Five Ways Parents Negatively Impact Children During a Divorce

colt and mare
How parents do not help their children in divorces and what to do instead
I realize not everyone who reads this blog has children or is getting a divorce. However, I see quite a few children who are in the midst of ugly custody battles and I want to let readers know about the negative impact it has on children. Even if children and adolescents don’t exhibit signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the stress from a disrupted family can worsen existing mental health issues or give rise to new symptoms. Such symptoms can include acting younger than their chronological age (bed wetting, soiling, temper tantrums) and aggression. I have seen a few things that parents do in the midst of a divorce, or even during ongoing custody battles, that can really damage children’s sense of security and wellbeing.

Divorce is usually painful for everyone involved. The partners who are divorcing are in pain because their vision of happily ever after is being broken. Sometimes divorce is a mutual decision that is handled with dignity and grace. Yet often it’s a rough, scary, painful, maddening experience. Infidelity, substance abuse, failed promises and dashed expectations often further complicate the situation. The focus can easily become the parents’ pain; when this happens children get short shrift.

It’s very hard for adults to cope with this. If a parent is having a hard time with the pain, it’s a good idea to get some professional help so that it doesn’t impact their children. That seems the responsible thing to do. Some people also find it helpful to lean on religious leaders in their place of worship or trusted friends and family members. Relying on family and friends can be tricky, however, as such sources of support may not be able to stay objective and be completely honest the way a professional can.

That being said, it is important to remember that in most cases, children do not want their parents to divorce. They want security, predictability, consistency, and support. Many children and adolescents complain to me about having two separate homes with two separate standards of living, rules, chores, etc. Unless their parents are constantly arguing viciously in front of them or ignoring each other, it is not a relief for them to be in the middle of a divorce. For children and adolescents, divorce can be the end of their security and a big upheaval.

Depending on their developmental stage, children usually do not understand what is going on a lot of the time. They are confused, sometimes blaming themselves, and at other times blaming one or the other parents. Children and parents alike often feel angry, sad, scared, lonely, hurt. It is important to not add the parents’ turmoil and hurt feelings to what the children feel. Adults generally have better coping skills and resources than children do, and so it is important for parents to be a resource and not a burden to their children during these trying times.

It stands to reason that this is a good time to think about children too and how parents’ actions affect the children. Here is a list of don’ts that will hopefully prevent harming children during divorce.

1. It may seem obvious to some, but one parent speaking negatively about the other parent is a really bad idea. This may not necessarily take the form of outright insults, but also look like encouraging the children to not listen to their other parent, disobeying them, disrespecting them, and gossiping about the other parent as if the children were peers or friends that the parent could vent to. That is not the case. When you insult or disrespect the other parent, you are a) insulting half of the child, because he or she was raised, until now, by both parents; b) encouraging the child to rupture and/or degrade their relationship with their other parent; and c) dumping your negative opinion of the parent onto the child. They don’t need to know what happened between you, or what complaints you have about the other parent.

2. In the same vein, treating the child as a personal confidante is hurtful. When parents use children as their friends or tell children too much information about the divorce, it forces them into an adult role and makes them take care of the adult, which is sometimes called “parentification.” Parents need a calm, objective, wise adult to talk to, not a child. The child needs to be allowed to be concerned with his or own well being. Children don’t need to know about how much money mom or dad is paying to the other parent, whether parents cheated on each other, how much their activities and needs cost, or what the parents think about each other. Their job is to go to school, do their activities, have friends, do their chores, and grow up to be healthy and happy. That’s it. Too often I see parents pulling their children into the middle in various ways, including disclosing unnecessary details of the divorce to the child or adolescent. If the parent is bitter, angry or hurt, get professional help to sort through the pain of the divorce without foisting it onto the child.

3. Spoiling the kids with gifts and trips is another way that parents can manipulate children into choosing one side or another. This is almost a cliche by now, so many parents try to buy their children’s affection and manipulate the child into taking his or her side against the other in the divorce. This behavior coerces the child’s allegiance when there is no need for such false loyalty. Additionally, spoiling makes it very difficult for the parent who can’t afford it and creates unrealistic expectations for the children. Another way parents can spoil their children is a lack of boundaries and rules. If a child can do whatever s/he wants at Dad’s house but has to do homework and chores at Mom’s, whose house do you think will the child want to visit more often? This is even more hurtful because it can create confusion and behavioral problems that “only happen at your house, not mine.” No one is a winner in this situation.

4. Along the same lines, children often respond negatively to the parent who enforces rules and expectations. S/he may tell the parent, “I don’t have to do this at Mom’s/Dad’s house!” This may seem on the surface an attempt to get his/her way. But it is also a way to test boundaries and see if there is consistency in his/her environment. What can a parent do if a person’s ex-spouse’s parenting style is completely different? A responsible parent can explain to the child that the reason for his/her chosen form of discipline is so that the child can grow up to be healthy, responsible and ultimately have a good life. Sometimes that means that children do not get to do what they want right now. However, there’s no need to be too strict with children, so do give them their own free time when they have earned it. All humans, regardless of age, need to be able to play and work throughout their lives.

5. Parents are sometimes more concerned about what lawyers and judges think of them than doing what is right for their children. Their desire to “win” in court (whether it means more custody/visitation or paying less child support) comes at the expense of your child’s development and well-being. In this situation, parents can easily lose sight of what children need, such as children spending time with an attentive, stable, consistent parent instead of being with a babysitter or by themselves. Such parents often are very conscious of how things appear to judges and lawyers in Family Court. They act superficially and bend the truth, or worse yet get their children to lie. These parents lose sight of the fact that the human beings involved — their children — don’t care who wins. Such parents are usually competitive, less than mature, and not open to compromise for the best interests of the children. As a result, the children once again suffer because their parents are caught up in their own insecurity and pain. I have also seen parents stoop as low as to coach their children what say in therapy and make up false allegations of child abuse. The child abuse social workers have plenty of work with real cases to investigate without using Department of Child and Family Services to smear the other parent.

In closing, here are some things to remember. The primary goal is to make divorce and separation less stressful on children and adolescents and to help children avoid blaming themselves or the other parent for the divorce. Blaming rarely solves anything in life, and least of all in matters of the heart. The divorce is between the two adults, and the children are just unfortunately along for the ride. Adults who are hurt from the divorce should get their own psychotherapy so that they can cope effectively and not let this negatively impact their sons or daughters. It is important to think about the bigger picture – what will help the child, above everything else.

When parents claim they are perfect and never have any problems with discipline, they do not fool anyone. Every parent, no matter how good, has times when they are frustrated with their children. Sometimes the frustration gets the better of them. If they can take a step back and keep their tempers in check, that is what is important. Children do best when their parents can communicate civilly and effectively with ex-spouses when necessary. This helps the child have consistency and security. Children like to know that someone is in charge and that their parents are going to keep them safe. Sparing them drama is crucial to reducing stress for the child.

Learning Emotional Literacy

How do we make best use of emotions when they arise? How can we turn them into useful allies instead of pesky interference from the body?

As a culture, we are not big on identifying, naming and allowing for our own emotional responses to stimuli. We seem more prone to suppress emotions until they become unbearable to hold in, and then act them out in undesirable behaviors or until they become calcified into negative mood states and physical maladies. Wouldn’t it be nice to prevent that calcification and allow our feelings to flow through us instead?

I think that as early as possible, we should teach children how to identify their feelings accurately, tolerate them, and express them appropriately. Many children are taught that when they express their emotions, they are being “bad” or “naughty.” Really, they are doing their best to let the grownups in their lives know that something needs paying attention. We need to teach them better ways of expressing their feelings that are age-appropriate. If we teach them that their feelings are wrong, they grow up suppressing them or acting them out and cannot enjoy life the way they are meant to. It’s up to us to help them turn their emotions from these powerful forces they don’t understand, to acceptable and even helpful signals in their bodies that they can make wise decisions about.

Emotions are there to alert us to something that’s happening within us or in our environments. They can be powerful allies that protect us from harm, allow us to enjoy life, and grieve our losses. We do not have to fear them any more than we fear breathing, digesting food, or going to the bathroom. They are a natural, healthy part of our bodily systems and we need to make space for noticing and experiencing them. We do not need to act on them all the time, which some people mistakenly think is part of this equation. Instead, the more mindful we are of them, the better we can decide what to do with them when they arise.

Since many of you reading this blog may not have had emotional literacy training as children, it may be harder to make up for what you didn’t get as children. Nonetheless, I believe it’s never too late to learn how to deal with emotions in a healthy way. This is by no means a comprehensive piece on how to achieve emotional literacy, but I can put out a basic map of where your journey might lead you.

Identify your feelings

First, you need to be able to identify when emotions are coming up. Some people do not know the words that go along with the feelings so you might want to familiarize yourselves with the basics. Of course, there are sad, mad, happy, scared, the strong emotions that most of us are able to identify readily. But if even that seems foreign, then you can start with what’s happening in your body.

Mindfulness is a good place to start. When you feel tightness in your chest, your arms feel like moving outward, and you feel flushed in the face, what might that be expressing? If you feel like hurting someone else or hitting something then you’re probably angry. If you feel a fluttery sensation in your stomach, your breathing is restricted or rapid and shallow, and you feel light-headed as a result, then you’re probably experiencing fear. These are just two examples of matching physical sensations with emotions that can signal to you that your emotions are activated. Sometimes, people can just describe what’s happening in their bodies at first. That’s fine, it is a good place to start. As you become more emotionally literate, you start to link the feeling names to the body sensations… and then you’re cooking with gas!

What pushes your buttons?

Next, you notice what you tend to do when emotions get activated. You notice that you might snap at people when you are mad, cry when you are sad, or avoid certain situations when you are scared. This awareness allows you to take the next step, which is noticing what the consequences of your behavior are, and deciding if they are helping you or hurting you in life. If your tendency is to self-harm or drink alcohol when you feel angry or sad, then that probably is not helpful in the long run. If you tend to lash out or snap at people, you may lose friendships or hurt other important relationships; that is also a behavior you might want to discard. There is no need to judge or insult yourself for having these behaviors. You simply notice them and their effect on your life.

Conscious choices!

Next comes the exciting part. Once you notice which behaviors go with which feelings, and which ones you want to keep or discard, you can start to make informed decisions about what to do when the feelings come up. When you get mad at someone, you might pause and say, “I’m feeling angry. I know this because my fists are balled up and I’m feeling flushed in the face. I want to hit this person, but I can’t because I’ll get in trouble. I also want to yell at them but that will damage our relationship. What can I do instead?” This is an important juncture in your decision-making ability that signals a more sophisticated level of emotional literacy. Instead of acting out (hitting, yelling) or acting in (self-harming, saying mean things to yourself), you can express your anger directly but respectfully. You might need assertiveness training to learn how to do this, but it’s great that you can get to this point when you can make wise mind decisions (to use a phrase from Dialectical Behavior Therapy). When you observe your feelings nonjudgmentally, you have a better chance of making decisions that will benefit you and the people around you.

Therapy can be a great place to start the process of gaining emotional literacy. It provides a safe place where you can risk expressing emotions that you might have learned were “unacceptable” or “bad” by caregivers growing up. It is helpful to identify these feelings, especially long-buried ones, with someone else’s help. It doesn’t feel quite as lonely and scary that way. When you have emotional literacy, you can do deeper levels of therapy more easily and resolve trauma and grief with more self-assurance that you will not get emotionally overwhelmed. Emotional literacy is also helpful for everyday life, keeping you from getting in trouble with people in your life like your boss, partner, friends, etc. If you need help achieving emotional literacy, please give me a call. I would love to help.

Medically Unexplained Illnesses: It is not just all in your head!

Having a stigmatized chronic illness can make it more challenging to cope with illness. This is an introduction to CFS, FMS, and MCS, all medically unexplained illnesses. Having compassion and greater understanding for people with these conditions, may help sufferers reduce their stress.

Some chronic illnesses have specific titles, treatments and are much more easily understood by medical professionals. They have a consistent set of diagnostic criteria and so they are easy to diagnose, treat, and maintain. More research is done to find drugs and treatments that help with their treatment, and so while they are not curable, they are treatable and people can have a fairly decent quality of life with those illnesses. Some examples are diabetes, thyroid disease, osteoarthritis, and some psychiatric disorders like depression and Bipolar illness.

However, there are some illnesses, like Fibromyalgia (FMS), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), whose symptoms are not well-understood by medical professionals, and since those symptoms overlap with other disorders and don’t lend themselves well to specific diagnosis, they don’t get as much research funding and effort. Their causes are also not well understood either. Some of the hypotheses about their origin include viruses, childhood trauma, injury, psychiatric disorders like depression and PTSD, and chemical reactions gone awry. The fact that the disorders are not well-understood does not mean that the disorders are any less distressing to sufferers. It also does not mean that they are simply “psychosomatic” (i.e., psychiatric symptoms masquerading or perceived as physical disorders). There has been a great deal of struggle to gain legitimacy in the medical field for people who suffer Medically Unexplained Syndromes (MUPS), as people with these conditions have an added stress of not being believed by family, friends and medical professionals. If they could point to a well-defined diagnostic label like cancer or arthritis, they might have a chance to be believed by others. Some prominent medical researchers have suggested that these disorders are purely psychological and that if they just got Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, they would be fine. However, as anyone who has coped with fatigue, joint pain, cognitive dysfunction (like poor memory and concentration), or extreme discomfort after chemical exposure can attest, it is not just “all in your head.” Other people demean MUPS symptoms as “just being lazy” or “the yuppy flu.”

Fibromyalgia is perhaps one of the relatively better-researched MUPS and is characterized by joint pain in 11 of 18 tender points on the body, fatigue, insomnia, and at times cognitive dysfunction, like mental “fogginess” that makes it hard to concentrate, focus, or remember things. Many people with Fibromyalgia are limited in what they can do, how they can move, and sometimes even their employment opportunities and capacities are severely hampered by their symptoms.

Similarly, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome can negatively impact fulfilling social and occupational roles, and sometimes they have to apply for disability as they struggle to even achieve minimal activities of daily living. CFS has many similar symptoms to FMS (fatigue, cognitive problems, joint discomfort) but also can result in tender lymph nodes, flu-like symptoms, and “post-exertion malaise” which means that if a person does too much during the day, s/he feels even worse for the next day to a week. You may be able to see how this could interfere with holding down a job, raising children, having a social life, or running a household. While these disorders usually affect women, men can also be affected. Children and adolescents can become ill with CFS and FMS too, although it is much rarer.  Most of the studies on CFS and FMS that have been done involve adults from 40-60 years old. It affects all socioeconomic classes as well as ethnicities.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) is perhaps the most controversial of the MUPS and while it shares a few symptoms with FMS and CFS, it is more focused on negative reactions to exposure to chemicals in everyday products. Some of those products include cigarette smoke, gasoline, solvents, perfume, clothing dyes, dryer sheets, cleaning agents, pesticides, and hairspray. People have a range of symptoms when exposed to these types of chemicals, including respiratory problems, skin rashes, headaches, and cognitive problems. People with FMS and CFS sometimes have a sensitivity to smells, but it is not a defining feature of either of those conditions. Because there have been some studies where people failed to show increased sensitivity to certain agents in a laboratory, some medical professionals regard MCS as merely a psychosomatic illness. However, the reactions are real, cause physical and mental distress, and sufferers are not merely imagining what they experience. Instead of invalidating people’s experience, it seems more beneficial when doctors, friends, and workplaces can work with people who are sensitive to smells to make them comfortable, happy and productive. Other people might not perceive the same smells as threatening because they get no physical reaction. However, there are a number of factors that might contribute to some people’s extra sensitive reactions.

This is been an overview of medically unexplained illnesses, which are often chronic and with uncertain prognoses. Many of these illnesses overlap in symptoms, but the sufferers have very real struggles in meeting their life roles and functioning well. Hopefully, with more understanding, research, and compassion, we can make their experience a little better and a little less stressful. I will be writing about them more in future blog posts, in specific the link between psychological factors and physical symptoms of these illnesses. If you need help in coping with your chronic illness, please do not hesitate to call me at 661-233-6771.

A Piece of Me Went With You

Losing a loved one is hard enough, but when you feel as though a part of you died too, it makes it even harder to cope with the loss. When you’ve lost someone you have known for many years and very intimately, your personality is influenced by that person, and vice versa. Sharing a life together, as family members and spouses do, makes it hard to distinguish where your personality is distinct from the other person’s. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you have good boundaries. If you know your own mind, your own wants and needs, and are comfortable setting limits in order to protect yourself from unwanted intrusions, then having parts of another woven into the tapestry of your personality can be a welcome addition. Sometimes a mellow person can take the edge off their angry, sharp-tongued mate, or a bold, assertive family member can encourage their loved one to be more self-assured and outspoken. These bits of the other person shine through in the tapestry when necessity calls for it, and also when we make a conscious choice to emulate that loved one’s best qualities. Sometimes it’s automatic and unconscious, however; we are influenced without even knowing it. Of course, in the case of family members influencing each other, there is a genetic component that is also unconscious and at times mysterious.

I often hear from clients who have lost a spouse or long-term lover, “I can’t ever be the same again.” I can understand where it might feel as though that’s true when you first lose someone, but I think it’s a limiting belief that in time is not necessary. It creates worry, anxiety and adds to the pain of grief. In some cases, the loved one’s death does change a person’s personality, and not necessarily for the better. However, I think that personality, and being in general, is fluid.

We generally are not the same at 20 as we are at 10, or at 30, 40, 50, and so on. There are some fundamental qualities like introversion or extroversion that usually remain stable over time, but I think bringing conscious awareness to how we behave and treat ourselves and others makes a huge difference in whether our personalities and psychological health becomes stuck or not. Pain of loss or trauma can make people feel stuck and stunt their development, but if worked through it can be transformative in a positive, healthy way too.

When I hear someone say, “I will never be the same,” I think that may be true but not necessarily for the reason you think. Since personalities change over time anyway, you very well may never be the same. But the death is only part of the picture of your development as a person. The pain of the person’s death will shape your experience as a human being, no doubt. Yet it isn’t necessarily a permanent change and the pain itself will probably morph over time from intense, sharp and burning to a muted, softer ache. At first you might find yourself wanting to be alone all the time, or feeling angry and very prone to tearful outbursts after the loss. As that dissipates and becomes less painful, you might find it acceptable to be around people again. You might even crave others’ company, and that’s okay too. The more you can see what you’re going through as part of an ongoing process, the less alarmed and fearful you need to be about the changes you’re going through.

Ultimately, you get to decide the person you want to be. When you first lose someone, very little feels within your control. This might include your personality and what you feel was taken away from you when you lost your loved one. With time and consciousness, however, you can restore those parts of your loved one and who you were when you were with them, and maybe improve upon those aspects as well. If you would like help working through this type of loss, please give me a call: 661-233-6771.

Grateful for our Hardships

How to derive strength and positive change from trauma and loss, especially with help.

When something tragic happens to us at first, it’s overwhelming, scary and painful. It takes all we’ve got to get through it, survive it, and heal from it. The thought of recovering from it enough to see the positive aspects of the event is remote and difficult. However, the ability to eventually find gratitude for our hardships helps make us resilient and stronger than before. It is an important aspect of healing, and transcending, trauma and loss. But what would allow you to be grateful for such a tragic event?

Dr. Martin Seligman stated that he and colleagues asked visitors of his website about traumatic events that happened to them, as well as a subjective wellness survey; he found that people who had survived at least one traumatic event in their lives had more strengths than people who had none (Dr. Seligman’s website). What is it about hardship that makes people become stronger? Is it the ability to relate to others? Maybe it’s being tested against extreme stress and surviving, that gives people a boost of confidence they might not otherwise have. Perhaps it makes a person appreciate their loved ones or re-evaluate their priorities in light of what happened to them.

I’d like to tell you about a training program that the US Military uses to foster gratitude after traumatic experiences, as relayed by Dr. Martin Seligman in Flourish. The name of the program is Post Traumatic Growth and is headed by Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, Dr. Richard Tedeschi and Dr. Richard McNally. It’s based on the idea that “we should make the most of the fact that trauma often sets the stage for growth” and it teaches soldiers how to create ways to grow because of their traumatic experiences. Soldiers are given a psychological test that measures how much benefit they derived from traumatic experiences and are then taught to understand their response to the trauma, reduce their anxiety, tell other people about their experiences in a helpful way, and to create a “trauma narrative” that helps them see that they both lost and benefited from the experience. In addition, the life principles that foster strength in the face of challenge are spoken, and this helps people remember that they can get through other challenges in the future as well. To learn and grow from the traumatic incidences is the ultimate power over the events, and this program helps them do that.

I greatly admire this program and encourage you to think about sad or trying times in your life. Yes, there were pain, fear, sorrow, and anguish. But you’ve survived those times, and you have the opportunity to learn and grow from them.

You’re Not to Blame!

Children often blame themselves for the bad things that happen to them. As adults, we don’t have to keep blaming yourselves.

In working with trauma survivors for over 12 years, a common theme I have encountered has been that people who are abused as children often take responsibility for what happened to them. They think that if they were lovable, stronger, or better able to figure out what their adult caretakers wanted, the abuse would never have happened. The sad thing is that many perpetrators of abuse say things to encourage their victims to feel responsible for the abuse. Very often these are people whose personal developments are immature and do not allow them to take appropriate responsibility for their actions. Therefore, they project responsibility onto the people they harm. This is true for physical as well as sexual abuse.

Of course, we humans are very good at justifying what we do, and our memory is self-serving in most cases. We’ll remember many events in a way that favors us and makes us look good. However, a healthy, normal adult can also take a step back and look at their behavior, realizing that there are more than one versions of any story. Thus, we can see ourselves as culpable and capable of mistakes in most situations, and hopefully take corrective action accordingly. People who hurt others often find it too uncomfortable and painful to take responsibility, so they have a binary system of responsibility. What this means is that they generally see everyone else as wrong and at fault, and themselves as perfect and poor victims who are acted upon by all those wrong-doers. Other adults can swat away people like this like so many flies, realizing that this way of thinking is unhealthy and dangerous to be around. But children are often stuck in a one-down position in relation to people like this. Imagine being the child of someone who can never admit fault, can never say “I’m sorry” after inflicting physical or emotional pain on you. Or worse yet, who can make you feel as though you deserved to get mistreated. This is one of the horrible side effects of abuse that takes a long time to heal.

If you have come to see your own childhood abuse as your fault, I hope that you can reach a point where you realize that you did not deserve it. It may take a while to realize this, but it is a very important part of healing from trauma. If you feel stuck and believes that don’t work for you, professional help may be essential to your healing. Please consider calling me if you are in the Antelope Valley area; my phone number is 661-233-6771.

Room for All of Us

Since this is LGBTQQIA Awareness Month, I thought I might share some thoughts about diversity and how we as a country have yet to fully embrace it. Diversity benefits us as a community, a nation, and a planet. Sameness may make us feel safer psychologically, but ultimately leads to creative stagnation if we allow fear to keep us from experiencing and exposing ourselves to the differences that make up the human race.

I see many people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and I love it. I strive to make my practice open and inviting to everyone, regardless of gender identification or sexual preference. I learn so much from everyone I see who is different from me. I try to make myself as educated as I can, but there are times that I am not fully aware of my bias, and I strive to correct that. My graduate school, John F. Kennedy University, emphasized multicultural awareness and for that I am extremely grateful. This has been an interesting experience for me because I grew up in a very liberal area (the SF Bay Area) and went to school in equally liberal Santa Cruz (go Banana Slugs!). In that bubble of acceptance and outright pride in diversity, it was less common to see people disenfranchised for being queer-gendered or gay, lesbian or bisexual. However, when I moved to the Antelope Valley, I started seeing people having to hide their sexuality or gender differences from their families, as well as hearing strikingly sad tales of adolescents being kicked out of their family homes for being LBGT.

I see homophobia and transphobia hurt people, not only those who identify as LGBTQQIA but also cis-gendered and heterosexual people. I sometimes see self-mutilation, low self-esteem, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and a sense of hopelessness in the people who have been ostracized. And in heterosexual people who are involved with gay, lesbian, bi and trans people, I also encounter hatred and disgust, rigidity, fear, anger, and unnecessary restriction of association. Relationships are ruptured and strained because of fear and bigotry. One family prevented their child from being best friends with a girl who identified as bisexual. Another person rejected her son because he was gay. These stories are all too common and horrible to hear. When we shun people who are different from us, we miss out on a different perspective, and our intolerance and ignorance makes us enemies where we could be allies. If you think about it, we all do best when we feel loved, accepted and respected by one another; why should that be different for someone who is different from you?

Where did we go wrong, I wonder. How did we become so intolerant of what we don’t know, or understand? How can we repair the ruptured bonds that hold us together as humans? And what can we do to educate people, including ourselves, about what it means to be LGBTQQIA? When can we let go of viewing diversity as a threatening force, and instead see it as stimulating, refreshing, exciting, interesting, an opportunity to hone our own self-understanding as well as grasping what it means to be one little person in a big wide world?

I think education is part of what we can do; but there are frankly those who choose not to educate themselves or embrace acceptance of difference. Can we effectively stand up for diversity, by not allowing bigoted comments like “that’s so gay” to go without confronting it? Can we intercede when we see bullying against an LGBTQQIA child or adult? Sometimes change has to happen at a political level, with policies that end bigotry. Such these battles are not easily won, for any group deemed non-dominant. Maybe we need to address bigotry against anyone on many different levels, both within ourselves, between people, and at the national and international level. I encourage you to be aware not only this month but all year round, of the lack of acceptance of people who are different from you. Hopefully it will be something you want to change, enough to change it. It’s a small planet in some ways, but I still maintain that there’s room for all of us.

Is my grief normal?

People often wonder if the way they respond to grief is “normal” and expected in relation to what other people do and say when they lose someone to death. Unfortunately, the answer is not always so simple. Some factors include the culture of the person, how they were doing psychologically before the loss, what they expect of themselves post-loss, and how they view the loss. For some folks, if their deceased love one was suffering greatly before they died so death may provide some relief, whereas someone who lost their loved one suddenly and unexpectedly may feel a sense of anxiety and bewilderment.

As mentioned in previous posts, there is a difference between what is psychiatrically considered normal, uncomplicated mourning and complex grief. A sense of bewilderment, some brain fog, sad feelings interspersed with other transient emotions, loss of appetite, and temporary anhedonia (not feeling pleasure in activities and things that used to bring enjoyment) are all symptoms of normal grief. Interestingly, other cultures seem to give people longer to grief before they consider a person’s grief pathological or problematic (e.g., Egypt). Our culture seems to think that most of the symptoms of grief should be over after about a year, which depending on the nature of the bond between the survivor and the deceased, could be an awfully short amount of time to sort out one’s feelings about the loss. To give you a sense of what is considered “complicated”, I refer to Pomeroy and Garcia’s book The Grief Assessment and Intervention Workbook for ease:

  1. Are you especially sensitive to other loss and separation experiences?
  2. Do you try especially hard to suppress anxiety with relation to loss and separation?
  3. Are you anxious about death and loss of other loved ones, or yourself?
  4. Do you have an especially strong, unrealistic idealization about the lost loved one or your relationship with them?
  5. Do you have rigid obsessions and compulsions about the dead person and the loss thereof?
  6. Do you avoid socializing with others because you’re afraid of losing new people too?
  7. Do you have a hard time expressing emotions about the loss, and does that difficulty last a long time?
  8. Do you self-sabotage other relationships after the loss?
  9. Do you abuse substances (drugs and alcohol) after the loss?
  10. Do you have PTSD-like symptoms like numbness, alienation, depersonalization, and emotional overwhelm?
  11. Do you have depressive symptoms like anger, irritability and hopelessness that last a while?

If these symptoms are present, you might want to get some help to cope with the loss with professional support. I would be happy to help you, can be reached at 661-233-6771. You can also look for a bereavement support group in your community. Many hospices have them and they are low or no-cost. Whatever you do, try not to judge yourself for what you’re experiencing. You are doing your best in a very hard situation.


Psychiatrists Versus Psychologists

There’s a lot of confusion about what psychiatrists and what psychologists do. In the beginning of our profession, there was no distinction, really, because psychiatry was invented by a medical doctor, Sigmund Freud. As the years have worn on, however, the functions and duties have become separate. I would like to help clarify some of the differences.


Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have specialized training in psychiatry, namely treatment of diseases of the mind. Some psychiatrists still spend time talking to their patients at length about life’s problems and how to cope with them better. However, for whatever reason, they have a lot less time now, especially since managed care has become such a prevalent force in the mental health field. Unfortunately, their time has become more and more valuable and a lot of times they are in a hurry to treat as many people as possible. At is not their fault; it’s just how it is and a lot of communities. As a result, people sometimes go to psychiatrists and feel offended and hurt that the psychiatrist can’t spend a lot of time listening to their problems. This is unfortunate, because sometimes people didn’t want medication in the first place and were hoping to be heard and understood. This doesn’t mean that psychiatrists can hear and understand people, just that there focuses mostly on how the person is doing physically with their mental health condition. Psychiatrists spend most of the time evaluating the symptoms presented to them and how medication can address so symptoms. They can be true lifesavers if a person has a mental health condition that lends itself to medication. For instance, severe depression and bipolar disorder often require medication in order for the person to fully heal. Similarly, psychotic disorders like Schizophrenia require medication in order to have a productive, happy life.


Psychologists are experts in psychology. There are many different types. For instance, forensic psychologists work in the law and criminal justice capacities. They do evaluations, psychological testing, and write reports about their findings, as well as testify in court cases. Health psychologists specialize in helping people with medical conditions and do research on different topics, such as the role of stress and different diseases on mental processes. Clinical psychologists treat emotional and psychological illness by using psychotherapy and often work in conjunction with psychiatrists. This is what I do mostly, and I am very grateful to have the ability to collaborate with medical professionals when there are complex cases of mental disturbance. Not everyone who sees a psychologist needs medication or wants medication; some want to try psychotherapy before resorting to medication, and women who are breast-feeding often want to wait until they are no longer breast-feeding to try medication. I respect the desires and needs of the patient, that in cases where severe mental illness is present, I strongly recommend that people at least be evaluated by a psychiatrist. There are also things that people can do to help themselves feel better that don’t involve medication or talk therapy, and I encourage people to take care themselves as much is possible in order to be empowered and have a full, healthy life. For example, exercise can be and honestly helpful for depression and anxiety. Taking medication is not incompatible with exercise, meditation, yoga, good nutrition, or any other non-pharmacological interventions. If you choose to take the herbs or supplements, however you should check to make sure they don’t interfere with whatever medication you’re taking, whether it be psychiatric meds or medications for physical illness.

I hope this clears up some of the common misconceptions about what I do versus what a psychiatrist does. We still have a long way to educate the general public about how each can help people with emotional and psychiatric illness. However, hopefully this is a step in the right direction.

Us and Them

human family.

It’s very easy to get caught up and hating people who have heard us. The natural tendency is to either fight the person or avoid them, and this is what the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous systems set us up to do. It makes sense in terms of survival, especially when we were much more vulnerable and society was a lot less sophisticated. We also developed a sense of “us versus them” that helped distinguish people who are part of your hunting tribe or clan in prehistoric times, from people who were possibly a threat or from a competing tribe. However, in this increasingly small world of ours, I don’t think we have the luxury of adhering to this knee-jerk reaction to people who are different from us.

If you ever observe very young children, they have very polarized views as they learn how to distinguish themselves from other people. At around two or three, they start to say things like “that’s mine!” And “no!” This is perfectly natural for that age and it helps us draw boundaries before our brains are more sophisticated. Our parents, if they’re doing their job well, help us learn how to smooth out the harsh edges of these strong declarations. They help us learn that we have to share and that we have to think about other people’s feelings when we speak our minds. Some people are able to make the transition into more sophisticated ways of thinking and interacting, while others, sadly, don’t. It’s natural to have strong preferences and to want to make your life comfortable for yourself based on those preferences and desires, what isn’t healthy is expecting that everyone else would here to those preferences and that the people who don’t are against you.

I see a lot of families where one person in the family is different somehow from others, in either the parents, siblings, or spouses can’t understand why that person is acting differently. If the person is acting differently is being destructive or inconsiderate of other people, then there is good reason to speak up about it. However, sometimes people are shamed just for being different in temperament, lifestyle choice, personality, or something they can’t help. This is very unfortunate because then that person feels outcast from the very people with whom they’re supposed to be able to be comfortable. When I work with such families, I try to help people understand that while you might not like the behavior of the person with whom you live, that doesn’t mean that the whole person is damaged, tainted or wrong. You can address the behavior you don’t like without shaming the person are making them feel unloved.

Similarly, I would argue that all of us on the planet are in some way related to each other. Were all sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, and so on. What would it be like if we were able to differences with respect, dignity, and curiosity rather than hatred, separatism, and shaming? Certainly, there are behaviors that are violent, exploitive, and hurtful; I don’t condone such behavior and think we should do everything in our power to eradicate such behavior. But if we don’t approach it with curiosity, we don’t know why it’s happening and we can address it effectively. I believe it’s possible to use our more advanced parts of our brain, like our prefrontal cortex, to reason, use language, and remain open to many possibilities. When we get caught up in the emotional parts of our brains and stick with the binary us versus them mentality, we miss the boat in many ways. We don’t get a chance to understand why people commit violence, why people exploit each other, and what can be done to change that. Who hasn’t made mistakes in their lives and then things they later regret? Who hasn’t heard someone inadvertently or on purpose in their lives? If we of all made mistakes, should we all be bitterly condemned and outcast from society? Worse yet, should we all be treated like dangerous criminals? I am not naïve enough to think that there isn’t a need for prisons and punishment; I do believe, however, that we need more tools in our toolbox to address behavior that we find objectionable.

So the next time you have a strong reaction to another person or their behavior, you might want to consider where they’re coming from and what might be motivating it other than “evil” or “stupidity.” Remember that the person might be doing their best and may need more skills and more knowledge in order to act in a way that’s more considerate and kind to others.