Your Brain on Trauma

WIN_20180508_11_48_41_ProThe human brain is so very complex.  One tiny change can make a tremendous difference, much like a computer.  For example, when I lived in Ireland, I worked for a company that utilized a rather complex software program to manage revenue from various business sectors.  In this system, it was important to right click and select paste rather than use “ctrl V”.  After years of training my brain to use “ctrl V” it seemed near impossible to remember to right click and select paste.

I was a serious nightmare for our IT department in the UK.  When a user used “ctrl V” they would lose an important function in the program which could only be restored by calling over to the team in the UK.  No.  This is not a story about being the annoying employee who called for help all the time, though I am sure that was also the case.  Whenever I used “ctrl V”, I was corrupting the database’s data.  Where?  That’s a good question!  We did not know exactly where.  Reports would be generated, and the numbers would be wrong.  The client would ask why numbers did not match.  Other reporting problems would crop up.  My little mistake created big problems due to the ripple effect of one little command.

That can also be true for our brains when a traumatic event happens, especially if there is a series of small traumatic events.  The effects of less intense traumatic experiences may add up much like my continued use of “ctrl V”.  Despite the size of the traumatic experience or its frequency, the ripple effect in our brains is unknown.  Studies have shown that our resiliency to traumatic experiences is unpredictable, and I assume this may be attributed to the complex functioning of our brains.  Nonetheless, trauma has an effect even if it cannot be predicted.

Another point my database example illustrates is how our brains often wire themselves to a specific behavior pattern that can be difficult to change without intentional effort.  I often refer to this as “the cattle path” quality of the well-known neuroscience phrase “fire together, wire together”.  Much like a cattle path groove that becomes deep and well defined, my brain had strongly mapped the behavior to use “ctrl V”.  The behavior was second nature.  Before I even thought about what I was doing I was using the function, almost like watching myself select the wrong answer.  The embarrassment of calling over to the UK became quite shaming.  I had to work hard to change my automatic response to transferring data.

WIN_20180508_11_49_08_ProThis is how our brain is on trauma!  With repeated trauma, like childhood abuse, our brain maps a strong response to these incidences.  The response can be over excitement of our amygdala (panic center of the brain: fight, flight, or freeze) or under activation of our amygdala that prevents us from keeping ourselves safe.  These maladaptive paths become so strong it is like the deep cattle paths where grass becomes so trampled all you can see now is a groove of dirt.  Cows will not make a new path without the right incentive, bringing their awareness to fresh grass to eat.  Our brains are the same way when healing from trauma.

Telling someone to stop doing whatever automatic response their brain engages in is not helpful.  It does not change the mapping of the brain, and in some cases strengthens the maladaptive mapping.  One of the first things I do with clients who have a significant trauma history is to train, or re-train, their brains what it is like to be relaxed and feel safe.  It is excessively repetitive for a reason.  During the process, client’s may not feel a change.  After several months they notice their thinking is different or their response time to triggers in their life has lengthened so they have more time to decide on a different response.  Sometimes, a few months pass and a client is able to have an “a-ha!” moment they would not be able to experience during their first session.  Fight, flight, or freeze responses would have been too intense to hear or experience an alternate perspective.  After the amygdala has been trained to be calmer, healing work can begin.  The therapeutic work becomes more efficient after a healthy foundation has been established. New wiring.  Productive wiring.

Do you need new wiring?  Do you know someone who could benefit from new wiring?  If you live in the St. Louis Metropolitan area, I would love to help, even if that means helping you find another therapist to walk your journey with you.

Illustration: Changing Your Wiring



The Yarn Connection for Grief & Trauma

For this activity you will need a few supplies that you can pick up at your local all-in-one market or craft store.  You will need:

  1. Yarn: red, yellow, blue, green, white, black, grey, purple, orangeWIN_20180305_14_38_25_Pro
  2. Small Styrofoam ball
  3. Strong glue
  4. Duct tape (optional)
  5. Paint (optional)

If you choose to use paint, you will need to paint the Styrofoam ball first and give it plenty of time to dry.  Next, you will cut at least six feet of each color of yarn and glue one end to the Styrofoam ball once the paint dries.  If the glue does not stick well to your ball and yarn, you can use strips of duct tape to secure the yarn to the Styrofoam ball.  If you choose not to paint your Styrofoam ball, you could select duct tape in a color that represents your most significant grief or trauma event and use that to wrap the yarn to your Styrofoam ball.  After the yarn is properly secured, wind your yarn around the Styrofoam ball until all the yarn is wrapped around the ball.  Do NOT cut the ends to match up in length.  Leave the ends however they end up.WIN_20180305_14_50_51_Pro

Look at your ball of yarn.  What do you notice?

Start with the longest piece of yarn and slowly begin unwrapping it.  What color does it run into?  Find the start of the second string and start unraveling it.  What does that color run into?  Find the start of the third string.  What does it run into?  Keep doing this until you have completely unraveled the ball of yarn.

Notice how all the colors run into each other as you unravel the ball of yarn.WIN_20180306_13_17_36_Pro

What if I told you the colors are as follows:

Red = anger

Yellow = joy

Blue = sadness

Green = growth

White = peace

Black = fear

Grey = frustration

Purple = anxiety

Orange = confusion

Pink = love


Now what do you think of your ball of yarn?

WIN_20180306_13_18_21_ProAs we deal with grief and other traumatic events, our emotional experience is much like this ball of yarn.  We do not simply feel sad and depressed.  We do not feel sad and depressed followed by unending joy.  We vacillate between several positive and unpleasant emotions for quite some time before making peace with our traumatic circumstance.

Are you holding the ball at the middle of your yarn ball?  That Styrofoam ball represents the incident that created such an emotional experience for you.  Death of a loved one.  Abuse.  Car accident.  Financial distress.WIN_20180306_13_19_19_Pro

If you are untangling your ball of yarn and it gets knotted up, reach out for help.  A caring professional is available to help you untangle your knotted ball of yarn.  Some tasks, like untangling yarn, are better achieve with the help of others.  The same is true for grief and trauma.



Strategies and Tips for Home Learning During COVID-19 School Closures

text-on-shelf-256417As we continue to see schools closed and expectations to work from home rise, your confined time with your family may begin to take its toll on your household. This is the time of year when we often hang onto the hope that the weather will soon change, and cabin fever will come to an end. And then it gets a little Jurassic Park in the neighborhood. “We’re back….in the car.” Can anyone else relate?

Sure. Spring breaks have been happening so we could be a little more flexible as we adjusted to this new normal. Now that everyone’s spring break is over, or is just coming to an end, reality is setting in. It’s time to talk about strategies and tips to make this time more enjoyable, less stressful, and an opportunity to teach our kids lifelong skills that build resilience. Maybe they can take these skills into the workforce when they become adults too! It is never too early to teach ownership, responsibility, or self-starting.

Sticks outside of jarFirst, let’s talk about schedule and structure. If you read my colleague Andria’s blog (https://comeasyouarecounseling.wpcomstaging.com/2020/03/24/surviving-home-learning-during-this-pandemic/), you know that schedule and structure are the foundation for success in helping your kids with their education at home. Andria’s blog also talks with us about being flexible with these constructs. One way to combine structure and flexibility to your schedule is to set aside particular blocks of time for schoolwork while being fluid in what subjects you address.

An option for accomplishing this task is to take some craft sticks and write each subject on a separate stick. I have a little glass jar I use to put the craft sticks in, but if all you have are strips of paper and an envelope that is perfect. During your scheduled schoolwork time you let one kid pick the subject that you will be working on. The block of time that you spend on a subject will depend on the age of the child. You could have an envelope of sticks for each child with the amount of time they are expected to work on that subject written on the end of the stick. When younger children have reached their threshold, they can pick a new stick or take a break. Just remember that you are the one that monitors whether they have reached their threshold or are testing boundaries. Have an envelope with “finished” written on it and put the drawn sticks into that envelope when the work is completed. You reset your jar or envelope each day. Don’t forget to schedule in fun or specials. Put those on your craft sticks or paper strips too!

Jar of SticksThis activity is a great way to teach prioritization and organization of daily tasks. Kids need boundaries and expectations to help them make sense of their world and feel safe. By setting aside a time for their work you are providing the structure that they need to feel secure about what is happening in their world right now. By allowing them to choose the order in which they tackle their schoolwork they learn to have autonomy amid stressful situations, which builds resilience.

A second way to help you keep your sanity during this time is to grab a white board, if you have one. The white board is my favorite resource for doing math or spelling work. Have the math problems you plan to address with your children that day printed or written out on paper. Give a child their list of the problems for the day and ask them which one they would like to start on first. Then, ask them if they want you to write the problem on the board, or do they want to do it themselves. Repeat with additional problems.

WIN_20180919_11_54_37_ProIt is important to give them multiple options for how to solve the problems. For example, younger children who are adding or subtracting can: draw dots, use mathlink blocks, use marbles, or use their fingers. If you do not have something readily available, improvise! You can make “manipulatives” with a hole punch and some construction paper in their favorite colors. You can also use real coins. Pennies can be used for smaller addition/subtraction problems.

Skills involved in this method include autonomy, ownership of the task, and project problem solving. Here is the task before them. How are they going to tackle it? They are able to discover their own natural gifting in mastering their assignments. Again, you as the parent need to determine if they are testing boundaries or need to move on to something else. If they are testing boundaries, then give them the choice to decide for themselves how to solve the problem, or you will decide for them. If they chose to work on the problem in their own way, they were probably testing boundaries. If they continue to struggle, take a break and ask them what they need, give a hug, see if they are hungry, etc. Testing boundaries is healthy if it does not escalate into something too big to for either of you to manage. Testing boundaries is often askipainting-and-drawing-tools-set-207665ng the question: will you keep me safe? Safety can take on multiple definitions in a child or adolescent mind. Please keep in mind that boundary testing does not equate poor behavior. They have a need that needs to be met.

Language Arts is another area where creativity may be used in a structured way to develop a love for reading. Recently, I participated in a virtual roundtable where one of the speakers mentioned lighting a candle and have everyone read for the length of time the candle is lit. I started using this suggestion at my house! Another strategy to help children become strong readers is to have them read the story they are working on, then have them use their toys to retell the story. You could also have them act out the main parts of the story, or a paraphrase of it, for older children.

Another way to make learning language fun is to use games that you already have at home. A great example is Apples to Apples. This game can help teach vocabulary and relationships between different words. If your student is young and does not have a lot of vocabulary yet, or struggles with reading, you can alter the directions of the game. An example for Apples to Apples is where you do not need to keep your cards secret and there is no winner, but you see the green card and everyone finds a word in their hand that matches the green card. Younger children can get help from other players without feeling shame about th4k-wallpaper-adorable-blur-boy-1148998eir skill level. If you do not have a matching card, you talk about why. When you pick outrageous cards because you do not have a match, you can still do a lot of laughing.  It is essential to create opportunities for laughter during this time.

These examples of learning language arts show how to make the learning fun and memorable. When you add the fun, learning does not seem so overwhelming and sets kids up for success. These strategies address communication skills, interpretation, and that work can be enjoyable. Social studies can also use acting things out as a way to make the learning process smoother and much more enjoyable.

Lastly, children need times for expressive and messy play. Science works well with messiness! Whenever the weather is nicer, I have a fiberglass table I set up outside for all the messy fun we could dream up. At the end of the activities, I hose down the table….and sometimes the child! There are so many fun science experimenMessy Playts you can do outside that meets their teacher’s criteria. At the same time, the kids get their daily dose of vitamin D, which helps keep the peace indoors. Search the internet for ideas if needed and let them learn while having a brain break. One of my favorite books for messy play is Usborne’s 365 Days of Science.

As we walk through this experience together, remember that you are not homeschooling your child. You are providing crisis schooling. Parents who chose to homeschool their children have invested a lot of time preparing for the experience. You were not given that option, so you are providing crisis schooling. Get as much education worked into your schedule as you can but give yourself grace at the end of each day for doing your best to juggle all the hats that were handed to you without warning. You do not have to be an A+ educator. You just need to do the best that you can to keep your sanity, keep the kids alive, protect your connection with your kids, and do the best you can to help them continue learning. If you don’t get much schoolwork accomplished…..you are not the only one! We are in it together! First things are first.

Shark Tooth Hunting Through Life

DSC_0007 (2)Life and hunting for sharks’ teeth are a lot alike. How? Well, for starters, both take patience! Have you ever hunted for shark teeth? It’s something I began learning about a few years ago. Historically, I am not a beach person. You must step up your sunscreen game, sand gets where it should not, and who really knows what is in that water at this very moment. Oh. You also must find a swimsuit you like. I was more interested in a comfortable pair of jeans and a good hike…..Then I became a parent.

Parenthood changes everything. My husband wanted to visit the beach, so I reluctantly agreed. My child loved it! Let’s be honest. A lot of moms sacrifice their own desires to foster their children’s unique identity. This was one of those moments for me. The beach has become a tradition. Along with this tradition, my appreciation for the beach and the ocean has also grown…. but not a love for swimsuits. I guess you really cannot win them all.

DSC_0377During our time at the beach, my husband began to look for shark teeth. At first it was hard. Through our adventures we happened to befriend a local couple. The wife grew up at this beach and has a rich family history of fossil hunting, which includes shark teeth. My husband would comb the beach then sit with our friend to sort through what he found and decide if there was anything of value in his stash of treasure. The shark teeth were obvious. Other fossils were more intriguing since you must examine them more closely.

In the beginning, I would make sure our child did not get lost at sea while my husband went hunting for fossils. A couple of years ago I decided I would try to share my husband’s interest in finding shark teeth. It was boring. I never found any while he continued to announce his finds. I became frustrated with the process. Then….

I found my first tooth!WIN_20191203_16_27_10_Pro (2)

Even after finding my first tooth I was frustrated and impatient. I found that tooth by accident. By chance. By…. I have no idea. I randomly picked up a black spec and there happened to be a shark tooth attached. My husband and everyone I talked to said it would get easier now that I knew what to look for…except that I really had no idea. I was not about to fess up and tell any of them I was still clueless as to what I was looking for in the sand. My impatience continued. Aren’t vacations supposed to be relaxing?

This year was a little different. It was a record year for finding shark teeth, and I even found a part of a mastodon tooth! As I walked the beach looking for shark teeth, one just appeared at my feet clear as day. I snatched up my find and hoped for an easier year. Another one “appeared”. My hopes rose. Then, of course, my child began running down the beach and I was off to chase her so she would not be lost as sea. Motherhood strikes again! We continued this start-stop routine for more than a mile to the infamous inlet where fossils and shells take refuge during low tide.

WIN_20191203_16_29_31_Pro (2)Talk about aggravating! Well, aggravating for fossil hunters. My treasure box had very little to boast. Throughout the week I continued to look for opportunities to search the beach. I decided to make a commitment to pick up everything I saw that resembled the color of shark teeth when I searched. My eyes needed to be trained in what to look for if I was going to be successful. A lot of junk ended up in my bag. More teeth ended up in my bag too!

Searching allowed time for my thoughts to drift toward how life is like the search for shark teeth. When we have experienced broken attachment, abuse, loss, traumatic childhood experiences, or other types of distress it can be difficult to know what we need to gain, or regain, a healthy, sustainable lifestyle. If a healthy lifestyle has not been modeled for us during our formative years, we may not even know what a healthy lifestyle looks like, or even that our lifestyle may be destructive to our long-term mental or physical health. Finding what we need can become just as overwhelming as my search for shark teeth if we are uncertain what we need.

DSC_0691Looking for shark teeth during high tide versus low tide can also parallel day-to-day life challenges. High tide searching can often be more discouraging or stressful than low tide searching, even if high tide may bring more teeth to us. High tide brings in tumultuous water that requires us to be more vigilant for the roaming teeth and have quicker reflexes to snatch them up before the next wave washes them away. Implementing coping strategies during the stressors of life may mirror this fleeting behavior. Before you are able to snatch up the shark tooth, the window of opportunity is gone.

When the waters are churned up, you must have a quick eye and reflexes to snatch up your treasures. These churned up waters are synonymous to traumatic events, childhood abuse, unhealthy relationships, unhealthy thought patterns, etc. The shark’s teeth are much like the coping skills, identity, self-advocacy, self-esteem, etc. that we need to keep ourselves safe, align with our worldview, or be true to ourselves. When there is too much chaos in our lives, we struggle to hang onto these things before the storm washes them away again.

WIN_20191203_16_27_29_Pro (2)When we begin therapy, there can be an expectation that we instantly get what we need and are able to put it into practice. Unfortunately, the process of therapy is more often like the search for shark teeth. We may need to learn and relearn skills until we internalize them. We may not be able to access our skills right away. It may feel like throwing something at our circumstance until “something sticks”, just like my picking up anything that resembled shark teeth until I trained my eye. There is a lot of error before there is success. There has been a lot of missing my teeth before the window of opportunity closes. But…..eventually……I grasped the knowledge of what I was looking for and acquired less junk in my treasure chest.

The same is true for learning skills in life and in therapy. As the saying goes: don’t ever give up! Each miss is one step closer to understanding what to look for and hang onto.

What’s in Your Cup??

DSC_0805The cup is often the focus of some pretty interesting, if not cliché, metaphors in our society.  Is the cup half full or half empty?  You can’t pour from an empty cup.  Does your cup runneth over?  We also see the cup used for things like disguising the taste of something else: alcohol, poison, medications, etc.  The cup seems to represent many things in our life, which begs the question: What’s in your cup?


DSC_0812To get started with this activity, I
recommend buying a silicon cup if you do not already have one.  Amazon has a nice selection of silicon cups if you cannot find one at your favorite store.  I personally have silicon beakers and an approximately 16-ounce silicon cup.  You may also want a silicone mat of some sort.  You can find one in the baking aisle if you need one.  You will also need: construction paper, flour, water, and a whisk or blender bottle.  You may prefer glue instead of flour.  You decide your preference.  Both works.


First, select the construction paper colors that best represent you.  This could be favorite colors, colors that match your personality, colors that represent your predominant emotional states, etc.  The sky is the limit.  Tear the paper into paper mache size pieces.  Not too big.  Not to small.  Just right, like Goldie Locks.


DSC_0806 - 1Second, combine flour and water until you create a thin paste, or 1:3 ratio for water and glue.  The best way for me to do this is to get a blender bottle and add the water first.  Slowly add the flour a couple of tablespoons at a time until your thin paste forms.  Keep what you are not using in the cup so you can shake it up as needed.  Find a small bowl to pour some mache paste into.  A glass prep bowl that holds a cup or two of liquid is perfect for this. Using glue instead of flour will make the colors turn out more vibrant and provide a different sensory experience.


Third, soak the paper in the paste briefly.  You only need to ensure the paper has absorbed the liquid and is thinly coated.  Then, you turn your silicon cup upside down and begin to cover the outside of it with the paste-soaked paper until the entire outside is covered.  Let dry for 24 hours.  Gently use a flexible tool to loosen the paper from the silicone cup.  This takes some patience as you work toward not ripping the paper in the process.  A silicon cup allows you to bend the cup away from the paper until it is loose enough to slip right off the cup.  My tool is from a kit that is used to make resin products.  See picture for a visual.  You may also want to coat the paper with modge podge and let that dry before removing your paper cup from your silicon cup.


After you have removed your paper cup from your silicon cup, you can begin the process of defining what is in your cup.  Think about all the different aspects of your life.  What is in your cup?  Write these things down on paper and place the pieces of paper in your cup.  Example are: past events that affect your life now (traumatic experiences), attitudes, values, emotions, recurring thoughts, things outside of your control, coping skills, dreams, hobbies, things you are growing in, things that make you laugh, things that you love, etc.  Again, the sky is the limit.  If you have more than what fits in your cup keep writing them down.  You can pile them on top of what you have in your cup and/or set them beside the cup if needed.


If you have more pieces of paper than what your cup can hold, your first action is going to be to determine what is actually in your cup and what are things you wish were in your cup.  If you only wrote down what was actually in your cup and you did not have more than what will fill your cup, your first action will now be to identify things you wish were in your cup and are not there.  Next, identify the things in your cup that you do not want to be there.


DSC_0813Are you ready for a metaphor?  I hope so because we are jumping in now.  In the United States of America, we have a pretty good water treatment system anywhere you go within the country.  That does not mean water will not taste different from place to place.  Afterall, we are quite fascinated with bottled water!  Still, the water is safe to drink due to well documented protocols for treating water to make it potable.  That is not true in every part of the world!  In fact, when I was in Africa several years ago, I experienced the truth in drinking unhealthy water firsthand.  I was so sick!  Fortunately, I was traveling with a team of physicians as well.  The experience was quite eye-opening.  We collectively agreed that what happens in Africa stays in Africa since there were many such experiences among our team.


So, what is in your cup?  Is it toxic? Do you have unforgiveness in your cup?  Do you have anger in your cup?  Do you have unprocessed traumatic experiences that give you nightmares in your cup?  Do you have financial stress in your cup?  Do you have fear in your cup?  Do you have loneliness in your cup?  Do you have isolation in your cup?  Do you have rejection in your cup?  Do you have negative thoughts about yourself recycling through your brain in your cup?  Do you have grief in your cup?  Do you have things in your cup that are trying to cover up, mask, hide, or negate other things in your cup?


DSC_0808How are the things in your cup impacting your life, daily and long-term?  Research demonstrates that stress can be deadly.  Look at the group of things that you wish were in your cup and the group of things you wish were not in your cup.  How can you start filtering what is in your cup?  What treatment process do you need to make what is in your cup healthy for your body?  Do you need to rebalance your nutritional intake?  Exercise more?  Take a break from electronics?  Take a vacation?  Seek therapy from a counselor trained in helping individuals who need help in the areas you need help with or healing from?  How do you start filtering out the toxic things in your life and start adding healthy things from your wish list into your cup?


Water is the most essential nutrient for our body, hence the cup for this activity.  The things in your cup are essential for the life you are leading or want to lead.  Are you filling your cup with the essentials to get you to the life you want to lead?  Are you filling your cup with clean water or contaminated water?  There is no shame in asking for help with filtering what is in your cup.


The Birth of Therapeutic Java

Coffee Ceremony 6Some might see my blog title and think I am a coffee addict.  While I do love my morning coffee routine, and meeting friends for coffee, the title “Therapeutic Java” does not come from an addiction to coffee.  The title was birthed out of the symbolism of coffee in multiple cultures around the world.  It also represents aspects of my worldview.

Coffee Ceremony 2In 2012, I participated in a counseling trip to Ethiopia in Africa.  Our role as counselors was to be available at medical clinics to provide emotional support to woman and children, who are especially marginalized in that area of the world.  The clinic was also open to men at various locations.  This experience is particularly important to the title of my blog since Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee.  Coffee originally comes from Kaffe, Ethiopia.

Coffee Ceremony 1Ethiopia values coffee so much they have a ceremony for it.  During my two weeks working with the clinic, I was honored to participate in several coffee ceremonies that took place in different contexts.  My first experience was at clinic headquarters.  In a coffee ceremony, you grind the coffee beans by hand.  Next, you use a special coffee pot to brew the grinds.  Third, you add sugar to special coffee cups, then poor the coffee over the sugar.  Milk is rarely used.  During a coffee ceremony food is served while frankincense burns.  The importance of this ceremony is relationship.  I also participated in the ceremony at a young woman’s house in an impoverished area of town where it was served along with kolo (roasted barely), a staple food item.  The third place where I enjoyed this ceremony was after a meal at a local restaurant in town.

Coffee Ceremony 3Coffee has a place for building relationships in our culture as well.  We often meet for coffee when we want to catch up with family or friends.  We serve coffee around mealtimes, especially decaf after dinner.  The warmth of coffee helps to organize our brains through sensory input.  It provides emotional comfort as we hold a warm cup of joe on a cool morning or as we watch the sun rise.  Coffee sometimes builds community in the kitchen when we make fancy coffees.

Coffee Ceremony 4My counseling practice is grounded in the therapeutic nature of authentic relationship, much like we experience with a friend or family member while enjoying a cup of coffee.  Through the interpersonal process, I provide authentic reflections, insights into behavior, and therapeutic, corrective relationship experiences.  I also use the language of childhood, play, to restore identity, improve interpersonal skills, and heal emotional/mental health injuries across all ages. 

It is my hope that my office space makes my clients feel as comfortable and safe as they would sitting down to a cup of joe with a trusted person in their life.  In other words, my desire is to provide care that feels like a therapeutic cup of java.

If this approach feels like something you need, please reach out.  Maybe we will even talk about it over a cuppa.


Coffee Ceremony 9


Basics of Boundaries

Talking about boundaries is quite popular these days.  When I see clients that want to work on issues related to boundaries, I often find that they have focused on either, what I call, reactive boundary-setting or they have taken a rigid approach to boundary-setting.  My approach is different.  I have a strong belief that boundaries start within us, not as a response to external demands.  Boundaries should also have a certain amount of flexibility, though not so much that they undermine their purpose.

If we set reactive boundaries it becomes increasingly difficult to be consistent with our boundaries when we are tired, hungry, anxious, or overwhelmed by our circumstances.  It also becomes difficult to be consistent when we set boundaries based on how we feel in the moment.  If today I feel energized and able to deal with a little more stress, so I remove a boundary, the other person will likely be confused, hurt, or angry when I set a firm boundary on a day when I am not feeling so well.  This can lead to a whole host of negative feelings toward ourselves or others that really are not fair to either of us.  This is a system that sets both people up for a failing relationship.

If, however, we set our boundaries based on our core values, we are able to be more consistent in setting boundaries for ourselves and others.  We are able to set boundaries that protect us from entering into situations we later regret.  A good place to start learning how to set boundaries for yourself is to ask yourself:

What is important to me? What things am I drawn to?

After you make a list (or write an essay if that’s your style) for the things that you value, you are ready for the next to continue with the rest of the steps for this project.

Steps to figuring out your boundaries:

1.      Use an 11”X14” piece of paper, or larger, to create a collage, picture, mural, expressive art piece, or whatever you would like to call it that represents your life thus far.  Make your project comprehensive, not just the things you want to remember.  This part of the project needs to be accurate.  Accuracy might make you uncomfortable, though it is essential to a successful exercise.

2.      Use a three-step activity to interact with your creation from step one.  Create a list of things from step one that you want to hold onto.  Create a separate list of things you would like to let go of or change.  Make a third list of things you want in the future.

3.      Use step two to create a list of goals for yourself.  Set your boundaries where they help you achieve your goals and honor your values.

Refer back to your list of what is important to make sure you are being congruent with your values and goals.  Sometimes we make goals based on family traditions or other external factors.  Maybe our values do not match up with these traditions or factors; these can cause anxiety or discontent in working toward our goals.  Checking your goals against your values fosters authenticity.

Unwrenching the Heart

WIN_20180920_16_03_21_ProWhen someone is significantly injured by either repetitive smaller offenses, a single gigantic offense, or repetitive gigantic offense, the left and the right sides of our brain can become “offline” from each.  We stew in our hurt.  We ruminate in our anguish.  We repeat the story of what happened or what continues to happen, and we get on a mental loop.  Sometimes it feels like “if I just tell the story one more time I’ll find some new revelation to fix, repair, restore, or stop the damage”.  “If I just said it enough time, the person will realize how they have hurt me and fix it, repent, become sorrowful”.  Or, “if I say it enough times I’ll suddenly find the answer to feeling better”.

This is the point when people usually find themselves in my office, or a colleague’s office.  I have some bad news.  I do not have a magic wand!  Wouldn’t that be lovely though?  My colleagues don’t have a magic wand either.  Sorry to disappoint.

The good news is that I have an activity that typically helps individuals break the looping behaviors they find themselves experiencing.

Step 1:

Draw a heart, preferably on a red piece of paper, and cut it out.


Step 2:

Write all the things that were in your heart before you were injured on your paper heart.


Step 3:

Tear up your paper heart.


Step 4:

Put your heart back together with band-aids.


Step 5:

Write what you need to put your heart back together on the band-aids.


Reflection Questions:

  1. Does your heart look the same as it did when you first drew it? How about as it did when you wrote on it, before tearing it up?
  2. Does your heart work the same as it did in the beginning of the project?
  3. What happens when you have surgery? What is an important aspect in the healing process post-surgery?  (think about scar tissue and it’s role in future pain)
  4. Did you give up before you put your heart back together? Is that how you typically handle your relational heart in your day-to-day life?

Positive Behavior Reinforcement

Positive Behavior Log:

Attached is a “Positive Behavior Log” that I created to track positive behaviors your child/student has engaged in between visits with their mental health counselor.  The WIN_20180919_12_10_08_Propoint of this assignment is to highlight positive interpersonal experiences initiated by your child.  Children who have been referred to a mental health counselor, or consistently receive disciplinary action at school, often hear a lot about what they are not doing well, and what they are doing well typically takes a backseat.  This log is intended to highlight the good things your child is doing and to reinforce the behaviors adults in their life are trying to teach them.

Commonly children who are continually given attention for undesirable behaviors will internalize a negative self-concept.  Focusing on their positive behavior can alter this negative brain mapping, turning their identity to a more positive self-concept.  With an improved self-concept, a child is often able to develop increased flexibility in how they think about their behavior and their identity.  More flexibility in their thinking often leads to the child being able to more readily separate behavior from identity.


Reinforcing Positive Behaviors:Yellow Die

One of the things we know about reinforcing behaviors is that random reinforcement is more effective than incremental reinforcement.  Rather than setting a weekly target for a certain number of positive interpersonal interactions, it is better to vary the frequency a reward is given.  As humans we typically fall into patterns.  We like patterns.  An easy way to combat this tendency is to roll a die.

In my office I have a big, six-inch yellow die that I use for all sorts of activities.  In this particular case I roll the die to determine how many days in a row the client must have one or more positive peer interactions.  The first goals are small.  For example, an initial goal may be to simply say “hi” to peers.  A second goal may be for the client to ask a peer “Did you do anything fun (last night, over the weekend, etc.)?”  In some cases, I back up the goal even further to an activity the client completes with their school counselor to build a foundation on which the client has the ability to say “hi” to a peer.

As the child improves their interpersonal skills more complex reward systems are put in place.  After basic social skills are mastered, the child will have short-term and long-term goals.  This allows the client to continue mapping positive neural pathways while continuing to challenge the child to build stronger neural pathways.  Did you catch that?  Build the pathway, then strengthen it while continuing to grow the pathways.  This takes dedication!  Eventually, the shorter-term weekly goals will increase the number of weeks between reinforcement, then months.


Short-term Reinforcement:

Short-term reinforcement is a smaller scale reward.  Examples include: 20 minutes of gaming, one 20-30-minute TV show, choose the next movie for family movie WIN_20180919_11_50_42_Pronight, select the next game at family game night, 20 minutes of free-choice time, 30 minutes of craft time, etc.  These activities should be things that may be distractions for your child when completing necessary tasks, like homework.   Short-term rewards should be instantly gratifying yet contained.  The rewards should also be consistent with your house/office/school rules.  The sky is not the limit.


Long-term Reinforcement:

Long-term reinforcements should be things that require more effort to earn.  These rewards will change over time as your child’s self-regulation improves.  Long-term rewards should begin with weeks and move toward months.  These are things that would require more investment from the adult/caregiver overseeing this project.  Examples include: dinner out, selecting a favorite homemade meal, receiving a desired toy, going out for a movie, completing a project at the pottery shop, buying a comic book, shopping for crafting items, etc.  The reward in this category should stir up motivation within the child to pay more attention to what is going on within themselves and with others.  This is a difficult category of reward because it’s like Goldie Locks.  It cannot be too hard or too soft.  It needs to be just right.


Tips for Reinforcement:

*       Highlight the line for which the reward will be given.

*       Roll a die to determine the number of days before a short-term reward.

*       Roll a die for the number of weeks before a long-term reward.

*       Start with short-term rewards until they are met with consistency, then add in short- and long-term rewards.  The final step is to provide only long-term rewards.

*       Create a reward jar full of popsicle sticks with agreed upon incentives.  Let the child decorate the jar.

*       As the child improves self-regulation WIN_20180919_11_54_37_Prothey may not want to redeem a reward right away.  This is great!  Create a reward currency, such as using a one-inch hole punch and cardboard or use marbles (or other safe item) and let them fill a container with the reward currency and choose when they would like to redeem the reward.  This will improve the child’s ability to know their limits and honor their window of tolerance.  It also helps you know when to increase the difficulty of the reward.

Disclaimer: This system can be applied to a myriad of behaviors, not just interpersonal skills.

Positive Behavior Log

Emotional Friendship Bracelet Activity


The first step to this activity is to set up the bracelet that will be used to direct this activity.  Follow the steps below to get started with your bracelet.

1.    Select a sturdy material, such as cardboard, to create a circular cut out.  I used a disposable cup to cut my circle.

2.    Cut 12 slits in the circle, preferably evenly spaced.

3.    Cut equal lengths of your 11 colors of embroidery thread, or other similar thread material.WIN_20180712_18_01_05_Pro

a.    Green = growth

b.    Blue = sadness/depression

c.    Orange = confusion

d.    Purple = anxiety

e.    Grey = frustration

f.     Red = anger/rage

g.    Pink = love

h.   White = peace/faith/spirituality

i.     Yellow = joy/happiness

j.     Black = fear

k.    Brown = clear as mud emotion

4.    Line up the ends of each thread and tie a knot to hold them all together.DSC_0364

5.    Attach a charm to one of the threads, if desired.

6.    Use a pencil to punch a hole in your cardboard circle and gently thread your colors through the hole.

7.    Separate your thread and anchor each color in its own slit.

Now you are ready to begin your journaling.

The first thing I recommend is to pick a charm that represents what you want to anchor your journaling experience with.  In my office I often use an anchor charm or a have my clients find a charm that represents their safe or healing place.  Thread the charm onto the emotion you want your anchor to be attached to as you complete this activity.  Examples are: growth, peace/faith/spirituality, love, joy.  Pick a DSC_0366positive emotion.

You can decide on the pattern you want to use to create your bracelet, as long as you at least move every other string.  I recommend your first bracelet move every third string.  As you pick up a string, journal about the emotion associated with that color.  Spend a minute with each string everyday for a total of 11 journal entries until you get used to the process.  Use the following questions to guide your work:

·        Green = what is something I am growing in?

·        Blue = what is something that makes me sad or feel depressed?

·        Orange = what is something that is causing me, or has caused me, confusion?DSC_0368

·        Purple = what is something that makes me anxious?

·        Grey = what is something that I find frustrating?

·        Red = what is something that makes me mad?

·        Pink = what is something that I love?

·        White = what is something that gives me peace or strengthens my faith/spiritual practice?

·        Yellow = what is something that gives me joy?

·        Black = what is something that causes me fear?

·        Brown = what is something that makes me feel an emotion I don’t know how to name?

 DSC_0372Each week or month change up the question by changing the stem of the question to answer the “wh” questions and how.  Who, what, when, where, why, and how.  As you address each question for the colors, you can search for charms that represent your experience with each emotion and thread it onto that color.  You could also thread charms that represent nurturing or strength as you work your way through this activity.  The sky is the limit when it comes to the charms you may add!  Try to make the charms something that helps you grow in your journey or honors an important memory/milestone.

As you observe your bracelet growing, or help your child observe their bracelet, notice the following things:

1.    Is there a pattern emerging?

2.    Do the colors look separate or intertwined?

3.    Is each thread stronger or weaker than before it was woven together with the other colors?

4.    Are there any colors you did not like?  How do they look woven together with the other colors?

5.    Do you notice how you put positive and negative emotions through the circle (healing place) and something beautiful was created?  It took the good stuff and the bad stuff to create your beautiful bracelet.

Some of you might think: This is great….if I wanted to make a bracelet.  Rest assured that you can modify this activity to meet your lifestyle.  You can use this activity to make a bookmark, wall hanging, or whatever holds meaning to you and can provide reminders of what you need, where you’ve been, or where you want to go.


NOTE: This journal activity utilizes a friendship bracelet technique that can be found on social media or other internet searches.  What makes this activity unique is the interaction between the bracelet and the journaling directives.

Infant Loss Demystified…..Sort Of

What is the first thing you think of when you hear that an infant has died?

WIN_20180306_13_19_19_ProOften, hearing about the death of an infant is heartbreaking and confusing.  Often, we are, unavoidably, faced with our own beliefs about death, dying, and any afterlife.  Sometimes being faced with these tough topics diverts attention from what is happening in the here and now for the woman and family that directly experienced the loss.  Instead, we are consumed with our own discomfort about the loss of the baby.  Being present for the family or woman who experienced the loss can feel overwhelming, confusing, sad, disconnecting, incomprehensible, frightening, and much more.

The truth about infant loss is that it is no different than any other type of grief……while also being much more complex and drastically different.  Just like other forms of grief, the process is not linear.  Unlike other forms of grief, decisions about what to do next and the physical impact on the woman who carried that baby are much more complicated.WIN_20180607_15_10_45_Pro

Frequently, a mother’s response to her deceased baby is uncomfortable to those around her.  She may want to hold her deceased baby.  She may question whether she heard her baby take a breath, heard a heartbeat, saw a movement, etc.  This happens regardless of the baby being born alive or stillborn.  She may want to sleep with her baby.  She may have difficulty releasing the body for the next steps.  She may not want to acknowledge what happened. Ever.  She may be quick to release the baby’s body for the next steps.  She may struggle to reconcile a healing surgical wound from a cesarean section with having empty arms.  She may struggle with hospital bills for a baby she cannot bring home.  She may struggle with continuing to look pregnancy after a vaginal delivery, knowing she cannot bring her baby home.  She may become upset when someone asks her when she is due because her body still looks pregnant.  She may never speak of the baby she could not bring home.  She may talk incessantly about the baby she could not bring home.

These responses to the death of an infant are no surprise to a grief therapist.  They also do not mean that the woman who lost a baby is handling her grief in an abnormal way.  In fact, these responses are typical!  Loosing a baby is hard.  In many ways, the above responses are protective.  If a woman experienced all the emotions of her loosing her baby at one time, she would quite likely become overwhelmed by all the emotions….and move into concerning grief patterns.  The above reactions to loosing a baby protect the mother from becoming so overwhelmed by her emotional experience that she is unable to address her grief in manageable ways.

It is important foCharacteristics of Mourning Infant Lossr a woman who has lost an infant to feel supported in a way that helps her to lean into her grief in a tolerable way.  Just like Goldie Locks, her grief experience needs to be not too hard and not too soft.  There is a just right process for walking through her grief story.  Each woman’s just right grieving process is different.  As a family member or friend, you can help the bereaved mother in your life find her just right path by asking questions and being a present listener.  Being present and adaptable to your bereaved mother’s needs facilitates the process of mourning.

Mourning is the outward expression of our grief, according to Dr. Allan Wolfelt.  Without external expression, we are not able to move to the next phase of grieving.  Asking a woman to move on from the loss of her baby is like asking her to remain prisoner to her grief.  Let her tell you her story, even if it makes you uncomfortable.  Outward expression of her grief is the only way that she can reconcile her grief experience and move into a life full of joy for what remains present with her.

A woman grieving the loss of her infant needs opportunities to sit with her story of loss in manageable ways, such as drawing, quiet time, telling her story (at her own pace), memory making, and much more.  There is no time limit for her grief, and mourning should be expected to last about two years.  The best support during this time is caring and loving family or friends.  If the bereaved mother in your life needs more support, group or individual therapy may be a helpful support system that can facilitate the mourning process.  The ideal situation is for those around her to love her well and remain present.  Mourning will become less intense over time, though grief will remain for a lifetime.

Have you told the bereaved mother in your life that you love her just the way she is? Recently?