For many of us, life problems become so entrenched in our everyday life that they consume our thoughts and feelings. When we get stuck into these difficult patterns, solutions seem almost impossible to find.
Many of the parents I see in my practice have seen numerous helping professionals such as psychologists, counsellors and psychiatrists but haven’t seen the outcomes they had hoped for. There are still unsolved problems. Many of these parents feel lost and unsure of what their next step should be. They don’t see light at the end of the tunnel and feel worried every day and night about the wellbeing and safety of their child.
Now there are two sides of parenting an adolescent that is struggling with behavioural or emotional issues and we see these issues in the bush as well. Firstly, there is the “Crisis Management” aspect involving managing those angry outbursts and oppositional behaviour. The second is all about where we focus our attention. That is what this blog is about.
One of my assumptions as a solution-focused therapist is that “Change in inevitable.” Things cannot stay the same. But the truth is that this is all a matter of how we choose to see things. I recommend pulling out your imaginary magnifying glass and emphasising the times where things are going a bit better than usual. In our clinical work, this is called “Searching for Exceptions.”
This, for example, is when our child seems less depressed or less angry. Or the class in school our child actually enjoys attending, and why? Is there a day that you don’t fight with your partner as much? What happened that day that made a difference? Can we do more of it?
This is hard to do but we have created an easy to use worksheet that you can use each week to find these exceptions and help to amplify them. When I review this worksheet each week with one of my clients we talk about exceptions that were important to them and see what it took to make this happen. If we have more awareness about what we did, how we did it and why we did it, we will feel more in control about doing it again.
Here is how you can do it this week step by step.
1) Think of an exception that happened this week. For example, a time when you didn't feel so angry or felt happy in your relationship.
2) How did you feel when this exception was happening?
3) What did you, or someone else, do to make this exception happen?
4) What do you have to do in order to make it happen again?
I like to use a fun metaphor for the last question. Think of a recipe for your favourite dinner or dessert. Some complicated dishes can have a lot of ingredients and methods to get to the final product. Think of your exceptions this way.
Lets say you had a conversation with your son and he didn't get angry or explosive with you. What were the ingredients that made this happen? You can even ask him this question as well if you’re still in conversation with him.
The point for us is that there is always an exception to the problem but we have to be there to find it. Then we can try to make those exceptions happen a bit more often. This will help you to de-stress, feel happier and more centered.
If you would like to learn more about solution-focused approaches, finding exceptions or would like help in finding new solutions, feel free to contact us. For families living in Adelaide we have a beautiful counselling suite that you can visit. For those living interstate, ask us today about our 14-day adventure therapy program for adolescents and learn more about what services are available for you.
Will Dobud MSW
True North Expeditions
I cannot say enough about how great it is to see meditation and mindfulness apps surface during the last decade. With everyone having smart phones, its now easier than ever for people to gain some clarity during their busy lives.
Not only do I use these apps personally but they are incredibly useful during counselling sessions. A lot of children I see have heard of meditation or mindfulness but think of it as something that adults try to persuade them to do as an alternative to acting out, getting angry or feeling depressed. I don’t think this is a very good sell.
Emily wrote last week about connecting body and mind with the girls on our August Expedition and these apps are great ways to help this process. During any given session, whether its in the bush or in my counselling suite in Adelaide, I offer these apps on the iPad or iPhone to clients for them to try.
Just yesterday I was working with a 17-year-old boy on some anger management strategies and I offered a quick meditation for him to try. We spoke about how it can be helpful to practice with guided meditations before practicing mindful breathing on our own. He enjoyed his 8 minute meditation before we drank green tea and talked about how he felt calmer and more relaxed. It changed the entire second half of our session into a relaxed experience with less blaming of others and more insight into our own personal feelings. Here are the apps we use:
1) Headspace – This is my personal favourite. Not to be confused with Australia’s national mental health service, this app, created by meditation teacher Andy Puddicombe, gives 10 free meditations lasting 10 minutes each. These are incredibly practical and great for beginners. There is no need for previous experience. I love it. There are great videos in the app that teach us how just 10 minutes of mindfulness can help us think more clearly and de-stress. Definitely worth it!
2) Smiling Mind – One of my younger clients taught me about Smiling Mind. I offered him a Headspace meditation and he asked if I had hear of Smiling Mind before. I downloaded it immediately. This app provides more interactive meditations such as guided imagery, quick check-ins and many mindfulness experiences. This app provides mindfulness meditations for all ages divided up between children, adolescents and adults. This app would be great in schools and has been very useful with my younger clients that may benefit from more mindfulness experiences.
3) Stop, Breathe & Think – This is the newest to my collection and I’ve loved it. My favourite part is the feelings check-in. If I am unsure of which of their many meditations I should try then I complete a quick survey telling the app which feelings I am currently experiencing. As a “feelings professional” I like that there are many feelings to choose from, not just happy, sad or tired. It's quite comprehensive. The app then gives me a list of meditations that may be good for me at this time. Today I completed a 6 minute meditation focused on gratitude and wellbeing and I’m feeling refreshed and tuned in.
Whether or not you’re an experienced meditator or a beginner, these apps can help bring some freshness to your day. They’re free and worth it. Let me know how you do! Likewise, if you’d like to come to our Adelaide counselling office and talk about brining more mindfulness into your life you can schedule that here or email me. I'd love to hear from you.
Do you have a favourite app that I should know about? Send it to me!
Recently we have been talking about Dr Bruce Perry’s Three R’s: Regulate, Relate and Reason and how we use this framework in the bush when working with children and adolescents. Our post about the first R: Regulate, discussed how our higher level reasoning and ability to think rationally can be affected during times of emotional distress and anxiety. For us to find light at the end of the tunnel, we need to first help regulate difficult emotions. Only then can we complete Dr Perry’s other two R’s.
In a nutshell, therapy does not work without a relationship. Research regularly indicates that the relationship built between the practitioner and client is the best predictor of a positive outcome, not the therapist’s orientation or the program’s model.
This is why with True North Expeditions everything we do relates to Dr Gabor Mate’s quote saying that we need to “collect them before we direct them.” If there is no relationship there is no therapy.
Before worrying about survival skills, such as fire making or navigating with a map or compass, program leaders focus solely on earning the young person’s trust and building a strong alliance.
Spending time in nature itself is very regulating. In the bush we are exercising, eating well and getting healthy amounts of sleep. All of these factors help us to remain regulated and emotionally stable. This calmness, with the addition of caring and nurturing professionals, gives us the perfect ingredients for Dr Perry’s first two R’s.
Many parents ask us how we can build a strong relationship with adolescents that have seen multiple psychologists and counsellors before. Using a relationship rating scale each night of the program, we actually welcome the child’s feedback and allow them to let us know if we are helping and what we can do to be more effective.
By giving adolescents the chance to score us on our listening, our approach, what we talk about and overall connection, we take all the guessing out of how to build the best connection. Additionally, this creates a relationship that welcomes honest feedback and change.
Imagine seeing your therapist change for you…for your needs…for your strengths. This is empowering.
In our 2014 Program Evaluation Research parents wrote anonymously that their child had never had the connection with a practitioner until they came to the bush. Participants wrote that they felt comfortable enough, or regulated, to talk about whatever was on their mind. They felt trusted, cared for and as if the program leaders had their back.
I said in the beginning that therapy does not happen if we do not have a relationship and if the child is not regulated. The relationship is the best predictor of a positive outcome and is what practitioners should emphasise more often.
Next time, I will write about what we do once we have this strong relationship with participants that are able to regulate themselves during times of stress. What does “Reasoning” really mean and how do we do it?
Earlier this month I travelled with Emily Scott, another True North practitioner, to the states to participate with the 7th International Adventure Therapy Conference, or 7IATC. We arrived on the 4th and spent time catching up with our colleagues Lynn Van Hoof from Belgium and Leiv Einar Gabrielsen and Carina Ribe Fernee from Norway. We had gotten to know these European friends from their visits over the last few years to learn more about Australian adventure therapy programs.
I felt fortunate to be accepted as a presenter at the conference and presented Friday morning about “Connection before Correction” and how important relationship is in therapeutic work. I provided a small packet of therapeutic activities Emily and I have found useful and enjoyed connecting with the various professionals and students that came to see our presentation.
One thing that was abundantly clear was that the adventure therapy community is one of the most gracious, caring and supportive communities you can find. Of course, we have known this as this is one factor that drew us into this work but it was emphasised by all the astonishing people we got to spend the week with. Despite our feverish debate as academics and disagreements on research or practice methods one thing was certain. We were lucky enough to spend time in rooms learning with people who were motivated by nothing more than simply helping other people.
This enthusiasm was inspiring. It reminded me of the simple things that work in therapy. When people connect with each other really important things happen. This is really the whole philosophy behind “Connection before Correction” and why programs don’t change people, People Change People.
Most exciting announcement is that the 8th International Adventure Therapy Conference will be held in Sydney 2018.
Last week I wrote a short blog about Dr Bruce Perry and the Three R’s: Regulate, Relate & Reason. Dr Perry’s neurological focus has clarified how the brain operates during times of stress, anxiety and really any emotionally heightened time. Due to so much interest from our followers, I thought it would be good to open further dialogue into what the Three R’s really mean and how to implement them.
In a nutshell, the brain cuts off our ability to significantly relate and reason through our problems. This often causes more challenges. Especially for children and teenagers.
As neuroscience gives us more and more research about the brain, there is further justification for adventure therapy programs and how they may help our troubled teenagers. This post will talk briefly about the first R – Regulate.
Helping our participants become centred and feel safe is our first priority during our expeditions. Some may feel anxious about attending the program, meeting new people and being away from home. In the first few days, our goal is 100% about regulating emotions and building a sound relationship for us to work from.
There are many things in therapy that work for some but not all. What works for me may not be the thing that works for you. But the truth is there are some things that help all of us stay regulated. In the adventure therapy setting, they tend to be quite obvious.
Sleep: After our first or second hike into the Southern Flinders Ranges our group starts to adapt to a sleep cycle that often consists of heading to sleep between 8:30-9 and waking up at first light. Sufficient sleep is crucial for the treatment of depression, anxiety, stress and other mood disorders.
Exercise: Hiking each day provides our adolescents with a plentiful amount of exercise and movement. Earlier this week we posted an article on our Facebook page about Music and Rhythm being so important for a healthy brain. By hiking and exercising daily, our groups start that process of settling our emotional systems and begin feeling great.
A Predictable Environment: The consistency of the adventure therapy setting is absolutely fundamental to its success. Almost all adolescents engaged with our program leave feeling as though they could be themselves and didn’t need substances or superficial modifiers to help them socially. The reason for this is that adolescents thrive in environments that have predictable boundaries. That is, everything is ok as long as we are inside these walls. It makes them feel safe.
Nurturing & Caring Adults: Being an adventure therapy program, we are often thrown in with boot camps and other youth programs. True North Expeditions is a relationship-focused program. We are here to understand not prescribe, to learn not preach, and to provide an environment that allows children to thrive.
My favourite example of this nurturing environment comes from the metaphor of a plant. If I have a plant in my garden that is struggling, gasping for life, it is not going to be my job to yell, lecture or punish this plant. Instead, I need to think clearly about the environment this plant is living in and how I can set it up for the best chance of success.
Next week we will be continuing to discuss Dr Perry’s Three R’s and how relationship can help more than anything to bring about new success and change.
Sarah, a 14 year old from Sydney, came to True North Expeditions in late 2014 after her parents became worried about her self-harming behaviours of cutting and smoking cigarettes with a negative influencing group of friends. Although she did not wish to attend the adventure program she agreed to go just to “get her mum off her back.”
In the first few days of the program, the group hiked through the rugged mountains of the Flinders Ranges. Sarah struggled to get along with the other girls and didn’t see a point to the program. She cried at night saying that she wished her life hadn’t come to this point and that she missed her family at home.
After the third night of the program, Sarah woke to say she had just had the best sleep since she could remember. She felt more energised and said that she hadn’t felt this alive since she’s been feeling numb for over a year. She sat with Emily, one of program leaders, on the side of a mountain and they talked. Laughing and drawing in their journals, they spoke of her strengths and ways she could use them to overcome adversity and build resilience. The practiced new ways to self-regulate and stay calm and clear.
Much of our program’s philosophy comes from the work of Dr Bruce Perry and his experience in working with traumatised children across America. Dr Perry’s research on the brain has led to remarkable breakthroughs for educators, psychologists and anyone providing helping services to children and families. The real breakthrough is his work in using literature on the brain’s development to tailor-fit interventions that really help children and adolescents grow.
Important to this process is the Three R’s, or Regulate, Relate, Reason. A lot of us think that we should “Relate” with children before we attempt to regulate difficult emotions. There are also times where we try to “Reason” with them creating a battle of wills where we may yell, command or punish. However, research has indicated that children who are stressed and anxious struggle to use the parts of their brain that allow for strong relationships and rational reasoning.
So our first step, before relationships or therapy can occur, is to help our children to feel calm and regulated. Being a relationship-focused program, our practitioners focus heavily on relationships that are built on genuine trust and mutual respect, not authority or teaching. Although Dr Perry’s research is fairly modern, Carl Rogers has been saying this since the 1960s. Unconditional positive regard and genuine warmth are the best relationship building tools we have. And a nurturing environment helps children to stay regulated.
There are no bad kids that need fixing or children that are just a diagnosis or effected by this trauma or that. There is a person that we can help but only if we are connected. This is where the reasoning comes in.
Some participants struggle to adapt to life in the bush during one of our 14-day adventure therapy programs. Instead of letting them suffer, as some programs do, science tells us that we need to help them become calm and clear. It is only at this time that true psychotherapy begins.
Last week a new client came to our practice to work individually with me. He has struggled academically and has regular fights at home. For him, and his parents, this felt like any ordinary appointment that they had become so used to after spending the last few years scanning for the perfect professional to help bring more happiness and togetherness into their home.
I introduced myself to the 14 year old and brought him back, with his parents, into my small counselling office. I told the boy that I wanted to get an idea of how he was feeling about certain things in life and gave him a short four-question survey to rate how he is feeling individually, about home and how he feels about school.
I let him know that if I was going to do anything during our time together that I just wanted to be useful. I let him know that if I did things that didn’t work, felt uncomfortable or seemed to not fit that he could tell me so that I did not do “more of the same”. I asked him to tell me what other counsellors or psychologists had done that may have been annoying or maybe just didn’t work so that I could avoid them.
After his parents left, we talked about how things were going at home. He talked about fights, getting in trouble and wishing that there would be less conflict. We talked about ideas of what to do but he felt that these conflicts were out of his control. He said he wanted to feel less anxious about social situations, more independent and less depressed.
As our initial session came to an end I gave him another short questionnaire to provide a rating for how he viewed me and our time together. When asked if he felt listened to he rated me a 7.42 out of 10. Although a rating is just a rating and may not mean much, when I reached out to his parents to schedule our second session they reported feeling more hopeful than ever. That in the car after our first session he talked about feeling safe, listened to and that there is a connection that has not been present before.
We had our second session this week. He scored me a 9 of 10 on listening. Things are improving. I asked him why he scored that and he reported that it makes him feel as though he is the centre of attention while we are together and that there is no issue that should not be discussed.
One of our biggest theories in working with people, whether its those who have never been to a helping professional or seasoned therapy veterans, is that we need to create a relationship that is open to honest feedback. If we are doing something that is not useful to the child or family then there is little point in doing it. It will not be helpful.
To be useful, we need to allow our clients to be the best judge of the experience and allow our time together to be as meaningful as possible. This is when people begin to feel confident enough to change and build a higher quality of life.
As traditional therapy goes, a client comes to our office, sits and talks about some of the areas in life that they would like to improve. For children and teenagers specifically, this could be conflict in the family, school difficulties or feelings of depression and anxiety. For the one-hour session, the client may learn new strategies for handling their difficulties or spend time finding out why certain patterns have emerged. A plan would then be created for how the client can best manage their life for the next seven days until they return for next week’s session. The important message here is that the most important changes occur outside of the therapist’s office!
One of the reasons we use Adventure Therapy or Experiential Therapy techniques with our clients is to make our office as important of a time for their growth as necessary. The difference is that instead of talking about what changes we will make and doing the changes.
Research has suggested that the repetition of desired outcomes is important for long-term change. Giving adolescents the chance to act out their desired change may be a key to success. It may also be an effective alternative for those that have been to see traditional therapists without much gain.
During our expeditions we see many students struggling with family life at home. Their behaviours have gotten worse and the atmosphere at home is restless. While in the bush, our groups need to function like a team to practice survival and accomplish group tasks. For the adolescent that struggles in this area at home, he or she is given a time where they can operate as a team with the support of helping professionals. Instead of talking about teamwork, empathy or responsibilities, we are doing all these things and helping the participant to reflect and review on how they went during each initiative.
Because of the nurturing environment and genuine relationships built during our program, our students feel comfortable reflecting on how they have done with each experience and build more insights that could help them to become successful. Upon returning home, we continue supporting the adolescent and keep this feedback going. Each time the adolescent is successful, out of the office, the better chance we have for them to be successful again. In this light, we actually learn more from our successes than our failures.
Steve's mother called True North Expeditions during her lunch break to learn more about their programs and if they could help her struggling son. She had been growing more and more concerned about Steve's attitude and behaviour and was hoping there was something that could help to break this cycle. Steve had before been really interested in sports and hobbies like music and art but had seemed to become more and more disinterested in doing these things.
At 16 years old, Steve's school performance had begun to drop and she had noticed that he was smoking and drinking more often and not coming home at night. He was not engaging at home and it seemed that he thought of home as only a place to eat, sleep and shower. If his mother tried to talk with him, he would become angry and loud and sometimes slam doors or punch a wall.
Steve's mother told the team at True North that she felt like this program was the right thing to do but was certain that he would hate her for it. The team assured her that this was a very normal feeling and that they would take care of helping Steve feel welcomed to the program despite him not wanting to attend. After a conversation at home, mum told Steve that there was an adventure program that he would be attending in the coming weeks. Steve was angry about the idea but his mother insisted that he attend as she knew that it was normal for teenagers to not want to engage in a therapeutic service.
Finally the day came for Steve to attend his 14-day adventure therapy program. He did not know what to expect and probably just wanted to get it out of the way. He really did not think there was much that he needed to change or deal with. Instead, he just wanted to get his parents and school off his back.
During the first day he felt a little bit homesick and missed life at home but still noticed that True North's program leaders were actually kind of cool adults that we kind of fun. He talked with the head guide and said that he wasn't sure if he was going to enjoy the program or even finish it. The guide insured him that they would be able to get through it and that them getting to know each other was just the thing that is most important right now.
After the first week Steve noticed that he had not really been thinking about home as often as he was in the beginning. The time was actually starting to move really fast and although he did not want to admit it, he really liked the program leaders and felt as though they understood him and what he had been going through. He had been writing letters with his mother throughout the adventure and was beginning to realise how hard she was trying to help him. He was not sure what to do when he would get home but he had some vision of what life would be like. He told the program leaders that he wanted things to be calmer and less chaotic at home. He did not want to be so angry anymore.
During the final days of the trip, spent relaxing at a beach house on Yorkes Peninsula, Steve worked with the head guide to create a list of some of the things he was hoping to make happen upon returning home. He knew he had goals for himself but he also felt there were people he probably should not hang out with anymore and things he should do when he feels nervous or stressed.
Upon returning home Steve and his mother felt a much stronger connection than before. She noticed a brightness in his eyes that she hadn't since she couldn't remember. Maybe when he was playing soccer or guitar. She noticed that he communicated his experience with her and that he loved the experience. He felt successful learning to light a fire without matches and setting up a shelter with just a sheet of plastic. He learned how to navigate and wrote in his journal everyday about all the things he had been thinking. He said that the program leaders were very funny and goofy but also demonstrated that they cared about what he was going through and challenged him to be the best person he could be. He said that they treated him like a man.
After a few weeks of things going really well Steve had a slip. He got caught up with some of his negative peers on a Friday night and decided to drink with them. The next day he told his mum and they schedule a time for Steve to talk with the program leaders about it. The staff that Steve had trusted let him know that a slip backwards would not be called slip if there was no progress previously. Steve knew that he had done really well but didn't want it all to be nothing. He felt motivated again and felt back on track.
Steve's grades have improved and his mother notices that whenever Steve is angry or frustrated that she is able to help him through it quicker with a positive outcome. Steve has some new friends on his sports team and is actually planning to return to True North this year as a mentor in order to help other teenagers that are going on the program for the first time. He thinks that he can offer his own story and positivity as something to help motivate them to make their own life changes as well.