As a therapist who works primarily with sexual issues, I know that there are topics that don’t get discussed much in homes, likely due to the uncomfortable nature of those conversations. The irony is, these topics are uncomfortable because we don’t talk about them often enough. A topic I have noticed many families neglect is power and privilege.
This certainly applies in the work I do surrounding sex. It applies in teaching our children how not to exploit younger or less able-bodied children. It applies to dating and peer relationships for teens. It applies to our role as a parent to our children. It applies to gender and it most certainly applies to race.
Here are some things you can do to help your children grow up as kind, aware, and accepting humans. We need to do more than say, “All people are created equal.”, and then go about our day feeling like we did the right thing. It isn’t enough.
Acknowledge your own privilege. You can’t teach your children something you don’t understand. If you find yourself saying things like, “All lives matter,” take the opportunity to educate yourself on the subject. You can be sure that if there is a large group of people with a lot of energy surrounding a topic, there is something real there. If you don’t understand it and feel defensive about it, rather than criticizing it, learn about it. I recommend the book, White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism by Robin Diangelo. This is a good start.
Teach your children that the way they see the world isn’t necessarily the way the world IS. We so quickly take our very limited view as truth. This doesn’t help our children in life, or in the quest for kindness and equality. If your children see primarily white people everywhere they go, help them understand that this is privilege. There is a reason they don’t see black or brown people where they are, and it is power and privilege that those people don’t share. Teach your children alternative views of the world. Expose them to other people’s experiences and truths and treat those experiences as valid and real.
Show your children the things they have simply because of what color they are and where they live. One of the biggest challenges here is that privilege by its very nature is invisible to us. We don’t have to look at the things that work for us inherently, and so we are usually blind to them. The luxury of privilege is that we can ignore the things that oppressed people are painfully aware of. I hear so often, “I worked hard for everything I have.” I believe most people work hard for what they have, but there are some things we have just because of who we are, what we look like, and where we are, that we did not have to work for. It is true that some people in society have to work much harder for the same things other people had to work much less for. This is privilege and oppression at work.
Model for your children how to use their privilege to benefit those who don’t have it. A person with more privilege needs to use that privilege to make changes toward equality. This comes back to the hard work topic. The oppressed have to work so much harder to achieve equality. They can’t and shouldn’t be doing it alone. Those is a place of privilege need to use it to make these changes at a quicker rate. What do your children learn from watching you? Do they learn that different rules apply to higher and lower power parties (parents and children)? Do they learn that the one with the most power gets the say simply because they have the most power? Or do they know that everyone in the family, community, and world matters the exact same and so do their voices? Are you open to influence from your children even though they are smaller and less experienced than you? Reassess how you model power dynamics in your home. Children who grow up feeling overpowered relish in the day they get a turn in the seat of power and domination.
I meet with hundreds of students and clients on a yearly basis from all different walks of life. What I have found in all these deeply intimate and connected conversations and interactions is that we on a basic human level are remarkably similar. We all want to be loved, accepted and treated fairly. We want the same for our children and loved ones. Let’s lay down the defenses and model kindness and humility for our children so they can do better than we have.
Running a social skills group for kids ages 7-11 has taught
me a lot about the benefits of flexible thinking. Flexible thinking in kids
produces turn taking, transitioning smoothly to new activities, and the ability
to adapt mentally, emotionally and behaviorally to a variety of situations.
Flexible thinking in adults also enables mental, emotional,
and behavioral adaptability. It is the ability to consider situations from
multiple perspectives, include context clues to inform decision making, manage
rising emotional responses in appropriate ways, problem solve, and balance and
prioritize competing desires and goals. Flexible thinking also allows for
spontaneity in our romantic relationships that can increase excitement and
Flexible thinking looks like letting someone else pick the
restaurant for dinner, cancelling plans to be with a friend or spouse who’s had
a difficult day, finding solutions to problems instead of ruminating on the
endless escalating spiral of “what if…” scenarios, truly listening to
understand what others are saying, and not telling your boss what you really
think of them when they take credit for your work during the company meeting.
Inflexible or rigid thinking in adults is often manifest in
all or nothing (Black and White) perspectives and doesn’t allow for nuances and
mitigating circumstances. Doing something because, “That’s how we have always
done it” is an example of rigid thinking. Other examples include not listening
to other’s ideas, struggling to consider the feelings and experiences of
others, and obliviousness to opportunities around us because we are locked into
our self-appointed expectations, rules or ideas about how something is
“supposed to be.”
There is a popular Huffington
Post article (“Reasons my
son is crying will crack you up!”) that is unknowingly
highlighting inflexible and rigid thinking. In each of these pictures, the
child is having an emotional meltdown because they are stuck on one thought and
the associated feeling so deeply, they become overwhelmed, abandon all reason
and rebuff efforts to console them; for example, “He wouldn’t fit through the
doggy door. Note the open-door right beside him.” With toddlers and adults
alike, inflexible thinking can lead to unhelpful and stressful situations.
As a caution, let’s be clear that not all rigid thinking is
unhelpful. There are areas in life that being inflexible is necessary and
protective. With regards to physical safety and personal and emotional
boundaries, it is advantageous to be rigid.
We all have times where we utilize both flexible and rigid
thinking, the important part is to identify where we, as adults, teens or kids,
could benefit from more flexible thinking.
Is there an issue with your friends or spouse
that keeps coming up, how could you change your perspective or response in the
situation to increase connection with that person?
What could be a different way to address the
issue? What about that issue is the real problem?
Could any of these same questions be applied to
work relationships and circumstances?
You need to be a pipe cleaner.
Here is a visual way to conceptualize flexible thinking. During
one of my first weeks running the aforementioned social skills group I came
across an activity highlighting the importance of and difference between
flexible and rigid thinking using a popsicle stick, a pipe cleaner and a piece
A popsicle stick is sturdy but rigid. Attempts
to bend the popsicle stick typically result in it breaking. Not helpful.
Pipe cleaners are soft and fuzzy on the outside,
come in multiple colors, bend easily, hold their shape and have sturdy wire in
the middle: the creative options are endless. They are so adaptable they can
bend to whatever the situation requires while maintaining their inner core
(read: personal values and goals).
A piece of yarn can barely hold any shape at
all, it’s too flexible. It can’t stand up for itself or hold a boundary and can
be easily manipulated with no resistance.
Thinking like a pipe cleaner allows flexibility, adjusting,
shifting, adapting and changing as needed without compromising our values. What
areas in your life are you like a pipe cleaner? Are there some relationships,
situations or events where you are more like a popsicle stick? Which of these
scenarios or people would benefit from you being more like a pipe cleaner?
Look for Flexible Thinking Part 2: Mental Health, where I
will review how flexible thinking impacts and effects our mental health.
Sexuality is a charged topic for both adults and some children. Messages about what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate are woven into the fabric of our cultural traditions, moral codes of conduct, and family systems. Negative messages cause a great deal of harm, mainly when the message contains sexual shaming. Masturbation is one of these topics.
Masturbation is extremely common, yet because it is private, we don’t talk about it with our children or a spouse. According to research, self-stimulation is a normal activity experienced by nearly all people starting at very young ages and can be observed in utero (Yang et al., 2005). Masturbation (like any behavior) can be both healthy and problematic; it is also experienced differently based on age. It well understood that nearly all males and most females will, at some point in their lifetime, masturbate.
When is it Healthy?
Nearly all professionals agree age-appropriate stages of self-stimulation is healthy. For example, exploring one’s body and how it responds sexually is a beneficial aspect of maturation. Men and women can learn what an orgasm is, so they are better equipped to educate their spouse on what types of sexual touch they enjoy. Also, individuals can use masturbation to self-sooth as a coping mechanism for mood regulation. For many people who (for whatever reason) are not in an intimate relationship, masturbation can be a healthy outlet to release sexual tension. Many relationships do not have an equal balance of libido. For some “higher libido” partners, masturbation can offer a method to balance sexual needs.
When is it Not Healthy?
Behaviors become problematic when they negatively impact, work, school, or one’s social life. Like all sexual behaviors, masturbation may conflict with religious values. In a recent study from students at Brigham Young University, researchers reported the perception of pornography (a common corollary with masturbation) is the primary predictor of negative outcomes, not the pornography use itself (Leonhardt, Willoughby, Young-Peterse, 2018). It is important to inventory what our values are and why we have them. It can be helpful to challenge what we believe, while still honoring our values and the values of others. In many situations, individuals with strict religious tenets regarding masturbation find themselves in harmful shame cycles leading to increased rates of depression, compulsivity, or suicidal ideation (Beagan & Hattie, 2015). Researchers don’t diminish the value of traditional moral values. However, they do suggest creating a healthy relationship with our values within the normal range of human experiences.
Myths about Masturbation
We tell stories and create myths to justify attitudes about sexuality. Some common myths include masturbation causes homosexuality, is an addiction, leads to infidelity, will lower sexual desire, create hypersexuality, may cause you to go blind, and causes cancer in men. These things are not true. However, there are things that do occur. For example, a partner may feel betrayed when they learn their spouse masturbates. Couples can contract what cheating is, and what betrayal is. Feelings of betrayal are especially common when erotic material is involved. People engage in negatively impacting habit-forming behaviors with all sorts of things, including masturbation. Also, some coping mechanisms prevent healthy attachment in relationships.
Talking about Masturbation to our Children
It’s helpful for parents to have discussions with their children about masturbation in age-appropriate ways. For example, 5-year-old children don’t typically need to learn about orgasm mechanics, but talking about what “feels good” is more appropriate. Also, shaming a child by saying, “don’t touch that,” could be replaced with useful comments such as “that feels good, maybe you should do that in private.”. Children without parental guidance will learn about masturbation from friends or erotic material. Pornography doesn’t typically represent healthy sexual education. It is also beneficial to create safety for children, so as they begin to explore their sexuality (in person or with others), they feel safe to engage a parent about their experiences. Normalizing sexual desire, response, and anxieties create wellbeing for developing children. Lastly, it’s helpful to remember that not all children have the same sexual interests, levels of desire, or attractions at the same age as other children. It’s important to meet our children where they are at.
Talking about Masturbation to a Partner
An important aspect of contracting between couples includes the topic of masturbation. As a part of healthy sexual practices, discussing what is acceptable (or not) is essential. While there are many options, some couples will incorporate self-pleasuring behaviors into their relationship as a method to balance sex-drive differences. Often one partner may feel betrayal if they learn their spouse masturbates. When couples talk openly with each other about their feelings and attitudes regarding sexuality, it usually removes the stress in these situations. A good place to start is becoming aware of your own sexual biases and perspectives. Some couples find it helpful to discuss these feelings with a competent therapist. It’s important to remember masturbation doesn’t constitute cheating. Marriage isn’t the antidote for fulfilling all sexual needs. Many married people masturbate. Much of the time, masturbation creates better sexual experiences for couples.
Talking about Masturbation to Church Leaders
In many faith traditions, ecclesiastical leaders counsel parishioners regarding sexual behavior. Not all religions have sex-positive perspectives. In many cases, such leaders have no training regarding sexuality, trauma, or psychological situations. A lack of training can be problematic. This doesn’t suggest the support of an ecclesiastical leader cannot be helpful. Individuals seeking counsel from their church leader should remember boundaries are essential. It’s okay to tell a church leader what questions or statements are inappropriate or feel uncomfortable. This is especially true for parents whose children may be questioned regarding their sexual behavior, to communicate what forms of communication are acceptable and what is not.
Leonhardt, N. D., Willoughby, B. J., & Young-Petersen, B. (2018). Damaged goods: Perception of pornography addiction as a mediator between religiosity and relationship anxiety surrounding pornography use. The Journal of Sex Research, 55(3), 357-368.
Beagan, B. L., & Hattie, B. (2015). Religion, spirituality, and LGBTQ identity integration. Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling, 9(2), 92-117.Yang, M. L., Fullwood, E., Goldstein, J., & Mink, J. W. (2005). Masturbation in infancy and early childhood presenting as a movement disorder: 12 cases and a review of the literature. Pediatrics, 116(6), 1427-1432.
Brainstorm with your child a short ritual you will both perform every time you say goodbye. This could be a secret handshake, a special song, a mantra you say together or a combination of words and touch. Anything that is meaningful for both you and your child will work.
Don’t Use Tough Love as
a Go To
Karen Young of Hey Sigmund explains how
fighting against our natural fight or flight instincts is a losing battle.
“We humans are
wired towards keeping ourselves safe above everything else. It’s instinctive,
automatic, and powerful. This is why tough love, punishment or negotiation just
won’t work. If you were in quicksand, no amount of any of that would keep you
there while you got sucked under. You’d fight for your life at any cost. School
is less dramatic than quicksand but to a brain and a body in fight or flight,
it feels the same.
empower your children by teaching them how this primitive part of our brain
works and breathing exercises they can employ to combat them.
Do Encourage Your Child
To Express Feelings Through Art
One of the most therapeutic and helpful things your child can do to understand and combat their anxiety is to explore their fears and experiences through art. A study conducted by Khadar et al. (2013) showed that the boys with separation anxiety developed more adaptive behaviors and emotions, and the children tended to share more feelings and improved their communication skills. This particular study used the medium of paint, but drawing, sculpting or any other medium that appeals to your child can be used.
Don’t Teach Your Child
to Fight Their Anxiety
teach your child to recognize and verbally point out what they are feeling and
where in their body they are feeling it as an outside observer. Have your child
thank their anxiety for doing its best to keep them safe. But use their
thinking brain to then tell the anxiety that they are safe and that they’ve got
Do Externalize the
Have your child describe their anxiety—what it feels like, what it says and what it looks like. Then have your child design a creature that embodies anxiety. Have your child name the object and talk through the aspects of the creature your child creates. This gives you and your child a way to visualize, separate their feelings from who they are and a new language to speak about their anxiety.
If your child is experiencing separation anxiety that is concerning you, please schedule an appointment with me by calling 801.944.4555
Human beings are social creatures and need connection. Psychologists, anthropologists, and philosophers have suggested many reasons for why we need connection. These reasons include: providing for physical and emotional needs, creating tribal safety, invoking social and economic efficiency, and offering structure for human development.
explored this topic, I find our need for others is multifaceted. In mental
health, there are overlapping influences, often termed the biopsychosocial
model of health. This phonetic amalgamation promotes the importance of
three overarching schools of thought: (1) our biology, (2) our thoughts and
emotions, and (3) our social environment. Our social connections are no
small matter. We experience social connection with family, friends, church
relationships, clubs, and work situations.
One reason I feel we need others, is to create affirmation and validation for our life journey. As children, we look to authority figures for validation. At first, this person is usually a parent or guardian. When we enter our adolescence, we turn to friends. As adults, we may seek approval from peers, or authority figures such as church leaders, a spouse, or a boss at work. Marriage relationships uniquely create opportunities for seeking intimate affirmation and validation. As a therapist, I see couples desiring validation if they are “enough,” or if they are “doing things right.” These bids for validation are expressed in a variety of scenarios in the kitchen to the bedroom.
we arrive at a place where self-confidence eclipses the need to seek validation
from others. When this occurs, we help
support others, and our self-esteem is self-sufficient. I don’t think this process is a bad thing.
Instead, I feel the understanding we gain is helpful and includes three
as other people bid for validation from us, we should feel complimented, as we
are now a companion in their healing journey. Affirming another is an
opportunity to support and honor the path and choices others make in a way that
creates self-awareness and growth, confidence, and security while allowing for
a space of safety.
we need to know how hurtful rejection can be for those who seek for an
affirming voice from us. As children, we are often told “no,” “don’t,” or
“you cannot.” Usually, these commands are barked from parents who want to
protect their children. However, as a conscience being willing to aid in
the healing journey of others, an affirming voice such as “you can,” “you’ve
got this,” or “I trust you,” is more effective.
understanding your attachment style, or the attachment style of others can
assist in explaining how validation and affirmation are expressed. An
assessment of how you engage with others can aid you and those you love to help
establish securely attached relationships.
For example, some people will anxiously seek for attention, and others
pull back when things get messy, avoiding receiving the needed help the
As humans, we connect with others for a variety of meaningful ways. Seeking affirmation and validation is a human characteristic that moves people toward a place of self-confidence. We start by trusting the voices of others we trust, and then we move to trust our internal voice. We do these in elaborate dances that deserve our attention and our nonjudgmental observation.
If you or a loved one needs help in understanding or seeking validation, please give me a call at 801.944.4555 to schedule an appointment today.
It’s a story I hear about all of the time in my personal and professional life. “My last child is going to kindergarten, or first grade. Yay!! I’m going to have so much more time for other things!” And inevitably, a month later, I hear a very different story. “I don’t quite know who I am anymore. Or what I want to do with my time.” A lot of these women have been stay at home mothers, or work part time, while they have young children. Once the children are in school, their life changes quite drastically. They have more time to focus on themselves and their own interests. While this sounds like a time of liberation, a lot of women find it to be a time of high anxiety.
For years, society has taught women that their primary, and sometimes only, role is to be a mother. Whether you subscribe to this mentality or not, it is very present in our society. Therefore, a lot of women take that role on as their only sense of self. As a mother, sometimes I find myself getting lost in child rearing. I have to remind myself that while I love being a mother and it is important to me, I can still have interests and passions outside of that realm. This realization comes to light quickly when all of your children are attending school full time. So, to all of the mothers who are sending their youngest off to kindergarten/first grade, or to the mothers of young children that need to revisit who they are I challenge you to answer the following five questions.
What do I like to do for fun?
What do I do for self care that reenergizes me?
What relationships would I like to strengthen?
Do I want to go back to work, or work more?
Other than being a mom what do I want to be known for in my life?
These questions can help guide you to some career choices, as well as just things you can do for yourself when you have the time. If you are having a difficult time defining who you are, and who you want to become in the future come into therapy. Working with women to find their inner strength is something I love to do! Good luck as your kiddos head off to school. I’ll be at Wasatch Family Therapy with lots of congratulations and the tissues.
Wasatch Family Therapy is excited to announce this school year’s social skills group. This group is opened ended allowing kids to come into the group throughout the school year. There is a six session commitment, but children can stay longer, if needed. Groups are $50 per session, due at the time of the group. Please contact us at 801-944-4555 to register for the group.
In honor of Pride month, I wanted to
share some knowledge about human sexuality that can be quite confusing.
Although some of these Frequently Asked Questions may seem obvious to some, I
think most people would be surprised at how little they really understand about
the differences between these words and phrases.
What is the difference between sex and gender?
Sex is defined by our biological position on the spectrum of femaleness and
maleness. Gender is defined by our psychological and sociocultural attributes
that are associated with being female or male.
What does gender identity mean?
Gender identity is defined by one’s personal, subjective
sense of their gender, which is different from our biological sex.
What is sexual orientation?
Sexual orientation is the unique pattern of sexual and romantic desire,
behavior, and identity that each person experiences.
Doesn’t sexual orientation consist of just three categories,
heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual?
No it does not. After several studies, Alfred Kinsey
discovered that sexual orientation is more of a continuum so he developed the
Kinsey Scale. On the Kinsey Scale, 0 represents exclusive patterns of
heterosexual behavior and attraction, and 6 represent an exclusive pattern of
homosexual behavior and attraction. The numbers in between the two represent
varying levels of bisexuality.
people use sex and gender interchangeably without realizing the difference.
While sex refers to our biology, gender defines our expectations about what
makes us feminine or masculine and is determined by psychological, social, and
cultural characteristics. Knowing the difference is not only important in order
to fully understand what someone is talking about but also important in order
to inform someone who may be confused about this. Additionally, many people
believe that our sex should determine our gender. This is where understanding
sexual identity comes into play. Sexual identity refers to a person’s individual
perception of being female or male. A person could have an outward appearance
of a male but have female sex organs and instead of identifying as female, identify
as male, which is a form of transgenderism. Sexual orientation is often lumped
into three categories such as heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual. However,
thanks to Alfred Kinsey, we now know that sexual orientation is much more
complex than this and should be described as being a continuum as shown below.
research has shown that sexual minorities such as bisexual, gay, transgender, and
lesbian individuals are at a higher risk for depression than heterosexual
individuals. The reason being that they are (for varied reasons) less open
about their sexual orientation. Knowing this can help aid people in their
journey to discover their sexual orientation and become more comfortable and
supported in being open about it. It can also help you to be more aware of
things to be looking for like signs of depression, anxiety, suicide, and stress
in a friend, family member, co-worker, etc. who may be exploring their sexual
more support and acceptance of the LGBTQ community in this day and age, brings
about those who have been hiding their true gender identity or sexual
orientation. Now more than ever, it is important to understand important terms
and meanings of these terms in order to better serve this community and also
family members and friends of the LGBTQ community who may not understand the
research behind these terms and the importance of supporting them despite their
beliefs. By sharing our knowledge of sexual orientation, we can work together
to end hate and discrimination.
R., & Baur, K. (2017). Our sexuality, thirteenth edition. Cengage Learning.
J. J. (2013). The psychology of human sexuality. Sussex, UK: John Wiley &
der Star, A., Pachankis, J. E., & Bränström, R. (2019). Sexual orientation
openness and depression symptoms: A population-based study. Psychology
of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity.
If you have been wondering what our Director of Child & Adolescent Services, Clair Mellenthin, LCSW, RPT-S has been up to, here are a few of her recent TV segments and magazine articles to catch up on!
The Red Flags of Child Abuse – Fresh Living KUTV
Spring Clean Your Soul – Fresh Living KUTV
I Became a More Peaceful Parent Using These 4 Strategies – Hilary Thompson – MOTHERLY