Landscaping Tip: The Grass Always Grows Back

Published on September 19, 2019 by

I’m sure like you, there are times I wish I could live my life in reverse.  Such feelings of regret are part of the human condition and (hopefully) compel you and me to improve.

The fragility of life is regularly brought close to home by tragic shootings, kidnappings, and freak accidents that affect the lives of more than just two-dimensional faces on the TV.  Innocent secondary victims, like you and me, were certain “these things happen to others” . . . but then September 11th occurs, or Elizabeth Smart gets kidnapped, or the boy down the street drowns at a family reunion at a local lake.

My heart is particularly touched by the pain of those who lose children suddenly, unexpectedly.  As I try to put myself in their shoes, I think of the time I spend and the direct influence I try to have with my own kids.  Like you, I’m periodically reminded of the “weightier matters” of life, as I realize that my priorities are not always what they should be.

Erma Bombeck, in a column entitled, “Mike Will Come Back, Won’t He?” aptly illustrates my point.  She relates the following:

When Mike was three he wanted a sandbox, and his father said, “There goes the yard.  We’ll have kids over here day and night and they’ll throw sand and it’ll kill the grass for sure.”

And Mike’s mother said, “It’ll come back.”

When Mike was five, he wanted a jungle gym with swings that would take his breath away and bars to take him to the summit.  And his father said, “Good grief!  I’ve seen those things in back yards, and do you know what the yards look like?  Mud holes in a pasture!  Kids digging their gym shoes in the ground.  It’ll kill the grass.”

And Mike’s mother said, “It’ll come back.”

Between breaths, when Daddy was blowing up the plastic swimming pool, he warned, “They’ll track water everywhere and they’ll have a million water fights and you won’t be able to take out the garbage without stepping in mud up to your neck and we’ll have the only brown lawn on the block.”

And Mike’s mother said, “It’ll come back.”

When Mike was twelve, he volunteered his yard for a camp-out.  As the boys hoisted the tents and drove in the spikes, Mike’s father said, “You know those tents and all those big feet are going to trample down every single blade of grass, don’t you?  Don’t bother to answer.  I know what you’re going to say – ‘It’ll come back’.”

Just when it looked as if the new seed might take root, winter came and the sled runners beat it into ridges.  And Mike’s father shook his head and said, “I never asked for much in life – only a patch of grass.”

And Mike’s mother said, “It’ll come back.”

Now Mike is eighteen.  The lawn this year is beautiful – green and alive and rolling out like a carpet along the drive where gym shoes had trod; along the garage where bicycles used to fall; and around the flower beds where little boys used to dig with teaspoons.

But Mike’s father doesn’t notice.  He looks anxiously beyond the yard and asks, “Mike will come back, won’t he?”

Stories like these refresh our parental perspective.  They also tend to spawn other stories, like the one about the farmer whose two young sons milk the cows daily but never seem to get the hang of it.  Observing their clumsy, inefficient work, a neighbor glibly chides the farmer for failing to use harsher techniques to make the cows better “milkers”.  A sharp correction from the farmer sets the neighbor straight: “In your view you’re greatly mistaken, for I’m not raising cows, I’m raising boys.”

We’re all moved by the personal tragedies experienced each day by the children who die or are otherwise harmed – and family and friends who must live with those tragedies.  Little do the parents of such a precious child know that as (s)he leaves home that fateful morning that they are saying Good-bye.  Tragedies are a “cheap” reminder for the rest of us to regularly practice the “Three T’s of Loving Children: Tell them, Touch them, and Tumble with them.

Carpe Diem, my friends.  The Cat’s in the Cradle.

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

“Defensive Driving’ as a Cure for Troubled Relationships

Published on October 2, 2018 by

Several winters ago while driving through Sardine Canyon just south of Logan, Utah I was passed by a twenty-something year-old man, who, my wife informed me, was giving me The One-Finger Gesture.  Sure enough, as I glanced to my left, I saw him saluting me with all the honor he felt I deserved.

In retrospect, I figure I must’ve done something to get him fuming . . . perhaps I had inadvertently “slushed” him when I passed him a few miles back, or maybe I stayed in the left lane too long while he was waiting to pass me.  Let’s face it, though: at the time I was not in much of an “in retrospect” mood . . . I had his finger on my mind.

My initial shock quickly morphed into anger, which in turn triggered my modus operandi for these types of situations.  My first impulse was to mock the man by waving or honking, but I refrained, glaring at him instead.  As I began to compliment myself on having taken this “higher road of self-restraint”, I slowly sense a familiar pattern of self-righteousness settling in.

Time and distance gave me a chance to sort through the incident, and I finally came to what I felt was a more honest conclusion: I surely did something (and therefore bore some responsibility) to provoke his angry response.  Such accidental behavior, though, was nothing more than a mistake.  Far more indefensible was my choice to join with him in his hostility and glare at him.  The road of life is littered with plenty of drivers who crowd out other drivers without me adding to the mayhem.  My offensive “driving” only provoked more animosity and only served to highlight weaknesses in my character.

The “meat” of life is relationships, be it with a stranger on the road or with more intimate acquaintances.  In the latter case, fingers are commonly used in equally accusatory ways: to point blame at others.  Hostile words exchanged between parent and child . . . chronic discord with a spouse . . . feeling offended by a neighbor . . . a bitter grudge held towards a supervisor . . . all involve an attitude of finger-pointing.

While troubled relationships are fairly easy to come by, lasting solutions to them are harder to apply, let alone find.  Daily life provides us with many opportunities to take offense (showcase weaknesses in our character) and work ourselves into a lather, to the point where we get all turned around and forget that lasting solutions begin with me.

Could it be that part of the solution to a troubled teenager’s problems is found in how his parents view him?  Stephen Covey shares just such a story concerning him and one of his sons.  Could it be that my attitude towards a concern my wife expresses to me triggers the frustration I’m seeing?  This has often been my experience, at least the times when I’ve been willing to be honest with myself.

The primary problem I see in relationships is that you and I spend far too much time and energy rationalizing, justifying, accusing others, and making excuses for our behavior and attitudes.  Our actions suggest that we are prone to getting caught up in “the thick of thin things.”

In biblical terms, I’m referring to the mote-beam analogy.  In modern terms, the same idea is captured in this phrase: Seeing Others as the Problem IS the Problem.  Our field of vision of possible solutions becomes blocked by our insistence that it is others, not us, who need to change.  As long as we insist on seeing others as the problem, any solution we choose will be, at best, a temporary fix.  Worse, we’re likely to remain stuck, consigned to repeating the same abrasive behavior over and over again.

If the way we view others is the problem, then the solution must involve changing our perspective.  We can begin by searching within ourselves and being open to making changes.  This attitude requires that we give up all the fussing and fretting about what others need to do to shape up.  I’m not saying others don’t need to change . . . they very well may.  I’m just saying that they’ll have to make that decision for themselves, and that regardless of their decision we will be better off if we choose to live by principles of personal decency, responsibility, and openness.  Besides, consider the alternative: How will being hostile benefit you with others?  Turn it around:  How successful have others been in motivating you to change by accusing, demeaning, and otherwise maltreating you?

This “alternative” is, of course, a well-traveled highway that many of us are all too familiar with.  The futility seen in our refusal to take responsibility for our own feelings and behavior is surpassed only by our illusion that our continued bitterness or complaining or self-righteousness will somehow inspire others to treat us better.  Someone put it more simply: “Bitterness is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.”

Put simply, we cannot force change; we can merely invite and encourage, persuading others by driving responsibility.  We must be courteous in remembering others don’t have as much confidence in our driving as we do, be willing to let our fellow drivers pass us or enter our lane of traffic instead of speeding up to cut them off (did I hit a nerve there?), and be less critical of others weaknesses and mistakes “We should be lenient in our judgment, for often the mistakes of others would have been ours to make given the same opportunity.”

I view this change in attitude as a radical “paradigm shift” from many popular theories advanced by contemporary society, and it’s a shift involving more than mere lip service.  Phrasing things in just the “right” way or changing behavior alone won’t produce the change I’m speaking of.

It’s a change of heart that’s needed.

Having a single middle finger raised in my honor is not an experience I would wish for anyone.  Still, the feedback has made me more aware of how my driving affects others.  More importantly, it has served as yet another reminder that I must continually practice defensive driving . . . of the heart.

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

Attraction, Dating, and Related Disorders of Adolescence

Published on July 24, 2018 by

I recently walked in on my 13½ -year old daughter doing the dishes to the tune of, “I am 13 going on 14, Fellows will fall in line . . .”  Fathers everywhere understand this to be the first symptom of Attraction, a contagious disease which can lead to a more serious disorder, Dating.

So we begin talking about Ryan and how his shy but humorous nature makes him so irresistible.  And, oh dad, have you seen how cute he is when he blushes?  He’s a doll, all right, I reply.  And so the conversation goes, me talking from my brain and Lexi talking from her hormones.  Soon we move to the topic of dating.

As many fathers do, I have strong feelings about dating.  And while she’s not currently ready to date, Lexi needs to begin preparing for the fun that awaits her.  Here are a few of the bits of information and advice I shared with Lexi.

Liking can start at 13 but dating must wait until 16.  I realize this idea isn’t a popular idea with a lot of kids, but it has many benefits.  It gives them a chance to be a master of rather than a slave to their hormones.  The natural progression of attraction dictates that smaller acts of intimacy lead to greater ones.  It just makes intuitive sense that the earlier a child starts dating, the earlier (s)he is likely to be enticed to become sexually active.

When dating begins, I suggest dating around rather than settling on a “one and only” right out of the gates.  I realize that “going steady” is in vogue, but as my dad used to tell me, “there are a lot of fish in the sea”.  I suggest dating a bunch of different boys and avoid getting cornered by one specific boy, no matter how much he looks like one of the guys in ‘N Sync.  Group dating is also a good idea, as it supports the idea of getting to know people and avoiding premature intimacy.

Speaking of intimacy, I find the ideas of two fellow psychologists persuasive.  Harvard-trained Dr. Mary Beth Clark suggests five standards as a guide to intimacy with the opposite sex:

  1. Dress modestly.  Dressing immodestly is like leaving your car door open and your car running on a busy street in a big city.
  2. Kiss sparingly.  Don’t cheapen yourself by handing out kisses like they were casual Hello’s.  Be selective . . . and keep your tongue to yourself.
  3. Touch carefully.  Avoid touching or being touched in areas usually covered by clothing.  Innocent touching leads to less innocent touching . . . fondling leads to intercourse.  Your sexual appetite, once whetted, typically wants more, not the same or less.
  4. Avoid becoming involved horizontally.  Besides avoiding sexual positions, also avoid situations in which you would lay next to someone of the opposite sex.  Sit rather than lay down to watch a movie, or if you do lay, watch the movie while laying on your stomach.
  5. Decide previously.  Determine your dating standards before you begin dating and expect them to be respected by the boys who ask you out.

Another psychologist, Dr. Richard Heaps, adds a simple triad as a guideline for avoiding premature intimacy.  He advocates that those who date should “avoid being alone together, for long periods of time, in stationary positions.  That is, . . . avoid all three conditions at the same time.”

He asserts that any dating couple – no matter their age – can avoid becoming sexually involved if only one or two of the above conditions occur in tandem.

Naturally, my advice to Lexi is based upon the principle of sexual abstinence before marriage, and it makes much less sense for those who don’t share my traditionally conservative views.

Still, any father who begins hearing distant “Sound of Music” echoes from the not too distant future is, like me, liable to begin dusting off his shotgun.  You see, I want to make Ryan more than just blush.

Steven M. Gentry, Ph.D., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah also serving Lehi, Eagle Mountain, Saratoga Springs, Pleasant Grove, Alpine, & Highland



Published on September 20, 2017 by

While on a ‘date’ with me recently, my 12-year old daughter began schooling me on what it’s like to be starting adolescence.  We discussed physical changes as well as cognitive and psychosocial growth.  We covered adolescents’ need for independence as well as their quest for identity.  I noted a healthy tendency to try on new roles and behaviors (within limits) and an occasional tendency towards moodiness and sassiness (to which my daughter gave me a knowing smile).  She in turn noted that parents of adolescents are prone to ‘boring lectures’ (this temporarily quieted me down).

We talked about “The Power of the Pimple” (e.g., how one blemish on an adolescent’s face can lead to a week-long absence from school) and covered issues of exaggeration, self-centeredness, and rebellion.  As our conversation progressed, the reality of my daughter’s impending adolescence began to hit me.  Then, suddenly, she ordered a double scoop of Bubble Gum ice cream for us, and I felt reassured that there remains a good deal of little girl in her.

Contrary to popular perception, research shows that most families navigate the waters of adolescence with few serious problems.  In other words, while adolescence can be a period of occasional confusion and choppy waters, most adolescents are not in trouble with the law or failing school or running away from home or otherwise wreaking havoc in their families.

But some are.  Parenting the difficult adolescent – who, by the way, is often described as having been a ‘high maintenance’ child all along – is no easy task.  These adolescents defy at every turn, refuse to accept responsibility for their actions, and are often found manipulating situations to their advantage.

While being flexible is crucial for parents of adolescents, flexibility with the difficult adolescent can often lead to an almost total loss of parental control.  Such an adolescent fails to see the value in any parental authority, and seems to want to live his/her life in a world devoid of limits.

Parents’ responses to the trying circumstances of adolescence will largely be a reflection of their parenting philosophy.  In other words, all parents have implicit values upon which their interaction with their children is based, and these values tend to come to the fore during adolescence.

Some parents value the physical safety of their children above all else, which often expresses itself in a laissez-faire approach; others place a priority on respect of authority, which can lead to physical confrontations between parent and child; some value responsibility, leading them to employ techniques often referred to as ‘touch love;’ still others operate primarily on confusion and fear, which often underlies permissive parenting.

Effective navigation of adolescent waters requires that both parents and children accept responsibility for their actions.  Parents must accept the fact that the adolescent needs increased space and freedom; the adolescent needs to accept that there is a difference between rights and privileges, meaning there are limits to his/her freedom.

Mark Twain once said: “When I was a boy of fourteen , my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand it.  But when I got to be 21, I was astonished he had learned so much in seven years.”  Adolescents often feel their parents are ‘out of touch’ (but then again, parenting isn’t exactly a popularity contest), only to later see the wisdom in their parents’ efforts.

Parents and adolescents who learn to employ the twin techniques of negotiation and compromise tend to work the best together.  Parents do well to ‘choose their battles’ – to let some issues slide.  Adolescents do well to ‘score points’ with their parents via responsible behavior, because this tends to buy them more of the freedom they crave.

I should here state that there are no guarantees in parenting; you can make all the right moves and end up with less than you hoped for with your child.  The same holds true for the adolescent; you can do all you can to ‘score points’ with your parents, but this doesn’t guarantee they’ll give you the love, attention, freedom, etc. you seek.  Life just isn’t that perfect.

But doing your best to be a flexible parent and a responsible adolescent will create the greatest likelihood for success and peace in the home.  A good place to start is over a bowl of Bubble Gum ice cream – it helps chase the sassiness and lecturing away.

Steven M. Gentry, Ph.D., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah also serving Lehi, Eagle Mountain, Saratoga Springs, Pleasant Grove, Alpine, & Highland

Feelings Teach Children Powerful Lessons

Published on July 14, 2017 by

Returning home after an evening out together, my wife and I recently found our children putting the finishing touches on the house.  Not in a messy sort of way, you understand, but in a surprisingly tidy manner.  It was the kind of deed parents dream of, something undertaken out of a desire to please and surprise us.  Afterwards the children unanimously spoke of their excitement and satisfaction in helping out without being asked.

Engulfed by fatherly pride, my first impulse was to immediately load the children into the car and make a beeline for Disneyland.  Several deep breaths later, I decided a Slurpee at 7-11 might suffice.  Then all my years studying psychology paid off, and I spent time discussing their positive feelings with my kids instead.

I remembered some research on “Attribution Theory,” a theory which tries to explain how we view our own and others’ behavior.  While I couldn’t recall all the details of the research, I remembered that one study found children who were given, say, money for performing a task to be less inclined to continue performing the task than children who didn’t receive money.  These results suggest that the ‘paid’ children attributed their performance to external factors whereas the ‘unpaid’ children saw their behavior resulting from a genuine internal desire to perform the task.

So I decided that the positive feelings my children felt would, on this occasion, be their own reward (although we did make it to 7-11 several nights later).  No

or are considerate of others.  Such feelings become the child’s guiding compass, long after the praise and allowance and Slurpees vanish.

w I’m not saying that rewarding children (via praise, time spent with parents, money [e.g., an allowance], etc.) is inappropriate; to the contrary, I feel such external rewards can and should be used on a consistent basis.  My point is that parents should go beyond the mere reward and help their children focus on the feelings they receive when they follow through on a commitment…or obey the first time asked…


An eight-year old client of mine recently confided that he stumbled upon his birthday presents, hidden away by his mother as to surprise him on his special day.  He confessed that he had peeked at them on several occasions, and said he felt horrible about it.  He concluded that he wasn’t sure what to do about his problem, but realized that he didn’t like the guilt he felt.


Emotions, like physiological sensations, are adaptive.  That is, they signal a need to change course.  Like a hand that responds to the heat of a hot stove by pulling away, so too my eight-year old client responded to his wrongdoing with a sense that he should make a correction.

Just as hands have a built-in sensitivity to heat, children can learn to use their ‘built-in’ feelings as sensors of good and bad.  For example, the positive feeling they have when befriending a lonely peer cue them to continue reaching out to others.  In contrast, anxious or rageful feelings can help them know they need to escape compromising or aggravating situations.  While the child may not always understand his feelings in the moment, experience will teach him the value of using them as diagnostic tools.

A man I greatly admire has a unique ability to make each person he meets feel like the most important person in the world.  Even his children – who are now grown – talk of his knack as a father of finding way to make them feel extra special.  His interpersonal style seems to be patterned after the adage, “People may not remember much of what you say, but they will remember how you made them feel.”

Because I tend to be task-oriented, I often struggle to remain focused on “the weightier matters” (e.g., my children’s feelings).  In contrast, people like my friend are able to, for instance, make their child’s positive experience during a family activity more important than the activity itself.  A good example is the parent who can relax requirements of behavior in church (“I want you sitting up straighter than a starched shirt!), focusing instead on creating a positive experience for the child by (heaven forbid!) scratching his back.  Or the parent who allows the child to “bend the rules” in a game of Checkers, laughing about it rather than adamantly demanding fair play.  The payoff of this more flexible and lenient approach is often an increase in compliant behavior.


Feelings are powerful teachers that educate both adults and children in daily decisions and behavior.  Such emotions are an invaluable tool to parents willing to take the time to school their children in their usage.  Naturally, our effectiveness in this endeavor increases to the degree we are able to put ourselves in our children’s shoes, giving us a view of life from, say, 48 inches off the floor.  Just one pointer, though, in choosing your Slurpee:  the Peach-Lime combination may not give you the euphoric feeling it once did.



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

Building Strong Children Begins at Birth

Published on May 18, 2016 by

The depth and breadth of human suffering occasioned by the recent earthquake in Turkey is, in a word, staggering.  Media reports have blamed much of the resulting devastation and loss of life on buildings and homes that weren’t properly constructed.  The shortsightedness and ignorance of a few builders produced an exponential loss of nightmarish proportions.

When I heard of the shoddy workmanship, I was reminded of someone who once compared a child’s development to a skyscraper: if the foundation isn’t properly aligned, no one really notices at first.  The untrained eye can neither appreciate the slight imperfection nor fully anticipate the consequences of an ever so slightly tipped foundation.  Yet without correction, the once minuscule flaw will produce a structure that leans precariously in one direction.

Far too many of the structures in Turkey did not have firm foundations.  Far too many children are victims of early childhood neglect or abuse.  While early signs of neglect are only apparent to a few, it’s not long before the resulting symptoms become apparent to most.

While there are clearly genetic, biological, and physiological antecedents that affect development, much of an infant’s firm foundation is provided by his caregivers, usually his parents.

Physical development is undoubtedly the first area we take note of.  Indeed, from the womb doctors are able to determine healthy versus unhealthy development, and what parent doesn’t do a quick count of fingers and toes once Junior exits his bedwomb?  From then on, motor skills are a primary focus, evidenced by many a proud parent throwing a neighborhood party when the little fella can hold his own bottle.

Cognitive abilities are evident early on as well.  Healthy development in the cognitive domain involves both attending to one’s environment as well as establishing relationships between two or more objects/actions (e.g., when I look at Mommy, she smiles; I learn about a shoe by putting it in my mouth; etc.).  Receptive and expressive language abilities virtually explode during toddlerhood, and written language and metacognition (i.e., realizing that you can think) aren’t far behind.

We need look no further than the “Terrible Two’s” to see early vestiges of emotional development.  In actuality, the foundation for emotional development is laid much earlier, when a child learns about emotional regulation from his parents.  Emotional regulation is essentially the ability to manage one’s emotions – to express or subdue one’s feelings, to please or soothe oneself, etc.  Children, it should be noted, are far from perfect when it comes to emotional regulation, and they profit from consistent limits and loads of patience as they learn self-control.

Moral development grows out of a child’s need to identify with the values and beliefs of his parents.  Most children adopt views similar to those of their parents, and their conscience is in part a reflection of those of their parents.  A solid parent-child relationship contributes to a child’s ability to take perspectives other than their own, leading to the mature human quality of empathy.  One of the most serious sequelae of childhood neglect is retarded moral development, which is often manifest in out-of-control lying, stealing, and worst of all, sadistic behavior.

One of the last domains to blossom, social development gains preeminence for school-age children and reaches a crescendo in adolescence.  The seed for healthy social skills, such as taking turns, sharing, learning the right time for humor, balancing talking with listening, and respecting others’ property are sown early on.  The child’s ability to “fit in” is both a cause and a result of their developing self-esteem.  Due to deficits in, for one, self-regulation (i.e., the ability to regulate one’s emotions, behavior, and attention), children with Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) often struggle in the area of social development.

The area of child development is both wide and deep, and I have but touched on a few of the most salient aspects.  A multitude of other factors relate to child development, including attachment, temperament, personality, and the plethora of genetic, biological, and physiological effects previously alluded to.

Suffice it to say that, like an edifice that is meant to withstand an earthquake, the building blocks of a healthy child begin with a firm foundation.  The difference between the two, of course, is that we can rebuild a building.

Don’t cut corners . . . “build” your child strong and straight, beginning today.


Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and

the Executive Director of  Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

The Store is a Great Place to Raise a Child

Published on August 6, 2015 by

Several weeks ago my wife overheard two women at a local department store talking. “What’s that awful sound…is that a child or a toy?” the one asked the other. “Whatever it is, it’s coming our way,” replied the other. “It is a child, and it sounds like someone’s killing him!” exclaimed the first. “I’ve never heard anything like that before; that child sure is mad!” the second said.
My wife and I had become separated in our shopping, and the sound the women heard was my two-year old son, Spencer, exercising his vocal cords. He had had it with me, and was letting me know it in no uncertain terms.
Spencer had determined it was time to get out of the shopping cart. When I prevented him from getting out, he upped the ante by pushing my hand away and whining. A paternal ‘no-no’ only frustrated him further, and, like a peacock displaying its colorful plumage, my son began showing his true colors.
A few seconds of trying to calm him by distracting him proved fruitless, so I lifted him out of the cart and made a beeline for the front door, passing my wife and the two women (who did not seem the least bit amused – well, I wasn’t exactly amused myself) on the way to the car.
Once in the car, Spencer only screamed louder. He was still pouting when my wife came out, and we made our way to the grocery story. Not surprisingly, Spencer and I repeated our interaction after no more than a minute in the produce section. As before, I carried him back out to the car, and we spent another twenty minutes in the car, him providing the entertainment and me doing my best to ignore him.
Our next stop for the evening was at a restaurant. I had just poured Spencer some Root Beer out of my cup when he began to whimper…he wanted MY cup. When I said ‘No,” he raised his voice and uttered his final whine of the night, for as I moved to pick him up, he must have sensed what was next…the car. He stopped whining, began drinking from HIS cup, and the rest of the evening went smoothly.
I wish I could claim that I am always this patient, always this consistent, always this successful. The truth is, I’m not, and I’m sure Spencer will continue to whine and tantrum both in public and private (like your child, he’s not too picky). However, I relay the story to illustrate the power of EXTINCTION.

Extinction occurs with misbehavior just as it did with the dinosaurs (though extinguishing dinosaurs must’ve been much easier than this parenting stuff). Extinction is a term describing the disappearance of a behavior when the behavior no longer pays off. It is a technique commonly employed in the area of Behavior Modification, which is an outgrowth of a popular psychological theory called Behaviorism. According to this theory, kids misbehave for many reasons, but perhaps the simplest explanation is this: BECAUSE IT WORKS TO GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT OR NEED. Furthermore, the misbehavior costs them less and benefits them more than appropriate behavior might.
Misbehavior is largely the result of learning, and kids are certainly quick learners. Spencer has learned that whining and tantrumming have paid off in the past. In other words, his tantrumming has been rewarded because his parents have given in. Our efforts are now focused on removing any type of reward for his tantrumming, and instead rewarding his compliant behavior.
By removing any positive benefit Spencer might gain from the misbehavior, we are reducing its pay off. If we do this right, it shouldn’t be long before he can sit quietly in the cart at the store.
When working to extinguish misbehaviors in your child, keep these points in mind:
1. You will definitely be inconvenienced in your efforts. You will only be successful to the degree you are willing to make this a top priority (e.g., you must be willing to leave your cart-full of groceries behind).
2. Realize that things will likely get worse before they get better (since your child is used to getting his/her way, (s)he will likely keep at you…because it’s worked in the past. Hang in there…ride out the storm…have confidence in the process).
3. Respond immediately and consistently to your child’s misbehavior (remove your child from any setting that might be reinforcing, then use a generous dose of ignoring).
4. Do not talk to nor soothe your child while (s)he is misbehaving (these will only aggravate or reinforce the problem…soothing and talking are for later).
5. Lavish your child with praise for appropriate behavior (make appropriate behavior pay off).
6. Don’t hit or scream at your child (EXTINCTION should always take a back seat to SAFETY; if you’re feeling out of control, take time to cool down…your parenting work can wait.).
Teaching children appropriate behavior, as does all good parenting, requires concerted effort. Taking the time to work with your child may not be convenient, but like a wise investment, it will pay rich dividends in the (child’s) future.
So next time you see a parent firmly but gently “escorting” a misbehaving child out of the store, cast a knowing smile their way, for some serious parenting is going on. After all, department and grocery stores are popular places where parents raise their children…and where children raise their parents.

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

Are Children Really Resilient?

Published on April 23, 2015 by

Kids posing over white“They’ll be fine.  They’re young. They’ll get over it. They won’t even remember. They just need to toughen up.” I have heard people refer to children like this many times when working with clients, but it is not completely accurate. Many people assume that children are highly resilient and adaptable. Are children really resilient? Of course they are. People in general are resilient. We can endure and overcome heart-wrenching challenges, especially with the support of others. However, just because a person is young does not mean that they can escape unscathed from any situation. On the contrary, children may become more traumatized than an adult might during a given experience.

Because children are impressionable, trauma can have a long-lasting impact on them. Their brains are still developing, so trauma can have a greater effect on their malleable brains than an adult’s brain that is no longer developing. Makes a lot of sense, right? Neuroscientists have literally found how trauma can leave its imprint on their developing brains through brain imaging. There are other things to consider as well.  Children have not had the life experiences to teach them that traumatic experiences are an exception and not the rule.  They have not developed as many coping skills as an adult might have. They do not have as much control over their life situation and support systems as an independent adult does. Maybe they were traumatized by someone who was supposed to be a support to them.  The idea that because they are children they will be fine is a sad myth for these reasons and others.

So why does the myth that children will be fine, forget, or easily get over the traumatic event exist?  Perhaps people believe that children will be fine because children do not have long conversations and express themselves verbally the same way adults do.  Hence, adults may not hear about it, or if they do it could be through a couple fleeting comments.  Children may act out (or even “act in”) instead of speaking out.  “Acting in” in can include internalizing situations, feeling guilty or blaming themselves, become depressed or self-harming themselves.  Perhaps the myth exists because children can continue playing and laughing despite their significant emotional challenges.  Just like adults, smiling doesn’t mean they aren’t traumatized by something.  Perhaps adults think that they are too young to understand or to be aware of what is going on.  Children are often more aware than we think, so it is often wise to be aware of what we say and do around them.

Perhaps the myth exists because we as adults don’t think a certain event should be traumatizing.  First, we need to understand what trauma is.  Trauma is exposure to a threat of harm and can be something obvious like being sexually abused or witnessing a death or being in a tornado.  While children may or may not not become traumatized in the sense of developing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, children can also experience some stress symptoms over “smaller” situations.  Examples of events include witnessing a car on fire while driving down the freeway, seeing a scary movie or advertisement, or witnessing domestic violence three years ago even though the family is happy and healthy now.  Children can exhibit signs of stress during or after divorce, even though we may think they weren’t involved in or aware of the details of it.  We might tell them to toughen up because it’s just “teasing,” but being bullied can be traumatic. Going to the doctor’s office can be traumatizing (I think we all agree on that one).  Regardless of the reasons we sometimes assume differently, children can become traumatized and there are signs of post-traumatic stress to look for.

Children can respond in a variety of ways to trauma.  Sometimes they become obviously distressed when they have reminders of the trauma.  They may become avoidant or withdraw from certain people or situations.  Children may make comments to you about something that happened, or you may recognize signs of trauma in their play or artwork. They may play something recurrently. Some children have increased nightmares. Maybe you know they often think about the bad memories.  Other children become oppositional, defiant or have temper tantrums when they are traumatized. You may notice they are more irritable.  Others have symptoms similar to ADHD and act impulsively or have difficulty concentrating.  Some children exhibit regressive behaviors such as bed-wetting again.  Children may startle easily.  If you think that your child may have symptoms of traumatic stress, a mental health therapist that specializes in working with children may be helpful.  A therapist can assess what they are experiencing, help teach skills to deal with their anxiety, and help them process and overcome the trauma.

Thankfully, that same developing brain means that they have a tremendous capacity to grow and heal.  Through big and small stressors, empathize with your child and spend time with your child talking or playing.  Just like an adult, children want to feel understood and validated. Establishing safe and loving routines is invaluable. They need that stability.  There is hope.  Remember that caregivers are the most important part in a child’s recovery.

Tanya Lindquist, CSW – Psychological Assessment & Treatment Center

The Best Recruits Keep Your Season Ticket Holders Happy

Published on March 3, 2015 by

College coaches live and die by it.  The Armed Forces do it through a relentless barrage of energetic commercials.  Major corporations use it to Young Boys In Baseball Team With Coachvie for top candidates.  And parents (you sometimes weary souls in the trenches) ought to get in on the act as well.

I’m talking about recruiting.  Not children, of course, since they’re granted God-sanctioned reserved seating in your family.  Season ticket holders for life, that’s what they are.

What parents must recruit are voices, voices to coach children along life’s path.  Raising kids is too hard for any parent to do alone, and we all need a hand or ten along the way.

So we have grandparents and uncles, teachers, neighbors, church leaders, soccer coaches, police officers, and even other kids.  We count on them to teach our kids solid principles of human decency and to be living examples of responsible citizens.

To get the most out of raising kids, parents must be active recruiters; passive recruiting is an oxymoron of the worst sort, tantamount to neglect.

As a parent, I pursue voices that will reinforce the principles and ideals I’m trying to teach my children.  I actively seek out those who will encourage my children to be honest and responsible.  I want my children to rub shoulders with kids who respect authority (and their parents’ authority in particular).  I do my best to expose my children to voices that teach that kindness to the underprivileged is expected, that compromise and cooperation are desirable, and that temperance and self-restraint are normal.

Am I always successful in recruiting the best voices for my children?  Not a chance.  They’re exposed to tons of countervailing forces that I can’t control, but I can live with that.  Like your kids, my kids are strong, they’re resilient, and love will see them through.  And even if they choose to go a different direction with their lives that I’d want, I can live with that, too.  All I can do is all I can do.

I often have parents tell me, “Dr. Gentry, many of the things you tell our 16-year old daughter in counseling are the same things we’ve told her a hundred times.”  I explain that, given their emotional history with her, their voices are easily drowned out by the din of their repetition and her defensiveness.  My voice is new, albeit strangely familiar.

And so I encourage them to begin aggressively recruiting.  I suggest they (for instance) contact the aunt their daughter has always adored, her dance coach, a couple of church leaders, and a stable peer who might befriend her.  I also urge them to tap into voices that have been around the longest: the elderly.

Perhaps the most underutilized voices of all, the elderly have tremendous wisdom and experience to share.  I try to make a point of involving my children with an elderly person or elderly couple for an evening once every couple of months.  Additionally, my wife and I seek out families that personify a way of living we advocate to our children.  We recently shared an inspiring evening with a Tongan couple and their two teenage boys.  Our children were moved to tears as the older boy, a high school senior and muscular football star, cried as he voiced his feelings regarding the evening’s topic: The importance of showing respect to your mother.

Old time values.  Active recruiting of voices that matter.  Striving, enduring, never giving up . . . if for no other reason than because the alternative’s no good.

I, like you, am the best parent at times and the worst at others.  Truth is, I’m never as good as I believe nor as bad as I fear.  I’m there along with you, somewhere in the middle.

And because my voice isn’t as strong as I would have it be, because my kids have selective hearing just like yours, there’s always more recruiting to be done.  Like you, I’ve got to do all I can to keep my season ticket holders in their seats.

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

Counseling is for the Courageous, Not the Crazy

Published on January 20, 2015 by

As do virtually all societies, American society rightly esteems self-reliance as one of its core values.  Indeed, the collective strength of a given community depends in large measure on the individual fortitude of its citizens.  However, this idea can be carried to an extreme.

For instance, does self-reliance require that a person “tough out” a broken arm or a case of hepatitis rather than seek medical treatment?  To the contrary, most would question the judgment of such an individual (we might even call him ‘crazy’) for failing to consult a doctor under such conditions.

They need an expert advice.      Likewise, are people who visit a library deemed to lack self-reliance?  After all, they are in need of additional information, and clearly lack knowledge (or excitement, if they’re after leisure reading) of one sort or another.  What is it, after all, that they don’t know, and why can’t they just be happy with what their brain provides?  Hopefully, the absurdity of such thought is attested to by the fact that none of us ever has them.

In most cases, accessing resources in the community that will improve our condition is viewed positively and does not detract from our sense of independence.  Instead, it implicitly suggests that we know how to best meet our needs…a good working definition of self-reliance.

When it comes to seeking help for personal problems, however, the rules mysteriously change.  Whereas a person is crazy if he doesn’t get help for his broken arm, he is crazy if he seeks counseling for his broken heart.  Consulting a library to gather more ‘food’ for your head is ok whereas consulting a mental health provider is a sure sign your head isn’t quite right.  Society has created a double standard which sanctions services for the physical body but stigmatizes help for the mind and spirit.

The truth is, when it comes to self-reliance, accessing needed help – be it from a doctor, librarian, or counselor – does not detract from our internal fortitude.  It is an indication of strength and flexibility, suggesting that we know how to take care of ourselves.

Naturally, we do not consult a doctor for every problem (e.g., a stuffy nose or backache); we show good judgment by using over-the-counter medications as needed.  Nor does a lack of information send us scurrying off to the library at every turn, for a dictionary or encyclopedia can answer many of our questions.

Likewise, a therapist is not needed for problems that can be solved via help and support from friends and family members.  When professional help is needed, however, it is every bit as critical to improving the quality of one’s life as is medical treatment.

Unfortunately, I have known many cases where individuals have ignored grave symptoms in relationships, refused to enter counseling because of their pride, and ended up with emotional gangrene…or worse: amputation.  Those who demonize psychiatric help are often those most in need of its services.

Self-reliance is not synonymous with total independence from others; instead, it includes selective reliance on them.  It involves knowing how to access needed resources and using them in a responsible way.

In most cases, counseling is a temporary “recharging station” on the road of life rather than a resort where you spend an extended vacation.  It is not for crazy people but for those who choose to improve the quality of their lives rather than continue to suffer with the status quo.  Such people are among those searching for more information at the library.  You’ll know them by the casts on their arms.


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