|Photo credit: RetinaFunk|
Thursday, December 31, 2015
At some point in the life of a parent, he or she will (hopefully) have a conversation about sex with his or her child. This is frequently a terrifying experience for a parent as parents believe that this conversation will dictate whether the child will have a healthy sex life or not. Effective communication WITH (as opposed to ‘at’) children about sex and other things does have a strong influence on how functional those dimensions are in a child’s life. This blog, however, is not about that initial conversation. This is about the little things that come up in everyday life where a parent has to set boundaries because the children are not old enough for one thing or another.
In many households the discussion about which activities, words, and movies are appropriate or inappropriate has happened already or is happening right now. Often we as parents portray this as, “those are bad things (or not good for you) that you can’t do until you’re older”.
A child once asked me why his parents were allowed to watch movies with violence and cursing but he was not. It’s an awesome question and here is why: We work so hard at making sure our children are living within the boundaries that have been established in their lives. Those boundaries might be set by us, their parents, by their school, or by other authorities in their lives. Then all of a sudden when our child reaches some point where we feel like we’ve lost control then he is allowed to do all these sorts of things that we have told her are bad. I suggest that the message we are sending is that you have to behave, work hard, have morals, refrain from bad things, etc. until you are 18 or so and then it’s a free for all of debauchery with no self-control necessary. In other words, “be good until you’re 18 then you can be as bad as the devil.”
I have found in my work that people are afraid to impose their own boundaries without backing them up with some external source. If you don’t know what I’m talking about just call customer service of your least favorite airline and they will say, “I’m sorry but our system does not allow us to do anything that would make your life even marginally easier.” Instead of just saying, “I don’t want to help you, even though I could, I’m just not going to.”
In my experience parents do this as well. In spite of all of the self-help books and amazing blogs by Ari Hoffman that you have read, there are extremely few hard and fast rules to parenting or life at all. Parents can establish boundaries based on what they think they are supposed to do or they can take a step back and think about it. Have you ever asked yourself why you don’t allow your child to swear? Or why you don’t allow your child to watch violent movies? Or why you would make your child cover her eyes during a semi-erotic scene that seems to fill PG-13 movies nowadays?
Instead of just saying what you remember your parents saying, think about it. Why make these boundaries? Is it possible that a lot of these things are not bad? Maybe they’re even good, but maybe they’re not good for kids? Maybe your kids who still lack life experience, are still learning good decision making skills, are working on being a little less impulsive, are not ready for the stuff that we as adults allow ourselves to enjoy. These things are not bad. They’re good. They just might not be good for everyone. Just like I can very safely sip a shot of Laphroiag but should be careful about playing video games because if I owned a video game system my family would never see me again, so too someone else can buy an Xbox but doesn’t drink because he knows that one shot might quickly lead to an unhealthy amount.
Good decisions are made, not because everyone else made the same one and so should I. No, good decisions are made with consideration and attention.
So I call out to you, my fellow parents, you will contribute to your children's dysfunctions and you will contribute to their most beautiful qualities. Make your parenting decisions with intention and exercise them with confidence. There is no need to say that “smoking weed on New Years Eve is bad and so I’m allowed to and you’re not because you’re a child.” Rather, “when you are older and have more wisdom and experience then you can make your own decisions too, and for now I make decisions for you and I want you to have more life experience and wisdom before you get baked.”
If you or someone you know might benefit from working with me on increasing your confidence and efficacy as a parent, you can contact me by phone at 303-803-4832 or email at email@example.com.
I look forward to hearing from you and happy new year.
Ari Hoffman MA, LPC
Tuesday, August 11, 2015
As the summer comes to a close emotions are generated in special intensity. Children experience a formidable mixture of excitement, apprehension, and dread as the beginning of the school year draws near. A similarly potent mixture of relief and some regret is building in the hearts of parents as the knowledge that soon the days will be theirs again competes with “I can’t believe that little Sophie is going in to 5th grade!”
In my years of working with children throughout the pages of the calendar I have noticed an interesting phenomenon. Psychopathology is often school specific. This is sad to me and it suggests that schools need to pay attention to what might be making kids crazy, or worse, what might be causing them so much pain. But that is a conversation for another time and place.
The matter at hand is what can kids and parents do now, a few days before school, to prevent the development of that pathology.
A great man, Rabbi Noach Orlowek, suggests that we prepare in advance for the crisis so then when the crisis happens we will be able to respond calmly and not be totally reactive.
|Photo Credit: Johansena16|
Let’s take a page out of the book of firefighters. If you have ever been in a fire station when the alarm goes off you may have noticed that the firefighters don’t run around flapping their arms like a bunch of prepubescent girls screeching, “Fire!! Fire!!”. They calmly and quickly get their boots and pants on, grab their coats and helmets and get on the truck ready to do their jobs. This calm and proactive reaction to the alarm is the result of many hours of training and study so that when the emergency occurs they know exactly what to do and they don't panic.
It is therefore my personal and professional recommendation that parents and caregivers find a moment before school starts to initiate this type of conversation. Take your kid out for some ice cream and start like this, “Johnny, do you remember that when you get assigned homework you often have an apoplectic fit that usually ends up in one of my ornamental unicorns getting broken?”
Johnny nods with his mouth full of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.
“Do you enjoy apoplectic fits?”
Johnny predictably shakes his head.
“When you’re done with your ice cream can we talk about ways you might avoid apoplectic fits and I can keep my unicorn collection intact? I’m happy to help support you but you know I can’t do it on my own because I only have apoplectic fits when my lacrosse team loses. You can only help yourself and I can support you.”
Johnny nods his head again.
A meaningful conversation ensues where you both discuss ways that Johnny might be able to proactively address his issues with homework and ways that he can effectively implement these changes in his life.
If you or someone you know would like support in this area please don’t hesitate to contact me.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-803-4832
My children are perfect because I'm a psychotherapist.
You didn’t know?
All therapists have perfect children because we are perfect parents.
|Photo Credit Dan Dilworth|
My father is a therapist and I and my brothers were perfect children (I hope no one who knows my family is reading this)
I have a bridge in New York I think you should buy.
I often wonder if the parents of the kids I work with are curious about my children. Do you think my children are perfect? Do you think my children never talk back or misbehave? How about this dastardly thought…do you think there are never times that I’d like to drop my kids at the firehouse?
At the initial psychotherapy session I assure the parents of kids I am working with that I am not winning any parenting awards. I also often commiserate with them and tell them my kid did the very same thing they are expressing their concerns to me about.
I heard a great line many years ago that, when repeated to parents, never fails to garner knowing head nods. “There are two different types of parents, those who beat their children and those who don’t. But we all think about it.”
It occurred to me one day that in spite of the fact that I am not winning any parenting awards I am doing a great job connecting with the kids that I’m working with. Then the next thought that occurred to me was, “I find it so enjoyable to connect professionally with children who are not my own, why do I have to work so hard to connect to my children? I don’t want to be that therapist who does great with everyone else’s kids but can’t deal with his own. But that’s what it feels like sometimes.”
I also sometimes feel guilty in session when I am playing or talking with a child or teenager and her father or mother is in the room and I accomplish more in a 45 minute conversation than his parents have accomplished in the last year with regard to establishing rapport and getting the secrets out. I wonder what I would feel like if I was that father. Would I be so sad that my child decided to let everything out in front of a stranger who says he can be trusted but he wouldn’t tell me half of that stuff? I think I would be sad, I might even cry.
And then I go home and my 10 year old seems to not really want to talk and when she does I find myself zoning out.
Oh my gosh! I didn’t want to be that dad! The dad who does not make himself fully present and mindful for every word his children say!
I’m working on an idea that I would like to share with you, my dear reader.
I think that when children open up and tell their secrets it is less about the child and more about the listener. When I sit down with a young person I make eye contact, I show her that I genuinely care, and I also convey the message that she can say anything she wants to and I will not judge her. “It might be too tough for your parents, teachers, and friends to handle, but not me, I got it.”
I can handle it because she’s not my kid. I care about her as I do all of my clients but she does not represent the future of my hopes and dreams and so I am able to open up more and be less critical of what she says.
When my daughter complains I think to myself, “why is she always focusing so much on the negative? Why can’t she focus on the positive? I need to teach her to focus more on the positive.” And then I open my big mouth and start responding whether or not she is done with her sentence. When a 10 year old client starts complaining I lean forward and use non-verbal cues to indicate that not only am I listening but I’m understanding and empathizing with him. I am making him feel like he is the only person in the world and the last thing I want is to change him. I also don’t interrupt him. These are the ingredients that compel anyone, child or adult, to open up and confide.
“Hooray! Someone is just listening to me, not trying to change me and not judging me! It’s awesome!”
A great Rabbi, Shlomo Carlebach, when he was alive, would often use the formula of “I bless you and me” implying that he wanted or needed the blessing as much as the benedictees he was speaking to. I will take the liberty of doing the same thing here.
I bless you and me that we should be able to really open our hearts and minds and listen to our children. There are times when parents must direct their children, that is a big and important part of our job as parents. And then there are times when we must pull back a bit and listen with mindful attentiveness and convey to our children the message, “I love you just for who you are, I want to hear from you, I recognize that you are a supremely beautiful being and I don’t want to change your essence at all.” And through that open and empathic listening our children should understand that their parents care more deeply for them than any therapist ever could even though the therapist is sometimes helpful and even necessary.
When a child is opening her heart to me in front of her mother I could feel guilty but that would be completely missing the point. This moment represents an opportunity. In about 45 minutes this experience will be over and this family will go back to their home, work, school, life. I may or may not see them in a week or two. While the child may remember the nice feeling of being able to open up to me it is only half of my job. The other and even more challenging half is to slowly remove myself and replace me with mom or dad or whomever loves this child. The opportunity is that I can move from being the primary recipient of the open heart to being a conduit that guides the beautiful soul material from the child to the parent because in the end I don't heal or fix anyone, my job is to facilitate healing that can be self promoting and self perpetuating.
If you or anyone you know could benefit from further exploration please contact me at email@example.com or 303-803-4832.
Monday, June 15, 2015
The Talmud says that the true measure of a person can be understood by 3 things:
1. How that person uses money
2. What that person does when he is angry
3. What that person does when he is drunk
I’d like to humbly suggest one more thing. Failure.
How a person responds to failure is an intriguing barometer of self esteem, confidence, and hope.
|Photo Credit: Paxson Woelber|
Working on succeeding is great but working on failure is really valuable because as Winston Churchill so beautifully pointed out, “success is going from one failure to another without loss of enthusiasm.”
If you are deciding to read on in the hopes that I will uncover secrets about how to fail well, I am not a diet plan and therefore have no expensive secrets to uncover. I may provide an approach though, a different perspective through which to view your failures.
A great man named Rabbi Noach Orlowek, once said: “hard is not bad, it just means it takes time”.
In my parenting of my children and in my psychotherapy work with children (not the same children) I have discovered a tendency for some kids to say sometimes, “I can’t do it”. This is because they’ve tried to do something whether it be related to a therapeutic challenge, building something out of lego, or climbing a rock (or on to my car), and they’ve failed. They fall, they can’t build it, or they’ve failed to control anger yet again. I enjoy when this happens because it is a wonderful opportunity for children to build self esteem.
The first thing is to remove the word “can’t”. I tell the child, “I expect you can and you need to work on it some more in order to do so.” In therapy this often works well because I am not the child’s parent so she is less likely to argue with me or throw a tantrum. She tries another few times and maybe she gets stuck in a rut trying to do the same thing over again.
While I’m sure this line is already ringing in your ears, I will present it here anyway because it is one of my favorites. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.” (This line is often attributed to Einstein but I have heard that it is a misattribution).
If she gets stuck in a rut then my job as a parent and therapist (yes there is dangerous overlap to these roles) is to help her get herself out of the rut, but not do it for her. This teaches the child that she has the ability to do it herself and it also teaches her that sometimes accepting help is necessary.
The lessons of working with children can be readily applied to our own lives. When I’ve failed yet again and I am tempted to say, “I can’t do this”, let me remember that I don’t let my children say that. When I have found myself in a rut and doing the same thing over and over again and seeing failure each time let me remember that when I see children doing this it is an opportunity to facilitate imagination and growth. Let me also always remember that it takes a great person to not need help from anyone, but one who asks for help when it is needed is a much greater person.
If you want to fail better get in touch and I'll help, but you know I won't do it for you.
Thursday, June 11, 2015
I have rules.
They’re actually not that scary but I like the look on people’s faces, especially teenagers, when I tell them I have rules.
One of the most important parts of the therapy relationship happens right at the beginning before any counseling is done or healing is facilitated. It is called informed consent.
Informed consent means that you (the client) and me (the psychotherapist) are on the very same page as we enter in to this relationship together. You will know what I expect from you and how much you will pay for the service I provide. You will know what kind of behavior is ok and what kind is not ok from both of us. You sign a piece of paper indicating that you understand what we’ve discussed and I sign another copy of the same piece of paper and we trade.
Informed consent has legal and ethical implications and it also represents my desire that you do not enter in to this intimate therapy relationship with me unless you are doing it with intention and awareness.
There are legal rules covered in informed consent and those include confidentiality and its limitations and the fact that sexual intimacy is never appropriate in a professional relationship.
Then there are my rules:
1. I expect you to work hard.
I don’t want my clients to waste hard earned money and valuable time coming to therapy so they can say they have a Jewish therapist who has a funny looking hand. I also don’t want my clients to think we’re going to just shoot the breeze. We might do some breeze shooting and we might talk about my hand but when you come to therapy with me I will challenge you. I will say things that might shake your foundation a little or maybe even a lot. Sometimes therapy is fun and sometimes I will challenge you. You always have the option to accept or deny a challenge but if you accept it I expect you to work it hard. Failure is always an option and I won’t try to make you feel guilty if you fail (you are good enough at making yourself feel guilty, I don’t need to do it for you). I will initiate a discussion about it and we’ll talk about it. We’ll talk about what it feels like to fail and succeed and we’ll talk about how to make it work better next time. My challenges are gently strong and I try to push just hard enough to the point of discomfort but not pain. If you feel like I’m pushing too hard then I want you to tell me to stop.
2. I expect you to tell me when I’m wrong.
When I was a teenager my therapist who is a great guy and a good therapist said something that was so off, all I could do was stare at him. This therapist has a particular affinity for Freud and sometimes he flies that flag big and tall. I had told him about a dream I had which I don’t remember now but was probably pretty mundane and did not include my mother at all. He responded, “Ari, I think this means that you want your mother to .[do something really inappropriate]”
I was amazed. I didn’t quite know how to respond but I think I just started laughing and said, "I think you are completely and totally off and you’re a pervert." We had a good therapy relationship and he owned it and apologized. I understand that the therapy relationship needs to build before you will feel comfortable telling me I’m wrong but it’s really important that you do. I am not an expert in you. You are. So if I say something and it feels incorrect for you then it’s important that you let me know. We’ll talk about it and I hope you’ll be patient enough to give me another try because just like my therapist, sometimes I’m wrong too.
3. I don’t accept “I don’t know” as an answer
This is a special rule I use for teenagers but sometimes for adults as well. In my years of experience as a psychotherapist I have found when I ask a question that needs some thought or causes some discomfort I often get the response, “I don’t know”. This is not true. You probably do know but either the topic makes you uncomfortable or you don’t want to take the energy to think about it. If you say “I don’t know” I will still like you and I won’t get mad at you, I will just ask you again or remind you that “I don’t know” doesn’t work. I challenge you, my client, to instead tell me, “Ari, that question makes me uncomfortable and I don’t want to talk about it.” I will gently thank you and applaud you for being honest with me and for advocating for yourself. The only time I accept the answer “I don’t know” is if I ask a math question because the chances are that I don’t know the answer either.
If you’ve read through these rules and are totally turned off then give me a call anyway. I know some other great therapists you might want to try. However, if when you look through these rules you find yourself getting excited about the possibilities of growing yourself in therapy with me then please drop me a line. I look forward to working with you.
Wednesday, June 10, 2015
One might think that the most common question asked of a psychotherapist might be, “what was your wildest case?” If so I might answer with the story of the woman who enjoyed putting cream of wheat in her hair or the angry five year old who attacked a police officer.
Another question someone might ask of a therapist is “do you ever get really bored with your client’s problems?” If so I would answer that I’ve never been bored, I’ve had other reactions but I find people and how they deal with their problems fascinating and I’ve never been bored.
|Photo Credit: Eamon Curry|
No, the most common question I hear from friends about my job as a psychotherapist is, “how do you deal with hearing everybody’s problems?”
It’s a great question and an important one. It’s a question therapists are often asked when they are applying for a job which will likely be high stress. In that setting the question is changed to, “what do you do for self care?”
When I first started my career as a therapist I would say something really healthy and wholesome like, “I eat well and I exercise and sometimes I meditate.” There is some truth to that. I do try generally to eat well and I do exercise a bit, though certainly not enough, and I probably meditate once or twice per month even though I wish I did it more.
My honest answer to this common question is, “I don’t really know”. It depends on the day and how I’m feeling physically and mentally.
I’ve had more and less healthy coping mechanisms in my life but in general I do something that makes me feel good and when I’m being more healthy I engage in something I find beautiful and/or fun.
The less healthy stress relievers in my life have generally been food oriented. There was a time that on my way driving home from work I would stop at the grocery store and buy a jar of pickles and finish them by the time I got home about 20 minutes later. You can imagine my doctor was not particularly happy about this. I can proudly say that I haven’t done that in a long time but I do drink soda sometimes or buy a candy bar. Less healthy stuff also includes watching movies and playing video games. These are not inherently bad for me but I count them in the unhealthy category because I sometimes feel kind of grouchy afterward.
In the healthy category I include exercising but more as a prophylactic. It is somewhat rare that I will have a tough day and go for a walk or run to chill out afterward. However, I have noticed that I am a better therapist (and husband and father) in general when exercise is a normal part of my life. I feel the same way about sleep. Sometimes I listen to loud music and play the drums. Yes, this therapist is a drummer (sometimes I even wear a long hair wig so I can make believe I play for an early 80’s band). Even the healthy category includes eating but it’s something more nutritious than a jar of pickles. My wife makes many delicious foods and among my favorites are Israeli salad with tons of lemon juice and garlic salt (my mouth is watering already), and she also makes a wonderful hot & sour soup which is nothing short of brilliant.
So there you have it, you’ve been wondering how I could possibly handle listening to people’s pain and suffering all day and now you have a little more insight in to how it all works.
If you have more questions for a therapist send me an email and I will publish your question and answer anonymously so no one will know you asked it. I’ll do that right after I finish eating my pickles and watching Das Boot.
Sunday, March 22, 2015
I was recently jones-ing for a fix of Benedict Cumberbatch in the show, “Sherlock”. I always feel smarter and more cunning after watching an episode of this screen tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As I was watching the show, I was trying to understand why I like it so much. I think the reason is, in part, because of Sherlock’s spontaneous and totally inconsiderate wit (I like the show, “House” as well, probably for the same reason.)
On the other hand, I have strong negative feelings toward the absolute lack of spontaneity exhibited by customer service representatives who read from a script. So negative, in fact, that images of heinous crimes seem to spontaneously float in to my head when I am talking to said representatives. It’s even worse when they can’t read well.
(I suppose it is ironic that both the things I enjoy and those I dislike are from a script. Feel free to analyze that and let me know what you come up with.)
The sociometric reality which we inhabit with the rest of humanity is like a jigsaw puzzle with infinite shapes, colors, pieces, and potential attachments. The feeling of well-being and satisfaction when our piece fits with someone else’s is quite apparent as is the discomfort when the pieces just don’t match.
|Photo Credit: Justin Henry|
The nature of a jigsaw puzzle piece is that it sticks out in some places and also has voids to be filled by surrounding pieces. That reality dictates that if you put a square in to the mix of puzzle pieces, despite his perfection and smoothness he has no place among the jumble of his more unevenly shaped peers.
The protrusions and vacancies in the pieces are what enable a child to find the places where the puzzle pieces fit.
So too in our world. Our assets and deficiencies are what enable us to live with others. Your energetic protrusions fit well with my energetic vacancies and we develop a relationship. I have not gained anything by camouflaging all of the things that make me an individual rather I have only created a scenario where I can be discarded from social interaction because there is nothing to be done with me, I am a square piece.
Spontaneity is defined as “performed or occurring as a result of a sudden inner impulse or inclination…”. Practicing spontaneity is one of those things that help us show up as we are with our assets and deficiencies.
So just be yourself ;-)
Ok, that was so trite I almost got sick. I’ve heard that all my life and the cheerful suggestion always irritated me because I’ve never been quite sure who I am and so I am similarly not sure how to be myself. However, in spite of not really knowing what it means to “be yourself” it usually doesn’t take me too long to realize when I am doing something or thinking in a particular way which is not congruent with me. I can’t always say why that is but I can usually feel the negative vibe of when I’m being someone I’m not.
Similarly I usually have some level of discomfort when I am not being or doing something that would be congruent with who I am.
This can all be boiled down in to one slightly uncomfortable question. When you are feeling uncomfortable with your own behavior, whether active or abstaining, ask yourself: why?
I challenge you to be brave and answer the question honestly but this means that you don’t stop at the first answer. Get your first answer but then apply the question of ‘why’ to that answer as well. Follow the trail down the rabbit hole and see what you find. I think you might find a key to accessing your spontaneity.
As usual, if you or someone you know would like to explore this further then give me a call. 303-803-4832
Best wishes for discovering your protrusions and vacancies.
Ari Hoffman MA LPC
Thursday, February 12, 2015
First, a note of apology: It has obviously been quite a while since I’ve posted or sent anything to you my dear reader. The prerequisites to my writing are inspiration and time. Both of these must be present or nothing happens at all. Most of you have probably heard that, with thanks to G-D, my family welcomed a new baby about 2 months ago. My son gives us much pride and pleasure however he takes a lot of time. I hope you enjoy this post.
My daughter Batya was the first to bring to my attention the article in the Wall Street Journal titled, Princess Bedrooms that Rule. She exclaimed to me one morning a few days ago, “Abba! Somebody spent $200,000 on a bedroom for a two year old! That’s crazy!”
I appreciate my daughter’s perspective on the world that she could see this without envy but with a sentiment similar to mine when I read the article, (that IS crazy!)
The newspaper was left in the bathroom and every time I passed by it I saw the picture of two little girls jumping on a very large and very pink bed with their smiling mother looking at the camera. When I read the whole article I was particularly intrigued by a statement from a father about the kind of bedroom he wanted for his daughters, he said “I just wanted to do something that would give them a sense of identity and excitement and to create a place for their imaginations.
The images and thoughts were percolating in my mind until one day while holding my son and trying to use the facilities at the same time (at around 6:00am) it occurred to me that one of two likely outcomes would result from creating such a lavish bedroom for a child. 1)That child would grow up to commit suicide or 2)The child would find and latch on to some sort of physically transcendent spirituality. The very wealthy are pretty easy to pick on and my gratitude goes out to them for this.
I mentioned this early morning insight to my wife and she naturally wanted an explanation for such dire predictions. I explained that it appears to me that people cannot sustain that level of utter physicality. This was therefore my prediction that the child growing up in this environment would eventually be so depressed by the lack of substance that she would either kill herself or commit to rising above physicality and finding those elements of life that transcend her princess themed bedroom with a castle.
I was also thinking about the statement of the gentleman who expressed concern about his daughters’ sense of identity and creativity.
He should have built them a little cabin in the woods.
In my experience, the creativity of children is stimulated by being in an environment full of opportunities but with no prescribed activities. Don’t get me wrong, playgrounds are great places to play and run around but if you really want to provide a blank slate for your child put them in an environment where they can explore their inner and outer world virtually unimpeded. Here are a few vehicles I have found that seem to promote expression of creativity particularly well: snow, sand, building blocks, water, and the wilderness (which often has all of the others).
I recently had an experience that helped solidify the aforementioned beliefs. First, a few weeks ago it snowed over the weekend in Denver and our family was in the house for most of over 24 hours. We were all getting a bit stir crazy and finally on Saturday night I realized I had to do something drastic. I told my two girls to get their snow stuff on and I threw them out of the house in to a very cold and snowy night. They were out there for over an hour trying (in vain because Denver usually has very dry snow) to make a snowman. Both girls were quite disappointed when I told them that it was time to come in. I was quite proud of them,
That is juxtaposed to the look I see on my daughters' faces after I have allowed them to watch a movie or t.v. show, even for 20 minutes. The eyes are glazed, psychomotor retardation sets in, and they are often irritable. Maybe that's just my kids though...
In sum, if you want your children to be creative then let them...but don't try to do it for them.