You’re Not Broken, You’re Adapting

You’re Not Broken, You’re Adapting

 
 

Many people come to therapy with the belief that something is amiss, broken, or “wrong” with them. Sometimes I wish it were easier to convince people this isn’t true – most of the time, the people that come to sit in my office are “working” just fine. Have they been thrown an unfair number of lemons by life? Sure, maybe. Have they responded to those experiences creatively and adaptively, in a way that has both helped and hindered them? In every case, yes. That said, you’re not broken, you’re adapting.
 

How Does Adaptation Happen?

 

Genetics is one element that explains our wonderful human diversity, and another is environment and experience – we all have a rich tapestry of experiences, and no two tapestries are anything close to alike. Those tapestries, I believe, are all quite beautiful.1, I’ve noticed people generally prefer movies that end happily, but when it comes to art and music, it can be the mournful, the bleak, the dark, the unsettling and unresolved, that has more power and meaning for us.2 The darker shades in those tapestries are worth sitting back and soaking in, they touch us deeply. This is one of the many reasons I love my job so much. Another is that sometimes, one of my coworkers brings in muffins.

Ok, back to the thing. Neuroscience has known for many years now about the incredible plasticity of the brain, an organ that readily and creatively adapts to its environment. Most of us have heard that people who experience blindness have a more heightened sense of hearing and smell. One reason for this is that the brain takes unused real estate – certain areas devoted to visual processing – and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, the neurologist Oliver Sacks shares stories of brain-damaged patients who have responded with unbelievable neurological adaptations. Sacks comments “…there is always a reaction, on the part of the affected organism or individual, to restore, to replace, to compensate for and to preserve its identity, however strange the means may be…” (p.6). Brains find a way to preserve and reinvent themselves in the face of damage, and people find a way to preserve themselves in the face of challenge. Trauma and anxiety are prime examples: a dog bite when you are three years old might give you a paralyzing fear of dogs for the rest of your life. Your three-year-old brain saw that your life was in danger and it made a high priority, instantly accessible file labeled DOGS = DEATH -> AVOID that pumps you full of anxiety and adrenaline when a dog might be nearby.

Many of our adaptations are not all that dramatic and some are more complex. Maybe our dad told us not to be a baby when we cried, and so to preserve that relationship (our brain knew this was more important) we created a file that evokes anxiety when something might feel sad. Now, we are an expert at avoiding not only physical sadness, but things that even might make us feel sad based on our experiences.
 

What Do We Do About Our Adaptations?

 

Your adaptations are there for a reason, and that’s ok. They might not be as helpful as they once were – you’re an adult now, and dogs aren’t all that dangerous most of the time – they’re actually awesome. Avoiding sadness was functional before, but now you find yourself feeling depressed more often than not. In your last relationship, it made sense to be angry with your partner, because it felt like the only way to get through to them – but in your other relationships, that anger is less useful.

Adaptations in our life are unavoidable and necessary, and this is a good thing. If you lacked the ability to adapt, then I might agree that something is wrong with you. But I’ve never met anyone for whom that was true. You see, blind folks don’t tell their brains to reuse that real estate for hearing, brains just do it, which is so cool. And our brains, as wonderful as they are, don’t always make the best long-term choices. They find a way to stop us from driving after we have a bad accident, terrified that we might die, convinced that losing our job is better than death. When we are frustrated at ourselves and sad about the loss of that job, they talk us into pouring a drink, and when it works, they think “Perfect!” and they keep doing it. When people close to us start to bother us, they might solve the problem by helping us avoid relationships altogether (great idea for a week, but not for a year, or a lifetime). When our coworker brings in muffins, they talk us into stress-eating four of them, because the first one was oh. so. good. I think you get the point.
 

Working With Our Adaptations

 

We can get to know our adaptations, and be brave enough to set aside those we no longer need (and adjust the ones we do). We can come to see that our adaptations are actually strengths – the lengths that we go to in order to avoid something can spark incredible creativity. These are some things we might do in therapy. But first, we might work on the belief that there is something wrong with you in the first place – and, wouldn’t you know it, our brains are fantastic at holding onto those beliefs. So, if you take nothing else out of this article, make it the belief that you – whoever you are – are mostly just fine, and you are weaving a meaningful and worthwhile tapestry with the threads you are being given.

If you’re struggling with some of your adaptations, give us a shout. We’re here to help. Remember, you’re not broken; you’re adapting.

 
Notes

1. You’ll have to let me have this one – I’m an incredible, unabashed sap, for better and worse.
2. I have a client who is a fantastic artist, and I sometimes have the privilege of seeing some of what she’s made – it reflects her experiences, and it also connects me to some of my own. Art in many forms has that effect, and those who do it well are a real gift to the world. Meg, who runs the therapeutic art program here at Alongside You, often uses a wide range of colours and tones to create pieces that seem able to capture any mood under the sun – a few seconds soaking these in are seconds well spent.
3. On the tapestry metaphor note, his op-ed in the Times on his terminal cancer diagnosis is a worthwhile read along with this blog post – here’s a link to it.

ADHD and the Role Parents Play

ADHD and the Role Parents Play

 

ADHD and the Role Parents Play

 

Many parents wonder what role they should play in the lives of their child with ADHD. When answering an important question like this one, we like to start with the experts. In my professional readings, I often turn to the literature of Dr. Russell A. Barkley, PhD., a leading expert in the management of ADHD in children. He has a great perspective to start with when searching for insightful, research-based information around the struggles of children with attention problems and the challenges faced by their parents.

In his book, Taking Charge of ADHD: The Complete, Authoritative Guide For Parents, Dr. Barkley describes the role of the parent of a child with ADHD as that of a skilled executive, who acts as a team leader on behalf of the child, treating the child’s teachers, therapists, coaches or physicians as personal advisors. To assume this role fully, parents learn how to take on the headspace of a high-functioning executive, one who uses planning, prioritizing, problem solving and goal-setting skills to get the job done and ensure success for their child. In doing so, these parents (nicknamed “executive parents” by Dr. Barkely) develop their own confidence and fortify their roles as true case managers; ones who are in charge and ones who determine, to a great extent, how the care for their child takes shape.
 

Why Parents Need to Become Executive Parents

 

“Wait a second,” you might think, “Why this is role necessary when many children with learning and behavior problems already have case managers in the school system who consult with teachers, develop IEP goals and carry out recommendations? Isn’t that enough?” Ultimately, we find it is still the parents themselves who tend to be the best case managers of their children’s supports, as they are the ones who know the child best and can best advocate for their needs.

Parents who take on this executive role eventually learn to be proactive and are prepared to lead the way for other people involved in supporting their child over the long haul. Executive Parents understand that even though other individual children may be maturing faster and becoming more independent, children with learning and behavior challenges like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Specific Learning Disability (SLD) may struggle more than others their age, needing longer periods of parental support and management. These Executive Parents learn how to act as advocates, working with others to provide the resources that the child needs over time.

The Executive Parent that Dr. Barkley envisions also understands that only they can make their child’s success their number one priority. Of course, school personnel can provide special education services, physicians can provide medical consultations, tutors can provide academic support and coaches can assist with athletics – but in the end, it’s ideal if a parent can coordinate these services in a way that works for their child. That’s not to say that specialized and skilled professionals aren’t valuable, but they cannot replace the wisdom and dedication that parents bring to the table.

It’s important to note that while the image of a highly functioning executive may bring the image of a task master to mind, parents should instead aim to operate as a decision-maker and problem-solver on behalf of their child. The child is still viewed as a complete person, with skills, competencies, feelings and preferences of their own, and above all, the potential to succeed!
 

It’s Okay That You’re Still Learning

 

Learning these “Executive Parent” skills won’t come all at once, and that’s okay. The more you learn to take this role on, the more you will develop your voice, learn how to get the information you need, ask helpful questions, and make your feelings heard. Learning these skills over time will help create more clarity around which choices to make for your child, too. And over time, you can take your place walking alongside them, clearing the way for their best interests and taking your rightful place as their biggest fan.

I know that doing all of this as a parent is difficult. It can be overwhelming to take on this role with your child sometimes, and it can also be hard to understand the systems that your child is having to operate within through school and other activities. I’d love to be a help to you and your child as you navigate this together. If I can be of any help, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Pandemic Tips for Teens

Pandemic Tips for Teens

 

My Best Pandemic Tips For Teens

 

I see a lot of clients in the high-school-or-close-to-it age bracket, who I tend to think are getting hit worse than anyone right now by this pandemic. Teens, this article is for you. Some of you love that you spend less time in school now, others hate it; some of you are going insane being cooped up inside, and some of you relish not having to deal with people quite as much. Whatever the case, a lot of us want tools (this is probably the thing I am asked most commonly for). While I love talking to people, if it’s just tools you want (and most commonly it isn’t), here are some of my best pandemic tips for teens!

Your Brain and Your Emotions Play Tricks on You

 

In the 13-22 or so age range, you feel feelings more intensely than your 25+ year old counterparts. It’s just how the brain works. This has both advantages and disadvantages: your lows are lower, and your highs are higher. Your lows will suck, and it’s likely that the adults in your life will struggle to relate to that, try as they might.

What To Do With The Lows

 

Unfortunately, we are a culture that tends to discourage negative feelings, especially strong ones. Many teens I see believe that there is something wrong with them, or that they are mentally unwell, both which are quite often untrue. While it is taboo to say, a good many of our minds will travel to a place that says we would be better off dead, and the world would be better off not having us. I really hope you’re not there, but if you are sometimes, come talk to us about it. Or to someone else – anyone you trust. It’s surprisingly normal. Please trust me when I say that difficult feelings are important, and worth experiencing (though they are best experienced alongside someone we trust). If you want someone to talk to but don’t want anyone else to know about it, send us an email and we will see if we can help, or point you to someone that can.

Managing Your Highs

 

Since your highs will be higher, that’s a good thing to take advantage of. You can enjoy a movie or YouTube clip way more than most of us can, you can get more joy from spending time with friends (please do this), you can laugh harder and longer, your runner’s highs will be higher. You can feel closer to your pet than we can, which I’m a little jealous of – pets are awesome (at the risk of making a few enemies, especially dogs). Use that – when you’re up, relish it and use the energy it brings.

If there was a pill that would cost nothing, that you could take that would help you sleep better, improve your mood, boost your immune system, help your brain and memory function better, reduce anxiety and depression, reduce stress, and generally make you feel better about yourself, would you take it? I think everyone probably would. Surprise, there is. Bet you didn’t see that coming in an article on the best pandemic tips for teens, did you?

The Magic Pill That’s Free

 

There is indeed a mysterious, free pill. Most people get really excited about this until they hear what it is. It’s exercise. I know that trickery was the last thing you probably wanted to hear, but exercise is literally one of the best things anyone can do for themselves, period. Doesn’t matter what it is, just get moving, and if you can, get your heart rate up. It might be hard at first, but the more of it you do, the better you’ll feel. I should also tell you that you should be sleeping more, but you know that already, and you probably aren’t going to. If you want help in that department, talk to your doctor. In addition to exercise, you can also try cutting out screens in favour of books in the couple hours before bed, or at the very least get yourself a pair of extremely trendy blue light blocking glasses.

You Already Have Skills That You Don’t Realize

 

Because you’re a human being, you have a whole bunch of adaptations the you’ve obtained over the course of a long life. These are great at getting you through tough times. One of my adaptations I used when I was younger was daydreaming, and another was making a joke out of everything. Some other common ones are overthinking/rationalizing, using alcohol or drugs, playing too many video games, or gluing oneself to TikTok.

Some of these are better than others, and they are mostly OK if used sparingly. Though we don’t want to overuse our adaptations, you have them for a reason – they’ve worked before, and they’ll work again. Don’t be too hard on yourself for using them, and I would probably recommend expanding your repertoire to include some more healthy ones.

Exercise (again), art, writing, music, hobbies, gardening, spelunking – the list goes on. If you’re feeling angry or stressed and are already not going to do your homework anyway, you could split your time between something mindless like video games, and something a little more mindful like going outside and collecting a bunch of bugs, or baking some cookies. If your parents hassle you about it, tell them a counsellor said you were allowed to. Probably do the bugs and cookies first – video games are hard to stop once you start. Healthier time-wasters will also give you a little mental boost in case you do decide you want to actually do some homework.

Make Good Use of Your Energy

 

Try to notice where your energy is going. Maybe you’re worrying a ton about your grades, and it’s exhausting. Maybe you don’t care at all about grades, but your parents do, and a lot of your energy goes to fighting with them. Maybe someone at school is really bothering you and it is eating you up inside. Maybe you’re in love and can’t think of anything else but that person you want so badly to be with. Maybe you’re putting everything you have into YouTube or Fortnite, hoping to make some money off streaming someday.

There is nothing wrong with any of these, but anything can be a drain on your mental and emotional resources. Make a list of the things that are the most draining: your biggest worries, the things you are committed to (sports, etc.), tough relationships. Divide this list into things you might be able to change, and those you can’t. The things you have a little more control over are great targets, and even the things you feel totally helpless about may not be as impossible as they seem. If you have a counsellor, talk to them about these things – it is likely you are burning more fuel in a given area than you have to be. These are also the things that can take you into dark places, or towards less healthy coping strategies.

Be Kind To Yourself

 

Above all, be kind to yourself. So far, I haven’t spent time with someone I didn’t end up liking, and this is because all of us are likeable. Seriously – I know that sounds stupid, but it’s true. You can’t be perfect, and you’re going to come out on the other side of this ok. As I’ve said already, come talk to us if you would like to – even if we can’t help, we can likely direct you to someone who can.

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