As parents, we try to support and guide our children in every way possible. Unfortunately, what parents tend to think is supportive can sometimes emanate significant amounts of pressure. Parents often want their child to be the best and inherit the mindset that their child will be the next Wayne Gretzky. When a sports parent thinks this way, it can affect their parent-child relationship. As an athlete, you want your parents to be proud and express their validation towards you. If a child feels like their sports parents aren’t proud, their words and actions are frequently perceived with pressure. This is why it is crucial to understand what may hurt your child instead of what may benefit your child’s involvement in sports.
Three things that hurt your child’s confidence
1. Expressing appraisal ONLY when they are doing well
It is essential that you are constantly being supportive no matter the outcome of your child’s performance. Regardless of whether they make a good play or make a mistake, your support should remain constant. Giving your child support no matter the circumstances will show them that you are proud of them despite the outcome. When they look over at you and see you cheering for them, it displays direct approval and encouragement. What if they look over and see you are unhappy or distracted by your phone? It may make them feel like you are disappointed in them. You may not think that your child notices your presence in the stands, but really, they are.
The correct approach would be to exude positive energy and cheering, even when nothing is happening. Do not make your supportive habits dependent on your child’s performance.
2. Telling your child how they could have done better on the car ride home
The car ride home is always a challenging situation. As an athlete who pressured themselves, I was already upset with myself if I had a bad performance. I definitely didn’t need to hear my parents say to me, “you should have done this.” Or “what happened on that one play where you made a mistake?” It would make me even more disappointed in myself than I already was. As sports parents, it is crucial to support and encourage your child without interfering. It is essential to focus on the positive attributes of their game instead of constantly reminding your child of what they did wrong.
3. Stop delivering clichés
Parents often believe that speaking in clichés is suitable for their child, but it does the opposite for kids. For example, if your child is getting worked up in games because of a mistake they made, it probably is best to avoid making certain remarks. Avoid statements such as “stop overthinking’ or “when you are out there, you have to be focused.” Most likely, the child is already trying to accomplish these things. Still, it’s not something that will immediately help them after you tell them to. Telling your child these clichés can develop into pressurization. It might make them believe that they are not doing a good job. Instead of saying these clichés, it would be more beneficial to say something like, “nice effort, you will get the next one!”
Here are some ways you as a sports parent can support your child when playing sports.
1. Provide emotional support
No matter the outcome of your child’s performance, it is vital to prioritize and provide unconditional love. Whether it is giving your child a hug or a high five after the game or telling them how proud of them you are, a little goes a long way. This is crucial after a game where the player may feel like they had a bad performance. Hearing how proud their parent is will make your child feel better. This will give your child the affirmation that being proud of them is not wholly dependent on their play.
2. Emphasize the importance of effort over outcome
Often, we think of the end result as the ultimate achievement instead of understanding the progress made. There is a lot of hard work that has to be done to reach an end result. If children constantly think about the outcome instead of thinking in the moment, it can become detrimental to their performance. When you put too much emphasis on a final product or winning, it can cause the child to feel pressure or anxiety because of you. This is why it’s more productive for a sports parent to focus more on the child’s efforts and relate their efforts to success. For example, after a game, tell your child, “I really liked how you hustled in and out of the dugout” or “you made a great effort on that one play. ”
3. Encourage independence
It is crucial for you as a sports parent to be involved in your child’s sports. Still, it is also important that your child is allowed to pursue their own independence. It’s okay for you to have boundaries and set rules. Still, when your child is involved in sports, it is beneficial for your child to gain independence within these boundaries you set. This is how your child learns to hold themselves accountable and grow in their independence. For example, you may tell your child that “you must always be prepared for practices.” Instead, tell your child, “I will be home to drive you to your game, but you must be ready to go when I get home.” This compels your child to get themselves prepared for their practice or game without your assistance. Altering how you give your child direction may fuel the desire for them to embrace independence.
4. Communicate and share goals
Open communication is vital when guiding your child through sports. Developing the habit of solid communication between you and your child will provide an understanding of how you can better support your child. This will also allow the child to express what they want from you as a sports parent. Ensure you are regularly checking in with your child by asking them how they are doing with their sports. Allow your child to make goals for themselves instead of you making them for them. This encourages children to be independent and control what they want out of the sports they play.
5. Behave in a way that your children want you to before, during, and after a game/practice
Strong communication between you and your child will help strengthen your relationship. This allows your child to express what they want from you before, during, and after a game. Every child is different, so it is important to understand the likes and dislikes of your child and how you can better support them through that. For example, your child may be nervous before a game and want your help with relaxing. During a game, your child may not like it when you approach the dugout and tell them something they need to do. Because of this action, your child may not want to talk about the game or express openness regarding the game’s events.
From The Directors: Today on the blog, we’re starting a new series. Our daughter, Ava is going to be writing for our blog from time to time. She’ll be talking about some of the issues she experiences and comes across with her friends, in school, and in life, to offer a perspective from a kid. We professionals can be helpful, but sometimes kids need to hear from kids. We hope this is something that some of your kids can benefit from and see that they’re not the only kid thinking of these things or struggling with things in life. We also hope that some of Ava’s tips will help them too!
My name is Ava. I am a tween, and I have a sister and I have a dog named Buttercup – she is 10 years old. I love to do gymnastics and play with my beautiful dog. I love to bake, ride my bike, read, go skateboarding and last but not least, I LOVE TO PLAY WITH SLIME!!!!!!!!
You may be wondering why I love to play with slime, so here are a few reasons why:
I have anxiety and learning disabilities. Playing with slime helps calm me down when I am nervous. I love the feeling of it in my hands and how the texture changes by what I put in it. It can be really smooth, soft, fluffy, wet or stretchy! Just having it in my hands helps me concentrate better.
It helps me be creative and lets me experiment with ingredients such as, white glue or clear glue (optional), hand cream, glitter, clay (but add in after you activate), foam beads and shaving cream. For activator you can use borax, contact solution and tide, but only use one activator for one slime. Don’t use two activators in one slime.
You can do this on your own or while social distancing with a friend. Or, you can make it online in FaceTime or Zoom – I like to do this with my cousins. It is a very soothing activity but it can get a little bit messy! It doesn’t take long to clean up! If it gets on your clothes just put the clothing in a bucket and put it in hot water to soak for 30 minutes to an hour and it will come right out.
I hope you enjoyed my blog today! Every once in a while, I’m going to write a blog that I hope will help some people. I know that I have a hard time with school and with anxiety sometimes, and I hope some kids out there will hear that it’s ok if things are hard. Life can be hard sometimes! I hope that some of my experiences and ideas might help you!
See you next time!
Ava Neufeld is the newest author on our blog. She is a 12 year old student in the Delta School District and wants to share her perspective on life and challenges in the hopes that it helps others.
I feel tired. I wonder if you are too? I am feeling anxious. I wonder if you can relate? I am feeling discouraged. Are you as well? I could use some self-compassion.
There seems to be increased tension if you are brave enough to venture into public spaces. Do I wear a mask? What if I can’t and people judge me? It feels like we are on hyper alert, the slightest cough, sniffle or tickle causes panic and uncertainty. Not to mention the larger conversations around the legitimacy of the pandemic and differing views of safety and the infusion of fear.
We made it through the spring and now the last weeks of summer linger in the air. Fall is approaching and with it comes questions. So. Many. Questions.
What is school going to look like?
Should my kids return to school?
When will this end?
Will things ever return to how they used to be?
Will there be a second wave?
How do I keep myself and my loved ones safe?
There seems to be a collective ‘heaviness.’ We could call it COVID fatigue? I feel it too.
Let’s all just stop.
Whatever you are doing this very moment – breathe.
Take a nice deep breath from your belly. In through your nose and out through your mouth. Notice your shoulders and lower them, try to ease some of the tension. Try to find a moment of calm.
Contrary to what some may think, Registered Clinical Counsellors are not immune to feelings of overwhelm and uncertainty. I wanted to share a few things that have been helping me lately. I hope that you will find some of them helpful too.
Do The Things That Keep You Well
Many people are feeling tired, sad and even depressed. I have been noticing that motivation is dwindling for many. The things that we know help us and we enjoy doing, are the very things that are falling away. We cannot simply sit around waiting for the motivation to return. We need to do the very things that we so quickly dismiss. May I gently ask you to dust them off and try them again?
Go for a walk. Enjoy the fresh air and sunshine.
Pick up that instrument you love to play.
Paint, draw, sculpt.
Read a book.
Go for a run.
Putter in your garden.
Call a friend
Take a nap
These are difficult times. Our hearts can feel weary. There are pressure and demands coming at us from all sides. It is vital to take care of yourself first in order for you to show up the best you can for those you love and are looking to you for support and care. I know that I feel the joy returning when I put on my helmet and take my bike for a ride; I have too many excuses as to why I don’t, but the moment I do…there it is – joy and lightness come trickling back.
What can you do today to help some lightness return?
Engage In Mindful Self-Compassion
I often say “Be kind to yourself,” when I am speaking with my clients. It is a nice sentiment, but what exactly does it mean? A few months ago, I had the privilege of taking an online course on Mindful Self-Compassion with Kristin Neff and Chris Germer. I would love to offer a few helpful points that encouraged me.
Let’s face it, often the way we treat ourselves is terrible. The thoughts and comments rolling around our mind are not kind, in fact they can be downright cruel. The crux of Self-Compassion is this: Treating yourself the same way you would treat a good friend. Typically, we tend to be more understanding and empathetic to others and not as much to ourselves.
There are 3 main components of self-compassion:
Kindness – giving yourself compassion and empathy Mindfulness – allowing yourself to be with the painful feelings Common Humanity – understanding that you are not alone in your suffering
Self-Compassion fosters connection and togetherness as we hold our suffering and realise that we are not alone. Self-Compassion allows us to pause and realise the present experience without judgement. The paradox of self-compassion is that we give ourselves compassion not to feel better but because we feel bad.
When we feel different emotions, we can learn to notice the emotion, feel the emotion, and label the emotion. Offer compassion to yourself as you experience this emotion. Try placing your hand on your chest and offer yourself some kind words, just like you would a good friend. For example: “This is hard.” “This hurts.” “I am sorry.”
Focus on Being Mindful In Everyday Life
Introduce the practice of mindfulness into your daily life. This can look different for each person. From guided meditation, to breath work, to savoring experiences, cultivating gratitude and self-appreciation.
I’d encourage you to check out more suggestions and ideas at Dr. Kristen Neff’s website. She has some great resources that make the introduction to mindful self-compassion much easier to grasp.
Please remember that you are not alone in your pain. It is true that no one know exactly what it is like to experience your pain, yet, we have a collective humanity in that we all go through suffering. There are folks who experience more pain than you do and there are folks who experience less pain than you; it is not a competition. Let’s remember to use suffering as a way to cultivate empathy and connection.
Start Your Journey With Self-Compassion Right Now With Me
Self-Compassion is about taking a moment to check in with yourself – to stop and listen; to feel and to ask, “What do I need right now?” And if possible, to be kind enough to give it to yourself.
Make your mental health a priority. I cannot stress the importance of counselling right now. As physical health and safety is taking a front seat in the news, it is imperative to keep your mental health on check as well. Personally, I have been making my counselling sessions a priority. They are a lifeline during this time of uncertainty. Please know that Alongside You is here to help. We have appointments available 6 days a week – morning, afternoon and evenings. We provide face to face sessions as well as secure video sessions. Please reach out and talk to someone. We are here for you.
Practice Gratitude. There is much to be discouraged about – cases of COVID 19 are rising, there is political unrest in the United States, tensions are high about going back to school, natural disasters surge, and innocent lives are being taken at a sobering rate. I have found myself feeling overwhelmed and struggling to know how to respond. I acknowledge that I am but one person and the need is great. I was asked by my counsellor in our last session, “Where is gratitude in all of this?” I smiled. I can still practice gratitude when there is injustice all around. I can delight in my flowering geraniums on my patio, despite my not-so-green thumb. I can be thankful for my family, for my weekly handwritten cards in the mail from my mom. I can savour a delicious meal cooked at home and delight in the technology that allows me to stay connected with loved ones around the world.
We can hold more than one feeling at the same time. We can acknowledge the pain, suffering, uncertainty and fear we feel. And we can appreciate the beauty, the simplicity, the kindness, the compassion and love that still exists.
Sadly, I do not have a magic wand to make everything better. If only I did. But what I do know is that we can step steps to help ourselves through this time. You are braver than you know. Do the things that bring you joy. You are not alone. Reach out for help. Remember to breathe. And finally – know that you matter. The world needs you.
One of my favourite things to do during my time as a teacher was to set up schedules for my classroom, plan out lessons and units, and help students stay on track with their learning and with their assignments. As a young mom back then, I thought it would be a good idea to use the same kind of set up at home with my own kids around scheduled feeding, sleep time, and play time. As my own kids grew and my role as a teacher of teens continued, I realized more and more that kids of all kinds thrive from structure, routine and predictability. All of these things help our kids with their executive function.
In school, teachers provide schedules, structures and routines to kids that, over time, become a way of life. The benefits of this kind of structured functioning became clear to me as my students and my own children entered the teenage years. In my roles as a mom and a teacher I was able to witness the advantages of good planning skills in teens firsthand, and the troubles that can arise for kids when organizational skills fall apart.
These kinds of planning skills are known as executive function skills (meaning the skills you need to execute tasks). What most parents and teachers don’t realize is that the full scope of executive function doesn’t just include planning and organizing, but also includes:
Following through on tasks
With the latest research in neuropsychology, we’re discovering that it can take up to 25 years for executive skills to fully develop! In other words, executive skills are dependent on brain development over time. This development happens in the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain just behind the forehead.
Once I started to learn more about executive skill development in kids and teens, I became particularly concerned about kids who had challenges with executive skills. These are the kids who underachieve because of weak skills in organization and time management, which in turn prevents them from working to their potential or achieving their goals. In many cases these kids have had chronic problems throughout school and may have developed a negative history there. Sometimes these kids have been labelled as lazy, irresponsible and not caring about their own success and achievement. These children are largely misunderstood. For kids with attentional disorders and learning challenges, these skills develop even more slowly and are more sensitive to disruption.
Stress and Executive Function Skills: Getting Through School Closure And Online Learning In The Time of A Pandemic
At the time of our school closures when typical schedules and routines disappeared, and teacher support for project completion, time management and organizational skills was unavailable, many students with weak or immature executive skills floundered. In fact, many students of all abilities, including high achieving students, struggled without the day-in, day-out support that teachers typically provide through face to face connections and organizational supports in classrooms.
Even more importantly, in times of stress (such as during the current pandemic), everyone’s executive skills are taxed. From a survival point of view, right now is the time when our brains are hard-wired to focus on the immediate needs in our environment and whatever is causing our stress. This in turn decreases the resources that usually get directed to executive skills, leading to reductions in working memory, emotional regulation, sustained attention and goal-related persistence – just to name a few!
When Kids Are Stretched And Stressed
During the pandemic, many parents are struggling to contain their own worries about jobs, lost income and health conditions related to the COVID-19 virus. When kids begin to understand what their parents are worrying about, they start to worry too. To add to the strain, the familiarity and routine of school as well as the many supports at school that provide security to students have disappeared. This support often includes nutrition breaks, feelings of love and belonging, and connections with teachers and peers who care for them.
Finally, increased expectations that kids manage their school work on their own when daily routines disappeared tended to overload many students and contributed to a significant amount stress and difficulty completing work. This stress can result in reduced mental resources that are normally devoted to executive function, causing significant difficulties for kids in coping emotionally and keeping up with learning at home.
How Can I Help As An Executive Skills Coach?
Moving forward, as we all wait to hear from our Education Minister regarding school opening plans, we can be thinking about how to best support kids in this upcoming school year, no matter what it brings. The best approach (at any time, but especially at a time like this) is to view executive functioning difficulties as obstacles, rather than character flaws or poor choices. If we approach kids using problem-solving strategies that include a sympathetic ear, trauma-informed practice (relationships matter!) and some open-ended questions and discussions, kids are more likely to work with us, do better and feel better.
Many parents regularly use coaching as an option when teens push back against attempts to teach new skills to help them manage the details of life. Coaching is a process that keeps the pressure and the meltdowns away from parents, preserves family relationships at a time when they matter most, and helps kids develop the skills they need to adapt to new realities with resilience.
Through coaching, kids can become the independent, self-sufficient individuals they want to be (and that their parents want to see), even during a pandemic.
As a coach, I work with kids to support their emotional health and well-being, help them identify their goals, and make daily plans to achieve them. This might include keeping up with assignments, advocating for accommodations at school, improving grades or even getting a job. I work hard to help kids feel autonomous and make important decisions about the goals that they want to work towards. At a time like this, our kids need a helping hand to navigate their way through very unsettling times, all the while keeping their eye on the prize – there is a way through this!
As a consultant, I offer advice and strategies to kids, leaving the final decisions in their hands! In this way, a pre-teen or teen’s success building small goals will build a base for achieving bigger goals over time. I firmly believe that with help, kids can overcome the hardships that have suddenly landed on them and feel proud of themselves for prevailing.
My role in the life of your child and your family in my practice at Alongside You is to offer support to help kids build executive function skills and feel successful, help your kids survive the pandemic and the continued upcoming changes in school life, and to help all of you stay connected and learn to rise above the current schooling challenges due to the pandemic.
If you would like to meet with me for a consultation regarding your child’s progress, please contact us and we will be in touch with you soon. Secure video appointments are a safe, kid-friendly space to meet virtually and shake-off the anxiety, despair and overwhelm and gain some ground as we approach our new normal at school.
Reach out for help, relieve worry and remember that a helping hand is what is most needed for kids at this time in order to feeling better, learn better and do better. I look forward to working with you and your kids!
Last week, I broached the subject of “back to school”. With some insight from teachers, I shared 3 ways to prepare for going back to school in a positive way. We looked at three components: Trust, Teamwork and Transitions. For Part Two of my blog, I want to share some practical tips, the ABC’s if you will, of what to remember when going back to school for both parents and children, and especially students who have challenges with being at school. The ABC’s stand for Advocacy, Bravery and Connection.
Parents Can Be an Advocate for their Child
Parents, please hear me when I say, you have the hardest job in the world. Being a parent is intense, it challenges you to the core, it captures your highest highs and your lowest lows. You have the responsibility of helping your child grow, learn and discover. You are your child’s biggest champion and because of this, you have the privilege to speak on behalf of your child when your child might need some extra support, especially at school.
I recently saw a parent of a child with some behavioural challenges. As she spoke through the tears, she looked at me and said, “I just want people to see what a great kid he is, I don’t want them to see all the challenges. I want them to see him.” This is what being an advocate looks like, painting a picture of who the child is at his/her best and what needs to be put in place in order for this to happen.
Here are some practical ways to be an advocate for your child:
Be informed. Know the challenges your child faces at school. If your child has a diagnosis, learn about how the diagnosis affects your child’s learning at school. Does your child need an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)? If so, collaborate with the classroom teacher to get it started. Know your child’s strengths and continue to find creative ways to work from a positive strengths-based perspective.
Keep organized. Gather all paperwork, reports and letters and get a binder where you keep all the information regarding your child. Make sure you have it accessible and bring it to meetings when/if necessary.
Build relationships. Introduce yourself to the principal. Get to know your child’s teacher. Connect with the support staff. More information about this can be found in Part 1 of the series.
Talk to your child. What does your child need to learn and share these insights with your child’s teacher:
Extra time to work on projects
A different way to show their work ie: typing instead of writing
A specific place to sit in the classroom
Time to be able to move around
Breaks during the day
Emphasize Being Brave, Not Perfect.
A few months ago, I sat with some parents who shared with me a story about their 6-year-old daughter who, despite never trying, did not want to play baseball because she was “not good at it.” I was so disheartened to hear this. How can a precious little person announce that they are not good at something without even trying it?
Let’s face it, not many of us like to fail. Not one bit. But the reality is that we are not going to be perfect at everything. To put it bluntly, we are not going to be perfect at hardly anything.
This coming school year, it is time to exercise your brave muscle. Imagine what your child could experience if they heard that it is better to be brave than perfect? Encourage your child to take risks, even if it leads to failure. Praise your child for the effort they put into a project, not in the grade. Delight in the scraped knees, crushed spirit and tears because it takes bravery to try to slide into home base and get called out instead of waiting cautiously on third.
What might be brave looks like for you and your child?
Be the example. As the Big person, the model being brave, taking risks and perhaps even failing.
Asking the new kid to play with them
Trying a new sport, even if they do not know-how
Asking for help from a classmate
Putting up your hand in class and saying you don’t understand
Telling a friend that they hurt your feelings
Sharing with each other ways that you tried new things but failed. Maybe even make a joke out of it and share Failure Fridays.
I often tell my clients when they feel like giving up and not trying, remember, “I can do hard things.” This is what brave looks like. It is acknowledging that this is hard, but you can do hard things.
Perfection breeds unrealistic expectations, stress, discomfort and constant striving. Bravery evokes self-determination, strength and resilience. I believe these are the qualities that this school year can foster.
Don’t Forget to Connect
Many parents replay the same scene each day after school. They ask their child, “How was school today?” And the instant answer, inevitably, is, “Fine.” Typically, the follow-up question might be, “What did you learn today?” With the usual answer being, “Nothing.”
I cannot stress enough the importance of connection. Take time to connect after the school day. Take time to be fully present with your child without distractions.
Here are some great alternatives to “How was your day today?” You never know what you might learn.
What was the best thing that happened at school today? (What was the worst thing that happened at school today?).
Tell me something that made you laugh today.
If you could choose, who would you like to sit by in class? (Who would you NOT want to sit by in class? Why?).
Where is the coolest place at the school?
Tell me a weird word that you heard today. (Or something weird that someone said.)
If I called your teacher tonight, what would she tell me about you?
How did you help somebody today?
How did somebody help you today?
What is one thing that you tried today?
When were you the happiest today?
When were you bored today?
If an alien spaceship came to your class and beamed someone up, who would you want them to take?
Who would you like to play with at recess that you’ve never played with before?
Tell me something good that happened today!
What word did your teacher say most today?
What do you think you should do/learn more about at school?
What do you think you should do/learn less at school?
Who in your class do you think you could be nicer to?
Where do you play the most at recess?
Who is the funniest person in your class? Why is he/she so funny?
What was your favourite part of lunch?
If you got to be the teacher tomorrow, what would you do?
Is there anyone in your class who needs a time-out?
If you could switch seats with anyone in the class, who would you trade with? Why?
Tell me about three different times you used your pencil today at school.
To make this connection time into more of a routine, consider putting the questions in a jar and picking a question each day and even coming up with your own.
Make it a habit to put your phones down and turn your screens off and be present for your child. Make it a priority to spend time together each week. Put it in your calendar so you make it into the schedule.
Reading a book together
Playing a board game with some snacks
Ask your child to teach you something he/she enjoys doing
Go for a walk around the block
Go to a coffee shop and order a hot chocolate and play a game of cards
Write a letter to a family member
Record each other singing a song
Go to the gym together
Take a class at the Rec Center together
Like learning the real ABC’s, being an Advocate for your child, exercising your Brave muscle and making time to Connect takes practice. Please know you are not alone. Alongside You wants to journey with you and your child through this upcoming school year. Please reach out if you need some extra support – maybe that is exactly what brave looks like for you! Together we can help you be a progressive advocate for your child and help you connect in beautiful and tangible ways.
You’ve got this, parents! Happy Back to school everyone!
One of the most common questions I get from people when I give talks on Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) is the question of how to support someone with BPD? So many individuals, couples, and families are struggling with how to love, care for, and support someone in the midst of what often feels like total chaos and painful experiences.
Shari Y. Manning, former President and CEO of Behavioral Tech and Behavioral Tech Research, the research organizations founded by Marsha Linehan to provide training in BPD, wrote a book on just this, titled “Loving Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder” and in it she focuses on how to keep the out of control emotions from destroying relationships between individuals with BPD and their families and other supports. She highlights the difficulty of balancing compassion for the person, while still wanting to help them find ways to change their behaviour and managing their emotions.
I’ll admit that it’s not easy to help someone struggling with BPD. It may seem that they are manipulative, egocentric, and focused on their own needs exclusively. The reality is that it’s not actually too far from the truth. The key to supporting someone with BPD without losing our own sanity, in my mind, is in our approach and how we frame what we’re observing. This is where Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) skills come in handy for us as well.
Interpersonal Effectiveness and Manipulation
Let’s talk for a minute about the idea that people with BPD are manipulative. It’s common to hear, both amongst clients with BPD, support systems, and yes, even professionals. I remember years ago that I used to get very angry when I heard this because I felt very compassionate toward clients with the borderline personality disorder and their need for help. Then it dawned on me – that is, they are being manipulative. And so are we.
See, manipulation is nothing new in relationships. We do it all the time – in fact, as I said to my intern John this week in supervision, we’re all in relationships to get what we need from the other person. None of us would be in relationships if this weren’t true. The difference is, we do it in a mutually beneficial way that serves everyone involved. The fact remains, however, that we’re all trying to get what we need from others, we just have more ability to do so effectively. This is what interpersonal effectiveness skills in DBT do for clients and for members of support systems; they teach us how to get what we need from others in an effective way.
Why Individuals with BPD Behave the Way That They Do
I remember back many years ago when I began working with individuals with developmental disabilities, we often repeated the phrase with staff and caregivers, “All behaviour is communication.” This is a very important concept and applies just as much to kids and adults alike, as well as individuals with BPD. When we can’t use words to communicate, we use actions. Further, when we see the often extreme behaviours of individuals with BPD, it’s important we remember what is happening to them at that moment, and how it got that way.
What we also know from brain science, and certainly I’ve observed this in my clinical work, is that individuals who have histories of abuse, neglect, invalidating emotional environments, and other traumas, have brains that are more sensitive to danger. The limbic system is designed to keep us safe and also regulate our emotions. At its’ best, it keeps us safe when we’re in danger, and regulates our emotions to keep us at an even keel. At its’ worst, it’s being triggered in situations that aren’t dangerous and causing us to react in ways that would make sense if we’re in danger but make no sense when we’re not. It’s also important to remember that when this system is acutely active, it shuts down our frontal cortex, which is where our rational thought mechanisms are housed. So, when we’re in danger, as I often say to clients, we can’t think to save our lives. This is the brain state that individuals with BPD are in when they react in extreme ways. Their brains are in full-blown fight or flight mode and simply reacting, trying to do anything they can to be safe. Most often, they turn to their closest relationships.
Relationships as Safety
Ever heard the idea that we hurt the ones we love the most? This is often the case with individuals with BPD when they react in extreme ways. But why is this? Many people with BPD have a very externalized locus of control, meaning, they don’t believe they can contain their own emotions, especially when they’re overwhelmed. You know what? They’re right. When they’re in fight or flight the mechanisms in their brain responsible for regulating emotions and behaviour are not rational, and are just reacting and they can’t contain it. This is simply a more extreme version of what happens to all of us. So then, what’s the difference?
I believe the difference is the level of fear experienced in these moments. The idea of not being able to contain extreme emotions would be, I imagine, quite terrifying. Coupled with the fear of being left by the people they are closest to, the proverbial pot boils over and they have to do something extreme to get attention. I often hear, “Oh they’re just attention-seeking,” to which I reply with an emphatic, “Yes, of course, they are!”
Remember the idea that all behaviour is communication? When people with BPD are at this heightened state they are unable to communicate effectively and are doing their darndest to communicate their pain and fear to us, asking us to help them contain it. What may look to us like someone simply showing out of control behaviour, I believe, is a desperate attempt at seeking safety and containment.
Can you imagine what it would be like to be in this position? Having BPD, feeling so unsafe and so in pain that you have to go to such extreme lengths to try to get help? I can’t. The idea of being there is far too terrifying to me. Quite frankly, I don’t want to know what it feels like to be in that place, but it gives me a great deal of compassion for those who are.
What Do We Do To Help?
One of the best ways to be supportive is to help those struggling with BPD to get the help they need. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), on an individual basis as well as in skills groups, is very effective in helping those with BPD manage their symptoms. With the right help, individuals with BPD can learn the skills they need to manage their emotions and relationships and ultimately, have a life worth living! This was Marsha Linehan’s goal in developing DBT, to help those struggling with suicidal thoughts have a life worth living. We’re proud to say that our DBT programs have been effective at doing just that for our clients, and we’d love to help even more people this way.
We have often been asked if we run groups for family members and other supports who are trying to help someone with BPD. Unfortunately, we don’t at the moment but it’s on our radar. We are looking into doing exactly this in the future. What we can do, however, is teach DBT skills on an individual or family basis for those supporting someone with BPD. We have a number of counsellors available for this, and you can talk to Doug, Share, or Kellyabout this if it would be helpful.
Education is also very important as once we understand what is happening, it gets less scary. There are many books that can be very helpful. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Finally, self-care is absolutely paramount to your survival for yourself and the person struggling with BPD. As the airlines often remind us, we need to put our mask on before we can help anyone else! If we don’t take care of ourselves, we will flip our lids and react in much the same way as those we’re trying to help.
I hope this has been helpful – if our team can be of any help to you as you support someone with BPD please feel free to give us a shout. Our Dialectical Behaviour Therapy program is comprehensive, and we would love to teach you the skills needed to be a solid support, for yourself and your loved ones with BPD!