Shhh, Let’s Not Talk About It: How Families Are Haunted By Incest And Sexual Abuse


Nearly every person I’ve counseled who has been sexually abused was abused by a family member, not a stranger.

In families there is an unspoken trust, one that says we will support and protect each other, especially the children. Child abuse goes against that unspoken trust.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons, on top of shame and fear, that victims of incest and child abuse often stay silent, making way for more abuse, even generational abuse, depression and addiction to flourish.

Child abuse is devastating and debilitating. It not only causes psychological and behavioral problems that can last a life time, but there is growing evidence that it also causes a number of physiological problems.

You would think that children would always be protected, but unfortunately in many families, the adults are too busy with their own issues such as financial problems and addictions to be effectively attentive to the children. Often, the adults are so happy that someone is “supervising” the kids that they are delighted when another relatively is spending time with them, not knowing that that relative may be molesting their child.

Often the victims of abuse I’ve worked with grew up in complex homes where they often weren’t paid attention to. Many of them were so hungry for attention that they mistook abuse for nurturing, which is another reason they didn’t tell anyone.

Whenever there was an opportunity for abuse and the caring adults in their lives turned away, it left opportunity for abuse to happen right under their roofs. When they were not paying attention to their child, someone else was paying too much attention to them.

Another reason victims don’t talk is because they think that they are the only one being abused and if they have younger siblings, they may not say anything as a way of protecting the younger children from the victimizer.

When there is a child molester in the family, chances are he or she is molesting more than one child and may go on to molest across generations. A lot of the child abuse victims I’ve worked with only came forward when they were either in fear that a younger relative was in danger of being molested or when they found out that their fears were true and a younger relative was being molested.

It’s rare that I talk to a victim of child sexual abuse and incest and they are the only person who has ever been abused by the victimizer. Many times this is not discovered until later in adulthood when as adults they start talking with other family members. This is when they usually realize that they weren’t the only ones being abused and the extent of the nightmare is finally revealed.

Case Example: “Catalina”

One of my adult clients, let’s call her Catalina, was a victim of childhood sexual abuse and incest. She lived under perfect conditions to be molested for years by a family member.

Her mother was an alcoholic and drug addict, her father was no where to be found. Her mother also had seven kids, all of which were eventually taken from her because she couldn’t take care of them. Catalina and her six siblings ended up with their mother’s mother, their grandmother who sounds like she was a real Mother Teresa. She had a kind heart, even took in other kids and always had a house full of relatives around including Catalina’s cousin Walter.

Walter was an adult, married with two children of his own, but he came around Catalina’s grandmother’s house often to hangout with the kids.

Walter would talk to Catalina as if she were his girlfriend, although she was his cousin and prepubescent. Catalina didn’t like it, but never told anyone. He then moved on to hugging her often, always making sure his erect penis pressed against her. Eventually he moved on to showing her his penis and rubbing it against her skin.

Again, she kept this a secret because she believed it was her fault and even thought it was somewhat normal. Thankfully, it ended there, but what Catalina didn’t know and would not know until adulthood is that while Walter was molesting and grooming her, he was already molesting and sleeping with her slightly older sister Michelle.

Michelle also didn’t tell anyone about cousin Walter, but it damaged her to the point that even when Walter stopped molesting Catalina, Michelle started molesting her.

Michelle started making Catalina touch her vagina and eventually made her perform oral sex on her. Catalina knew something wasn’t right, but didn’t tell anyone, she just did as she was told. The abuse lasted for several years, ending only when Michelle started having sex with boys.

This abuse left Catalina confused. She became hypersexual and even had thoughts of molesting her little sister on several occasions. Thankfully she never did and the molestation, at least in that house ended with her.

As a teenager she was very promiscuous and was confused about her sexuality well into adulthood. Now as an adult she is riddled with relationship and trust hangups and is terrified of having and raising children. Other than that, for the most part she has turned into a pretty well-adjusted woman.

The secrecy about the molestation allowed the initial victimizer, Walter to abuse at least two children in the same household. It is likely that he abused more and probably went on to abuse other family members for years since ’til this day no one is really talking about or confronting it.

Catalina and Michelle only recently had a heart to heart where Michelle apologized to Catalina for the abuse and explained that she was doing to her what had been done to her  (Michelle) by Walter. Only then did the two realize that Walt had victimized both of them.

Some of the factors that allowed this abuse to happen besides the secrets and silence include:

  • they both believed that it was there fault
  • both Catalina and Michelle had been raised to believe that children were to be seen and not heard
  • they both believed there were too many problems going on in the home and there was no time for another one
  • they had never been talked to about sex in any capacity so the victimizer taught them what he wanted to
  • as girls they were taught that they were supposed to be passive, peaceful and not cause trouble
  • they were taught directly or indirectly that women are submissive
  • they were also taught that what happens inside of their home stays private
  • their mom always neglected them most when she had a boyfriend and they learned from her many relationships that women existed for pleasure
  • they also unfortunately believed it was normal to be victimized

Catalina’s story unfortunately echoes dozens of stories I could have told from personal experience. For more information on child sexual abuse there are many great books, but I can personally recommend No Secrets, No Lies: How Black Families Can Heal from Sexual Abuse by Robin D. Stone.

If you or someone you know needs help, please contact:

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network

1 (800) 656-4673 /

If you are in immediate danger please call 911

A Brief Look At Prescription Drug Use In Teenagers

prescription-drugs-stock-photo-istock (1)I’ve spent a lot of time speaking with parents about teen substance abuse and still find it amazing that most parents are worried more about their child’s friends or a drug dealer exposing them to hard drugs and are still ignorant to the potential for drug abuse the lies right in their own homes.

They still worry about their kids being exposed to alcohol and marijuana, which they should be, but they aren’t worried about what is already in their medicine cabinets, especially prescription painkillers.

With this generation of teenagers, the use of prescription painkiller abuse is up forty percent compared to previous generations according to the University of Colorado Denver researchers, making prescription drug abuse the second most common type of illegal drug use after marijuana.

Teenagers today are turning to Vicodin, Oxycontin and Valium found right at home with prescriptions filled by their parents or other relatives. Many kids often then take these painkillers to school and share/sell them to their peers.

A few schools in my area have a big enough problem with prescription drug use that they do regular searches complete with drug sniffing dogs and all. I’ve worked with a handful of teens addicted to Xanax and Oxycontin that they get right from their own homes.

Often they don’t even know the strength of the drug (or how to read the strength), making the potential for accidentally overdosing extremely high. To top it off, teens often mix taking pills with alcohol which can easily lead to a medical emergency such as respiratory arrest and even death.

According to the Los Angeles Times, 2011, “Drugs exceeded motor vehicle accidents as a cause of death in 2009, killing at least 37,485 people nationwide, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Also, some scientist believe that the teenage brain, which is still developing until the early 20’s, is especially susceptible to chemicals which can cause changes in the brain and lead to a lifelong battle with addiction.

Why The Epidemic?

Prescription drugs are more available today than ever, which explains the explosion of prescription drug use in teens.  There are so many prescription pills around the house that it is easy for teens to procure them from family members and friends.

We are not talking about pill mills here where adults go to get their fix to prescription medication from shady doctors, but we are talking about legit doctors who may be over-prescribing medications to people who may or may not need the stronger, more addicting medications.

Some parents may also like the “buzz” they get from their prescription pills although they may not abuse them the way their teens are likely to.

Many teens also think that prescription drugs are harmless because they are prescribed by a doctor, their parents take them and their legal. This false since of safety is a dangerous one as hospital emergency rooms around the country are seeing thousands of teens each year due to prescription drug overdose.

What Can Parents Do?

Parents should talk to their teens about prescription drugs, just as they should about other drugs and alcohol. They should also look for signs of prescription drug use such as sleepiness, weight loss, slurred speech and decrease in academic performance.

Parents who have prescription pills should keep them locked up so not to tempt their teens. Treat them as if they were a loaded gun, locked and hidden out of sight.

Parents should also talk openly with their teens about family history of drug abuse just as they would about a family history of other medical illnesses.

It’s amazing how many parents never talk about the long history of addiction, alcoholism or even mental illness in their families, but are surprised when their child finds themselves using and unable to stop using drugs or alcohol.

It’s only fair that a teen know about their vulnerability to addiction so that hopefully that will be an extra motivation to stay away from potentially life changing behaviors.

On Domestic Violence And Why Women Stay

abuse10Have you been watching the Jodi Arias trial? It’s a fascinating one that’s for sure.

I haven’t so much as watched it as listened to it whenever I am in the car  and while I have my opinions, I’ll save that for after the trial.

The thing that caught my attention today was the domestic violence expert, who testified yesterday, Alyce LaViolette. LaViolette is a psychotherapist who specializes in domestic violence. Although I am not sure if Jodi Arias really was a victim of domestic violence, I do know that what LaViolette said about domestic violence rings true for millions of women.

Both men and women can be victims of domestic violence, but since the majority of domestic violence victims are women, I’ll be referring mostly to women in this post. And I have written about The Cycle of Violence, Power and Control in a previous post if you would like more information.

We Need Never Be Ashamed of Our Tears- Charles Dickens

Women who are abused often don’t tell anyone, even their closes friends and family because they are generally humiliated and ashamed of the abuse. They go through great lengths to hide the fact that they are being abused, even to the point of protecting their abuser and acting out on anyone who says anything bad against him, especially when they don’t want to look like they have made a bad choice in a partner.

On top of that, there is also the halo effect operating. That’s when someone keeps thinking about the one great quality about someone, despite the many bad ones and that keeps them from seeing the total picture. They are living in two different realities and will fight to keep the shame from one reality from entering the other.

Many women are afraid to leave their abuser and rightfully so, as leaving is usually the most dangerous time in the abuse cycle, when the woman is most likely to be severely hurt or killed. Many women also stay in hopes that things will change, despite the evidence that they probably won’t. They will see that their abuser has the potential to be a great mate, only if he wasn’t abusive.

Also, I’ve learned from working with abused women that they actually get brainwashed into believing that no one else will ever love them or want them,  so they stay because they start believing they are so ugly, worthless, fat, stupid, (insert insult here) that they are lucky that their abuser even wants them.

Case Example

I have a teenage client who is dating an older man. She’s over 18 so it’s legal, but this man she is dating has a bad temper problem. He blows up on her unpredictably and has even broken his phone by throwing it against the wall when she didn’t answer one of his phone calls.

He is also extremely controlling. They have only been together for about four months, but already he has isolated her from all of her friends and has her calling him at a particular time everyday or else “he gets really mad”.

He’s even already trying to get her to move away from her family and in with him, another way of isolating her from people who love her and would potentially see her bruises.

He hasn’t hit her, yet, and she doesn’t see anything wrong with their relationship. She loves him and thinks he “just has a temper” and he blames his anger on supplements he is taking which could be true, but I think it’s a cover for his explosive temper. All of her friends are worried about her, but she see’s their concern as unnecessary and even as signs of jealousy.

To me, a professional counselor who has counseled abuse victims and abusers, the writing is all over the walls. She’s already got one foot into a domestic violence relationship without even realizing it. It’s just a short matter of time before he puts his hands on her. He’s even got her thinking about stopping therapy with me because I am a male and he doesn’t like her associating with any males, even if it’s her therapist.

I’ve been working with her on self-esteem issues, but now we are primarily working on this sense she brings it up in therapy all the time, yet doesn’t seem willing or ready to do anything about it. She’s even already thinking of getting pregnant which I am sure he is also pushing on her.

Leslie Morgan Steiner: Why domestic violence victims don’t leave

If you have a few minutes, watch Leslie Morgan Steiner’s personal account of being in an abusive relationship. I’ve inserted the video below. I attempted to show this to the client mentioned above, but after a couple of minutes she refused to listen to any more although everything Steiner was experiencing in the initial stages of her relationship with her abuser, this young lady was experiencing almost exactly.

Steiner talks about the initial stages of abuse which are:

  1. Seduce and charm the victim
  2. Isolate the victim from friends and family
  3. Introduce the threat of violence to gauge their response to potential violence
  4. Actual violence and the continuation of the abuse/power and control cycle

I try not to push clients too hard too fast, after all it’s their lives and their choices, I just try to help them see the signs that say “detour” before they drive off the cliff. However often times we are too blinded by love, our own mess or even other people’s mess to see the signs right in front of us.

brOKen: Why We Hide How We Really Feel

under_the_surface_by_destinyblue-d5r27x4 (1)This incredible piece of art is titled “brOKen” and it’s by a great artist named DestinyBlue. She says that the inspiration for this piece came from an observation she made while on the London Underground.

She saw a girl who was crying quietly, but had on a shirt with the phrase “YOLO” which stands for “You Only Live Once” and is supposed to be a symbol of taking chances and living life to it’s fullest with no regrets.

How ironic that a sad girl crying would have on this shirt? It made the artist of this picture think about how many slogans and things we wear that don’t really represent how we feel and I thought this would be a great topic for a post.

As a counselor, I am trained to hear what is not being said. Many times people will tell me that they are “fine”, “happy” or “confident” when I can see that they are the total opposites of what they are trying to convince me they are feeling.

We do that, put up the fronts and the masks for several reasons including hiding how we really feel so that others will not know when we are weak or vulnerable. It’s natural, which both protects us emotionally, yet it makes it hard for us to fully engage with and understand other people.

This can be especially frustrating when it’s your child or someone you love and it’s clear to you that they are not “fine” yet when you ask them what’s wrong, they say “nothing”.

What if we did wear shirts that said exactly how we felt at this moment. Would your shirt say “Mad?”, “Depressed?”, “Bipolar”, “Scared”, “Unloved?”. Mine would probably say “Indifferent”.

One of my favorite shirts says “Sick of it All” on the back of it, which is actually the name of a band, but most people don’t know that and I tend to wear that shirt when I actually do feel sick of it all. I’ve even worn it to frustrating meetings as a sign of silent protest.

A lot of times, society frowns upon us really expressing and exhibiting how we feel so we learn to put on these masks and some of our masks are very extravagant. 

We put excessive make-up on to look visually attractive while inside we feel disgusting. We talk loud to draw attention to ourselves because we are afraid of  being ignored. We lift weights and take steroids to appear big and intimidating while inside we are scared and insecure. We drive expensive cars and wear expensive clothes to look important because deep down we feel really insignificant. The list can go on and on.

I went to a therapy seminar last year and the presenter kept talking about an angry, intimidating teenage girl in her class who looked like she wanted to beat up everyone, when really deep down, as she put it, “she’s scared as shit”. Of course she couldn’t walk around with a shirt that read “Scared” or “Nervous” so she hide it under a shirt that said “Tough”, “Confident” and “Aggressive”.

Some of the most physically attractive women I’ve ever met, the ones who put a lot of effort into their appearance, have turned out to be some of the most insecure women I have ever met.

Those who don’t wear their masks well are often labeled bipolar, hysterical, over-reacting, sensitive, weak or even crazy.

It’s unlikely that we would really wear shirts that said “Insecure”, “Miserable”, “Confused”, “Rejected” or “Lifeless”. Instead, we are more likely to wear shirts that say “Great”, “Joyous”, “Loving”, “Inspired”  or “Free” even when we feel the total opposite such as the young girl DestinyBlue saw on the London Underground.

Hiding our feelings is a self-protecting mechanism. We don’t want to appear weak or vulnerable like I stated earlier. We may also think that hiding our true feelings keeps us from actually being those feelings. Even more importantly, we tend to hide our true feelings when they aren’t good feelings in order to avoid offending other people with our problems and potentially looking childish and pathetic because we’ve “lost control” over our emotions.

We also hide our feelings to not appear unstable, abnormal or risk the chance of having our true feelings ignored or discounted which would hurt even more. We tend not to trust that others, even those closest to us, will validate our true feelings and safe guard our vulnerability so we hide them to protect ourselves.

Hiding our feelings in many situations makes sense, and society says it’s stoic, courageous and shows character when you can hide your painful emotions. A large part of it is about appropriateness and vulnerability.

A lot of people I work with in therapy hold onto their painful emotions and yet blame their parents, spouses or friends for not being able to empathize with and support them.

Well how can they if they don’t truly know how you feel and what you are going through? This is probably one of the biggest problems I run into in therapy. People expecting their loved ones to be psychic enough to know that under their shirt that reads “Wonderful” is another shirt that says “Heartbroken”.

You have to be at a certain place mentally and emotionally to feel free enough to let out your hurtful feelings in the presence of others. You have to be able to self-soothe and self-validate your feelings. Realize that other people don’t have to validate them in order for them to be valid.

Letting your feelings out doesn’t make you a victim unless you allow yourself to become a victim. Letting them out can actually be freeing and allow those around you to give you the support you need.             tired_by_onedirectionislife-d5lqo2b

Thanks to Kayla for giving me permission to use this image.

Childhood Abuse Linked To Asthma And Obesity In African American Women

Screenshot_2013-03-22-01-52-10-1According to research done at the University School of Medicine and Boston University’s Slone Epidemiology Center, Black women who have been physically and/or sexually abused during childhood and adolescence are more likely to become obese in adulthood as well as are more likely to later go on to develop asthma.

The study appeared in the journal Pediatrics and was based on a longitudinal Black Women’s Health Study which followed a large number of African American women since 1995.

What the study suggests is what many of us already know and that is that experiences during childhood may have long-term affects on our emotional and physical health.

“Abuse during childhood may adversely shape health behaviors and coping strategies, which could lead to greater weight gain in later life,”  says Renee Boynton-Jarrett, MD, who is the lead investigator in the study as well as a pediatric primary care physician at Boston Medical Center.

She goes on to say that metabolic and hormonal disruptions can result from abuse and that childhood abuse could cause other health problems like asthma. “Ultimately, greater understanding of pathways between early life abuse and adult weight status may inform obesity prevention and treatment approaches.” Boynton-Jarrett continued.

The same study found that physical and/or sexual abuse could more than double the chances of African American women developing asthma later in life. According to the study, African American women who suffered abuse in childhood had an increase of about 20 percent of developing asthma.

What’s also interesting is that the link between physical abuse and asthma seems to be stronger than the link between sexual abuse and asthma.

According to Patricia Coogan, the lead author in the study stated,  “The results suggests that chronic stress contributed to asthma onset , even years later.”
I had a professor in graduate school who always said, “Whatever you don’t deal with mentally, you will deal with physically” and this seems to be a prime example.

Stress in childhood experienced from abuse causes physiological consequences. Imagine the amount of stress one experiences living in an abusive situation. That type of stress can have an impact on the body, especially the immune and respiratory system and development.

There are unfortunately high incidents of childhood abuse as well as an increase in the prevalence of asthma with an increase from 7.3 to 8.2 percent, or approximately from 20.3 million to 25.6 million people from 2001 to 2009. The populations that saw the greatest increase in asthma were children from low-income families and African-American children.

I find this study to be very interesting because as a counselor, before I ever read this study, I recognized a link between obesity and sexual abuse in African American teenage girls.

I noticed that a large portion of the obese African American teenage girls I worked with, reported being sexually abused in childhood and early adolescence. I found this to be astounding and the more obese African American teens I worked with, the more it continued to be true.

It got to a point where I could look at an obese African American teen, the way they carry themselves and predict with about a ninety percent  certainty that they had been sexually abused before they ever felt comfortable enough to divulge that information.

I started thinking that maybe obesity and overeating became a unconscious defense  mechanism they used to become less attractive to not only the person who had sexually abused them, but possibly potential abusers in the future. And of course, overeating in itself could have been a coping mechanism used to help self-sooth themselves from the pain of sexual abuse.

I found it fascinating and yet sad, but this new research appears to back up some of what I had been suspecting although they seem to take it from more of a physiological than psychological approach.

What’s also interesting is that in her book Young, Poor and Pregnant, Judith Musick saw a link between sexual abuse and teenage pregnancy, meaning that some young girls who were being sexually abused, consciously or unconsciously sought out to get pregnant in hopes that their pregnancy and having a baby would make them less appealing to their abuser.

It’s obvious that physical and sexual abuse in childhood can have devastating affects on a child’s mental and emotional health well into adulthood, but new research is pointing to physical and sexual abuse also having long lasting physiological affects, making it that much more important that we not only fight to put a end of child abuse, but that we also provide help to those who have been abused.

Many adults I’ve spoken to who have been abused as children think of themselves as being resilient, and to a certain degree they are, but they don’t see the potential ongoing damage the abuse they experienced ten, twenty, or thirty years ago still has on their lives today. They don’t see that their relationship problems stem from lack of trusting or being able to relate well to men, that their depression comes from years of childhood neglect or that their overeating could be a result of past sexual abuse.

So much so that many of them don’t even initially mention being abused early on, although it is one of the first questions I ask. They go on for session after session, week after week, talking about issues that have roots in their childhood abuse, but they don’t recognize that and it’s only when they bring up the abuse and we address it, that they can truly start to heal.

Can We Trust Our Five Senses?

istock_000016072830large1Earlier today one of my students asked what I thought was a fairly odd question. She asked me, “How do we know we can trust our senses?”

At first I thought she was asking about senses in the terms of instinct because I have some very strong views on trusting our instincts, but she clarified that she was talking about our five senses which threw me off, but gave me something to think about.

Most of us have the five traditional senses of touch, hearing, smell, sound and taste.

There are also other senses that include sensing pain, temperature, movement, and balance. We are born with these senses. They are natures ways of helping us navigate through our world while both experiencing pleasure and avoiding pain. They help us throughout the day in small ways as well as major ones such as keeping us safe from danger.

Many times we don’t even realize how much we depend on our senses and take them for granted. Since they have been with us from birth, we tend to trust them even when they occasionally deceive us. In fact, our senses are so rarely wrong, that the times they are wrong are usually quickly forgotten and not seen as proof that our senses have failed us.

Our senses normally always do their jobs. They sense something and relay it to us, and then it’s up to our brains to make since of what our senses are telling us. Our senses are so powerful and important that they are often locked into our minds and paired with some type of memory or emotion. Some of it is in our recent memory and some of it is in our collective unconsciousness.

For instance, almost universally people around the world naturally panic or get startled at the sight of a snake. This is not a learned behavior, but seems to be passed down through our collective unconsciousness where our ancestors had to learn to avoid certain snakes if they wanted to survive. Even young primates in lab studies who have never been around other older primates or snakes before, demonstrate this natural fear of snakes. This survival instinct is imprinted in our DNA and is translated through our sense of sight.

The same goes with hearing a loud explosion. Our sense of hearing immediately make us become hyperaware and attentive. Our arousal system revs up to prepare us to either run from the noise or get ready to fight for our lives. During this and other times where we may be in danger, all of our senses come together to try to help us make sense of what is going on and what we need to do.

For instance, in the case of an explosion, not only will our hearing help direct us in the direction of the noise, but our eyes will become more keen and focused so we can try to get a better view of what is going on. Our sense of smell may be trying to figure out what odors are in the air, if they are dangerous and if they are getting stronger. Our skin will be aware of changes in temperature, such as heat to let us know if we are at a safe enough distance from the explosion or if we need to move further away. All in all, our senses exist to protect us and keep us safe.

Another example is one time I ate some bad fish that gave me severe food poisoning. It was a miserable experience that felt like it last several days. Once I got better, whenever I saw or smelled fish I automatically felt sick. My body, my senses, were reminding me that the last time I ate fish I got really sick and so they were helping me avoid getting sick again by giving me a safe reminder.

This is called a food aversion and is a way the brain uses the senses to protect us from getting sick or possibly dying. The same thing can happen when you taste something that may not be safe to eat or drink, which is why when testing to see if a gallon of milk is still okay, one of the first things most people do is smell it, they may then look at it for evidence that it’s not good and if all else fails, they will taste it.

Even with all of that, there is a chance that our senses will fail us and we drink the milk because it “checked out” and we still end up sick. That doesn’t mean that we won’t trust our senses again in the future, it just means that we may be a little wearier in trusting them when it comes to spoiled milk. However, because they are usually so consistently reliable, we are not likely to consciously second guess them the next time we smell smoke, feel a rain drop on our skin or touch something that feels too cold or hot to handle without intense pain.

Like I stated earlier, our senses are such an integral part of us that much of them are stored into and attached to our memories, which explains why someone suffering from post traumatic stress disorder may have a flashback or experience anxiety whenever they taste, touch, smell, hear or see something that reminds them of a tragic incident.

For example, a woman who was eating sausages the moment she saw her husband have a heart attack and die right in front of her, may feel sick, scared, anxious or sad anytime she sees, smells or taste sausages in the future. This is one of the times when our senses may fail us because in this example, her senses will be reminding her of the tragedy and setting off an alarm of an impending tragedy that is unnecessary.

As a matter of fact, in many instances of post traumatic stress disorder, it is our senses “failing” us in a sense. In actuality they are doing their jobs, trying to protect us and giving us warnings that make us hyper-vigilant, anxious, irritable or causes flashbacks, but they are wrong because we are not in that situation any more where we need to be ready to fight or flight. In this case, our senses are giving us false alarms.

Another time when our senses may fail us is when we smell something that reminds us of something else. Like once I was in class and there was an air freshener in the class that immediately reminded me of my dentist’s office. And there are those strange times when I think I am about to drink a Coke in a glass, but it’s really Pepsi, but my sense of taste is prepared for Coke, so when I take a sip it automatically tastes disgusting. Although I like Pepsi, my sense of taste was expecting Coke and registering the taste back to my brain as “disgusting”. It’s my brain’s way of letting me know that I am not drinking what I thought I was by using my sense of taste. As soon as I realize it is Pepsi and not Coke, the taste of “disgust” automatically goes away.

Without even one of our five senses it’s difficult for us to navigate our world safely. In a study done at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, they found that men born without the sense of smell, a conditioned called anosmia, found fewer sexual partners than other men and women with anosmia felt more insecure in their relationships than women without the disorder.

For the most part, our senses are completely reliable. They are our natural weapons against an ever changing and perilous environment. They served our ancestors for centuries, which is why we have survived. Those who didn’t trust their senses likely died from poisonous snake or spider bites, extreme hot or cold temperatures, poisoning, fire, etc. Our ancestors learned to trust their senses, which is why we are here.


Motivating Your Unmotivated Teen Part 4: The Power of Empathy

mom_talking_teen_By now you should be fully aware that motivating your teenager is not about trying to trick, manipulate, threaten or punish them into change.

Motivation comes from having an authentic relationship with your teenager that plants the seeds for change.

What you want is cooperation instead of conflict.

You don’t want a relationship that says “I’m right and you’re wrong” as that sets the stage for conflict, but instead, you want a relationship that is about acceptance, not persuasion.

The reason is, when you are arguing, yelling and fighting with your child, you’re probably not doing much that is actually motivating them, but instead, pushing them in the opposite direction.


You also want to elicit your child’s own motivation, not try to force it into them.

It’s easy to try to dictate and educate your child into motivation and change by pointing out their faults and weaknesses. This rarely works and more often is actually counterproductive. Giving advice, especially when it isn’t solicited, just makes teens turn a deaf ear. When you are dictating, you are not listening which as we talked about in previous posts, is extremely important in helping your teen find their motivation for change.

Instead of thinking, what is my teenager motivated by, try to start thinking, what is my teenager motivated for.

Remember, we have to stop looking for external sources of motivation and start helping your teenager find internal sources of motivation. Your goal is to help your teenager find intrinsic motivation so that the motivation and change will be self-directed instead of other-directed. Other-directed change typically isn’t long lasting.

How do you do that? You do that by listening to your child, discovering and tapping into their values, goals and beliefs. You also do that by being supportive and acknowledging that your child is the person who will ultimately dictate and make the changes needed.

The Importance of Empathy

One of the ways you tap into your child’s goals, values and beliefs is by being empathetic. I’m not talking affective empathy which is all about feelings and is synonymous with sympathy, but cognitive empathy.

What is the difference?

Affective empathy sounds like this: “Oh sweetheart, I’m so sorry. It must have felt horrible to have failed that math test. It hurts me to see you upset like this.”

Affective empathy doesn’t usually work when it comes to motivating teenagers. It’s great in helping them feel as if you understand their feelings, but not so much their situation or for getting them to actually do something about it.

Cognitive empathy however is all about the facts. It sounds more like: “So this is your current experience, this is how you see the problem.”

Cognitive empathy is much more about listening and when you do talk, you keep it simple and just summarize what you have just heard to make sure you understood it correctly. It’s not about adding your thoughts, opinions, advice or point of view.

This type of empathy can be change-producing by itself because it helps your child realize that they have a parent that understands their situation without judging or criticizing them and at the same time, they are not being directed by you (other-directed) which is probably different than what they have experienced in the past. It allows them to become self-directed.

In cognitive empathy, you have to suspend judgement, even when your teenager is showing their immaturity, and not show that you are agreeing with or disagreeing with their perspective. You are simple listening and attempting to understand.

For instance, if your son said:  “My science teacher is always picking on me which is why I am failing.” You may think this is unlikely true or why he is failing and could say, “I don’t think your teacher is picking on you, but even if that’s the case, it’s probably because you goof off in class so much.”

That statement is very unlikely to elicit any type of motivation or change in your son and is more likely to close the door of communication.

In cognitive empathy, you would take that same statement from your son and reply with something like:

“Why do you think your teacher is picking on you?” In this statement you are not taking sides, but you are letting your son know that you are listening, that you are following along with him and that you want to understand his point of view.

You can ask him how he feels and what he thinks about the situation, but don’t affectively empathize or try to tell him how he should feel about the situation.

Once again, it’s about listening. For teens to listen to you, they have to first feel as if they are being heard. None of your great, amazing, useful advice will be heard by your child if they feel like they are not being heard.

This ends our four part series on motivating your teenager. This is by no means a complete source of motivation as the topic of motivation is so vast, but if you do and work on the things outlined in this four part series, you should be well on your way to better understanding your teen and knowing how to help guide them to discovering what motivates them without you driving yourself crazy trying to motivate them yourself.

For more information I recommend Motivational Interviewing, Preparing People for Change by William R. Miller Phd and Stephen Rollnick Phd, and

How Young Is Too Young For Students To Discuss Sexual Orientation

istock_000009080325large-gay-pride-2009-news1Here in central Florida there has been an ongoing debate about how young is too young for students to discuss sexual orientation at school, especially when that orientation is different than the perceived norm.

Bayli Silberstein, a student leader at Carver Middle School in Leesburg, Florida wants to create a gay-straight alliance (GSA) at her school to combat ongoing bullying. “The bullying at our school has gotten out of hand, and somebody needs to do something about it,” stated Bayli.

While to me this sounds like something positive and something that should have been supported, the principal immediately shot it down and county administration put up a resistance so tough that they threatened to disband all groups if they had to in order to keep the GSA from being allowed to form.

They are taking so long to deliberate on allowing the GSA to form, while groups such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, an explicitly Christian organization, has been supported for years.

The fact that the administrative body is taking so long to deliberate on letting the GSA form, to me is even further evidence that groups like the GSA are needed. If the kids who are in need of support don’t feel supported by the very administration that is supposed to support and protect them, how are they supposed to feel supported and protected among their own student body?

Under the Equal Access Act, schools can not pick and choose which groups to allow to form on campus based on what they think students should and should not discuss:

 “schools may not pick and choose among clubs based on what they think students should or should not discuss. If a public school allows any student group whose purpose is not directly related to the school’s curriculum to meet on school grounds during lunch or before or after school, then it cannot deny other student groups the same access to the school because of the content of their proposed discussions. The Act specifically provides that a school cannot deny equal access to student clubs because of the ‘religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.’” 

GSAs are student organizations that are made up of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender students and their straight allies. The groups purpose is to advocate against bullying, discrimination and harassment.

Theyare made up of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, along with straight supporters, who advocate for putting an end to bullying, harassment, and discrimination against LGBT and other students.

According to a  2009 survey by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education network,  “84.6 percent of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1 percent reported being physically harassed and 18.8 percent reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.”

A lot of the bullying that goes on against LGBT students have Christian beliefs and teachings at it’s source and Christian groups are almost always very supported on school campuses.

Here in Florida, the ACLU has been successful numerous times over the years in helping students form GSAs on school campuses.

For example, in 2008 in Okeechobee, Florida,  a  judge ruled that schools must provide for the well-being of gay students and cannot discriminate against the GSA. The ACLU of Florida also succeeded in helping students at Booker T. Washington High School form a GSA after initial efforts were fought against by the administration.

At the high school I work at there is no GSA or LGBT clubs and it’s not because administration hasn’t allowed it, but because students haven’t attempted to form one. I think this is largely because sexual orientation is not discussed, yet admittedly, it appears to be pretty accepted on campus. Many of the LGBT students I talk to are “out” and have never told me they felt uncomfortable or bullied on campus.

While working on this post, I spoke with a 15 year old, openly gay student who says he knew he was gay in elementary school, but only really knew in middle school. He personally thought that having a GSA in middle school was too soon because he thought too many people were still unsure of their sexuality, but he also admitted that having a GSA in his middle school would have helped him with issues such as bullying and coming out to his family.

On other school campuses and in middle school in particular, being a LGBT student is likely much more difficult for several reasons.

Often times, school administration and school board members are not comfortable with the thought of students discussing sexual orientation. They are also often uncomfortable with discussing acceptance and respect for students of different orientations.

However, discussing topics that are uncomfortable, out in the open, is how change gets started, not by censoring students to avoid discomfort. That’s how the culture of secrecy and bullying is allowed to flourish.

Motivating Your Unmotivated Teen Part 3: The Stages Of Change

iStock_000011734632XSmallAll changes has both negative and positive consequences, which is why it is normal for people to want to change and not want to change simultaneously.

That is the hallmark of ambivalence.

Indecisiveness is a natural part of the change process and something that often drives parents crazy when they are trying to move their teenager in a certain direction that may seem like the obvious better decision to them.

It is natural however to be ambivalent about change, to be hesitant and unsure if the change is worth making.

For example, while doing better in school may allow for a teen to have more freedom at home, get better grades and improve their chances of going to college, the extra time spent studying may come at the cost of less time available to spend with friends, for after school activities or with a boyfriend and that may determine if the cost outweigh the benefits in the teen’s mind.

That’s why it’s important to know that teens may both want to do better and at the same time, not want to do better and are probably unaware of this ambivalence. The indecisiveness has to be resolved in order for the teen to see the value in the change, or little to no improvement is likely to happen.

Helping your child resolve the ambivalence may be all that is needed. By having a relationship with your child that allows open, non-judgmental communication and acceptance, the indecisiveness may be resolved on it’s own which may be all that’s needed to get the teenager to reflect on their situations and decisions.

The Stages of Change

When change happens it’s not usually on motion, instead it usually happens in five stages, identified in Motivational Interviewing through research done by James Prochaska as pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance.

1. Pre-contemplation:

In pre-contemplation, the teen hasn’t given any consideration to change. They see no reason to change. They don’t see a downside to their current situation, so the thought of changing hasn’t even entered into their head.

Trying to force change when your teen is in the pre-contemplation is a battle you are not likely to win, and may even sabotage motivation and the possibilities of change.

Dennis Bumgarner, ACSW, LCSW finds it helpful to ask “what if” questions when your teen is in the pre-contemplation stage, such as, “What if your grades improved?”, “What wouldn’t be different?”, “What will happen if things continue in their current direction?”, “What would be different if you did improve?”

During pre-contemplation, you want to ask questions that don’t take a particular position, but questions that get your teen to think and this thinking is what is going to move them to the contemplation phase.

When your child starts considering making a change, remember that they are still considering making the change, so fight the urge to push them too hard or start making plans for their future or they are likely to pull back.

2. Contemplation

At this phase, your teenager is considering the pros and cons of changing. They are thinking, “Maybe I should do something about my current situation.” It’s easy for parents to get overly excited at this point and start helping the teenager make plans for what they need to do to make the changes. This push may be too much and cause your teen to not move forward.

Instead, ask questions that continue to get them thinking and reminds them that you are not the expert. You are here to listen to them, hear what they are thinking and not to offer or force your opinions. You are merely being an agent of change.

Ask questions instead of making statements. Try to avoid offering advice, but instead listen as your teen contemplates making a change.

You do not want to tell your teenager how to change or try to try to make them change at this point, but what you are doing is sparking their intrinsic desire for change. Remember, intrinsic motivation is more powerful and long lasting than extrinsic motivation, so this is what you want to elicit in your teen by guiding them to and allowing them to find their own motivations for change.

3. Preparation

At this phase, thanks to your guidance, your teenager has worked through much of the ambivalence. He or she has decided to start making some changes. Perhaps they have met a study buddy, signed up for the ACT or asked a teacher for extra help. They are literally preparing to make a change.

Once again, it’s easy at this stage to get overly excited and pushy, but don’t. Instead, allow your child to make the preparations and resist the urge to help unless asked, and even then don’t over do it. Show interest and ask questions that are genuine, but not questions that appear to be to intruding and critical.

The contemplation and preparation phases are considered to be the most important part of the change process and it’s easy to sabotage your teen’s motivation at this point by going back to old ways of dealing with their unapproved behavior.

It’s natural for people to go back and forth between preparation and contemplation, and so it’s easy for parents to see this as a sign that their teen is unmotivated or unwilling to change.

Instead of looking at this as a negative, understand that it’s a natural part of the change process as what may appear to be a simple change to you may be worth considerable contemplation by your teenager.

Don’t be frustrated or judgemental, but allow your teenager space to prepare for the change at hand. Continue to support them through genuine questions and as always, listening to their thoughts.

4. Action

At this stage, your teen is actually making the change. They are actually studying, doing homework, going to all their classes, whatever the change may be. They may from time to time revert back to one of the earlier stages, but for the most part, they are making steady change and progress.

At this stage, parents are thrilled that their teen is making better choices and that’s natural, but refuse the urge to become a cheerleader. Remember, this change is not about you, but about your teenager. It’s okay to ask them what has this successful change been like for them, and that simple question is saying a lot.

Your teen may stumble as they continue to find their way through this change and that’s okay. Don’t jump in to redirect them unless they ask for it.

It’s very important that they do this on their own so at the end of the day they will know that they were responsible for making a positive change in their life and they can do it again and again.

Helping them build self-efficacy is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give to a child.

5. Maintenance

When your child has maintained the change for six months, they are in the maintenance stage. You are very proud of the changes your teenager has made. There is likely less arguing going on and more peace in the house as you have made successful efforts in motivating your teenager!

Next post we will discuss key concepts of motivation including goals and empathy.

Motivating Your Unmotivated Teen Part 2: Understanding Change

Teen AngstIn part one we started discussing the importance of having a good relationship with your adolescent in order to help facilitate motivation and change.

Often times, too many parents try to motivate their child instead of developing motivation as a function of their relationship with their child. That means that you have to serve as a source of motivation in someway.

You can’t expect your teenager to want to do something different if you haven’t demonstrated motivation and change behavior in your own life, or if your efforts to motivate them include constant nagging and criticism.

Sometimes that is all that is needed, for a teenager to be in a relationship with other people that are inspiring.

For example, I have a running partner who is a much better runner than I am, yet running with him has motivated me. He encourages me sometimes, but for the most part, I run to not disappoint him and because I enjoy his company. In the process, I became a better runner which motivated me to continue running. The key factor in that is the relationship with my running partner that helped start the process and the motivation to continue it.

It would have been nearly impossible for me to find motivation in our running relationship if he was always cancelling or if he showed up just to show me up. The same principles apply for parents trying to help their teens find motivation. They have to have a motivating relationship.

Motivation Is Change Oriented Movement.

That is the simplest definition of motivation. This definition focuses on motivation as a matter of change that is directed towards behavior, not thinking. When it comes to motivation, it’s often more important to focus on changing the behavior and not the thinking, but changes in thinking generally follow changes in behavior.  But why do people change? What makes people, especially teenagers, decide to do something different? What factors and circumstances have to come into place to facilitate change?

Why Do Adolescents Change? 

Many people believe that people change to avoid discomfort. Often however, unpleasant feelings and experiences actually decrease the chances of someone taking action, which is another reason punishments often don’t have the long term effect they were intended to have.

There are three conditions that need to be in place for change to happen:

1. The change has to be associated with intrinsic value.

Even external consequences that have intrinsic value can work, but the teen has to find intrinsic value in the change in order for it to occur and be long lasting. You have to have a relationship with your child that allows you to discover what is intrinsically valuable to your child. Trying to do that through punishments and groundings is usually futile.

2. Your teen has to be able, willing and ready to change.

This is where a lot of parents fail, not understanding that their teenager won’t change until they are capable of making the change, are willing to make the change and then is willing to make the change. You can not push your teenager into making a change they are unwilling or not ready to make, all you are going to get is defiance and discord.

Change can not be forced on anyone, no matter how important you think the change may be or how much it makes sense. Change will only come when your teenager is willing, ready and capable of making the change required.

3. The teenager has to be in a safe, empowering and accepting environment.

Your teen’s primary environment is their relationship with you, which means you have to provide a safe, empowering and accepting relationship if you want to see your teenager make positive changes.

The number one factor in providing this type of environment/relationship is having unconditional positive regard, where your teen can feel free to express their thoughts and emotions without criticism. This doesn’t mean that you will tolerate uncivil or inappropriate behavior from your child, but it does mean that you will not try to change their thoughts.

Communication is also key in developing the type of environment necessary for change.

This means having open, non-judgmental conversations about the problem and sometimes this alone can be enough to facilitate the motivational and change processes. This can be hard for parents to do because they are used to talking, dictating and teaching, when listening to their teenager is often more  productive.

Your teenager wants to be listened to. Dictating to them what they need to do is usually a sure way to kill motivation, not induce it.

Accept your teenager for who they are.

By accepting your teen for who they are, you make room for motivation and change. If however, you criticize your teen for who they are, they are more likely to actually feel unmotivated to make any changes you would like to see them make. Acceptance facilitates change, but it doesn’t guarantee it.

Acceptance doesn’t mean that you approve of your teenager’s behavior, it just means that you are not going to criticize or judge them. There is a right time for useful criticism that we will discuss in another segment.

Next post we will discuss indecisiveness and the stages of change which are important to understand when trying to understand the change process.