Tag Archives: parenting

Why can’t I play the piano?

Dr. Ken Larsen

The simplest answer to this question is “I never learned how.” 

Our mental health and happiness depend to a great degree on our learned ability

  • to establish and maintain loving relationships
  • to regulate our emotional states.

There are many lonely people who have difficulty connecting to others in relationships.  I’ve come to believe that this may be because they never learned how.

There are many anxious, depressed people who seem unable to manage the difficult emotions that arise in ordinary life.  In many cases this is because they didn’t learn how.


Attachment Theory, the study of early childhood formation, explains that children need a relationship with a caregiver, usually the mother, that is responsive to their needs and that is supportive in getting those needs met.  If this is working right, the child will grow with a basic trust in people and a certain level of security in our challenging world.  They will have learned what they need to know to form relationships and to deal with difficult emotional states.

If the early attachment patterns are difficult, non-responsive or erratic, the child will often grow up not having learned the skills needed to connect intimately or to manage emotional challenges.

For me, learning about the impact of early attachment patterns helped me understand my own behavior much better.  I gained insight into some of the challenges I face as an adult with relationships and emotional regulation.

Dr. Glasser tells us that our past has a strong influence on who we are today.  He also tells us there is nothing we can do about the past.  All we have is the ever moving “now” and the choices we can make to get what we want.

If we are troubled by our past what can we do in the “now” to get a better handle on life?

In a certain way, it’s kinda like recognizing that if I want to play the piano, I need to learn how.

There is no “one size fits all” formula to find mental health and happiness.

One insight that has come from studying adults with childhood attachment issues is the importance of simply making sense of their experience and how it is affecting their life.  It has been seen that if a person can formulate a coherent narrative of early life experiences that makes sense without assigning blame, progress can be made.  The person sees that new skills can be learned to overcome the maladaptive patterns from early childhood.

I’m sure you recognize that this is a vastly simplified overview of some dynamics of human development.  Fortunately there are many excellent sources of information for further study available in print and on YouTube.  One book that is particularly insightful and helpful is Dr. Dan Siegel’s “Parenting from the Inside Out.”

Now that we know why we can’t play the piano, let’s start learning what we need to know and do to get what we want in mental health and happiness.




Who is the expert?

By Bruce R Allen, MSW, LCSW

When my daughter was about 16 she was taking the advanced algebra class in high school.  For me, algebra was little more than a traumatic memory and something that stoked a sense of inadequacy that I never wanted to revisit.

homeworkhelp_22552156One night she called out to me and asked if I would help her with a homework question.  I figured, hey,  I finished college, I can probably help with most high school homework questions. Then the fear shuddered through me when I saw that the problem she needed help with was algebra homework.  I secretly thought Well there goes that Dad on a pedestal deal.

She showed me the problem she was working on and explained were she was stuck.  I looked at the symbols on the page, listened to her explanation of the issue and realized that I knew nothing!

I decided to ask her,  “So, are there any other problems in your homework that are similar to this one that is stumping you?”

She looked at it, studied the page and replied “The one before is similar.”  I asked, “Did you complete the one before it successfully? Did you solve that one successfully?”

“Yes, I’m sure I got that one right!”  I then asked her, “So how is the one you are working on different from the similar problem that you got right?”

She looked at the problem again and said, “Ohhh”, now I‘ve got it.”

I stood up to leave the room and said,  “You’re welcome.”

She said, “For what? You didn’t do anything.”

This lesson was a powerful one for me.  I didn’t need accolades for helping her, but certainly I wanted to feel her appreciation.  I realized though that she was 16 and that it was more important for her to see that she had what it took to solve her own problem.

Often when people present us with a problem, we feel that it is now our responsibility to solve it, or at least give good advice.  It was much more empowering for her to base her solution on what she already knew, and have me trust that she could figure it out with just a bit of coaching.

Besides,  I didn’t have to fail in my attempt at solving an algebra problem.

What if we can do this with our friends and the people we work with?  Sometimes finding the right questions to get at what people already know and want is the most potent way to help.

It’s Scary Out There

By Michael Rice

scaryoutthere_mikericeSeveral years ago, when I had become a first-time parent, my son of age 4 was going through that stage of development that Judith Viorst refers to as Separation-Individuation.   Chris had already learned the first separation stage when he learned how to walk and was able to go where he wanted to go and not where others wanted him to go.  He had also learned a few years prior how to say “no” to indicate his own wants.  Yet he was still not very much aware that he needed his parents in order to survive.  He wanted to test his independence.

One night, as I was putting him to bed, he said something, which I don’t precisely recall, that indicated that he wanted to go out in the world on his own.  It was just a matter-of-fact statement he made and not one of defiance or anger.  I played along with him and asked, “Are you sure this is what you want to do?”  In his little boy voice and a nod of the head in replied, “uh huh.”  So I got his little travel case out of his closet and he and I began to pick out the clothes he thought he might want to pack for his trip out into the world.  He was very serious and seemed determined to follow through on his desire to find his own way in his own world.

We headed for the front door.  It was night so I turned on the porch light and opened the door.  Continuing to play along, I said, “Be sure to let us know where you will settle down and if you need anything, just ask, okay?  Write or call us when you find work.”  He stepped out into the darkness and I closed the door behind him yet keeping an eye on him where he couldn’t see me.

He looked around without looking back and it began to dawn on him that he had nowhere to go and no way of getter anywhere.  He sat down on the porch stoop next to his little suitcase and just looked out into the darkness for several minutes.   At the same time, I was struck with a terribly sad emotion relating to exactly what he must be feeling at this moment:  Fear and the sudden realization that he didn’t have anyone to help him as he looked into the dark abyss that awaited him. He was alone. . . a dreadful feeling for a very young child.  I was feeling it too.  He was learning that he wasn’t quite as separated and individuated from his parents as he thought.  And I, too, was realizing that I was feeling the fear of becoming separated from him . . . and not willing to do so.

I opened the door and said something to the effect of, “It’s pretty scary out there isn’t it?”  He agreed and I said, “Why don’t you come back in where it’s not so dark and scary.  I’m glad you came back.”  He came back in the house and we went back to his bedroom and I got him ready for bed and tucked him in.  I was sure glad to have him back home even though I knew he wasn’t going to go very far.

While it has been over 35 years since this happened, I remember it like it was yesterday.  In fact, I couldn’t help but recall the emotions I had at that time while writing this story.  A lump came up in my throat and tears welled up in my eyes.

Several more stages of separation-individuation occur in development that includes adolescence, college/military, and marriage and families of their own.  While it is true that our children grow up too fast, the best memories tend to be those that we have from the early years with them.  Those memories and our children are marvels to behold that will always bring joy and recollection of happy and loving times.

All The World’s A Stage

By Mike Rice

Have you ever sat down with your TV remote control and flipped through each channel looking for a movie that catches your interest?  Most people have.  Perhaps I should say most men do.  It tends to be a guy trait.  However, this is not a gender specific behavior.  Everyone does it at one time or another.


So you find something that catches your attention and you get comfortable and begin watching.  Then, in twenty minutes or less, the words, “The End” flashes upon the screen.   One’s automatic response may be, “What the heck was THAT all about?”  The reason it didn’t make much sense is because you missed the beginning and the middle.  That’s the way our lives play out in our families of origin.

In each of our lives, a lot of drama occurred before we were born.  If you don’t know the beginning or the first several acts, the family drama can be quite confusing as we observe and it not make much sense.  By trial and error, as we mature, we watch the drama all around us unfold and efforts or made to figure out what role we will play that will allow the drama to continue.  This is where creativity comes in.   Different roles that result in certain behaviors are tested to see if they will maintain the family homeostasis or upset it.  Upstaging or taking over another family member’s role will lead to resentment and conflict.  Demanding directors will also play an integral part in the roles played by new cast members and tell a member what role they will play.

The role one chooses is also designed to satisfy whatever basic needs a cast member feels may be missing in his/her life.  The greater the unmet need, the more the role or behavior is chosen to satisfy or, at least, ease the frustration, of not having the need satisfied . . . regardless of it disrupting the story line.  In such an example, a whole new story line is created by the new character’s role and more drama is added causing other family members to modify or change their roles.

Older family members don’t like changing roles.  They worked hard to create the role they’ve been playing for years.  So any of the senior cast members may often strut and fret their hour upon the stage, signifying their power by trying to control the new cast member in the family drama.

The late noted conjoint family therapist, Virginia Satir, once stated that 95% of all families are dysfunctional.  If so, then I contend the other 5% are in denial.  We are not perfect parents anymore than we are perfect humans. We learned to parent based upon how we were parented.  We all come with our roles that we developed in our own families in order to get our basic needs met and the methods used to acquire these needs are often passed along to each generation.  The roles that are created to maintain the family drama are retained by the actors to seek others in their personal relationships that will allow them to continue to perform the roles they’ve been playing for years in their family of origin.

In a balanced family, all members are allowed to be what they are innately meant to be.  They are supported for their interests and goals and assisted towards moving in a positive direction.  They are recognized as individuals with different interests, dreams, and needs separate from other members.

In a toxic family, members are told what they are going to be, when they will be it, what they will do, and how they will do it.  Strict rigid rules are prevalent in the toxic family and they may even have rules for those who break the rules.  The toxicity tends to permeate the entire family structure.  It is quite common to see many family members fare much better in life when they are not around those whose thoughts, words, and attitudes keep them stuck and prohibit their happiness.  This is a sad scenario to be sure.  Parents don’t have children with designs of purposely setting them up for a life of misery and sadness.  What a parent has learned and developed to deal with their own life is not a one size fits all approach to their children’s lives.  Thus the words of Dr. William Glasser ring loud and clear:  “If everyone could learn that what is right for me does not make it right for everyone else, the world would be a much happier place.”

Spoil the Rod; Will it Spoil the Child? (pt.2)

by Dr. Richard Primason

If you are a parent, you may find your mental health and happiness sometimes compromised during conflicts with your children. In the entry below, Dr. Primason shares a wonderful way to work through challenging situations with your children that will strengthen your relationship and result in positive mental health and happiness for both of you.

In a previous entry I talked about the hazards of punishment, and the seductive appeal of it as a “go-to”child management technique. In short, punishment really works if all you want is a compliant child, and if you’re willing to overlook some nasty side effects.

Fortunately, Choice Theory gives us an elegant alternative to the punish/reward parenting style. I think of it as the choice position, and it’s exemplified by Dr. Glasser’s profound observation about parent-child interactions:

… we can do things to our child, for our child, or with our child

–      and the first two have very little value (Choice Theory, 1998).

This third position, doing something with your child, is what I like to call the choice position.   spoilthechild

I look for the choice position in all my relationships, whenever a murky feeling tells me that a conflict is brewing. I try hard to shift my thinking away from…

I know whats best, this is how its going to be,

and instead think,

This really isn’t working well, lets come up with something better — something thats good enough for both of us.

A lot of folks find it really tough to assume the choice position, because they believe it’s their duty to point out the “right and wrong”of things to their kids. But you’ll find it’s so much more effective to respect that your child’s “bad behavior”was his best attempt at the time. From there, a connected conversation is possible; you can talk with your child about the choice she made and her options for the future.

Here’s one specific technique that operates from the choice position. I call it planning together; it’s basically an invitation to create a new plan for the future.

Neither of us are happy with this report card. Are you satisfied with how youve been studying? Im sure not. Lets come up with a better plan for this quarter.

Sneaking money from my wallet is a poor way to pay for things Ill  bet we can find a better way for you to earn some money around here.

This approach is very different from the control position,

        “Youve really messed up, now youll do things my way!

It also carries a wonderfully optimistic message, that you’re confident that the two of you can work this thing out.

Replacing punishment with planning together from a choice position is good for your relationship and it strengthens your child’s problem solving skills.

When I face a child behavior challenge, or any relationship challenge for that matter, I try hard to assume a choice position.  Planning together is a great way to do it. It resolves the present problem, it encourages my child to engage creatively, and it’s always good for my mental health and happiness.

Napping for improved Mental Health & Happiness

by Dr. Nancy Buck

As a mother of twin babies I was always sleep deprived. During the early months of care I spent my waking hours feeding, burping, bathing and diaper changing one baby only to be followed by the same routine with the next baby. It felt as though I barely sat down for a breather when I would hear hungry cries of coming from the first baby. And so I would start the routine all over again. Caring for an infant is surely an act of love and devotion.

As my babies got older the days became more fun. Our time was spent not only sleeping, eating and eliminating but were filled with great adventures and play. However, lunch time was always followed by an afternoon nap.

Whether my children needed a nap or not, I put them down to “rest.” I always needed a nap!

They are both now grown men and fathers. However, my need for a daily nap has not diminished. I’m betting the same is true for them and for YOU!

If you believe napping is too sloth-like and something you could never admit to or indulge in, then call it something else. Close your eyes, turn off your phone, and if you are in an office or cubicle put out your “Do Not Disturb” sign. Tell anyone who asks that you are meditating. Or claim this as your “creative problem solving” time.

Twenty minutes is all it takes to renew and revitalize you. Trust me, this is a much more effective and self-nurturing solution than indulging in one more cup of coffee or power drink that is filled with caffeine! There is now plenty of research to support this notion if that is what you need to convince you.

Why should kindergarten students, puppies and high powered executives who have the ability to lock the door and lay their heads on their desks be the only ones to benefit from this essential habit. Napping daily is an effective strategy for improved mental health & happiness for all!

Spare the Rod; Will it spoil the child? (Part 1)

This is a website devoted to mental health & happiness. We believe there are many general things that can be done to increase your mental health & happiness and yet, sometimes, your compromised mental health & happiness may revolve around particular difficulty with specific relationships in your life. This next blog entry is going to talk with parents who may find their children or their particular parenting style at the center of their pursuit of mental health & happiness. We hope you enjoy it.

By Richard Primason, PhD

Of course not  — giving up the switch will not leave your child soft and unprepared for the “real world.”  Research and common experience tell us that the old “reward and punish” style actually does more harm than good. But we’re just so stuck in our ways. We keep on bribing, threatening and punishing our way out of child behavior challenges. Why can’t we give up that darn rod anyway?

Let’s break this down to two important questions:

1)    Why do parents cling to punishment as a fundamental tool when better options are available?

2)    What is an alternative strategy parents can rely on when their judgement tells them that they ought to intervene?

I’ll start with number one, and save the second for another blog soon to follow.

parentingThe plain truth is, punishment is downright satisfying! When things feel out of control, a swift proclamation of authority is a big relief to an overwhelmed parent.

Go to your room! ….. You’re grounded! ….. Hand that phone over, it’s mine now!

Feel better? Well, maybe for a little while anyway. At least you feel like a responsible parent who’s doing her job.

But are these punishments effective? — Well if your stick is big enough, its not very difficult to restore order to the kingdom. But the side effects are very costly:

  • Threats and sanctions create distance in the relationship with your child, ultimately undermining your real influence.
  • The compliance you gain may be an illusion, as your child learns to be a better sneak or liar.
  • Children develop tolerance to the power play, and you’ll need a bigger and bigger stick to get the same result in the future. You won’t like the angry parent you’re becoming.

Let’s face it, this kind of control parenting is not very good for your health and happiness.

But I haven’t even mentioned the biggest problem. With a punishing approach, the only upside is order and conformity and that’s a very low bar to aim for. Don’t you want your kids to become creative social problem solvers — to effectively manage the very real dilemmas in their lives?

Do I finish the math sheets, or play XBox with my friends?

Should I take money from my dad’s wallet? My allowance is just so tiny…

Do I tell my parents that there’s likely to be drinking at the party, and risk being told I can’t go?

Control parenting does nothing to teach our kids to creatively and effectively handle these situations. All it does is teach them to look for the power, and maneuver around it. I don’t know about you, but that’s not the kind of ability I’m hoping my kids will develop.

None of us are perfect, but we don’t have to be. An occasional angry scolding or arbitrary sanction will not damage your child’s character. But if that’s all you’ve got — if that’s your go-to strategy when things get messy, then you’re settling for a lot less than what you could be providing as a parent.

In the next entry, I’ll describe a better alternative.

Play your way to Mental Health & Happiness

By Dr. Nancy Buck

Not long ago I had the privilege of observing a mother and her two young children grocery shopping. One child was strapped into the carriage seat. The other looked to be age 5-years or so. This amazing mother walked down one aisle of the store, looking for her needed items. Then she paused, took the baby out of the seat standing him next to the carriage, and all three of them began to “boogie” to the piped in store muzak. The session didn’t last too long, but wasn’t just a moment either. It was amazing! I continued to follow them up and down a couple of more aisles just to watch. Their same practice continued. Sometime the Mom felt inspired for some twists and jig steps. Sometimes it was one or the other of the children. But whoever felt the urge and the beat got to call a “dance” time out to incorporate play into their chore. They were all in great joy and bliss. I’m only sorry now I didn’t go and join them. They were so happy in their own private dance party in the grocery store.

Recently I read about a new aerobic exercise created by a New Yorker. He was inspired observing another fellow. This guy was “plugged into” his music and danced along the streets of New York. Our inventor recognized the perfect kind of aerobic activity for him. He started practicing that very day, carrying a boom-box on his shoulder so others could hear his music and beat. Sometimes he met people walking along the same sidewalk with him and they would join him in the dance. Other times he was alone, happy to be dancing and singing! I’m ready to give this a try on the streets of Denver, Colorado!

Can you imagine your work day including breaks where dancing and singing, sitting on the floor and eating cookies and milk with your friends, and playing outside is the norm? Can you imagine how refreshed you would be to return to your work following any one of these breaks? Your productivity and creativity would grow exponentially, as long as you could avoid any feelings of embarrassment or inhibition about your playful behavior in front of your colleagues.

If you want to improve you Mental Health & Happiness play more. Your play does not have to include dancing only. You can sing. You can juggle. Ask a friend/colleague to play catch with you using a balloon, helium or no. Learn to ride a unicycle. Start singing like Elvis, or any other singing hero you desire to imitate.

Let a 4-year old be your guide. In fact, go visit a preschool and watch how they spend their days. We need to incorporate more dancing, singing, marching and snack time with friends into our daily routines too.