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About Lawrence Cohen PhD

Here are my most recent posts

The Ten Talents of Parenting: Resolution

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As parents, we must resolve our own childhood traumas, losses and unmet needs in order to meet the needs of our children.

Every person alive has experienced some form of loss; it’s just part of the human condition. We may have lost a parent or a sibling, or lost our sense of safety because of being abused or neglected as a child. We may have lost a dear friend, beloved babysitter or grandparent. We may not have lost anyone to death, but instead lost their love and affection because of illness, depression, addiction, anger or stress.

These old losses can have a big impact on our ability to be effective parents.

In a fascinating study, adult attachment research pioneer Dr. Mary Main and her colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley interviewed pregnant women about their childhoods. This interview predicted how securely or insecurely attached the mothers and infants were with each other a year later. The key was not whether or not they had experienced loss – they all had – but how they dealt with it. The study concluded that parents who have resolved their losses are better able to provide a secure attachment for their children.

So how do you know if a loss is still unresolved? In this study, the most important factor was how the mother-to-be told the history of her early experiences of attachment and loss. Some dismissed the pain of the past, pushing it away and refusing to face or feel any sad or angry feelings. Others were preoccupied with the loss, unable to move forward with their emotional lives. Those who had resolved the losses still had feelings about those old events, but they were not overwhelmed by those feelings, and they could focus on their entire history, remembering good and bad times.

It’s pretty clear how these patterns can affect parenthood. If we try to bury our own painful feelings, we’ll have a hard time responding empathically to our children’s painful feelings. If we are preoccupied with loss, we won’t have much room left over for joy. Most important, unresolved losses in our past make us fearful of attaching again, which keeps us distant from our children.

I experienced this 15 years ago, shortly before my daughter was born. I noticed that I wasn’t having any warm-fuzzy feelings toward the baby-to-be. This was very different from a few years before, during a pregnancy that ended sadly in a miscarriage. During that time, I had felt – for a few short weeks – an incredibly close bond with that little spark of life, and an overwhelming grief when it was cut short.

Why was it so different the second time? I think I wasn’t letting myself feel too close, so I wouldn’t have to feel that unbearable loss again if something bad happened. But that was nonsense. Of course, I would still feel the loss, no matter what. That kind of grief isn’t something you can protect yourself against. I also realized that even if I could protect myself from grief by refusing to attach, it wasn’t worth it.

As I pushed myself to attach anyway, in spite of the risks, I discovered piles of leftover sadness about losing that earlier child. Working my way through that grief left me with much more room to love the baby who was coming. When my daughter was born, I was glad I had a head start on loving her. If you wait to attach until you know everything is going to work out OK, you’ll wait forever and miss everything.

So if you tend to be dismissive of old losses, take a good look at them. Spend some time talking about the losses you’ve experienced. I know, it’s like reopening an old wound that you’d rather leave alone, but it can give that old wound a chance to heal properly. This is especially true of losses directly related to parenthood, such as miscarriages, abortions, giving children up for adoption or loss of a parent.

If you tend to be preoccupied with past losses, see what you can do to move on to the next stage – maybe write a “letter” to the person you lost, perform a farewell ritual or push yourself to remember the people and things that kept your hopes up and sustained you during that troubling time. Even if your past is fairly well resolved, tell your history to someone who cares about you; you might find, like I did, that there are still hidden pockets of “unfelt feelings.” And feel free to cry; those old losses deserve a bucket load of tears.

Lawrence J. Cohen

(First appeared in Parenthood.com.)

The Ten Talents of Parenting: Understanding and Empathy

Understanding and Empathy

If we look under the surface of our children’s behavior, at how they might be feeling, we are often in a better position to get things back on track. How have you nurtured that talent of looking deep inside, understanding where a child’s behavior is coming from and seeing the pain behind the problems?

When our children have been “bad,” it’s hard for us to remember that they need comfort rather than punishment. After all, when you have made a mistake, would you rather get understanding or criticism?

The best way to cultivate empathy is to focus on children’s underlying needs and feelings, instead of reacting to the behavior. If we tune in to what they need – including the need to be understood – then children will be more cooperative and happier.

But empathy – identifying and understanding another person’s feelings and difficulties – can be hard. Most of us didn’t get enough empathy when we were little. Now that we aren’t little anymore, we usually don’t want to think about when we were, and we certainly don’t want to feel those old scary or painful feelings again.

Sometimes we avoid empathy simply because we can’t handle the heartbreak of empathizing with our own child’s pain. So, instead, we yell at, scold, punish and ignore our kids, focusing on what they are doing instead of what they are experiencing underneath.

To develop the talent of tuning in to what is really going on under the surface, try “breaking the code” of children’s behavior. Translate what they are doing into a sentence that starts with “I feel ____” or “I need ___” and fill in the blank. Respond to that need or feeling, rather than the behavior. (Remember, no child needs a kick in the keister! And focus your translations on real feelings, like sadness, loneliness or shame, not things such as “I need to drive Mommy crazy.”)

If a toddler starts pulling everything off the counter, he may be saying, “I need something to do.” If an eighth-grader starts forgetting to do her homework, she may be saying, “I feel scared about high school coming up.” You won’t always be right about your translation, but it always helps to try to locate the need or feeling underneath.

In Raising Cain, the recent PBS television special about the emotional life of boys, Michael Thompson, Ph.D., noted that the reason boys often lie when they are confronted with something they did wrong is to avoid feeling shame, because boys are trained to avoid any vulnerable feeling or show of weakness. Of course, we want boys to take responsibility for their behavior, but Thompson suggests that this is more likely to happen if we give them time and support, remembering that underneath male anger and aggression is a deep well of sadness and loss. Our job is to feel empathy for those feelings, even when they are completely hidden.

A friend of mine told me about a discovery he made when he was camping with his children:

As we sat around the campfire, my older son, he’s 7, was being more and more obnoxious. He was teasing his little sister for being scared of the dark, talking loudly enough to wake the nocturnal animals, and making rude comments. I was getting annoyed, and was on the verge of one of those famous “Dad statements,” like “I’m going to take you home right now, blah blah blah.”

I got up to get something out of the tent, and my son said, “Wait.” Something about his tone of voice made me stop, and I suddenly realized he was scared. Now everything made sense: This was why he was making fun of his little sister (who wasn’t ashamed to sit right up close to me), this was why he was being loud, and this was why he was being aggressive. I invited him to come sit on the log next to me.

I had been planning to tell a ghost story – I’m glad now that I didn’t. Instead, I told them about the first time I went camping, and how I was scared of a noise that turned out to be my friend’s dad snoring in the next tent. The highlight of the whole trip was recognizing that it was OK for my children to be scared, and that I was pretty good at comforting them and boosting their confidence. For the rest of the trip, whenever I thought someone might be scared, I’d make a loud fake snoring noise, and we’d all laugh.

Have you had that “aha!” experience of recognizing that a sad, hurt or lonely feeling was fueling your child’s annoying behavior? Take a look at the last few times you blew up at your kids. What’s your best guess about what they were feeling when they were misbehaving? What did they need? And don’t forget to have a little empathy for yourself. I know you only “misbehave” as a parent because of your own buried feelings of frustration, fear, sadness and anger.

 – Lawrence J. Cohen

(First appeared in Parenthood.com.)

The Ten Talents of Parenting: Reflection

Untitled DocumentWhy and How to Reflect on Being a Parent

The best way to jump-start a habit of self-reflection is to set aside a specific time every day for writing in a journal or sharing your thoughts with a friend. Just 10 minutes can make a difference.

In The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy, Louis Cozolino describes people with a rare type of brain injury who are “constantly distracted by emotional and sensory experience, unable to maintain focus, and suffer deficits in imaginative abilities.”

Wait! That sounds like a description of every parent of young children! Even without the injury, we are usually so wrapped up in each moment – or so exhausted – that we don’t have time or energy to absorb our parenting experiences, consider their meanings and imagine new possibilities. But we need to make the time for reflection, even if we have to steal it from other activities that seem more crucial.

There’s an old Sufi story, in which Mullah Nasrudin – the wise fool – is chopping down a mighty tree with a dull ax. A friend, passing by, suggests that he sharpen the ax, since it’s clear that at this rate the job will take forever. The Mullah waves his friend away, saying, “I don’t have time; I have to chop down this tree right away.”

Reflecting on parenthood – stepping back to think, write or talk about what life is really like for us – is worth the time, because it helps us become better parents. Another Nasrudin story explains why:

A man walking along the street sees him searching for a lost key under a street lamp and politely stops to help. After a long search, the passerby says, “Are you sure this is where you lost the key?”

“Oh no,” answers Mullah Nasrudin, “I lost it over there.”

“Then why aren’t we looking for it over there?”

“Ah, because the light is better here.”

Reflecting on our parenthood (and on our own childhood, while we are at it), prevents us from making the same mistakes again and again, because we get to step back and notice that this tactic has never worked and probably never will.

The best way to jump-start a habit of self-reflection is to set aside a specific time each day for writing in a journal or sharing your thoughts with a friend. Ten minutes can keep your ax sharpened and help you figure out how to take a flashlight over to the dark spot where you lost your keys.

To get you started, here are some helpful things to reflect about:

• What’s great about being a parent?

• What’s hard about it?

• What was going on in your life when you were your child’s age(s)?

Be prepared for reflection to be a bit painful at first, as you pay attention to things that you have avoided thinking about in the past, like losing your temper, not knowing what to do, or saying the same exact words your mother or father used to say to you. You can learn a great deal if you step back from the overloaded stress of daily life and examine what was going on in your mind when you “messed up,” what old memories and feelings were triggered, and what you did out of habit, without pausing to think.

A friend told me this story about the power of taking a little time to reflect:

Everything seemed to go smoothly for me as a mom until my son Isaac was about 18 months old. I started to panic that he was having trouble breathing; every time he coughed or ate I would rush over to make sure he was OK. Everyone told me he was fine, but I couldn’t stop obsessing. Sometimes I would also feel like I was choking. It all made me so nervous that I found parenting more stressful and less enjoyable.

One day a friend asked me, “what happened in your life when you were 18 months old?” Of course, I couldn’t remember, and I thought it was a dumb question. But over the next few days I kept going back to it, and spent some time thinking about it. I had always heard the story that I was left for a week with my grandmother at that age, while my mother was in the hospital having my baby brother. I had a sudden memory, from later in my childhood, of my grandmother trying to force me to eat when I wasn’t hungry. I imagined being a baby, force-fed by my grandmother while I was trying to cry about missing my mommy.

Perhaps all this worry about Isaac choking wasn’t about him, but was really about me. Like the sun coming out of the clouds, my worry and panic went away, and my joy in holding him and playing with him came back.

Not every reflection will lead to such a clear breakthrough, but it will always open the door to understanding. So get a journal – not a baby book, but a book about you – or take 10 minutes each day with a friend. Remember that reflection needs an attitude of acceptance and compassion – not harshness or criticism – and it is not the same as rumination. If you find yourself going over the same familiar thoughts, reach for brand-new thoughts. Allow yourself to be surprised.

Lawrence J. Cohen

(First appeared in Parenthood.com.)

The Ten Talents of Parenting: Balance

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Finding Emotional Balance

Finding emotional balance is hard when we are filled with our own anger, frustration, anxiety or resentment. These feelings knock us off balance, and parenting is already challenging enough when we aren’t wobbling – or falling all the way over!

Have you noticed the language that we parents use when things are not going well with our kids? We say they are “bouncing off the walls,” “having meltdowns” or “falling apart.” We describe ourselves as being “at the end of my rope,” “about to explode” or “losing it.”

Nevertheless, right now as you read this article, a parent somewhere nearby is taking a deep breath (or counting to 10) before reacting to his or her child’s outrageous behavior. A mom catches herself before yelling or hitting, telling herself that she’s just stressed about work and doesn’t need to take it out on the kids. A dad tries something different than the way he was raised, saying “tell me all about it” when his son is overflowing with tears or anger. A couple recognizes that when their daughter says, “I hate you both,” it really means that she is scared and lonely, and they offer comfort instead of punishment.

These examples of emotional balance seem simple, but they are awfully hard when we are filled with our own anger, frustration, anxiety or resentment. These feelings knock us off balance, and parenting is already challenging enough when we aren’t wobbling – or falling all the way over!

When we are off-balance we react emotionally, and our reactions often have more to do with our own childhood than with our children. When someone steps on your toe it’s aggravating, but if you happen to have a broken toe, it is excruciating. Our unfinished feelings from our own past are like the broken toe, and our child’s behavior is like the accidental stomp (OK, sometimes it isn’t exactly accidental).

Shelley was a client of mine who always found herself yelling at her kids when they wouldn’t do their chores or settle down to do homework. She knew the yelling only made things worse, but she couldn’t seem to stop – always a sure sign that there’s something deeper going on. Shelley remembered her mother’s passion for yelling, and her own fearfulness from being yelled at. As a child, she got the message to do everything her mother asked her to do, “or else.”

Shelley didn’t want her own children to live in that same fear; she wanted them to have more freedom to just be kids than she had, but that old feeling of helplessness kept coming back to her. Over time, she was able to practice taking a few deep breaths, focusing on the difference between the past and the present, and telling herself that her children were being annoying, but nothing dangerous was happening. That gave her some breathing room to come up with much more effective solutions than yelling, such as spending a little time with each child one-on-one and letting the kids choose which chores to do on different days. Shelley’s husband, whose pattern was to hide in his study when the yelling started because of his own childhood experiences of growing up in a family where no one ever yelled, began to be more actively involved in chores and homework.

It can be hard not to overreact (or hide) when we are faced with intense feelings from our children or from within ourselves. In the heat of the moment, when you don’t know what to do (a clear sign that you’ve lost your balance), it often helps to leave the room, count to 10, take three slow deep breaths, jump up and down a few times, or call a friend.

Once the crisis has passed, you can take a longer-term approach: meditate, exercise and get more support so you have time for yourself. Use some of that time to ask yourself these questions:

* What do you remember from when you were the age your children are now?

* Do those memories help you understand where things get hard for you now as a parent?

* How were different feelings, like anger and grief, expressed by different people in your family growing up?

Lawrence J. Cohen

(First appeared in Parenthood.com.)

The Ten Talents of Parenting: Responsiveness

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Recognizing and Responding to Your Child’s Needs

The key to providing security to children is recognizing and meeting their needs. It isn’t always easy. Babies’ needs are pretty obvious: feed them when they’re hungry, change them when they’re wet, hold them when they want to be close, show them the world when they are curious. But as children grow up, their needs become more complex.

They might want to be comforted and nurtured like a baby, and want independence at the same time. They often need more connection, comfort and affection than we have available to give them. Children of all ages have needs that clash with our own needs (they want to play when we want to sleep).

Whining children disguise their needs; they sound like they need that cookie or that truck, but usually what they really need is a chance to reconnect with us after a long day or to let out a good cry after a big frustration. Children need limits, but they don’t need limits to be delivered harshly or angrily. I’ve never met a child with a deep-seated need for yelling, scolding or punishment. Sure, they might need some guidance and direction, but if we are responding to their needs, we will give them that discipline with love and respect.

To nurture this talent of responsiveness, try stepping out of the power struggle, the irritability and the aggravation, and ask yourself, “What does my child need right now?” (If your answer is “a kick in the keister,” keep asking yourself until you come up with a real need!) Think about how you might meet that need, without sacrificing your own basic needs. You will probably discover that in order to meet that need, you have to tune-in more closely to what your child is thinking and feeling.

You may also want to consider how your own needs were met – or left unmet – when you were young. Do you feel resentful when your child needs something from you, especially if it’s something you never got? Is there some way that you can get your own needs met now, so that you will feel better equipped to meet your child’s needs?

Here’s an example from a mom who decided to stop focusing on her son’s behavior and instead to respond to his needs:

Last summer, my son Roy, 7, started misbehaving as he’d never misbehaved before. He was picking fights with his sisters and deliberately ignoring me. I was angry with him most of the time. One day was particularly bad. I yelled at him and told him to play nicely. Then I left to do laundry. He followed, his arms loaded with Playmobil people. Then he threw his favorite character, “Jonathan,” down the stairs after me. I turned around to send Roy to his room.

“Did you throw that at me?” I asked sharply.

“No. His whole family kicked him down the stairs,” Roy said. His tone was so angry and offended, I just said, “Wow.”

“What?” asked Roy suspiciously.

“That must have really hurt him.”

“Well,” said Roy, “Jonathan is an idiot.”

I was almost afraid to ask but I said, “Why is he an idiot?”

“Because,” Roy explained, “his family just tells him to get away.”

I took a deep breath and said, “Let’s you and me bring Jonathan upstairs and see if we might make him feel better about himself.”

Twenty minutes later, Roy was a different person. We didn’t have a deep conversation about his feelings – or mine. Instead, we played.

I let Roy direct the play so he could feel in control. We set up the people at their farmhouse. Jonathan was the expert with all the answers. My people didn’t know an apple ready for picking from a cow ready for milking. Roy loved it. He would groan, “Oh, my gosh, you’ll never survive if you don’t know how to do that.” At one point he looked up at me and said, “I love you, Mamma.”

I don’t always recover so successfully with my kids, but I find that things always go better if I can think about where they are and what they need, rather than where I would like them to be.

This mom managed to be responsive to her son in a very tough situation. She overcame her urge to send him away, and instead drew him closer, since that’s what he really needed.

Lawrence J. Cohen

(First appeared in Parenthood.com.)