On Putting Children to Bed: Advice from ‘A’ to ‘Zzzzzzz’

Published on May 7, 2014 by

            I’ve heard it said that the travail of nine months of pregnancy is God’s way of making the prospect of labor more manageable for a woman: by the time you’re ready to give birth, you really don’t care how the doctor reduces your load…you’ll ‘do what it takes’ to have ownership of your body again.

            It’s not long, however, before you realize you’re still ‘owned’ by your newborn.  He needs to be cuddled and fed and rocked and changed and…well, he’s just plain totally dependent on you.  And he’s likely to be terribly disrespectful of working within your framework of your time schedule.

       Lovely family sitting together on the bed     Which means he invariably awakes just as you’re drifting off to sleep.  Or he protests loudly when you lay him down in his crib.  Many parents know the agony of being torn between rescuing the sad little angel and letting him learn the lesson of going to sleep on his own.  It’s a classic struggle between head and heart. I admit I’ve changed my position on the matter over the years; I used to be a staunch supporter of “Ferberization,” a term used to describe the latter approach.  This method, named for America’s most well-known infant sleep expert, Richard Ferber, involves specific tactics parents use to train their infant to develop nocturnal independence.  Some refer to it as “boot camp for babies.”

            Having had their baby in the crib, parents are encouraged to ignore his cries, though they may enter the room at gradually increasing intervals to pat (but not pick up) their infant.

            As you might imagine, Ferberization seldom fails, if parents follow the specific guidelines and are persistent.  Eventually, the baby learns that his cries are for naught, and he gives up and goes to sleep.

            While I no longer favor Ferberization, neither do I see it as a bad option for those who choose to use it.  What does concern me is what I call “Ferber Fervor,” where proponents of the approach become almost evangelical in preaching The Word to others.  The less-than-subtle implication is that non-Ferberizers are sub-average in their parenting.  In their zeal to set forth their agenda, Ferber and his disciples take “leap of faith” assertions.  For instance, Ferber claims that a baby needs to fall asleep on his own so he can “see himself as an independent individual.”

            To this assumption critic Robert Wright replies:  “I’m puzzled.  It isn’t obvious to me how a baby would develop a robust sense of autonomy while being confined to a small cubicle with bars on the side and rendered powerless to influence its environment.”

            Indeed, research in this area of infant sleep is slim to slender.  Statements by Ferber disciples, like child-care expert T. Berry Brazelton, often go unchallenged.  Brazelton has said, for instance, that when a child wakes up at night and a parent refuses to heed her cries by picking her up, “she won’t like it, but she’ll understand.”  Because of his status, Brazelton can get away with such sweeping declarations, even though there’s no research to back up his claim.

            Personally, I prefer the Laissez-faire approach to infant sleep, as it maximizes benefits for both mother and child.  For instance, many mothers report developing an almost reflexive nursing of their baby (without ever waking up).  Thus, mom gets her sleep and the baby procures both physical and emotional nurturance.  The other benefit is that regular feedings help prevent painful engorgement or breast infections in the mother.

            Many critics charge that infants who aren’t ‘self-sleepers’ will have to do so at some point in time.  And they do, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a traumatic time. There are things parents can do to ease into the transition.  And (perish the thought) some children continue to sleep in close proximity to their parents for quite some time; as long as it doesn’t create problems for the parents, I wouldn’t get too fussed about it.

            I know of no research showing that a child whose parents choose a ‘family bed’ approach is more likely to develop fearful, clingy, insecure behaviors later on, just as I know of no research suggestive of emotional scarring in Ferberized children.  While Ferber claims that his approach allows babies a chance to learn how to manage their nighttime anxieties and develop self-reliance, I prefer parental responsivity to infant distress, since I value comfort, nurturance, and reassurance over autonomy at this age.

            But I won’t begrudge or judge others who choose otherwise…sleep and let sleep.


Steven M. Gentry, Ph.D., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

Concerning the Assessment & Treatment of Grown-up Grumps

Published on April 3, 2014 by

            An 11-year old boy was in my office recently, talking about the sources of some of his frustrations.  Lamenting that his dad promises to take him fishing and camping, but ‘just never does it,” this boy finally let loose with the ultimate in name-calling: he called his father a “big grump.”

             I admit I was somewhat taken back by his harsh choice of words, for there’s not many things worse than being called a grump by your own kid. (I should know; I was accused of being a grump by one of my kids just last summer, and I didn’t like it one bit.)

             I told the boy aboutSenior woman in a red shirt and straw hat my invention of the “Grumpometer” (pronounced like thermometer), and asked him to rate his father on it.  He claimed his dad is always at the high end of the scale, that “He doesn’t know how not to be a grump.”

             While all parents have their moments of grumpiness, most of us don’t loiter around at the high end of the scale.  Still, in my estimation there are far too many parents who are inflexible, unjustifiably restrictive, or simply all too frequently critical of their children.  It is in honor of these parents that the Grumpometer scale was developed.

             I want to reiterate that I’m not talking about parents who occasionally have a bad day, or who get stressed out from time to time.  I’m talking about those parents who make a living at saying “No” to their children, those who seem to be on the lookout for something to correct in people of the little variety.  I’m talking about the parents who can hardly muster a smile or a pleasant word for their children, even when in a ‘good’ mood.

             To those in this camp I would say “Please stop being a grump. You’re giving parents everywhere a bad name.”

             Naturally, grumps aren’t the only ones who need to work on their parenting; even we non-grumps need to
spend more time saying ‘yes’ to our children and less time saying ‘no,’ more time holding them than scolding them, and more time praising them than berating them.  We all need to invest more time with our children playing Twister, helping them out with story problems, sticking love notes in their shoes while they sleep, asking for impromptu piano recitals, or (perish the thought!) playing a game or two of Nintendo.

             This whole business of loosening up and being playful with our kids came up just the other day while I was talking with a 14-year old and his 17-year old sister.  “I wish my dad would loosen up,” he said.  “I just wish he’s joke around with us kids.”

             “Yeah,” his sister added.  “Dad doesn’t know how to play with us.” 

             The idea may sound somewhat silly to some, but I see this as an all too common problem; the “play-challenged” parent.  Perhaps such parents never learned to run in the rain with their kids, or have forgotten just how fun Freeze Tag can be (especially if you have to crawl through a little person’s legs to ‘unfreeze’ them), but if they want to get behind the well-defended wall that many kids erect to protect themselves, if they want to get to the bottom of why a child is so angry, or if they simply want to enjoy some time with little folks, joining children in play is a good starting point.

             I suppose it’s little coincidence that many grumps are also play-challenged.  But being playful and spontaneous with children can help ward off the rigor mortis so many worn down parents begin to exhibit.

             I’ll never forget a particular overnight visit from my 60-year old father-in-law several years ago.  My wife and I were awakened Saturday morning by a ruckus upstairs.  When we went to investigate, we found Grandpa in our three and four-year old’s bedroom, jumping on the bed with them as they sang “No more monkeys jumping on the bed!” Naturally, my wife and I had to ground Grandpa for making us look like grumps, but he wiggled out of it by taking us out to brunch, which we later regretted because, as you can imagine, he became quite a handful at the park.

            Speaking of parks, they’re a great training ground for the play-challenged…or for every grump, from the Head Grump to the Occasional Grump.  The fact is, we can all do a little more to loosen up, to be more flexible, to put a smile on our face and do something spontaneous with our kids.  We can all be a little more playful. Tag…you’re it!

 Steven M. Gentry, PhD, is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

Children Need Help Dealing With Divorce

Published on March 14, 2014 by

            Eleven-year old Laura came to see me for problems related to aggressive and defiant behavior.  Her mother, tapped out of ideas for helping her daughter, believed Laura’s struggles to stem from her parents’ recent divorce.  She worried about Laura’s declining grades, sudden increase in yelling and hitting, refusal to do as she was told, and tendency to pull away from friends.  She said she had found Laura crying herself to sleep at night on several occasions.

            Laura wasn’t terribly excited about going to counseling but, once in my office, was willing to draw a picture for me.  Responding to my request to draw a picture of what her Teen daughter agonizes while parents fightparents’ divorce was like for her, Laura drew a picture of a person’s head, with a hypodermic needle poised for injection and a dagger next to it.

            Beside the picture she wrote the words: “People are usually happy about a marriage and smile and listen to their spouses.  Then they don’t get along.  An imaginary needle injects hate into their minds. A dagger cuts them apart.  They separate.”

            The parents of eight-year old Austin had been divorced for nearly 18 months when he came to see me.  In the interim both parents had remarried but the relationship between the four spouses was tense, at best.  Austin was complaining of persistent stomachaches and nightmares, as well as exhibiting symptoms of separation anxiety.

            In response to my request for a picture of divorce, Austin chose a war scene.  He placed his mother in a fighter jet, heading directly towards his step-mother, and facing him was the step-father, who was commandeering a tank.  Bombs, missiles, and a hail of bullets dotted the page, and the commotion was punctuated by explosions.  Poignantly, Austin drew himself parachuting directly in to the middle of the conflict.

            The innocent victims of divorce, children like Laura and Austin often harbor cynical, angry views and feel helpless in the face of their parents’ separation.  Such children are distressed by the profound sense of loss and confusion they feel.  Some blame themselves (in spite of parental reassurance) and feel they could and should have done more to prevent the outcome. In an effort to assuage their guilt, they may cling to a fantasy of parental reconciliation and believe that they can somehow bring it about.

            While the mood and behavior of some children will actually improve as a result of divorce, most kids struggle to some degree.  This is not to say that all children of divorce need professional help; indeed, the vast majority will, with support from parents, relatives, and friends, find the necessary strength to deal with the pain.  They will effectively navigate through the grief, loyalty conflicts, and changes due to divorce because their parents support one another and work to keep their children from getting “caught in the middle.”

            Some children, however, will have a harder time making sense of their parents’ separation.  For these kids the pain will not subside after a reasonable period of mourning.  They may become sad and withdrawn, losing the exuberance and zest for life they previously had.  Or they may lash out in anger and frustration, becoming easily irritated and blowing things out of proportion.

            A child’s ability to adjust to divorce depends on a number of factors, including his/her relationship with both parents before the divorce, the degree of economic and social (particularly if the child has to move) upheaval that occurs, the child’s personality and resilience in dealing with stress, and resources (e.g., parents, trusted adults, friends, etc.) available to the child for support and guidance.

            Perhaps the most critical factor of all, however, is how well parents communicate and cooperate with one another after the divorce.  While the divorce means two individuals have not found ways to come together as spouses, they must be able to set aside personal agendas and come together as parents.  To act in the best interests of the children means parents will avoid using the children in power struggles.  Working together means that mom and dad will learn to deposit negative feelings for each other with a close friend or therapist instead of confiding them with a child.

            Seeing one’s parents separate can shatter a child’s world; having mom and dad continue to bicker in front of the child, criticize each other in a “backstabbing” fashion, or withhold support from each other only prolongs the child’s agony.  I find that the oldest child often bears the brunt of parental stress, and is typically a barometer of how well the parents are working together. 

            As divorce becomes more common, so too will the fallout on the children.  While people do not intend to divorce when they get married, research shows that divorce is preferable to continued conflict in the home.  By setting aside difference, subverting bitter feelings and retaliatory impulses, and generally learning to get along, parents lessen their children’s struggles.  Such efforts reflect love and genuine concern, and prove that parents divorce each other…not their children.

Steven M. Gentry, Ph.D., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

Understanding is at the Heart of Effective Communication

Published on January 17, 2014 by

            Effective communication is not always as easy as it seems.  Just ask the mother who, in response to her four-year old son’s question, “Where did I come from?” replied by painstakingly explaining about the ‘birds and the bees.’ With a bored and somewhat impatient look on his face, the four-year old waited for his mother to finish, then repeated his request.  “Billy said he’s from Los Angeles; where am I from?”  Taking time to make sure we understand is often the shortest distance between two points of view.

        Young couple talking outdoor
    A couple came to my office recently for marital counseling, seeking to resolve some long-standing disputes.  Both began arguing their views vociferously, yet seemed more
interested in competing for my ‘vote’ for their respective positions than in solving the disagreement.  After several minutes of multiplying words but engaging in little actual communication, the husband slumped forward dejectedly.  “We just can’t talk anymore,” he complained.

“Talking is the least of your problems,” I replied.  “Your problem is that neither of you seems interested in trying to understand the other.”

A critical ingredient of any successful relationship involves a desire to understand one another.  Unfortunately, among our many human frailties is our tendency to push forward our own agendas at all costs.  This is particularly true in family relationships or under intense circumstances, and results in people talking past one another rather than to each other.  Such interaction reveals that the weak link in communication is not the mouth but rather the ears, or more specifically, the heart.

Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, lists heartfelt listening as one of his essential seven habits (Seek first to understand, then seek to be understood). He states “To relate effectively with a wife, a husband, children, friends, or working associates, we must learn to listen.  And this requires emotional strength.  Listening involves patience, openness, and the desire to understand – highly developed qualities of character.”

That such listening demands emotional maturity is clearly evident in cases of marital or parent-child discord.  I often ask people in troubled relationships to engage in an exercise referred to as “reflective listening.”  Their assignment is to take turns listening to each other, then demonstrate both verbally and non-verbally that they understand what has been said.  More often than not, individuals cannot complete the exercise without succumbing to the temptation to argue with the point just made.  Others can parrot back the words but show little empathic “put-myself-in-your-shoes” understanding.

Yes, it takes a considerable amount of emotional energy and restraint to censor the initial desire to become defensive or rebut a differing point of view.  The natural inclination is to defend oneself, afterwards launching a counterattack. While there is a time and place to assert one’s position, it is not here, for timing is critical.  To be contemplating a reply before the incoming message has been sent and assimilated is precisely what characterizes poor communication.

          A classic case in point is your friendly neighborhood chatterbox.  We’ve all met someone who, perhaps hungry for attention, displays an undisciplined penchant for mouth work but little ability to listen.  Such individuals struggle with give-and-take of conversation and instead engage in a running discourse about themselves, with occasional “interruptions” by the listener. Chatterboxes are forever “topping;” they’ve always got a story that will top what has just been shared.  Perplexing as it may seem, they seem to be able to relate to any experience you’ve ever had.  For such individuals, their challenge is not self-disclosure but rather self-closure.

Another situation in which less talking and more listening is warranted is when an acquaintance vents frustration about, say, lazy co-workers.  Likely, she is seeking support and understanding.  If instead she is given a dose of advice (“Did you try telling them…?” or “You ought to just…”) or must endure outrage on the part of the confidant (“Man, I wouldn’t put up with that for a minute!”), her frustrations are only liable to mount.  Likewise, showing a comprehension of and concern for a child’s plight will typically breed better results than offering an unsolicited lecture.

            Of the many factors critical to effective communication, none generates more emotional mileage than understanding.  It opens the door to greater intimacy, strengthens relationships, and keeps the birds and bees at bay for another season.

Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

Seeing Others as the Problem is the Problem!

Published on November 13, 2013 by

Bickering Couple in Cafe“The only change that matters is a change of heart.  Every other change alters us cosmetically but not fundamentally, modifies how we appear or what we do, but not who we are.  Our hearts change when resentment, anxiety, and self-worry give way to openness, sensitivity and love of life.”

 These are the opening words of a manuscript entitled, “Bonds of Anguish, Bonds of Love” (now revised and published in book form and entitled, “Bonds That Make Us Free”) by a man I greatly admire, Terry Warner.  Dr. Warner discusses how we tend to get all mixed up in our relationships with others, how our attempts to find solutions lead us to ‘only think of cures that make us sicker.’

Let me illustrate.  When you have a heated disagreement with your spouse, you are likely to ardently defend your position, and to be critical of your ‘opponent.’  Your frustrations increase as (s)he, with fervor equal to yours, champions her/his view at the expense of your own.

At this point your choices seem limited: you can up the ante by becoming more passionate, but experience tells you that this will only prolong and deepen the hostile feelings between the two of you.  You can fall back on the ‘silent treatment,’ which inevitably confers martyrdom upon you.  Alternately, you might try employing ‘effective listening skills;’ such tactics can momentarily diffuse tension but are also likely to fall apart because your heart’s not in it.

In the end, you’re apt to be left feeling helpless, trapped, angry, and bitter towards your spouse, making you Asicker@ than when you started.

Ironically, we tend to provoke in others the very thing we hate.  That is, what we want is validation, understanding, and acceptance, not the criticism or defensiveness that we often run into.  For instance, if I give a stern, harsh lecture to my teenage son, do I really expect him to respond, “Hey, thanks, dad, for demeaning me and pointing out my weaknesses.  I’m humbled by your stinging observations and ‘loving’ criticisms.  Your painful words have inspired me to change.  Yea, I want to be just like you?”

That’s far from the experiences I’ve had with my adolescent.  He will instead respond with resentment, resistance, rebellion, anxiety, anger, depression . . . the very things I wanted to avoid.  It’s as if my efforts to influence him have created the very resistance I hoped to avoid.  Put another way, my attempts to control my son marshal his defenses against me, making my job now doubly difficult.  My relationship with him is, in a word, ‘sicker’ than before the lecture.

Persuasion is a gentle art, not a coercive tool.  I believe that the solutions to many of life’s problems are paradoxical, that they’re closer at hand than we might think.  They are at once most simple in nature, yet also terribly difficult and elusive (largely because of how we’re viewing the situation).

They are simple because they reside within us.  That’s right.  The necessary changes reside first and foremost in us.  The very solutions to our problems often elude us because of our tendency to extend our gaze outward (seeing others as the problem) rather than inward.

The shortest distance between two points of view is a straightforward attitude characterized by honesty and humility.  Exchanging my characteristic defensiveness for a genuine (honest) appraisal of myself will lessen resistance from my spouse, children, co-workers, in-law’s, etc.  It’s hard to argue with a person if he’s honest with himself and willing to look within.

Such a ‘change of heart’ will naturally lead to an acknowledgment of the other person’s point of view.  So, while there may still be consequences for my son’s actions, I’ll be less likely to discipline him in an intemperate, reactive, self-serving manner.

I conclude with a story, told by Stephen Covey, which illustrates how bonds of anguish can become bonds of love.  (I heard Mr. Covey tell this story on video; since I have no written version of the story, I take some license in telling it to the best of my recollection.)

Stephen Covey (S.C.) saw a friend of his on the street one day and asked him how things were going.  The man mentioned that all was well, except with his 16-year old son, whom the man described as insolent and rebellious.  After hearing details of the man’s struggles, S.C. invited the man to one of his seminars.

After one evening of the seminar, the man felt buoyed by the information and insights he’d gained, and he went home, intent on straightening things out with his boy.  He went down to his son’s bedroom and said, “Son, I’d like to talk with you.”

Glaring at his father, the boy responded, “We have nothing to talk about,” and he slammed the door behind him as he left the room.

“Just as I expected,” the man thought.  “He’s as ungrateful and disrespectful as I thought.”

When he next saw S.C., the man related the experience and said, “Your stuff might work for some, Stephen, but my boy’s impossible.”

S.C. complimented his friend on his efforts but said he sensed there were still things that weren’t quite right.  He invited him to another evening of the seminar.

Following his second experience, the man felt rejuvenated with things he had not learned from the first evening.  He went home committed to resolving things with his boy.

The man entered his son’s bedroom and repeated his wish to talk things out.

The 16-year old, in evident frustration, repeated his words, “I told you: we have nothing to talk about!”, again slamming the door to punctuate his point.

His head in his hands, the man heaved a big sigh and shook his head, half in sadness, half in disgust.

When he next saw S.C., the man confessed his inability to effectively engage his son in conversation.  Sensing the man’s helpless yet hopeful state, S.C. asked him to attend one more evening, that there were a few things that could yet help him.

Following the third evening, the man felt differently about his son.  He no longer viewed him as a thorn in his side, but as a son in need of a father.

He entered his son’s room and repeated his plea, “Son, could we please talk?”

As if catapulted by lightning, his son angrily lashed out, “Can’t you get it through your head?  I said I don’t want to talk!  There’s nothing to say!”  And with that, he whipped the door open to leave.

“Son, before you go, I just wanted you to know how sorry I am for embarrassing you in front of your friends the other night.”  The man sat there, more like a dad than a disciplinarian.

His son paused at the door, looked down and bitterly muttered, “Yeah, sure you are. You don’t know how mad that made me.”  His dad could see tears in his boy’s eyes, and he knew the emotion was more sad than mad.

“I’d like to know, to know how mad I made you,” his dad said quietly.

For the next several hours, dad and son talked.  In the wee early morning hours, mom peeked her head in the door and said, “Hey, isn’t it about time you guys got some sleep?”

Without hesitation the boy responded, “Not now, Mom. We need some more time.”  He turned to his father, “Dad, tell mom we’re talking about important things.”

 Bonds of Anguish or Bonds of Love?  In every single relationship, at any given moment, it’s up to you to decide. 

Steven M. Gentry, Ph.D. is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

Dealing with Adolescent Rebellion: Tolerance or Tough Love?

Published on July 30, 2013 by

Chinese father gives his son some adviceWhere do you draw the line with a wayward, disobedient, rebellious child?  How do you respond when (s)he persistently defies the rules and expectations you’ve established?  To what extent is the rest of the family put on the “altar of sacrifice” while your out-of-control child calls the shots?

That these are tough questions is an understatement, as many parents well know.  Some of the most difficult parenting dilemmas stem from what I call “high maintenance” children, those who seem bent on charting their own course in life, regardless of what their parents may do or say.

To their credit, most parents try to work with their child: they set limits, correct and redirect, and do their best to use consequences to modify his/her behavior.  But what happens when a child refuses to accept correction or blithely ignores the consequences applied by his/her parents?

Not surprisingly, this problem is all too familiar to family counselors.  A mother of five recently confided her struggles with her son to me, saying she and her husband have done their best to raise their son, and have even consulted a number of parenting books, all to no avail.

“We vacillate between overlooking his rebelliousness and taking a firm stand.  We’re just not sure which is better.”  She noted that, a 16-year old, her son comes and goes as he pleases – they won’t see him for days on end, and then he’ll show up “long enough to earn money (from chores) and then he’s off again.”  Any effort to set limits only incites more rebellion.

Mental health professionals tend to take one of two stances with such family problems.  One approach is to suggest that parents put up with the child’s rebelliousness, the theory being that the challenges notwithstanding, the longer parents can have a positive influence upon a child, the better chance (s)he’ll have in life.  This was the mother’s leaning: “I figure the more I can influence him, the better off he’ll be.”

The other approach, widely known as “tough love,” involves taking a firm stand that allows the child to experience the consequences of his/her actions (it should be noted that, when used appropriately, tough love does not seek to sever a child from his/her family, does not involve abuse or neglect, and doesn’t mean parents are “giving up” on a child).  The tough love approach has gained a significant following and is a well-organized approach, with books written and support groups found in local communities across the country.

In my opinion, there is no single answer to deal with wayward youth.  Parents must carefully consider the circumstances of their child and family, then seek prudent counsel from friends, family, and perhaps professionals, as well as Providential guidance from above.  To say the least, it tends to be a gut-wrenching experience.

In my experience, active resolutions are preferable to passive ones.  All things being equal, I see “tough love” as a compassionate alternative for all involved when two conditions are met: 1) the child shows no interest in compromising, negotiating, or modifying his/her behavior and 2) other family members are repeatedly made to suffer as a direct result of his/her actions.

For instance, an adolescent who “rules the roost” by repeatedly demeaning his siblings or parents may need to be helped in finding another place to live.  Likewise, a child who refuses to cease dishonest or destructive acts in the home might learn to appreciate the things she takes for granted if made to live under different circumstances.

While some may find such “tough love” harsh and impossible to administer, I admit there is an alternative: more of the same.  And for some parents, living with the current agony – as bad as it may seem – may truly be tolerable to the anxiety and guilt they might face if they put their foot down.

Still, the question that lingers is: What’s in a wayward child’s (and don’t forget the other family members’) best interest?  While love is not indifference, neither is it indulgence.  Sometimes excommunication is the only hope for eventual renewal and reconciliation.  Sometimes love can hurt quite a bit.  It sure did for me when I watched my parents apply principles of “tough love” with my older sister a number of years ago.

In terms of the sources of such a child’s problems, there are too many to list, but I shall briefly mention two:  temperament and attitude.  Certain “difficult adolescents” were often described as “difficult youngsters” and, like certain brands of cars, are more likely to be “in the shop” more often than their siblings.  Moreover, the prevailing attitude among rebellious teens tends to be immature and selfish.  Far too many kids (and unfortunately, they grow into like-minded adults) confuse rights and privileges, considering most things in life “my right to have” or “my right to do”.

One right I do believe parents have is the right to expect their children to adhere to a minimum standard of behavior that incorporates principles of respect, obedience, and personal responsibility.  Likewise, children have a right to expect that their parents will live by and enforce such principles.

Families are not democracies where everyone has an equal voice; instead, families are more like a kingdom, staffed by a (hopefully) loving but firm King and/or Queen.  This, of course, does not place children in the category of serfs; rather, they are “blue collar” princes and princesses . . . whom we love, tickle, and chasten.

 Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of

Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

How’s Your Grattitude Attitude?

Published on April 15, 2013 by

Portrait of happy mother and daughter“My life stinks. Nobody deserves the life I’ve got.”  My teenage client sat there on the couch, eyes downcast, his face curled up in a scowl, and there was enough negativity in the room to drown us both.  He was, if nothing else, direct and to the point.

I asked him to explain himself, and he quickly pointed to academic frustrations, conflict with peers, and uncaring parents.  The further we proceeded the gloomier the picture became to him:  the canvas of life was etched in blacks and grays.  The further we proceeded, the clearer the picture became to me:  he funneled everything through a negative filter.

So I suggested we change the filter.  If, as he described it, his life was really so awful, I wanted to know how he’d like it to be different.  I wanted to know what made him happy.

We began our list slowly; my young client was having a hard time shifting out of his gloomy mode.  However, when I informed him that the record for the longest ‘happy list” was 47 items, he picked up momentum, stopping only after generating 63 items.  Among these were: “Having mom scratch my back…getting a compliment from Dad…12 noon on Sunday – that’s when church gets out…and when a cute girls says ‘hi’ to me.”  By now the boy was exerting considerable positive energy and he was (gasp!) smiling.

I pointed out that we had but scratched the surface, that there were many things he takes for granted that make him happy.  I pointed out his good health, his ability to speak and read, a warm coat on a cold day, and Mom’s rice crispy treats; he added that he also liked the first day of summer vacation, his parents getting along with each other, and surprises (like when you reach in your jacket and find a piece of candy you’d forgotten about).  Soon we had 100 items…we absolutely trashed the old record by a mile!

As we gazed at the board full of scribbling, I erased “What makes you happy” and replaced it with “Counting my blessings.”  I noted that, were anyone to walk in the room at that moment and see the list of good things in his life, they’d probably say, “I’ll take one of those lives, please.”

Looking on the bright side of life isn’t always easy, but then neither is living your life in a rut of negativity.  There are those of us who insist on painting life with a broad brush of complaining, self-pity, excuses, and accusations.  Sometimes the root of this is depression; other times it stems from difficult circumstances; some people’s negativity has become a way of life, borne out of years of habit; others use it to avoid intimacy and closeness with others.  Some people are negative simply because it provides justification for the way they live their lives.  It seems easier to them than taking responsibility and changing.

Each individual’s mental health is based largely on his perspective; perception is, as they say, reality.  While we cannot change our past, we can change our perception of it; though we can’t control all aspects of our present, we can control how we view it; granted, we don’t know our future, but we can anticipate and expect that things will go well.  Our own prophecies (expectations), no matter how small, do seem to fulfill themselves, for good or bad.

So count your many blessings.  Cultivate an attitude of gratitude.  Look on the bright side of life.  Sustain positive emotion by acknowledging the bounty you have rather than lamenting that everything isn’t perfect.  If offered a doughnut, resist complaining that someone has removed the middle.  Remember the Arabian proverb:  “I had no shoes and complained – until I met a man who had no feet.”

The fact is, my teenage client is probably right:  “Nobody deserves the life I’ve got.”  We’ve all got it much too good.  Consider living (or dying) in Honduras; consider starving in Africa; consider that in a worldwide context, our lifestyle is the exception rather than the rule.

            You have the power to write your own story, to produce a robust view of the good life…or a debilitating, gloomy picture.  Contemplate your own “happy list” and cultivate an attitude of gratitude.  Your mental health depends on it.



Steven M. Gentry, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah


Peace on Earth Starts With Peace in Your Heart

Published on December 5, 2012 by

Lucky family during christmasPeace . . . this month’s column is brought to you by the word Peace.

Peace was what this Christmas idea was all about in the first place.  Ironically, the simplicity and joy of a child’s birth has evolved into a feeding frenzy of commercialized pinball, with shoppers hustling and bustling from one end of town to the other, all in search of the Perfect Gift.

Store shelves have long since sold out of Peace . . . it’s the “Cabbage Patch Kids – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle – Tickle Me Elmo” problem that surfaces every year about this time.

The Good News is that the season does provide us all a chance to trot out our stress management skills and give them a good workout.  Moreover, there’s a lot of joy and excitement to be found in family parties, in surprising others, and in seeing, smelling, and hearing the nostalgic magic that defines modern-day Christmas.

The bad news, though, is that the emotional currency of Christmas has become counterfeited, and peace in one’s heart (let alone on earth) is much harder to come by.  For many the refrain is more accurately intoned:  ♪Stress on earth, Good luck in staying out of debt. ♬

Now I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade . . . I’m as ardent a supporter of the wonders and magic of Christmas as the next Santa.  What concern me are the myriad expectations – and ensuing stress – attached to this holiday of holidays.

It can be hard to find joy in the faces of many holiday shoppers . . . with stores staying open till all hours there’s seldom a Silent Night to be found, “God bless you every one” is certainly not uppermost in my mind as I creep through the herd of holiday traffic, and you’ll be hard pressed to find Good Tidings on the Barbie isle on any Saturday afternoon in December.  It’s not that we intend to be rude or overly driven, but dadgumit, we’ve got a job to do!

Where’s the Peace, though?

Peace can be equally elusive on the homefront.  We all love the sweet smells of mom’s cooking at Christmastime, and it’s certainly evidence of a giving heart.  But sacrifice to excess becomes slavery, and mounting tension can easily chase away peace in a home when it’s get-the-product-out-at-all-costs time.  In this case, I’m not sure the delivery of homemade gifts provides as much a sense of peace as it does one of relief.

And Relief on Earth isn’t quite what we’re after.

I don’t know if a gift of love justifies sacrificing peace to make it – especially if the peace you’re sacrificing affects those you love most (still, I’m sure there are many who glide about their kitchens stress-free).  When your giving list includes10, 20, or 30 people, and the project involves endless time at the stove or kitchen table, it’s easy to get caught up in the making and backing and forget about the giving of living.

There’s a lot to be said for spending time playing in the snow with your nine-year old.  Or shoveling the walks of an elderly neighbor.  Or visiting someone who you sense has few friends (Christmastime is often the loneliest time of the year, even for some who outwardly appear to have things together).  These gifts of the heart will last much longer than the plate of divinity or cookies.

Put simply, expressions of love and friendship are what the season is all about, but you don’t have to be everything to everyone.  Tireless toiling often breeds more stress than peace.  Striking a balance in giving to others is the key.

I’m all in favor of little gifts for neighbors and loved ones, but not at the expense of peace.  Not if it creates undue pressure and stress.  Some of the best gifts my family and I’ve received from friends over the years involve ideas that seem time-efficient: a bunch of hangers or a roll of toilet paper with a creative little note attached, Christmas stories printed out on decorative stationery, or simply a brief visit from caring neighbors.

It seems the peace of the season is found heart-to-heart and not in a store, nor bent over at a 90-degree angle, in worshipful pose to the oven.  It’s found in development and nurturance of relationships, worldly and otherwise.

I must admit I’m as apt to get lost on the Aisle 14 of life as the next guy, but I’m feeling a more frequent longing for the real gift of Christmas: peace.  If the saying “Wise Men Still Worship Him” is true, I’d say it’s time we return to a simpler celebration of the season.  There’s simply no better way to reduce stress than to be at peace.


Steven M. Gentry, PhD is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of

Psychological Assessment and Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah.

Talking to Children About Personal Safety

Published on August 22, 2012 by

Confident parentAs recent media attention has refocused its lens to the tragic shootings in our own Intermountain back yard, we are reminded that peril doesn’t just stalk faceless foreigners in war‑ravaged netherlands.  Neither does it confine itself to drug addicts caught in the crossfire of a drug deal gone bad.  Deranged and heartless criminals can strike a movie theater and a high school just as easily as they can a ghetto, transforming innocent bystanders into unfortunate victims.

Yet danger does not always dress in army fatigues or gang‑style trench coats; more often, it wears a boy scout uniform, speaks in a soft, deceptively kind voice, or orders its victims to keep quiet without uttering a word.  It masquerades as an uncle, a piano teacher, or the 11‑year old boy next door.  Less frequently, it appears in the form of a stranger or an overly aggressive peer at school.

The danger I refer to is Abuse . . . Child Maltreatment . . . the Endangerment of Children.  Talking to children about personal safety issues is incumbent upon all parents.

At the outset I wish to make two points unmistakably clear: 1) our communities are comparatively safe places to live, and most people we meet and interact with are not intent upon harming our children, and therefore 2) child maltreatment should be viewed as the exception, not the rule in the lives of children.  The statistical likelihood that our children will experience some traumatic event is unlikely, but since God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust we are wise to prepare our children against the day of peril.

Reminders of child maltreatment are constantly before us: we learn about it on TV from the six o’clock news or on John Walsh’s America’s Most Wanted program, in the newspaper when we read of a child abduction or a pedophile who is sentenced for sexual abuse, at family gatherings when whisperings of “what Uncle Bill did” are circulated, or from our children themselves when they come home with stories of having been pressured, coerced, or threatened.  Some of us ourselves may have experienced maltreatment as children, and data suggests that it is not as uncommon as once thought.

A key point to remember is this: in 90% of maltreatment cases the child knows the perpetrator; therefore, educating children about strangers represents but a small part of self‑protection.  A child is much more likely to be sexually abused by a neighbor boy or a relative, for instance, than to be abducted by a stranger or become the victim of a shooting at school.

A primary concern shared by many parents wishing to teach their children about personal safety is:  How do I approach a safety issue and teach my child self‑protection without unduly scaring him?  How do I insulate my child against vulnerability without setting him on edge?

Clearly, we don’t want to alarm our children, make them hypervigilant or untrusting, nor give them the impression that their world is an unsafe place.  On the contrary, we all want our kids to be carefree, spontaneous, and exuberant . . . qualities bred by a safe environment.

But they simply must be alerted to the reality that there are those people who would hurt them, given the right opportunity.  There is value in critical thinking, in acknowledging a less than perfect world, in being appropriately skeptical.  Knowledge is indeed power, the kind of power that can prevent unforeseen trauma.

I would also assert that children are more resilient than the above questions give them credit for.  Approached in the right way (see below), most children will be empowered rather than unduly burdened by the information and skills they’re given.  Those children most likely to be troubled by a discussion of safety are those who already have a predisposition for worrying.  Such children will undoubtedly require extra doses of reassurance, but I believe the training to be well worth the trade off.

Children need an understanding of and skills related to four basic areas of self‑protection:

1.  Children must clearly be able to distinguish appropriate from inappropriate behavior in others.  They must feel empowered with the conviction that they have the right to protect their own physical and emotional being.  For instance, parents should openly address the issue of sexual abuse with their children, telling them that no one has the right to touch their private parts (e.g., the parts covered by your swimming suit).

2.  Children must understand how to avoid situations where harm could come to them more easily.  That is, they must understand the value of preventative measures in reducing the chance that they could be taken advantage of.  Rules about approaching and interacting with strangers are a good example of preventative education.  Equally critical, role-playing should be used to teach a child what to do when someone — yes, even someone they know — does something that makes them feel sad, scared, or uncomfortable.

3.  Children must possess the assertiveness skills to be able to reject or fight off unwanted advances when they do occur.  They must be prepared to take action to protect themselves, such as running away, screaming, or fighting.  Again, simulating threatening or potentially abusive situations can be especially helpful in allowing the child to practice his responses to scary situations.

4.  Children must have confidence in adults who will believe and support them when an abusive or otherwise personally threatening incident is reported.  It is sobering indeed to realize that, even with a perfect repertoire of self‑protection skills, a child cannot always avoid being molested, abducted, or otherwise harmed.  The best we as parents can do is help our children reduce the likelihood of such incidents occurring.  As parents we must convince our children, through both word and action, that we are a sure source of safety and protection to them.

I suggest that parents view educating their children about personal safety as a process rather than an event; that is, once taught the topic should be periodically revisited.  Since Naivete is the mother of Vulnerability, the education of the many provides the best insulation against the cold‑hearted, selfish acts of the few.


                          Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialistsin American Fork, Utah

Of Hand Washing, Snow Forts and Homeruns: Child’s Play is Hard Work!

Published on July 11, 2012 by

Happy kids on ocean beach having fun

It was once common to think of children as ‘miniature adults;’ that is, children were believed to have similar needs, views, and potentials as adults, perhaps only in more limited quantities.  The enlightened view that children experience life in a different way than adults is a relatively recent phenomenon (i.e., the 20th century) and one which is still, at worst, widely resisted and, at best, hard for many adults to deal with.

Take, for instance, the example of a father who asks Tommy to wash his hands and come to dinner.  After a couple of minutes have passed and Tommy has not come to the kitchen table, dad shouts, ‘Tommy, come for dinner!”

“I’m washing my hands!” Tommy hollers back.  After another (eternal) minute with no sign of Tommy, dad rises from the table, heaves a big sigh (now the rest of the family knows his irritation is official), and heads for the bathroom.  He observes Tommy playing in the water, completely engrossed in the task.  Exasperated, dad grabs a towel, barely brushes his son’s hands against it, and herds him to the kitchen.

In contrast to adults, children tend to value the means of a task more than the ends.  In other words, whereas children are easily taken in by the process, adults are more likely to focus on the product.  This interest in the journey rather than the destination stems from the child’s curiosity about and exuberance for the wide spectrum of experiences life offers.  I see the child’s means orientation as a highly desirable one; however, this is not to say that children should not be taught to follow through on tasks (or Tommy will never eat).  Indeed, perhaps largely for adaptive reasons (i.e., for survival, efficient use of time, organization of society, etc.), adults learn to focus on task completion, on the end goal itself.

Naturally, spending too much time at either extreme (means or ends) is unhealthy, for if a child becomes too engrossed in catching the frog hopping about the pond, she could fall in and possibly drown; likewise, a child running after a ball must not run in to the street without considering the possibly dangerous ‘end.’  On the other hand, an adult who is ‘too busy’ to play in the rain or make an ant farm with his child is truly living a stoic existence.

Most adults would do well to try and focus more on the ‘means’ of life, since the ‘ends’ seem to be our default modus operandi.  I know I struggle to enter (and remain in) my children’s world on a consistent basis.  I remember one winter several years ago when I was teaching a Parenting Skills class and gave myself and the participants what seemed like a simple assignment.  Each of us was to pick a time and activity in which we would put forth an out-of-the-ordinary effort to fully engross ourselves in our child’s world, if only for 10-15 minutes.  I decided to try my experiment with my son, Benjamin, who was six at the time.  He expressed an interest in building a snow fort, and as I pulled on my gloves and boots, I kept muttering to myself, “Means, means, means.  Fun, fun, fun.”  I had forgotten how hard it was to be like a child and have fun.

All went well as we began our work…err, fun.  There was plenty of snow and it packed well, so I envisioned quite a fortress.  That was my first ‘ends’ thought; my second followed shortly after when I caught Ben playing in the snow (a.k.a., having fun) instead of working on the fort.  I couldn’t help it…it just slipped out.  “Ben, you’re not working on the fort.”  My fatherly intent was to redirect him to where the real fun was, fun that I had methodically and carefully planned.  Realizing my error, I quickly reversed myself and followed Ben’s lead, playing in the snow with him.

It wasn’t long, though, before I stumbled once again.  The walls of the fort were nearly complete when I observed Ben carving out holes in the walls where he could place his plastic army men.  What followed was my coup de gras.  “Ben, snow forts don’t have holes in them,” (after all, I was the adult; I know how real snow forts are made).  This one experience taught me just how far I’d come from my carefree days of childhood.  I was embarrassed that I was directing my son on how to play and have fun, rather than flexibly, spontaneously, and imaginatively joining in with him.

I believe parents generally try to impose structure (read: ends ) upon their children, and this is certainly appropriate much of the time.  However, if anything, I believe concerned parents do too much of this.  Even Little League baseball coaches are guilty.  This past summer, I observed five-and-six-year old boys and girls clamor at their T-ball coach to pitch the ball to them rather than having them hit it off the tee.  The children seemed interested in the challenge and fun of trying to hit a moving ball, “just like the big kids.”  Their coach resisted on several logical counts, then tried to coax them out of their request by pointing out that they probably wouldn’t get as many homeruns from a pitched ball as from hitting the ball off the tee.  To his surprise, the kids in unison replied, “So?”  To me this was a prime example of how the adult saw the end (home runs) whereas the kids saw the means (trying to hit a moving ball) as most desirable.

            Becoming childlike certainly has multiple meanings, and the innocence, vivaciousness, and exuberance with which children approach their experiences is undoubtedly one of them.  We adults would do well to ‘stop and smell the roses,’ to enjoy the simplicities of life as they come to us.  We can join with our children in paying attention to the means of tasks and activities (but beware of having fun!).  Entering the world of our children is crucial (but yes, frustratingly fun) to helping them enjoy life to its fullest.  And, who knows…perhaps we’ll spark some dormant exuberance in ourselves in the process.  Notice how you can make the water trickle off your fingers faster, then slower, then faster…how it can drop off the ends of two fingers, not three…and watch what happens when you add soap (or better yet, dirt) to the mix!

Steven M. Gentry, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah