Since returning from leave visiting family and friends in US, I have spent the last two weeks catching up with the young people and families I missed working with while away. Hearing about what happens while I away is always intriguing, as there is no doubt that change is constantly occurring and a natural part of our lives.
Last week I met with a University aged man who had been on one of our 14-day expeditions late last year and was still working on transitioning his goals into life at home. Since coming home things had been getting better and we had previously decided to slow down the frequency of our sessions. Before I left for my trip he called and asked for a session at my Adelaide office and we got together. He spoke of some difficult times at home with his family and was hoping that he could move out, as this would definitely make things better. We spoke about many of the other concerns he had as he said he felt better after talking things through. He decided that setting any practical goals would not be helpful for him at this time.
I returned from my trip after a month away and he was eager for another session. “I’m not sure where we left off last time, there was a lot going on,” he said. I told him I could pull out some of my notes and we could look at what he said. I went through and revealed his desires to move out in order to become more independent and that he would need a job near the house he was hoping to live in. He had said that he wanted to switch his degree to neuroscience but wasn’t sure if that would go ahead. He let me know that there was a girl he was interested in but worried about its timing and their relationship. This was surely a lot going on before I left for leave.
As I went through the list I thought that it would seem like a bombardment if he had not settled any of these “goals”. He laughed as I read them, smiled and said, “All of them happened.” I asked him how he managed to make them happen to which he said, “They just kind of happened organically. I never thought anything therapy-like was going to help but it must of without me knowing it.”
This opened an incredible conversation about how change occurs and what the role therapy plays in it. As I see it, psychotherapy can be incredibly effective but the drama will truly never unfold without the story of its key agent: the participant. By always taking his feedback about goals and talking things through we were able to have a stronger relationship based on the outcomes he desired. As mentioned earlier, change is always occurring and a great skill to obtain is keeping a keen eye on what is improving and what we may need to work on.
Research suggests that the role of the participant is a way bigger contributor to change than anything a therapist does or says. I knew we had a good relationship, saw eye to eye on many things from worldly views to science and spirituality, which I know, is a great start in predicting how effective we would be in getting the outcome he wanted. But I also knew that I did not have the power to affect his life the same way antibiotics act on an illness. The power of change is within him and the truth is that this is way it should be.
As we spoke about change and being able to notice all the amazing things working for him we paid special attention to what he was doing that could be helping. He was eating healthily, practicing yoga and participated in a lot more social events than before. These are all great parts of the SEEDS acronym, which is convenient but nothing that we had talked about previously. He had found them on his own.
I called this participant to ask if I could share his story and he said that he would love to. “I’m proud of myself,” he said.
Whenever I speak about psychotherapy or the programs we run I end with a metaphor given to me by a mentor I had while studying in the States. He always said that “The best therapists never get any thank you notes because the client did it on their own.”
Will Dobud MSW
Use Your Heroic Strengths for Change
I work often with children and adolescents that have been labelled depressed, addicted, oppositional or delinquent and I often remind myself how important it is to not forget the full picture. A person struggling emotionally does not deserve the label of his or her diagnosis the same way someone with cancer, a broken bone or diabetes does.
For one, if I go to the doctor for a blood test the medical professional is looking to see that my blood count is normal. We will know if something is wrong based on a concrete measurement. We know what normal blood sugar or iron levels are and also know when these levels become dangerous. Unfortunately for emotional concerns such as depression or anxiety, it does not work the same way.
There is no normal level of depression but a professional can tell that you are depressed. Also, there is no way to treat these troubles the same way antibiotics treat an infection or pain killers on a headache. Helping people with these concerns requires getting the full picture from the person's point of view so we can use their everyday success and bravery for good. The heroic things that the ‘depressed child’ does each day will tell us how we can help him or her out of their stuck place.
I have worked with a few young people this year that have struggled with being bullied at school. Some have gotten so low that they have self-harmed causing such alarm at home that their parents have reached out to me for help. One person in particular, an eleven year old, had decided that it was better eat lunch on his own rather than with any of his friends just to hide away from the kids that were picking on him. He had scratched himself while walking home from school and has started to feel that he would prefer to just stay home from school in bed instead of making the treacherous journey to school each day.
On the surface we see this boy as young person struggling socially with all the adversity happening around him. In trying to problem solve, we could focus on the bullying or the self-harm. However, there may be more to the story we don't want to miss.
During our second session together he talked to me about cricket. His coach had told his father that he was not a very skilled player and did not put in enough effort during practice and should probably look into different extracurricular activities.
Being born in America I know very little about cricket so I curiously asked him what he liked about the sport. He lit up. He sat on the edge of the couch and began explaining all the different ways the sport is played from test cricket to 20-20. He talked to me about how the players line up and strategies for bowling. Having cricket stumps along with our expedition gear I got them out. He started as the bowler and easier ended my turn at bat laughing as I joked about being a not-so-good cricketer.
We went back into the office to talk about his plan for the final two weeks before the school holidays. He told me about what the coach had told his dad and said he did not know what would happen if he was unable to play cricket at school. “It’s the main reason I wake up in the morning,” he said.
I spoke to the boy’s father the next day and told him about how passionate and enthusiastic this child was about cricket. He was not the depressed, low energy, effortless boy I had been referred. I said that it would be an enormous oversight to not let this boy play. The father rang the coach and advocated for his son. The coach decided to meet with the child and they spoke for a full lesson about strategies for improving the team and what the boy could offer in helping the other boys to improve their game.
During our session the next week he said that one practice the coach had allowed the boy to help teach a certain bowling technique he could do better than most the other kids. He said he was nervous but everyone was interested in learning this technique. He said some of the kids asked him to have lunch the next day.
Although this boy has serious concerns, self-harming behaviours and a challenging circumstance at school, we were able to find his heroic passion and use his strengths to our advantage. We were lucky to have such an engaged father and coach who had the best intention of helping through connection. Instead of hoping the child would fit-in or change his thinking about the bullying, they put him in charge using one thing he knew best.
How can we do this in our own life? Think about the things that put you at the edge of your seat. What are you most passionate about? What excites you?
For me it is music. I know that if I’m overwhelmed, stressed or anxious I can play my drums, pick up my guitar or learn something new on piano. I can even put a record on and sit for a second. It doesn’t take long to feel better when I’m using the part of me that is focused, passionate and skilled.
Think about what this is for you and use it.
Have a safe new year and a happy 2016!
Will Dobud MSW
Conflicts at home are all too common with the families I work with. This morning, just a few days before our holiday break, I had a session with a young boy after he had recently stolen from a family member. I was unaware of this event prior to the session but he told me during our check in while completing the Outcome Rating Scale. When asked how he is doing emotionally, he answered with the words guilt and shame.
Last week I wrote about using the right hemisphere of the brain during therapy sessions so when this important event presented itself, we pulled out the oil pastels and some paper. His task, to draw what this guilt feels like on the inside. Where no one can see it.
During sessions with children I try to teach them about the safety of the present moment. I try to make my office into a small sanctuary away from the real life, natural consequences of everyday life. This security allows us to explore difficult past experiences with feelings of peace and serenity.
The 11-year-old boy’s finished project, pictured above, showed a fiercely drawn red circle in the centre of the body with four small blue dots at each limb. The red represented a feeling of fire in his chest that made him feel a whole range of emotions like anger, sadness, anxiety about what will happen and regret. He told me that when confronting what he had done, he felt immobilised. It was as if he could not move his arms or legs. I assured him that this guilt was normal. He had done something he knew was wrong and regretted.
Worry about this scenario would come if his guilt turned inward and he began to feel shame, or feeling bad about himself. Guilt is a fairly natural response to doing something that we feel is wrong or that in which we could avoid. An appropriate level of guilt should protect us from repeating the undesired behaviour and motivates us to repair any pain we may have caused to those around us.
Shame, on the other hand, can motivate us towards denying, hiding or blaming others. The general rule of thumb for avoiding this shame is to remember that there is only one good kind of guilt. That is guilt about something you did. A specific behaviour. It can be hard to do in the moment but if we can tune in to the specific thing we did then a lot of the background noise should diminish.
Guilt about things you think you should have done, something you are unable to do or guilt about feeling as though you are better off than someone else are easy roads towards shame. The goal to this balance is to be really specific about why the feeling is arising and how justified it is.
If you can label the explicit behaviour that you feel is wrong then its time to make a change. If you need to address it with your loved one or coworker then do it. If you need to talk to someone to get some tips or tricks on how to avoid repeating the behaviour than go out and find the right person for you.
You can’t go back and change what you’ve done but you can make a better moment in the present and feel hopeful for the future.
Have a safe and happy new year.
Will Dobud, MSW
“Connection Before Correction” | The Right Brain & Choosing the Right Therapist
Recently I came across an incredible book “Being A Brain-Wise Therapist” and have been posting a lot of resources from psychiatrists Bruce Perry and Daniel Siegel. Many of our followers have told me they appreciate these resources as this inside look of the brain can be really helpful for finding out what is going on beneath the surface when someone experiences trauma, addiction, anxiety or depression.
What I find the most incredible, however, is the importance of this understanding for healing and bringing positive change into people’s lives. It also gives an incredible justification for experience-based therapies like our use of adventure therapy.
Two Hemispheres - The Right & Left
If we cut the brain in half long ways we have broken it down into the right and left hemispheres. Although there are billions of different functions across all areas of the brain, understanding the specialties of the right and left is really important; especially when it comes to therapy.
Let’s start with the left hemisphere. The easy way to consider the left is to remember the L’s: Logic, Linear thinking, language and literalness. The left-brain likes it when things make sense. If we go through a certain event, the left-brain attaches words to that experience and likes to find patterns like cause and effect, right and wrong, and yes or no.
The right brain, on the other hand, is much more receptive and nonlinear. It is responsible for understanding nonverbal communication, how we interact in relationships and helps with using words creatively such as in poetry or music. It's our meaning maker.
Bringing this understanding to our emotions, as is so pivotal in psychotherapy, the left and right hemispheres work in different ways. Our right brain, which is centred on relationship and emotional understanding, is where our reactionary emotions are produced. When there is a threat, our right brain decides if we should avoid or withdrawal. The left brain, with its logical thinking, creates emotions based on our approach to the experience (i.e. Expectations).
To make some of this jargon more comprehendible, think of left-brain and the L’s and the right brain and Relational. Overtime, research has suggested that more than any other factor contributing to outcomes in therapy, the relationship between you and the therapist is one of the most important. And doesn’t that make sense!
Our relational mind begins creating relational meaning from the moment we are born. Babies that miss this connection may develop abnormally or have physical and mental health issues later in life. The brain will literally not grow. This goes the same for those that have experienced trauma (more about this from a previous blog on addiction). The relational right brain is active well before the logical left. This is where the therapist can help.
A psychologist, counsellor or social worker knowledgeable in this style of work is very focused on the conditions required for healing. And it’s all about relationship. When you see your therapist you should feel safe, secure and supported. While difficult emotions may emerge, this sense of security helps you to stay present for re-wiring areas of the right brain required for healthy self-regulation.
This type of work goes deeper than words and talking. It is not about the acquisition of skills or techniques but truly healing in a relational context, both with your self, family, loved ones and the world. During a session you may decide to talk about a difficult scenario or something challenging that happened earlier in your life. If you can stay present with these feelings you will be working to re-write this memory ensuring growth and change.
The big takeaway from the right brain’s role in therapy is remembering the motto “Connection before Correction”. Feeling safe and attuned with your therapist is the real first step before a big change.
If you would like to learn more about this approach, with children or adults, feel free to contact me directly at email@example.com
Thanksgiving & The Power of Gratitude
For Americans living in Australian Thanksgiving is this Thursday (or Friday when I will be celebrating) and I, for one, am really excited for it. I wrote last week about how addiction affected my family in a negative way but what it actually brought about, with time, what an incredible connection with my family. While studying in America, Thanksgiving turned into a holiday that became special for my mother and brother.
We would wake up Thursday morning, drive to the river, hike and climb on the cliffs. One year I fell into the water which, being so close to winter, was frigid and kind of ruined the hike. We would come home, cook a chicken (because a turkey was too large for the three of us) and sit around the table talking about the things we were grateful for.
Although we all know too well the effects a trauma can have on a person, a shift in thinking can help us to see the growth that can occur in the right setting. One view of this is called Post-Traumatic Growth. If we have the opportunity and capability to heal our wounds we may be able to find the gifts born out of such difficulty. For us, that is closeness, trust and relationship.
Thanksgiving, or “Giving Thanks”, is also important to me from an American Indian perspective. Some of my previous work experience has brought me close to elders and facilitators of the sacred traditions of America’s indigenous people. Such ceremonies are the Sweat Lodge, the Give-Away and Sun Dance. Many of the rituals I have participated in all start with gratitude. In most that I have witnessed, gratitude was given to the earth, community, family and elders.
While I was living in Alaska I was fortunate to be able to immerse myself into a strong indigenous culture. We had storytellers travel from far and wide to tell us about their teachings and held potlucks regularly within the community. I met children that knew how to hunt and forage using traditional methods and saw the power of a small community that held the strength of their ancestors and the story of their survival. They were grateful for who they were, where they were and who they were around. And living in Alaska is hard!
Although Thanksgiving is also a traumatic story for many American Indians I recognise their influence on how important it is to remember what you’re grateful for. This blog was sparked by an article I saw talking about how your brain reacts to gratitude. It’s amazing. If gratitude is so helpful, why not have a holiday for it. I even have a fantastic book of Native American poems all dedicated to Thanksgiving and the art of gratitude.
For Thanksgiving this year, in Adelaide, I am having some of our closest friends over, Renee is cooking a turkey and we will sit together reflecting on all the things that we are grateful for. Here are a few of mine:
Even if you do not celebrate Thanksgiving, you may like to see what can happen if you sit with your family and friends and talk about gratitude. After all, it is the best drug for your brain!
Will Dobud MSW
Addiction & The 21st Century
I grew up in a house with an alcoholic. From when I was born until age 10, my father was not drinking but things were still not good. Once he left, he went back to his old ways. He lost his job for driving intoxicated, lost all his money and did not show up for a family event again. He dropped twenty kilos of weight and died just over sixty years old with cancer unable to withstand treatment with a body that was not holding up.
It’s most likely this story that got me to stumble into the field of working with people struggling with addiction, from all sides. I work with those caught in the grasp of addiction and with the family members trying to help. Addiction rips families and people’s lives apart. But still, our common understanding of addiction is mostly diluted.
Our understanding of it starts with rat experiments. When given the choice of pure water or water laced with heroin or cocaine, rats will choose the drugs. They will continue taking the drugs, regardless of negative consequences, until they die. They will starve to death. Those who have experienced addiction first hand will know this all too well. This is what happened to my father. He had a curable cancer but had starved his body for his drink. When we do studies like these we see that rats cannot say no to the drugged water and that drugs are causing these rats to become addicted and they die. This unfortunately is wrong.
In the 1970’s (Yes, that long ago), a psychologist named Bruce Alexander thought differently. The rats in the previous study lived in cages. Alone. They did not have another rat to play with, they did not get to search for food or participate in any normal rat behaviours. So Bruce Alexander thought to build a large environment for rats. He made it as natural as possible. The walls of the enclosure were painted like an outdoor setting. He filled it with male and female rats and offered the same two drink bottles as before, one with drugs, one without. The rats curiously tried them both.
The rats that were living these happy lives did not consume the drugs. None of them became addicted. None of them died. To take the study further, professor Alexander took rats from their isolated cages where they had become regular drug users and placed them into the happier “Rat Park”. Surprisingly, despite having the choice to continue using or suffer withdrawals, the rats went back to pure water and a healthy life. The presence and availability of the laced water was not a motivator or cause of addiction. It was the cage.
So what does this mean for humans? In the 1990’s large organisations got together to study the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences, also known as The ACE Study. This landmark research found that those who had suffered these adverse experiences were having effects lasting long into their adulthood. Think of these adverse experiences as a trauma. They include physical, sexual and emotional abuse, neglect, household substance abuse or mental illness, parental separation and divorce or a member of the family becoming incarcerated. Like the rats, these are people’s cages. For some, experiencing trauma changes our brain, affects our “feel good” systems and leads to changes in health.
Two-thirds of the thousands of people that participated in the study reported at least one adverse experience. However, more than half of those reported multiple traumas. The number of these experiences that someone went through was also predicting certain behaviours. Someone who had more than one of these adverse childhood experiences was seven times more likely to develop an addiction, twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer and more likely to struggle with severe obesity, depression, promiscuity, heart or lung disease and have a shortened life span. More than six of these traumatic experiences increased the likelihood of attempted suicide 30-fold.
Let’s take this study and look at what is happening in Australia. Let’s look at the epidemics around us. There is an ice and drug epidemic. There is an obesity epidemic. Suicide is now the leading cause of death among our teenagers, not auto accidents which is second.
I posted on True North’s Facebook page yesterday about when we will see a mental health reform. It cannot be more needed than now. The problem is not the availability of ice or food as the rats and ACE study have shown. In the same way, the availability of a deck of cards does not make me any more likely to become a gambling addict.
The epidemic is not the drug. The epidemic is that today, we are seeing more and more people suffer and we are not picking them up. The stigma associated to mental health puts people in another cage. They are isolated and it is not helping. We are not collecting our wounded and traumatised colleagues.
If isolation and trauma can predict the onset of addiction, both for a rat and a person, then the answer is love and connection. This is the backbone of change. Connection. Although addictions push us away, we have to get closer. This will help us to understand the people we are trying to support and help them to heal.
During the Vietnam War many soldiers were using heroin on a daily basis. Many were addicted. However, when they came home 95% of those who used stopped and only a few went to rehab. The war was traumatising, anxiety-producing and an open invitation for addiction. Similar to the rats in the cage. But just like the rats that were moved to a better environment, the soldiers that were able to return home, to a safe and nurturing environment, began to heal.
Will Dobud MSW
During a session last night with a young male with Autism and learning differences, we did our regular “Mindfulness Moment” using one the apps I like to use. Of course there are times that we would practice mindfulness on our own but come on, it’s the 21st Century and some of these apps are incredible!
He completed his five-minute meditation and I asked him what had happened (he was wearing incredible, sound proof Bose headphones so I couldn't hear). He said that the focus was on Joy. He was asked to think joyous thoughts for one person that he respected, one person he felt neutral about and one person he despised. I asked who he picked.
He said that he felt joy for me and struggled thinking nicely about two kids in class who had been picking on him this week. He said, however, that while he was breathing he could feel his anger begin to boil towards them but, in this particulate moment, felt that he could breathe it out, let go and not take it personally.
Earlier this week I had another person in to see me struggling with life with drug abuse and a history of trauma from when he was a small child. We meditated together for our first ten minutes as he said that he was not feeling his best today. At 13, I was impressed that he was able to voice this.
After the session we talked about how drugs can become our safety blanket, giving us that sense of safety that we are craving but struggle to find in healthy ways. I asked him if there were times that he did not feel like using. He said that when he is with long-term friends from his childhood that do not use, during our sessions and during certain classes at school. While investigating this he said that all these places make him feel safe and not on edge.
Both of these young people were experiencing a difficulty and were able to ride it out without resorting to a patterned negative coping skill such as lashing out, ignoring the feeling or seeking something pleasure such as drugs or alcohol. Instead, we sat together with that emotion and both the intensity and duration of the experience diminished.
When working with parents I speak regularly about Dr Bruce Perry’s Three R’s and how they can help guide us to knowing what next to do. Instead of diving into a discussion about bullies or the harmful effects of drug abuse, both of these young people courageously resolved an inner conflict using mindfulness and by sitting with their difficulty.
I speak often about how important relationship is to psychotherapy and these are two good examples of why. Together, we were able to create an environment of safety and together, we experienced a challenging feeling and worked with it. This success has a better chance of repeating than does a pamphlet or worksheet. We experienced it working.
Experiencing these successes is key and I thank mindfulness for it. I’m now preparing for a session with a young person interested in yoga. I’m sure there is another blog coming soon.
I was reading a bit this morning about the Hero’s Journey and comparing that literature to my approach with adolescents. In the bush, we have a large focus of what happens next and are always looking at how we can make sure the positive effects of our program transfer to life at home.
I was speaking with a researcher in Sydney last week about this transfer and found his research to be so intriguing. Now we know that no matter what service we provide that the effects tend to diminish over time. This has been a real concern for out-of-home programs, like wilderness therapy, and why True North Expeditions puts such a large emphasis on follow-up support. But one thing we do not talk about much is how to make sure the positive effects of one-on-one counselling can endure.
The researcher I spoke with said that of all the fields of education that airplane pilots have the best outcomes when it comes to transferring knowledge from practice to real life experience (as a nervous flyer I should hope so). But how does this fit into therapeutic work? Let’s use the example of drugs and alcohol.
Many of the young people we see have struggled with drug abuse or addiction and benefit significantly from our 14-day program. Time away in a neutral environment provides them with ample time for reflection in one of the most supportive and nurturing setting. After becoming a successful team and feeling the benefits of being truly self-sufficient, our adolescents begin setting positive goals for themselves. They start to talk about life without the drugs and family conflicts. But they have not yet had the practice experience that leads to real world success.
The struggle I can see is that many programs stop here. They provide a session or two of “relapse-prevention” work and send the client on their way. While brainstorming with my colleague about a research project we had in mind we continued to say that all of these interventions, adventure therapy included, provided fantastic opportunities for young people to start down the right path. I have always called it the “Therapy Booster Shot” but never the band-aid or quick fix.
We have had the opportunity to live together building a strong relationship and setting achievable goals for success. However, our focus needs to be towards transferring the successes of life in the wild to life at home. Research suggests that this transfer is highly individualised and this is the approach we should take.
Start by looking at what’s working. See if you can increase those aspects. In the therapeutic setting, we may practice in real life situations. This is the real advantage of adventure therapy. If there is a participant feeling anxious or struggling, we get to work through it right then and there. We don’t have to wait until our next session, which, in some cases, can be days away.
For parents, I think that reminders of the goals your child set and ongoing encouragement is key. Change is always occurring and despite common setbacks, your child can always keep moving forward.
I use the analogy of a ladder or steps with adolescents that come in feeling as though they had not achieved their goals for the week. Say, for example, there was an argument at home and the child feels as though he or she had taken a step backwards.
You cannot go backwards if at first you were not a step ahead.
This is the key focus of follow-up support. Making sure that we are paying attention to the little victories occurring each day so that we are always a step ahead. Then, when it comes to that moment when a peer at school offers your child to skip class or when he is at a party where drugs are involved, he knows just how far he has come. The victories are still fresh and he is aware of them.
Making this transfer is difficult, for both the child and parent. We have put all of our attention towards it and work with families everyday to make sure that their child is returning home heroic and successful.
Will Dobud MSW
As I am currently in the throws of playing dog sitter for a friend overseas, I have been going on increased walks throughout each day. It was funny that this coincided with a post on our Facebook page about the effects walking has on our mental health and wellbeing. However, during these walks I tend to switch back and forth between listening to guided mindfulness meditations or listening to a podcast. Yesterday the podcast won the roll of the dice.
I was listening to an interview and the interviewee said something that really stuck with me. He said that his father taught him that in life he could be either the Thermostat or a Thermometer during difficult situations. Now all the adventure therapy folks out there know the value of a good metaphor and I think this is a great one. The thermostat regulates the temperature of our house while the thermometer reacts to it. Which one will you be?
I paused the podcast after hearing this metaphor and just let myself think of all the metaphors I could. Helping those around us is a big one. Here we go…
Think of a friend that is angry, or heated. If I am the thermometer then I may react and become heated as well. But if I choose to do the work of the thermostat, I may decide to try to help him cool down. Can I help him or her to chill out?
What if my brother is struggling with an intimate relationship and is feeling down, or cold and alone. This may have the effect of bringing me down but I can also be a person that brings warmth and light to his gloomy day.
Although we cannot force change onto another person we can be that someone, the thermostat, that brings them the warmth they need. There are days when its easier to be one or the other but I think that having this metaphor in my back pocket can be a simple reminder of the person I am striving for.
In our families, it’s easy for one person’s struggles to cause strife on the rest of the household. Making all of our metaphoric temperatures fluctuate. But if I am aware that at this time my role is to be the thermostat then I know I am going to be there for the children or spouse who needs me. That way when my personal temperature moves to a place that I’m uncomfortable with, they will be there for me.
I think this is a really great metaphor that can be used with people of all ages. Teaching our young people to not only be aware of physical discomforts but the emotional ones can help them to reflect on their “current temperature” at anytime.
In the bush I have drawn a thermometer in a young person’s journal as a way to see how they are feeling. Remember in cartoons when someone is so angry their thermometer bursts? This practice is not so concerned about what happens when the burst occurs but all the preventative things we can do before it happens.
So our challenge this week is to see what we can do to not only help regulate the temperatures of those around us but for ourselves. Not to react and get pulled in the deep end with those that need us most. Be the unconditional warmth to those that need it and the breath of fresh air for the challenges ahead.
Last night I visited a new parent support group in the Adelaide Hills for parents of all ages who had a son or daughter struggling with addiction. The group had already met once before and I kneww it could be awkward for a group leader to walk into a new room of individuals trying earn respect. So I sat and listened at first to the participants’ stories.
The group was created after one of the mother’s went to her local council and asked if they could create a group where parents could support each other and a specialist could come in to help come up with new ideas or provide some information about drug abuse and addiction. I was pleased to have been offered the opportunity to lead this group and came to the first session I could after coming back from the bush.
When asked to provide some background about my work experience I told them that I specialised in working with children, adolescents and provide support for parents as well. I told them that I knew I was the outsider and was honoured to have been welcomed into their group.
I went on to say that as this is my first session with you all I am more interested in what each individual thinks I can do to be the most helpful versus me coming in as some wise guru who will offer the best clinical advice. One father said he would like to learn skills about how to regulate his emotions as the issues at home are affecting him at work while another said she just wanted to feel inspired to keep trying new things to help her ailing son. I can do those things, I thought.
One mother told me that she was pleased to hear that I was open to feedback, as she had seen previous helpers who had simply given her lists or pamphlets of what she should do. She said that when it came to a stressful situation or conflict she could not remember what was on the list or simply just could not do those skills at those times.
Despite all the different feedback provided by the participants, I knew one thing to be certain. For any therapy to work, whether its group or individual, my techniques needed to marry with how that person sees change is going to happen in their life.
Many of the young people I see on a daily basis tell me that they have seen psychologists, social workers, counsellors, school workers etc. that have missed the opportunity of creating a strong relationship because they have not taken time to learn about how the person sitting with them sees change occurring.
While completing the program evaluation research we conducted for our adventure therapy program in 2014, my supervisor told me about a “cooperative enquiry” he did for a previous research project. What this means is that instead of him, the researcher, writing about his expert opinion, he wrote his article with two people that fit into his research group. I thought this was an amazing idea for adolescents. Make them the experts.
My next session, with a 16 year old who had lost his father when he was very young, I asked him what he thought has been the most helpful support he has gotten from all the previous clinicians he had seen. He said that he liked feeling welcomed and important and not lectured. I found this interesting because I feel the same way about most things in life. He said he could tell when there was a worker that truly wanted the best for him versus one that was there for a job.
I took his input on board and for each young person that comes to see me I ask them if there is anything that I should do to be helpful or anything I should not. This helps to know whether I am working with their strengths and under their direction and not just guessing what I think is best.
That will definitely miss the mark.