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Growing Through Writing Workshop

I have run this workshop a number of times with Pierre Brouard. Every time I feel inspired and so I invite you to join us on June 7th for a day of creativity, self growth and exploration in a safe, contained and supportive environment.


creative writing courses Image courtesy Mads Johansen

Feeling stressed, overwhelmed, anxious or lacking creativity? The answer may be lying around on your desk – the humble pen and piece of paper. We asked psychologists Pierre Brouard and Judith Ancer, who will be running our next  Growing Through Writingcourse on 7 June, to tell us how writing can be good for our mental health.

Q. How can writing help us to heal and grow?

Judith: Writing helps us to heal, process, and gain mastery over difficult issues. It’s a way to access your internal world of creativity, generate ideas, problem solve and manage stress.

Pierre: Traumas, for example, are experienced in the right hemisphere of the brain, the part that controls our senses. It’s the pre-verbal part that develops before language. So, if you’re hijacked, that activates anxiety and distress and it feels timeless. You lose track of time, the story…

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21 Ways to Survive & Be Happy in Johannesburg

I enjoyed this piece very much. Happy voting day – celebrating 20 years of democracy with a free and fair election. And a glorious autumn day in Johannesburg. Blues skies, gentle warmth and the fire of autumn leaves.

Gussilber's Twitter Overflow Blog

Whether you live in South Africa’s most dynamic metropolis, or you’re just passing through, here’s how you can make the most of it

  1. Learn to appreciate the dawn chorus of the hadedah, for the touch of the bushveld it brings to suburbia. Who needs an alarm clock in Joburg? And while you’re up and about, learn to appreciate the mid-morning, afternoon, and evening chorus too.
  2. Look inside your shoes before you put them on in the morning. There’s very little wiggle-room with a Parktown Prawn in there.
  3. Be nice to rain spiders. They are humungous but harmless. Coax them into a Tupperware dish, stick the lid on, and release them in the garden, if you must; otherwise, just wave to them as you go about your business. And don’t scream. It scares them.
  4. Buy a feather-duster from the feather-duster man. You’ll be supporting feather-dusterpreneurship, and you’ll…

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Phillip Seymour Hoffman did not have choice or free will and neither do you.

Worth a read.

debbie bayer blog

In the wake of the tragic loss of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a great artist, partner, father, brother, and son, I offer the following facts about the neurological disease of addiction.

The overwhelming majority of adults in the western world have passed through experimental stages in their lives where they have dabbled with some kind of brain altering addictive substance, i.e., cigarettes, alcohol, prescriptionpain killers, ADHD medication, anti-anxiety medication, and yes, even marijuana (save the ‘it’s not addictive” arguments for later, please).  And the overwhelming majority of these adults will emerge from their experiments unscathed, believing that their free will and good choices are what saved them from becoming addicted.

The problem with this thinking is that it is factually incorrect.  In other words, they are all wrong.

What saved them (you) from becoming addicted is that their brains did not respond in the same way that an addict’s brain does…

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Long summer holidays, constructive boredom and your children

One of the most powerful parenting techniques is having faith in your child’s ability to resolve a problem. This is especially true around the issue of “boredom”.Snoopy bored

I wrote previously (Boredom: a melancholy truth) that allowing your child to be bored can be a positive experience, just as solving your child’s boredom by always organising structured play can lead to new problems. Paddy O’Donnell, a professor of social psychology at the University of Glasgow, in a study on the impact of structured play on the future abilities of university students, claims that many current students are less confident of making their own decisions. They are so used to being managed by a hovering parent that they prefer it if someone takes charge and directs them, even as young adults.

At the same time, modern, concerned parents don’t want to simply leave children to their own devices. We need to find the balance between a lack of involvement with our children and the tyranny of helicopter parenting – where parents are a 24-hour child entertainer and teacher. We need to cultivate constructive boredom in our children and offer some appropriately “benign neglect”.

With the long summer holiday approaching, here are a few tips that might help you in this quest:

calvin and hobbes brain atrophy

Plan ahead

Why wait until your child’s already bored? At the moment your child decides to announce (over and over again) that they are desperately bored, you will probably be on the phone to your boss, sorting out an office emergency while stirring a pot of pasta sauce. Rather, in a quiet moment sit down with your child and make a “when I’m bored” list. I tried this out with my own nine-year-old son and his first three ideas were: “Play soccer against the wall, make the tallest tower I can with my wooden blocks and make a teepee with sticks.” Add a few ideas of your own and stick the list on the fridge.

For longer activities, consider things such as sleepovers, campouts in the garden and allowing kids to wear pyjamas all day Sunday while amusing themselves. Just remember: while you might suggest these, don’t organise them yourself.

Make resources available

If you have these around the house then the boredom monster can be slain at any time: crayons and coloured cardboard or paper, straws, hammers and nails, spray paint, masks or costumes, a pile of sticks in the garden, discarded computer print-outs, used plastic cartons and bottles, cereal boxes, a collection of fabric scraps and glue. It also helps if you allow one part of the garden to be a play area with sand or mud, or are relaxed enough to allow your children to colonise one corner of the kitchen to concoct their evil brews.

Be actively noncommittal

If your child tries to engage you in solving his boredom, master the art of saying, “Really? Hmmm,” followed by silence. She might lose interest and move away. Or you could say, empathically: “Yes, as a child I was often bored myself,” followed by: “Let’s think of some ideas together.” In other words, try not to leap in with your solutions – rest assured, they will anyway likely be met with scorn.

Maintain safety

It might be good to give your child space to use his imagination, but some safety rules are non-negotiable. Don’t forget to explain that the pool is out of bounds, or leaving the property without permission and playing with fire in the house are forbidden.

Practise boredom

Switch off the TV sometimes, limit the amount of time spent on PlayStations or computer games and have days where no after-school activities are scheduled – in this way, your child learns to engage himself and doesn’t become a complete nag when he’s suddenly feeling ignored or unstimulated.

Read feelings

Maybe your child’s not bored. Maybe she’s crying out for your attention or needs to spend time with a friend after a period of being alone. In this case, ignore everything I’ve just said and spend some quality time with him, giving him your undivided attention.

Ultimately, life is often a solo journey. By trusting your children to be able to cope with the responsibility of sometimes amusing themselves or generating their own ideas and managing downtime, stillness and space, you will do them a great service. And if out of this boredom greater maturity and creativity emerges, you will have done the world a great service

The Perils of Prize-giving

stripey eraserThe only prize I ever won in primary school came with a scented, rainbow-coloured eraser with a little brush attached to it. I loved that eraser. It stood out from the plain white ones that would so quickly stain grey and smelled of nothing. And the reason for the prize? For drinking the most milk. Seriously. In my Grade 2 year the school still sold small triangular cartons of fresh milk that were delivered to each class at “feeding time” before first break. And in 1974, I drank the most milk.

My sister, on the other hand, won a prize in Matric for ‘Social Awareness and Compassion for Others’. This foreshadowed a successful career as a social worker, then a psychologist (yes, there are two of us in one family). We all teased her that she’d got a trophy for being a nice person, and I suppose we all wondered a bit if it was a consolation prize for not being the top academic or best sportswoman.

Yes, it’s that time of year again. The time of school prize-givings, award ceremonies and valedictory services, the ritual of certificates, merits and colours, of parental pride and disappointment.

I was amused to read Sunday Times columnist Ndumiso Ncgobo writing about his son’s Grade 1 prize-giving in the December 4th issue of the Sunday times Lifestyle magazine (04.12.2011). He raises the debate about whether rewarding everybody for something (like drinking the most milk) devalues the significance of awards.

Should only excellence be rewarded? Or effort? If you are already smart and talented, shouldn’t your wonderful work and brilliant report be enough of an acknowledgement? And what about the cost of awards and public acclamation? In two of my previous columns I addressed these issues.

In ‘Pulverising kids with praise’ (Sunday Times 28/03/2010) I considered how easily-earned, excessive praise doesn’t really a child’s build self-esteem from the outside in.

In ‘Your kid is a Loser’ (Sunday Times 12/12/2010) I noted that all children lose some of the time, and some lose most of the time, yet their future success is determined by their persistence over time, not the number of trophies they are currently winning.

A short while ago my son, who has never won an academic award before, asked me whether I thought he was going to receive one. I had no idea. I know his school doesn’t give everyone in the grade an award so it was no sure thing. I also couldn’t bear the idea of him (or me?) being disappointed.  I gave him a long talk about how I believe he could get an award, but that other kids had also worked very hard to …. “Thanks Mom”, he cut me off with all the sarcasm a 10-year old can muster. “Thanks for ruining my dreams.”

Honestly, I’m not absolutely clear about how prize-giving ceremonies should work and what the best way would be to recognise children’s achievements.

I know that children who don’t ever win prizes can feel left out or despondent. And that the children who do win prizes can feel pressurised and overly focused on the prize, not the process of learning.  Perhaps no prizes should be given at all, or awards given only to acknowledge effort and progress. How do you even go about measuring that?

It’s easiest to simply reward the person with the highest marks. Not only does it seem to be a more objective measure of success, but it could be argued that it prepares children to be robust in society’s survival of the fittest.

But schools, like the Oscars and the Nobel Prize committees, use imperfect tools to make their decision. Those tools are called human beings. Have you ever heard of Sully Prudhomme, Theodor Mommsen, Bjornstjern Bjornson, Jose Echeragay, Henryk Sienkiewicz or Giosue Carducci? Well, they have all won the Nobel Prize for literature, unlike Vladimir Nobakov, WH Auden, Robert Frost, Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy.

Imagine another young man: he hates the rigidities of school, bunks lessons, absorbs ideas from family friends and visiting intellectuals around the dinner table, and spends much of his time working on complex physics. This man receives no school awards, makes little impression on the public consciousness until years later. He leaves school saying, “I have given up the opportunity to get to a university.”

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

The point of this anecdote is not to say that schools can’t teach or acknowledge the Albert Einsteins of the world, but that, even with the best will in the world, school prize-givings reward children who fit a particular mould, according to a fairly arbitrary definition: Why Top Ten and not Top Eleven? Why 80%, not 77% or 82%? How to measure most improved? From an E to a D or from a B to an A?

If you think I’m being over-sensitive to children’s feelings, try this. Put yourself in a group of randomly chosen parents. Perform a series of parental tasks judged by an observer, then allow him to select three Best Parents in the room, none of whom is you. How do you feel? Has the prize giving motivated you to be a better parent, or do you feel a sense of injustice because the judge just never ‘got you’?

Whatever schools decide, parents need to help keep this issue in perspective. Whether your child wins an award or not, accept the moment gracefully, but resolve to focus your child on working on her strengths. It’s her understanding of those strengths, and the need to persist with those,  that will lead to a successful, happy life, not awards.

Nonetheless. my award for milk consumption is a good memory, and I am still partial to dairy.

milk carton

Not just a few worries and quirks: children and OCD

notobsessiveI had always known the 10-year old was an anxious child. Her parents had referred her for therapy as they felt she lacked confidence, was falling behind at school and seemed very secretive. I had spent many sessions with her, building trust and developing a relationship, and we had talked about her worries at school, the conflict between her parents at home.

But it took some months before she finally confessed to me that she thought she was “weird”. Thoughts invaded her mind and she couldn’t ignore them, upsetting thoughts that bad things might happen.

Specifically, she felt she had to check and recheck that she had tightened the tap after she washed her hands, as she couldn’t shake the feeling that she might leave the tap open and cause a flood.  This need to close taps and tighten them, to the point she would hurt her hands, had extended to her glue lid, the cap of her juice bottle – in fact to all items that needed closing.

She was very ashamed of her thoughts and behaviours and was sure she was a “freak”. “I just can’t stop myself,” she whispered. “What if I don’t check the tap and I flood the house?”

It was then that I knew that she wasn’t simply a nervous child, but was suffering from a serious form of anxiety disorder called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

It is estimated that about 1 in 200 children has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and that 80% of adults with OCD have had significant symptoms before the age of 18.

In children and adolescents OCD involves obsessive thoughts about things like:

  • contamination, dirt and germs,
  • illness,
  • putting things in order, arranging things symmetrically,
  • lucky or unlucky numbers,
  • the possibility of hurting others or causing something bad to happen,
  • danger to family or friends, and
  • losing or breaking things.

Children with OCD can’t simply choose not to think these thoughts; they cannot just put the ideas out of their mind and think positively. The thoughts feel intrusive and overwhelming and cause enormous distress to the child.

Children with OCD generally ‘deal with’ these obsessional thoughts, anxiety and preoccupations by carrying out particular repetitive actions. These actions quickly become compulsive rituals, examples of which are checking, hand washing, counting things, performing an action in exactly the same way every time, repeating a behaviour a specific number of times, and collecting and hoarding things.

It’s as if the child believes that the rituals will undo any possible harm and magically reduce anxiety and make things feel right. But in truth these compulsions are enormously time-consuming and increasingly interfere with all aspects of the child’s life.

Experts are not exactly sure what causes OCD, which can run in families. Some theories suggest that it involves serotonin, a chemical in the brain also called a neurotransmitter. When something blocks the flow of serotonin, the brain overreacts and misreads information. Instead of ordinary thoughts being filtered out, the OCD mind lingers on them and sparks off fear or worry like an overactive alarm system.

OCD can be a difficult condition to treat. Early diagnosis is not easy as children are often secretive about their obsessions and compulsions. But if untreated, childhood OCD tends to persist into adulthood and is associated with long-term negative outcomes, so it’s worth being proactive if you start to suspect your child is showing features of the disorder.

Below are some of the positive steps you can take.

Consult an expert

As with most difficult mental health issues, the support and expertise of an expert is often vital. First, this person will help you to distinguish between what is manageable anxiety and what is OCD. Second, even children with the most knowledgeable and accepting parents will often withhold certain worries and acts from them, but talk about them with an expert.

A combination of psychotherapy and medication might be suggested by a professional, but first do some research and inform yourself thoroughly before deciding how to move forward.

Prepare the family

If everyone in the family  understands what OCD is and that the behaviours that come with it are part of the condition, this creates a more understanding home environment. Also try to run a fairly structured home so that compulsive rituals don’t stand out as much and are less exacerbated by chaos.

Talk to your child

This is obvious. Be honest and open about the condition and talk about it with your child, without ever forcing the issue. You are a parent with a family to run and limits to set, not a psychologist. The more difficult work of dealing with OCD might need to be dealt with by an expert.

Deal with school

For the OCD child, stresses at school are usually worse than at home. Adults who teach your child will not be as well informed as you learn to become, and other children are often not tolerant or understanding. Therefore, meet all those who will come into contact with your child and help to educate them.

Managing and treating OCD is a challenge but possible – as the famous 18th century writer, OCD and Tourette’s sufferer Dr Samuel Johnson said, “Great works are performed not by strength, but perseverance.”

OCD hand

For useful links to resources in South Africa and internationally I can recommend the website of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) – http://www.sadag.org

Intimate enemies: sibling rivalry

I had a second child,” a mother says, “because I want my son to have company as he grows up.” Which made me think:

  • The first murder victim in history, according to the bible, was Abel, killed by his brother, Cain.
  • A client consulted me because her 7 year old daughter fed her younger brother a potentially fatal overdose of medicine because he was irritating her and she “wanted to make him better”.
  • First-hatched black eagle chicks peck their younger siblings to death, driven by a primitive fuse.

There is an old Arabic saying that goes, “I against my brother; my brother and I against my cousin; I, my brother, and my cousin against the stranger,” that perhaps sums up how primary and instinctive sibling rivalry is. In the competition for emotional and material resources, no greater threat exists than the brother or sister living in your own home.

Of course, life with siblings can also be an enriching experience. For many people, life would not be the same without a sibling with whom they can shoulder life’s burdens or celebrate common experiences. But we should not assume that the sibling relationship is always easy. From the very beginning sibling rivalry rears its head. Toddlers want to protect toys; young school kids, having internalised the concept of fairness, will dispute a sibling receiving perceived preferential treatment; teenagers bent on becoming independent might resent doing household chores that younger brothers and sisters do not have to do.

These age-dependent conflicts could also be exacerbated if one child has special needs that require other siblings to accept less parental attention, or if one of your children has a temperament that intensifies the conflict – a child who is sensitive and needy might not be well matched to a more robust and independent child.

When fights do break out, what should you do? Wherever possible, don’t step in. It’s difficult to adjudicate the truth in these fights, with both parties making an equally impressive case for why they are the victim. Taking sides can also increase dependency on one side and resentment on the other. At the same time, you don’t want to feel like Cinderella’s father, benignly standing by while others burst into cruel laughter, mocking their younger sister.

If the heat of the moment requires you to step in because of possible violence or vicious name-calling, the advice one can give is based on common sense. Start by separating the combatants. If possible, allow a little cooling off time. Make it clear that violence and insults are not acceptable. As far as possible, encourage your kids to resolve the problem themselves. Of course, this doesn’t always work, but in doing this you are laying the foundation for a time when they are able to find a win-win solution.

Over the long haul, family problems like this are better prevented than treated. Somewhere in that busy schedule of work, school lifts, extra lessons and meetings, try to work out a preventative approach.

As disputes arise, talk about the concepts of fairness and equality. You can’t always treat children equally but you must always try to be fair.

  • Work with your kids to write up family rules governing behaviour that is acceptable and unacceptable – eg no name-calling, violence – and how disputes will be sorted out, as well as consequences for such behaviour. Stick this set of rules on the kitchen cupboard. 
  • Make special time for each child according to their interests, so they don’t feel neglected. 
  • Do fun things as a family – this reduces tension and builds bonds.
  • For specific areas of disagreement, such as who gets to watch favourite TV shows, write up a schedule that divides the time equally between siblings.

Most sibling differences are resolved over time as brothers and sisters grow up and become friends and mutual supports.

Except when they don’t.

Situations I deal with in my practice include families where siblings haven’t spoken for 20 years, a grandmother who still struggles to deal with her older sister’s bossiness and constant one-upmanship, and a man in his 30s who still bitterly resents his successful, much loved younger brother.

Perhaps if parents had from the beginning consciously adopted the sort of approach I have mentioned, a lifetime of distress might have been replaced by a valuable sibling friendship.