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Category: Tip Sheets

What goes on in the therapy room?

What goes on in the therapy room?

Here are some examples of the therapeutic work I do with children.

The movie Inside Out provides great clips for exploring the usefulness of emotion and the importance of helping our emotions to work together as a team. (Worksheets are for ages 8 and up.)








Learning and expression through play helps the younger children develop trust and find their voice.  Sometimes the play is related to the referral concerns, other times it is a way to connect and settle, to learn while having fun. Parents and I chat calmly and kindly about the child’s needs as we play and create. During grown up talking time, my conversation is designed to be overheard by little ears so they can feel validated and supported.








All ages love to tell their story through sand play. This child told a story about two pirates who were brothers. One pirate stole his brother’s treasure and buried it under the bridge. The queen watching from her castle is sad. In the end, the pirate who stole, returned the treasure and his brother shared it out between them. Yes, this child was working through issues of sibling rivalry!


My child-friendly take on the Stress-Vulnerability Model of Mental Illness: The sunshine balloons represent protective factors (that enhance wellbeing) and the raindrop balloons represent risk factors (that can create difficulties).  Just as we need rain, we also need adversity to grow. But we need to keep the rain bucket from overflowing by getting out into the sunshine to dry up the rain!

(Blue balloons- “hurt body”, “out of routine”, “hurt feelings”, “tired”, “sick”, “lonely”.  Yellow balloons- “sunshine”, “friends”, “sleep”, “healthy food”, “play”, “love”)



Victoria’s Wild Weather and Anxious Children

Victoria’s Wild Weather and Anxious Children

There have been some worried children around Victoria lately. Fear of rain and storms is a common source of childhood anxiety. Their fear is real; they don’t have an adult understanding of Emergency Services, safety plans, government warnings that keep us safe, or of geography in general. My 8 year old is worried there will be a tzunami!
BEFORE you rush in with logic and explanations, make sure you’ve respected their fear and communicated understanding and acceptance. “Yes, it can be pretty scary seeing these photos of floods in the news. It sounds like you’re worried. ” Allow your child to hear you speak to others with calming facts. Saying it directly to your child when they’re highly anxious or don’t feel like their worry has been validated, will be taken as a lecture and a dismissal of their fears. Hearing it indirectly allows them to hear the facts without feeling confronted.
If your child is open to it, make a coping plan with them. You could make a list of things to do when the storm hits. You could make a basket or box of activities and soothing objects.
The news loves sensationalism and children don’t know what is historical or distant, and what is current or local. The photo doing the rounds of Elizabeth St under water in 1972 is pretty scary! But we are – for the most part – safe. If you yourself are worried, you can role model soothing your fears (not too much wine!). Focus on comforting activities and on stories of coping and helping (e.g., State Emergency Services heroes).

P.S. Remember your pets’ fears too! Our Maggie sometimes needs half a sedative as storms set off her epilepsy.

Parenting Panic? Remember to Press Pause. (9/12/15)

Parenting Panic? Remember to Press Pause. (9/12/15)

I recently used my Facebook page as a platform to ask parents what they do when their children’s behaviour gets too much to handle. Every response identified the need for the parent to calm themselves before dealing with the child’s behaviour. Strategies to do this varied greatly but the understanding was universal: a “break” of some sort is essential.

We have all heard or been told to calm down when we’re angry; to count to ten; to build a bridge, move on …etc. Usually this is said when the angry person is right at the peak of his or her emotion, far beyond the reach of logic or reason and most likely feeling very disconnected from others, alone in their anger. And as most of us can attest, this advice is usually not very well received. In fact, it often escalates the anger and aloneness: “Don’t tell me to calm down! You don’t understand!”

So we have a dilemma. The calm down advice is universal. But most of us don’t want to hear it when we need it. Some of us want to take it if we ourselves initiate it (and aren’t ordered by others)…but how? Why do we hate hearing it when we know it to be good advice? Why is it so difficult to do even when we want to? And lastly, how do we help our children to calm down, to adopt this skill we ourselves struggle with?

Imagine you are overcome with anger. Your body is tense, hot, maybe shaky. Words about injustice, unfairness, betrayal are screaming at you from inside your head. “I deserve better than this!” Memories of past betrayals and injustices leap up unbidden from your past. Fear of future mistreatment urges you on to stamp it out NOW and ensure it never happens again. Physical urges- to run away, to stamp your feet, to hit- are coursing through your feet and hands.

There is no way that in this state, a parent can tune in to their child’s needs and respond to the specific situation at hand. No, in this state we parents are reacting (not responding) to past events, the threat of future events, and judgments of the present moment. We are not present. We are not choosing our parenting strategies consciously.

Enter the need to settle ourselves, ground/centre/anchor; there are many terms for what I call the pause.

I have a pause button on my fridge at home. A simple printed pause button icon laminated with a magnetic strip on the back. It’s for me as much as for the children. It’s a visual cue to settle myself before I try to deal with my children’s needs.

In sessions with clients I provide information about basic neuropsychology and the effect of heightened emotion on rational thought. You can get the gist of this by clicking on this link:

Dan Siegel calls it a time out. I call it a pause. I prefer pause because time out has connotations of sending someone away, disconnecting. For some people being alone is exactly what’s needed- a chance to centre in one oneself and settle- for others, isolation at the time of emotional distress is experienced as rejection or abandonment.

I’m not overstating it when I say that learning how to settle ourselves is THE key skill for parenting. No matter how many parenting articles we have read, courses we have taken, or experts we consult, none of our theory will be put into practice at times of anger (frustration, exhaustion, loneliness etc.) unless we are calm enough to access that part of our brain that houses our knowledge, beliefs, and skill. We’ve all had the experience of looking back on an incident with regret, knowing that it could have been handled better, that we actually DID have the skills but didn’t use them.

So how do we press pause? How do we unhook from the overwhelming thoughts, memories, sensations, images, and urges that block our access to tuning in to our children and to using our parenting skills? And then how do we help our children to pause, without unhelpfully ordering them to calm down?

In brief:

1. We are hard-wired to seek connection when we are faced with difficult emotions. Some of us have learned to over-ride this instinct because the need was never adequately met but our children need it and if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with someone we trust, we adults need it too. Having someone validate you, accept you, and not talk you out of your anger when you’re in the midst of it, is one of the most sure-fire ways to press pause helpfully. We need this. Our children need it.

2. Use your five senses to get present. Notice what you can see, smell, touch, taste, or hear. This will ground you and help you reconnect your frontal cortex and limbic system (as explained in the YouTube link above). If you are able, invite your child to do this with you. Make a kit of sensory toys that can be used at this time- by you or your child IF your child understands and wants to, not as a tool to distract or silence your child; they’ll resist that.

One of the reasons we don’t like it when someone tells us to calm down or count to ten is because we fear our concerns will never be heard. Therefore, help your child (and yourself) understand that a pause button is not a stop button or a change the channel button. After the pause you will press play and get back to the issue at hand, but from a calmer place.

3. Know your parenting values. What do you want to role model? What do you want your children to learn? What sort of people do you want them to be? If you have a clear understanding of this then you can choose to act by these values once you are calm, even if every single parenting skill you ever read has completely flown out of your head.

Calm does not mean happy. It does not mean you’ve moved on. It means that you are ready and able to address your needs and your child’s needs in a tuned-in-to-the-moment manner. And that’s what your child wants from you: to be seen and heard and parented fairly.

The next incident might sound like this:
“I’ve had my pause kids. I feel calmer. You’re still in trouble because you weren’t allowed to do that. But now I can help you with what you really needed.”

or this:
“I’m here with you. I see how furious you are. I’ll stay with you. Let’s do some belly breathing and then work out how to help you.”

You’ll work out what feels comfortable for you and your family.

Just remember to pause.

So, how was your day?

So, how was your day?

What do your children say when you ask them how their day was at school? “Fine.” “Yeah. Good.” “>grunt<” And when you want to know about their class work or friendships? “Nothing.” “Ok.” There are several articles doing the rounds with some helpful tips on connecting with your children so they’ll open up and share their school world with us. I’d like to add a few more ideas.

Volunteer at school- if you’re in the classroom, on the playground, or on excursions, you will learn the names of teachers and students and be “up” on what’s what at school. Instead of asking general questions, you’ll be able to engage your child in conversation with interesting and relevant starters such as, ‘I saw that Annie had a plaster cast on her arm. What happened?” or “Mrs O was away today. Did you like the substitute?” Children often respond well to such specifics and knowing this level of detail shows your child that his/her world is interesting to you.

Arrange playdates after school, on weekends, or in the holidays. If your home is too small, take the children to a local park, library, pool etc. Get to know your child’s peers so it is easier for your child to talk about them with you and so you can observe any concerning dynamics (eg, is your child hesitant to invite? Why? Is your child a leader or follower in games? Etc.

Try to be at school drop-off or pick several times a week so that you get to know the school community and you see your children with their school mates.

Basically, if you are already in the loop, you will find it much easier to engage your child in conversation and to follow what they are saying. Chatting with you without having to explain who is who etc., is much easier for your child.

This an example of the advice circulating on facebook- useful for many but perhaps not so easy to remember?



I am concerned that a whole new generation of children are being taught the same unhelpful thought-stopping strategies that we were. You know, the ‘throw the bad thought away” one. Or the updated version “delete that thought”. Some people are taught to wear a rubber band and snap it when they have upsetting thoughts to remind them to get rid of that erroneous, irrational thought.

These strategies have actually been shown to increase rumination (excessive dwelling on unhelpful thoughts) and perpetuate the unhelpful belief that people can control their minds and feelings. It is more helpful to understand that while we cannot control the thoughts or feelings that arise, we can manage them well and we can learn how to cope, how to relate to our thoughts and feelings differently. It is actually the illusion of control that contributes to anxiety and depression; we feel like failures when we can’t stop those illogical thoughts and feelings.

We need to teach our children ways to feel safe when upsetting thoughts and feelings pop up. Give them the security and skills to allow the thoughts and feelings to float (hang around) or do whatever they want to do, while they -the children- practise calming and relaxing themselves even in the presence of such thoughts and feelings.

The outdated approach sends the message that we can only feel ok/relaxed/coping when our upset has gone. It teaches that we can only attempt difficult tasks once the fear has gone. Obviously such beliefs can really hold us back. Such beliefs also send the message that distress is so awful, so horrible that we must avoid it at all costs. We must stop that thought before it harms us! This only increases children’s anxiety. We need to teach that all feelings and thoughts are safe, they are only stories, and we can calm ourselves and re-engage with what’s important to us even when these thoughts and feelings are still hanging around.

Thought-stopping also invalidates our experiences. Telling someone to “think positive” or “throw that thought away” dismisses what is being experienced by that person and can send the message that the person is perceived as irrational, petty, or a “drama queen” . But the topic of invalidation is a whole other essay which I’d best leave for now.

I have had to sit with children and remind them that we cannot stop thoughts or control feelings. We can manage how we deal with them and how we relate to them. I do the old “do not think of a white bear” exercise with them. Of course she found that you can’t not think about something, or that if you manage to stop the thought for a while it is only by using a lot of energy in chasing distractions and that is not a long-term solution. (See for a more succinct explanation and for a more detailed one.)

I hope this has given you food for thought. It might be difficult to accept at first because believing that we can get rid of distressing thoughts has become second-nature to us Westerners. In reality, however, this “new wave” of psychology has found scientifically measured evidence for the ancient teachings of many cultures. There’s plenty to read about it to further your understanding. You could start at
All the best,

Starting Childcare (@16 months and older)

Starting Childcare (@16 months and older)

Brief Tip Sheet

  • Play games such as peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek to teach your child that you always come back.
  • Plan to visit the centre twice a week for two or three weeks before starting.
  • At home, use absences from your child (even a trip to the toilet!) to teach your child that you always come back.
  • Transition him slowly by leaving him for increasingly longer periods of time starting with ten minutes and building up to half an hour.
  • When your child knows his carers’ names and is confident to go to them for help then he is ready to be left there without you. If this takes longer than four or so visits arrange a meeting with the carers and director to plan as a team how to help your child adjust.
  • Talk about childcare at home- the children, the carers, the routines and the activities there. (Take photos home to talk about if you can.)
  • Have a childcare friend over to play at home (or visit them). You could also meet at the library or local park.
  • When you start childcare –after your child has become familiar through orientation visits- aim to spend 10 minutes settling your child in. If this is not enough, ask the carers for help and then leave.
  • When you leave say, “Bye! I will be back soon.” And go.
  • You might like to call the centre to find out how he is. You will probably be told he is fine so now you can get on with your day!
  • At pick-up time spend some time letting your child show you what she did that day.
  • Get some feedback from the carers.
  • Talk to your child on the way home about her day. Use the names of the children and the carers.
  • Accept any feelings of sadness or anxiety with a simple cuddle.


Parenting Ourselves

Parenting Ourselves

A new mother slumps before me, eyes filled with tears as she shares with me her despair and exhaustion. Her baby is lying on a rug between us. Mum wipes away her tears and attempts to smile. “I don’t want him to see his mummy cry. I’m so stupid for wallowing this way. No one else finds this as hard as I do.” I know she is silently adding that she is failing at motherhood. I also know that she is arguing with herself, telling herself that her sadness is weak, irrational, and she should just snap out of it.

Suddenly her little one yelps. He has rolled over and bumped his head on the pram brake. Mum scoops him up and comforts him. “Ouch!” she empathises, “That hurt.” He settles. He burrows into her neck and his cries slow into whimpers and then he is quiet. Soon enough he is happily chewing on Mum’s hair.

I use this little snapshot of motherhood to talk about how we comfort our children; how we soothe them when they are hurt- either physically or emotionally. Mum was quick to connect with my explanations of Active Listening (see my blog post by this title for more), validation, “sitting with” instead of problem-solving or disputing, and staying connected while the “storm” passes. Gazing at her child she declared that she will always try to validate his perspective and would not dream of joking, distracting, or minimising his pain- even if she could not see what the big deal was.This new mother agreed that her son needed her to stay connected to him and to accept his feelings so that he could learn to cope with them.

We explored how it feels to have one’s feelings accepted and how it hurts to have one’s emotional experience rejected. “Then why,” I asked, “are you doing this to yourself?’ My client was puzzled. I continued, and we began to unpack the many ways in which she invalidated her own feelings and disconnected from herself in times of distress. We re-visited the basic skills of Active Listening and she practised using them on her own thoughts, wishes, and feelings, just as I coach parents to do for their children.

Near the end of the session our new mother had an “aha moment”. “I need to parent myself just as I want to parent my son. When I am hurt I need to scoop myself up, comfort myself, and empathise: Ouch. This hurts.”

Try it. Read (or re-read) my post on Active Listening, and try it on yourself next time you are angry, sad, worried, bored…you name it. Stay connected to yourself. Be kind just as you would be to a baby. A point of difference though: you might find an activity other than chewing hair to re-engage with once the storm passes!

Temper Tantrums: some are unavoidable but these are important times for relationship building and learning about managing strong emotions.

Temper Tantrums: some are unavoidable but these are important times for relationship building and learning about managing strong emotions.

It was time to get out of the bath, but two- year old Tamara wanted to play a bit more.  Daddy (John)  said “OK, one minute more” and gave her back the toy she had been playing with.  After a little play, Tamara handed the toy back and put her arms up. John lifted her out of the bath.


As soon as Tamara’s feet touched the floor she changed her mind and demanded “More bath”.  The water had already been drained.  Shivering sisters were waiting to be dressed.  John used Active Listening to help Tamara manage her disappointment.  “You wanted to play a bit more, huh?  Now you’re feeling cross”.  But Tamara had already revved up for a full – blown tantrum.  She slipped around the wet floor and lunged at Daddy trying to bite, scratch or hit him.


At that point Tracey came running in.  She picked up the writhing, distraught toddler who knocked Tracey’s glasses off, hit her and struggled to the floor.  Over the next 20 minutes (it felt like hours) Tracey tried to provide Tamara with a safe haven in which to move through the rage that had overtaken her.  She would not let herself be cuddled, so whenever there was a pause in her jumping up and down and screaming Tracey gently stroked her.  Just a brief but connecting, accepting, reassuring touch.  Tracey periodically verbalised Tamara’s emotions: “Such a big crossness Tamara!” “You really want more bath. More bath NOW Daddy!” Eventually Tracey put Tamara in her cot because she was so uncontained.  But Tracey did not leave Tamara’s side.  She stayed just out of arms reach but within eye contact and voice contact.  She continued to communicate love, empathy and the belief that together she and her child could handle this.  “What can Mummy do to help?” “Are you ready for cuddles”?   Tracey paid close attention to Tamara’s breathing, her volume and her physical agitation.


Eventually, when she felt like crying for her exhausted, overwhelmed, tear-stained baby whose voice was hoarse, Tracey detected a slight change in her hysterical gasps.  Her rapid, shallow breathing had slowed down into gulps.  The screams were turning to sobs.  Tracey moved closer and when her eyes met her daughter’s, Tracey reached out her hands.  Tamara held her arms up and said “Mummy cuddles”.


Taking her floppy, drained child to the armchair she whispered softly, “Mummy cuddles will help you feel better?”   Exhausted, Tamara nodded.  Tracey murmured reassurances and comfort.  “You’re all right, Mummy is here.  You’re getting better” Tamara sat upright and declared “Bye bye crying”. “Well done Tamara! You handled it” her mother responded.



  • Tamara learned that no matter how strong or unpleasant her emotions are her parents will stay connected; they are strong enough to support her.
  • She learned that one day when she is 15, she can come to her parents with the nasty stuff (secrets, dilemmas etc.) and they won’t turn her away. They are strong and accepting of all emotions.
  • She knows that difficult feelings can be shared, processed, fully experienced. She does not need to avoid them, repress them, or act them out in ways that hurt herself or others.(Experiential avoidance- repressing the expression of emotion- is a key aspect of  Anxiety disorders and problems with emotion regulation.)
  • When Tamara said, “Bye-bye crying!” she showed that she knows that when something bad happens she can hold onto the belief that “this too shall pass”. She knows this state is temporary and she won’t get stuck in it.  (Getting stuck in the feeling of that a difficult time is permanent is a core feature of Depression.)
  • And Tamara learned that no matter how bad a problem there is always something that can help you feel a bit better and help you come out the other end. In this case it was Mummy’s cuddles.
  • NOTE: Tamara’s parents did not “reward” the tantrum by giving in and putting her back in the bath (which would also mean running some water).  When dealing with tantrums take care to stay firm on your decision and be  gentle with your support.  Empathising with your distressed child does not mean “giving in” .  Limits are important- but more on that another time 🙂Please share your own reflections and experiences below! How do you think this example might be translated for supporting older children?


Kids: Stinking Thinking!

Kids: Stinking Thinking!

Do you ever think or say any of the things on this list? If you do these thoughts might be making trouble for you! They are Stinking Thinking thoughts and they do things like make you sad or angry, get you in trouble, and make you lose friends. Check this list and see if these Stinking Thinking tricks are taking over your thoughts.

  • I am bad at everything
  • I know what everyone is thinking about me
  • Only bad things happen to me
  • Everyone should know what I think and feel without me telling them
  • No one means it when they say nice things
  • Good things don’t count
  • Bad things are always my fault
  • I should never make mistakes

* Be especially careful of the words ALWAYS and NEVER. Most bad things don’t happen always and it’s not usually true to think that good things never happen. *

You must get help when bad things are true.

You don’t need to argue with the stories that your mind tells or prove them wrong…just begin to notice that your mind does indeed tell stories – some useful, others not; some are facts and some are not. Once you know that your mind’s stories are not all true or all helpful you will find it easier to let your thoughts float on by; you won’t get as stuck, bogged down by upsetting beliefs that may or may not even be true!

Adults: 10 common thinking errors

Adults: 10 common thinking errors

Definition of Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are logical, but they are not rational. They can create real difficulty with your thinking. They are absolutely normal and we all make these thinking errors. We are more likely to make more of them and to feel that that are true when we are stressed. That is just the way the human mind works; it tries to simplify all the incoming information so we can cope and make a decision quickly. We all know (when we are calm) that simple aint necessarily true. Life is usually a complex shade of grey!

See if you are making any of the ten common distortions that people use. No need to argue with them, dispute them, or prove them wrong…just begin to notice that your mind does indeed tell stories – some useful, others not; some factual others not.  Once you recognise that your mind’s output is not all that reliable you will find it easier to let your thoughts float on by if they are not useful; you won’t get as stuck, bogged down by distressing beliefs that may or may not even be true!

  1. ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING: You see things in black-and-white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see your self as a total failure.
  2. OVERGENERALIZATION: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
  3. MENTAL FILTER: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.
  4. DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.
  5. JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.
    1. MIND READING: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don’t bother to check this out
    2. THE FORTUNETELLER ERROR: you can anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.
  6. MAGNIFICATION (CATASTROPHIZING) OR MINIMIZATION: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or other fellow’s imperfections). This is also called the binocular trick.”
  7. EMOTIONAL REASONING: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
  8. SHOULD STATEMENTS: You try to motivate yourself with should and shouldn’t, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequences are guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
  9. LABELING AND MISLABELING: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself. “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him” “He’s a Goddamn louse.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
  10. PERSONALIZATION: You see your self as the cause of some negative external event, which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.

Source: Burns, D. Feeling Good. The New Mood Therapy Revised and Updated. (The ten cognitive errors are from Burns, the explanation is my own interpretation of some of the tenets of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.)