Growing Families Strong
Sometimes, clichés can be true – our children don’t come with an instruction manual. Even if there were instructions, they would quickly be made obsolete as today’s parents face new and different challenges than ever before. Modern parenting doesn’t resemble anything from even 10 years ago with the meteoric rise of social media, constant contact over the internet, and constantly evolving beliefs about how to “properly” raise and empower our children. The best parents can do is prepare them for the world and give them the skills and tools to adapt to any situation. But it is often difficult to know what the best parenting decision is in the moment.
Our children are our legacy in this world. Our resources, time, and attention are focused centrally on our children for years until they are ready to experience and navigate the world on their own. Many of us hope to chart a new pathway for them that will be better than our own childhood journey. Those of us with traumatic experiences with our own families of origin are especially sensitive to helping our children grow into flourishing adults.
A New Generation
However, our children face a world that is far more complex and treacherous than ever. The statistics for adolescent mental health in America paint a troubling picture. Mood disorders are now rampant. Depression and anxiety are no longer conditions that begin in adulthood – 1 out of 5 American children 6-17 years old experience a mental health disorder. Depression effects children a full decade earlier than it did a generation ago. According to acclaimed psychologist, Dr. Martin Seligman, severe depression is ten times more prevalent today than it was fifty years ago and affects women twice as often as men. In addition, children are reporting clinical depression a full decade earlier than they did a generation ago.
The roots of a depressive outlook toward life are often deep and take root in childhood. Dr. Martin Seligman reports that a pessimistic attitude can become a defining principle in children that lasts into adulthood especially in a world that is often discouraging and invalidating. Dr. Seligman explains in his landmark book “The Optimistic Child” how, “Pessimism is an entrenched habit of mind that has sweeping and disastrous consequences: depressed mood, resignation, underachievement, and even unexpectedly, poor [physical] health. Pessimism is not shaken in the natural course of life’s ups and downs. Rather, it hardens with each setback and soon becomes self-fulfilling. America is in the midst of an epidemic of pessimism and is suffering its most serious consequence, depression.”
Medication vs Therapy
Once we notice that our child seems sad, withdrawn, and anxious, many of us turn to the medical world to diagnose and treat the emerging mental health condition. Well-meaning physicians can offer our child a mood disorder diagnosis along with a prescription for an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication. While medication can give some relief from the intensity and acute expression of the negative emotions and behaviors, medication alone rarely fixes the foundational problems of troubled thoughts, problematic behaviors, and a lack of emotion self-regulation skills.
The thinking patterns that generate and sustain the mood disorder must be addressed fundamentally. Our children must learn new, more effective skills to process what they are feeling in the moment and to regulate their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors more skillfully. Medication is often a useful tool that makes the learning and integration of skills more effective, but it is not a substitute for therapy and changing how we think and feel.
Believing In Ourselves
Gearing Up is deeply committed to helping children, teens, and their parents learn the most important coping skills and strategies to deal with intense emotions. Our DBT programs emphasize a proactive, educational, and skills-based approach to mental health disorders. By first accepting and managing our emotions in the moment, we are able to stabilize and calm down. Once we have stabilized our emotions, we can use active coping skills to decrease the intense emotional pain and suffering that often accompanies depression and anxiety.
A central benefit of DBT emotion regulation skills for children and teens is that they are in charge of their own change and development. Not only are they able to understand and navigate their own difficult emotions, they can choose a skill to use and change their mood in the moment. They do not have to credit a medication or external source for their improvement. They learn that they are able to manage and influence their own life because they can now exercise their DBT skills when they need to regain emotional self-control and behavioral regulation. Anxiety and depression plummet as they begin to believe in themselves more and more each day.
Dedicated parents not only want their kids to be happy today, they want to teach their children the skills that will help them build a successful life into adulthood. They also hope to establish the kind of relationship that is full of trust and love that lasts the rest of their lives. However, the challenges of our childhood and adolescence can compromise even the best of family relationships.
Parents are expected to teach their children how to behave in myriad situations both while growing up and as an adult. They must teach their child how to manage themselves at school, in the family, with peers, and with the world in general. They must coach their child how to respond to setbacks, fight through adversity, and heal from heartbreak. Often, children misunderstand their parents attempts at coaching and mentorship as being critical or even adversarial, particularly if the child is intensely emotional or regularly overreacts. Even the most well-intentioned parents can be misunderstood as hurtful, shaming, and invalidating.
Negative beliefs and explanations that are created in childhood can become solidified if left unchallenged. They are applied to all situations with the parents and family to explain any discomfort, whether it’s accurate or not. The child may scapegoat the parents and rewrite the entire history of the relationship, project false intentions, and imagine events and conversations that never happened. Beliefs that are negative, inaccurate, and self-excusing can be extremely compelling. These negative beliefs can become a convenient explanation in the child’s mind to explain their own mistakes and shift the blame for their lack of success to external sources. Often, these deeply held beliefs go completely unchallenged. As a result, the negative perspective is reinforced day after day, year after year. Once the child enters adulthood, the parents often lack any influence. This narrow window of influence often continues the parental cycle of helplessness and despair. It can be deeply traumatizing for well-meaning families.
The bottom line is that parenting children with emotional intensity requires an entirely different approach. The strategies and beliefs of mainstream parenting are often completely ineffective or worse cause further division. Parenting these emotionally intense children requires a highly disciplined and skilled approach with dedicated coaching from professionals.
What To Watch Out For
Here are a few common issues with emotionally intense children and teens:
Falling Behind: Coping skills are not built into our genetics. They are learned. For children with emotional intensity issues, these skills do not unfold organically and they may struggle to learn them from the usual sources. Despite our best efforts to support and coach them, their heightened emotional sensitivity may become a permanent disadvantage in their growth and development. Emotionally dysregulated kids fall further and further behind in emotion regulation skills, and they are often unable to catch up without dedicated training and coaching with a professional.
Emotional Storms: Anger, resentment, anxiety, and despair are common symptoms of a child who is struggling with emotional intensity. Once they enter a state of emotional extremes, they often are completely lost and have no idea how to calm down. They are only able to ride the waves of intense feelings until the storm finally breaks. Many parents have no idea what to do or how to help an emotionally volatile child. They fall back on solutions that work in other social situations including arguing against the intense emotions, commanding their child to calm down, ignoring or avoiding the emotional situation, and even angrily dismissing or ridiculing the child.
Running Away Emotionally: Emotionally intense kids can also distance themselves from their parents and siblings in an attempt to clearly define themselves. They may convince themselves that their parents are sabotaging them and their attempts to “be happy.” Often, they throw themselves headfirst into deeply intense relationships with friends and romantic interests in an effort to make a life outside the family. If they end up with the wrong crowd, they can derail an otherwise gifted life and promising future.
Traumatic Loss For Parents: Since parents work so hard to manage, coach, and champion their emotionally intense child, their rejection in adolescence and adulthood can be devastating. Many parents feel like their child is now a new person that they don’t know or understand. If they have no connection or line of communication, the relationship may be functionally over for good. Indeed, these kinds of feelings of betrayal and hopelessness can be traumatic and lead to deep despair and immobilization.
The Growing Families Strong Approach
Gearing Up’s Growing Families Strong program is a new approach to working with parents of emotionally intense children. We will help you not only understand your child’s current challenges with emotional intensity, but we also teach you how to effectively parent them through childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood. We use strategies and skills from over thirty years of private practice clinical experience from two of the top psychologists in North Texas.
We present concepts and lessons from therapy systems and evidence-based treatments including the Collaborative Parenting system by Dr. Ross Green, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy by Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) by Dr. Marsha Linehan. Our clinical team presents this vital information while explaining how to implement these invaluable skills into your parenting and communication habits every day. Our central focus is on establishing and strengthening your lifelong bond with your child to promote growth and success for years to come.
Here is a preview of the curriculum of Gearing Up’s Growing Families Strong Program:
Building the Relationship
• How to Think Dialectically
• How Parents Often Swing Between Freedom and Control
• Acceptance and Change
• Empathy Even When They Are Inaccurate
• Validation – What It Is and What It Isn’t
• The Six Levels of Validation in DBT
• Using Validation Effectively in Parenting
• Reestablishing Respect for Both Sides
• Reinforcing A Perception of Caring and Concern
• Concept of Effective Means in Parenting
• Why We Must Be Mindful Parents
How Negative Cycles Begin
• The Biological Vulnerability to Intense Emotions
• Invalidating Environments
• Negative Parenting Cycles
• Trauma and Intense Emotions
• Understanding Emotional Vulnerability
• How Self-Invalidation Happens
• Unrelenting Crises
• Inability to Grieve
• Active Passivity
• Apparent Competence
The Basics of DBT
• Core Mindfulness Skills
• Wise Mind, Reason Mind, and Emotion Mind
• The What Skills
• The How Skills
• Pausing with Observe & Describe Skills
• Doing and Being Minds
• Distress Tolerance Skills
• Concept of Decentering for Parents
• Six Crisis Skills
• Reality Acceptance Skills
• Emotion Regulation Skills
• Understanding and Naming Emotions Review
• Changing Unwanted Emotions Review
• Reducing Vulnerability to Emotion Mind Review
• Managing Extreme Emotions Review
• Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills
• Completing Objectives While Maintaining Relationships and Self-Respect
• Balancing Acceptance and Change in Relationships
• Dialectics and Validation
• Resetting with Mindfulness
• What Are Thoughts Really?
• How Negative Thoughts are Created and Maintained
• Neuroscience and the Negativity Bias
• Common Thinking Errors
• Checking the Facts
• Explanatory View, Assumptions, and Beliefs
• Using Cognitive Restructuring
• Reestablishing Perspective
• The Possible vs The Probable
• Evaluating Worries
• Team Problem Solving Skills
• Applying Effective Means
• Mindfulness & Emotions
• How Understanding Emotions Increases Self-Regulation
• How Emotions Get Ahead of Skills
• How Emotions are Generated and Sustained
• Tracking the Emotional Journey
• The Pros and Cons of Intense Emotions
• How to Identify and Decipher Confusing Emotions
• Mentoring the Skills of Decentering and Pausing
• Reinforcing Accuracy in Emotional Self-Regulation
• Opposite Action
• Problem Solving
• Cognitive Disputation
• Contingency Management
• Breaking the Cycle Before Conflict
Effective Communication Skills
• Getting Ahead of the Interpersonal Problem
• Building Our Plan
• Goals in Interpersonal Situations
• Mindfulness of Others
• Context and Timing for Successful Conversations
• DBT Strategies for Effective Communication
• DEAR MAN Skills for Achieving Our Goals In Relationships
• GIVE Skills for Improving Our Relationships
• FAST Skills for Building Our Self-Respect In Relationships