to express their feelings. Children are prone to demonstrate maladaptive behaviors during hard times; regression is a normal part of development. Regression can look like increased separation anxiety, withdrawal, tantrums, potty accidents, disrupted sleep, and more. Children are perceptive, and they feel the effects of change. Here are some ways to help your child navigate these difficult times.

Validation  

Children do not always know what they are feeling or how to communicate it. This is an excellent opportunity for parents to teach them. First, reflect their feeling to them and validate their emotion. “You look sad” or “It feels upsetting when you fight with your brother.” These are excellent ways to open up communication, and they know that you are there.

3 Check-ins per day

Setting aside a few minutes three times a day can be helpful for yourself and your child. This short time to connect can help create a stronger bond with your child. This time will teach them how to slow down their day and connect to themselves. During these moments, you can breathe together, tell each other how you feel, or use grounding exercises to become aware of the present moment.

Model Behavior 

Modeling behavior is one of the best ways to teach children healthy coping skills – parents/caregivers, take care of yourself! Be aware of how you are feeling and determine what you need. Take care of your own needs and demonstrate healthy habits to your kids.

Routines 

Routines create predictability- which makes an environment feel safe for a child. Routines also help decrease negative behaviors. Together, come up with routines in the morning or at night that your child can look forward to, like reading a book before bed or taking a walk at the same time each day.

Resource:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4578899/#:~:text=Regression%20is%20typical%20in%20normal,usually%20corrects%20the%20regressive%20behavior.

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Eve Unleashed with Special Guest, Kathleen Baxter

Join Kathleen Baxter on the Eve Unleashed Podcast to talk about sex. Kathleen discusses the difficulties of navigating sex conversations in the home with spouses and children. Join through this link and wherever podcasts are streamed.


http://eveunleashed.buzzsprout.com/1365421/5712997-lets-talk-about-sex-with-special-guest-kathleen-baxter-lmft

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Nine Minutes A Day to Strengthen Your Relationships.

The world is still reeling from COVID-19 and the strict new guidelines of proper social etiquette. It is difficult to emotionally connect with someone when you are not allowed to touch them, and sometimes cannot see most of their face. We are all adjusting to the new and needed guidelines that keep our physical health safe. In the meantime several people are noticing a severe decline in their emotional intimacy with friends and partners.  There is an innate desire for us to connect with people around us, and yet people are having a difficult time doing that these days.

May I suggest a nine minute daily exercise for you to participate in that can strengthen your relationship with your partner, children, and friends? Everyday, we have several times in which we say hello and goodbye to someone. In the morning, we say hello for the day to our children and if we have one, our partner. We say goodbye when we leave for work or school. Hello, again, when we come back from school or work. And goodbye, again, when we go to bed. With friends at work we have the hello when we arrive, and when we leave. With the people that live in your house: I challenge you to make good morning an event. Look your children and spouse in the eyes and give them a hug. Ask them how they slept. Try and connect on a physical and emotional level. It will only take three minutes. When your kids or spouse gets home from school and work do the same thing. Look them in the eyes, give them a hug, and ask them how their day was. Sit and listen to them. It will take about three minutes. Before you go to bed look your spouse and children in the eyes and hug them. Ask them what their favorite part of the day was. It will take about three minutes. We are now up to nine minutes of connection time you have just had with your spouse or children. That makes a huge difference in feeling connected to someone! It will add a special dimension to your relationships with your spouse and children. Sometimes it may take longer, than nine minutes, but the reward will be well worth it.     

The same can be done with co workers. Instead of greeting someone with a quick hello, stop and be physically and emotionally present. You cannot get close to them, and often a mask will be in the way. You can still connect with that person! Look them in the eyes. Ask them how they are doing and lean in, showing that you care and you are interested in what they are saying. When you leave to go home, check in with those co workers. Take a few minutes to again, ask them about plans for the evening. Ask them about their children, spouse, or hobby. This may seem like an easy task, but again one that will reap great rewards as you connect emotionally with the people you work with. 

As always, watch your own emotional health. People all over the world are feeling disconnected from each other. If you are feeling overwhelmed and depressed, there is always help out there for you! Good luck as you try out this new social experiment of connection!

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Kids, Pornography, and Shame

Scary title huh? We don’t want to think about kids and pornography in the same vein regardless of context. Unfortunately, the reality is that first pornography exposure happens often during early adolescence or even childhood. You read correctly, childhood. I’m talking about playground and recess aged kids here. As parents in the digital age, I think most of us are aware that our teenagers have access to inappropriate content at their fingertips; however, we are less aware of the proliferation of it targeting younger children. As a result, we are often caught off guard about how to talk about pornography with young children. Sadly, being unprepared can often lead to some instinctual reactions, that while quite normal, can have unintended consequences in the messaging that kids receive. Mainly, that they did something wrong and that makes them “bad”; shame is not productive nor helpful for healthy sexual development.

            Shame, as a parenting strategy, is not effective at creating healthy change in behaviors (notice the bolded…healthy). In fact, it is just the opposite. While shame may enact change in behaviors, it does so by undermining self-worth and value. Often with the universal emotion, shame, we feel like we are fundamentally flawed as human beings and irrevocably broken. Now with the parents I’ve worked, this isn’t the message that they are trying to instill in their children; assuredly, they are trying to empower and support their children. This is the reason why I think it’s imperative that parents be prepared with the messaging and a script, of sorts, for these conversations. Here are some of the most common questions that I get asked about dealing with pornography exposure and young children aged 6-12 years old:

When should I talk to my child about pornography?

            If your child is using the internet then you need to start having age and developmentally appropriate conversations about pornography. Yes, if your 5 year old is watching videos or playing games then they can come across it, even with filters and other safeguards.

Example: Sometimes adults put stuff on the internet that looks like it’s for kids, like cartoons that show body parts that we’ve talked about being private like a penis or breasts. It isn’t appropriate for kids and it can be really confusing. We want to you show us if you see something that feels confusing, like it might be for adults, but you aren’t sure. We won’t be angry or mad, we love you and want to be able to play your games safely.

How did my child start looking at pornography?

            Typically, a child’s first exposure to pornography happens in one of two ways: they either accidentally click on a link that takes them to a porn site or a friend shows them. Kids are curious and they tend to share their curiosity with their peers. Sadly, kids can be labeled as “bad” or being a “bad influence” when a child reports that their friend Timmy showed them a picture, video, or link that includes pornographic images. This sends the same messaging that was discussed above, that being curious about sexual imagery, sexual acts, or sexuality in general is “bad” or “off limits”. If we want our children to learn about sex from us, their parents, then we need to take ownership of having the conversations.

            Thus, talk to your child about their curiosity. Work to normalize their curiosity about sex and the feelings that they experienced. Create an environment that is safe, even if you or they are uncomfortable, to discuss sex and pornography and your beliefs and values regarding them. They will get their sexual education from other sources regardless if we abdicate this role in our children’s development.

Example: Joey, thank you for telling us when you clicked on that link; you did exactly what we’d talked about you doing. We’ve talked about how sex and sexual feelings are normal and healthy, I wonder if you’re curious about any of the images that you saw? What did you feel when you looked at the images? Sometimes it feels really exciting to see things that we don’t know a lot about, like naked body parts or sexual acts, these feelings are normal and nothing to feel ashamed about. We value sexuality and feel that explicit sexual images are harmful to that development because they can portray sex in a way that isn’t realistic or healthy.

How do I teach my child that porn isn’t realistic?

            For very young children, framing it as the actors are playing pretend puts the concept into a form that they understand as they often engage in pretending. Keep it simple, short and provide an opportunity to ask questions if they remain curious.

Example: Joey, you and your friends love to play superheroes right? Sometimes you even dress up as your favorites superheroes and pretend to save the world. The movie that you saw, the people are actors and are playing and pretending too. They were playing,  sex is a way that adults play, but they were playing pretend in that movie.

            Older children typically can conceptualize the difference between real and pretend without the fantastical examples; however, as pornography depicts real acts it can sometimes be difficult for them to understand how it isn’t real. I like to use an example of something that is also real but exaggerate like driving in the Fast and Furious movies. Go on YouTube and find a driving scene and watch it together and discuss how, while some of the basic concepts are real, the actual movie isn’t. For example, it was filmed on a sound stage or movie lot with a professional driver doing the stunt maneuvers. Adult films are also filmed as a movie production with actors, the maneuvers are scripted and practiced, the vocalizations and facials are exaggerated, etc. So, while the act itself is real, the depiction of the act isn’t.

While I just skimmed the surface, I hope this gives parents some ideas to start the conversation. This subject is scary and can be very intimidating for parents to explore with children, especially young children. However, parents have the opportunity to influence the narrative that children are exposed to in a way that creates a safe environment for healthy sexual development without shame.

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