Category Archives: Children

How to talk with children and how to be a more loving and effective parent.

Living Empathically

A thoughtful reader responded to my Teaching Empathy to Children post with this comment:

So often I’ve seen parents making the mistakes you list at the top of the article. It’s sad because some of the children who have grown up with my own children have indeed become emotionally stymied and unhealthy. Since it takes a village to raise emotionally healthy young people, can you suggest ways in which you can intervene diplomatically and with skill when you see a situation going bad in which parents make those mistakes and lose sight of the big picture?

It’s such a great question I wanted to use it as the focus for this final post on the subject of empathy.

I’d also love to open up a conversation – I am sure there will be readers who have ideas to add. Hit the Leave a Reply link at the beginning of this post. We’d all benefit.

As a licensed therapist I’d be remiss not to note the obvious: there’s a triage to be considered in these parenting issues.

  1. Active Abuse – get involved, because the situation is out of control and the family system needs professional attention
  2. Parent out of control – get involved, because the parent has lost it and the child needs your help
  3. Child out of control – get involved, because the child has lost it and the parent needs your help

1.  Active Abuse

Screen shot 2015-06-24 at 12.13.57 PMChild abuse is taken very seriously in most countries around the world. For US readers, here’s a Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse guide, as a short handout from the government’s Child Welfare division. It’s worth a read if you’ve ever found yourself wondering  “is this abuse?” and “should I report this to someone?”

In brief,

The Definition of abuse ~ varies, but in most areas it’s along the lines of conditions that would reasonably result in harm to a child . However, to be sure, and to empower you in case you witness something that has you wondering, check the legal definition in your area. US readers can search their State’s definition of what constitutes abuse .

Who can report child abuse? ~ Anyone may report, and some people must report. Once again this varies by region but certain professionals are mandated to report child abuse and this is a comprehensive list. It includes at least –

  • social workers
  • teachers and school personnel
  • doctors, nurses and all health care workers
  • school counselors, therapists and mental health professionals
  • child care providers
  • medical examiners and coroners
  • law enforcement
  • and can include the directors, employees and volunteers at places which provide organized activities for children such as day camps, youth centers and recreation centers.

In no state it is wrong to report your suspicions of child abuse.

So, IF you have “knowledge of, or observe a child being subjected to, conditions that would reasonably result in harm to the child” (excerpted from the Mandatory Reporters publication linked above) you should call the police, or if in the USA, you can call your state-specific child abuse hotline,

If you have witnessed a nasty, vicious incident and can report it, you’ll at least feel you did something. But if you know nothing about the people involved, and can’t give names, addresses or even any static geographic area where the police could reasonably be expected to find these folks again (you’re at an airport, on a train or bus etc) you can at least take some comfort in knowing that if there is chronic abuse there is a good chance the child will be witnessed by one of the numerous mandated reporters.

2.  Parent out of control

Screen shot 2015-06-24 at 12.19.47 PM OK, so you’re right there when a parent looses it. They yell, handle the child roughly, use abusive language, make threats and even slap or swat the child, but awful as this is for the child (and for you to witness) it does not seem “bad-enough” to report to the authorities.

What can you do?

Apparently lots of folks have opinions about this, and a quick internet search brings up some pretty dismal ideas, mostly along the lines of shouting at, and shaming, the already beleaguered parent. I was horrified!

Think about it.

What’s happened?

The parent is out of control. They’ve [temporarily we hope] lost touch with their mature, capable, resourceful self. They are behaving childishly, in an unskilled, reactive and volatile way. They are – essentially – throwing a grown-up tantrum, except it’s not their parents they are throwing it for, it’s their child. Truth is, we’ve all been there! Maybe for us we’ve been fortunate enough not to loose it when we were out in public. The last thing we need at times like these is public shaming.

I’ve come across a wonderful resource for just these moments that I’d love to share, called OneKindWord. This is a public education program developed by Pennsylvania-based Family Resources  and Family Communications, thanks to Mr. Roger’s on-going legacy

With a mission to raise awareness about parent-child conflicts in public and empower people to step in helpfully when they see a stressed parent or a child who is unsafe, they offer three simple steps which go a long way to help us dump the judgment and connect empathically.

Screen shot 2015-06-24 at 12.26.35 PM

And you can download a One Kind Word Overview  as a PDF, and here’s a short Tip Sheet.

Screen shot 2015-06-24 at 12.43.25 PM

3.  Child out of control

Screen shot 2015-06-24 at 12.18.42 PM

If the parent is on their game and can handle it, great.

If not, making eye contact, saying something kind, and helping the parent keep the child safe can all make a huge different to the outcome.

Here’s another list from OneKindWord .

Screen shot 2015-06-24 at 12.30.44 PM

Living empathically can become a habit. Enjoy!


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

Teaching Empathy to Children

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 6.01.41 PMFour year olds Zoe and Ben are playing in the wading pool at the park.

Zoe has a bucket and some colorful cups, which she’s engrossed in filling and pouring. Now and again she looks up to show her mum what fun it is to fill the big pail and then pour the water into the smaller cups so it all spills out. Ben has no toys so he’s making splashes with his hands and feet and full body slams into the water. The mums are chatting.

All is peaceful. Well, as peaceful as a pond full of preschoolers can be.

Suddenly there’s a wail of indignation and the mums look up.

Ben has collected a few of the colorful cups Zoe had floating around her. Zoe goes to grab them from him. As she holds onto one Ben pulls back which unsteadies Zoe and she falls chest-first into the shallow water. She gets up, unhurt but indignant, and goes to reach again for the cup. At this point Ben raises it above his head hoping she can’t reach. Assessing the situation pretty quickly Zoe goes to Plan B, and uses her bucket to bop Ben sharply on the nose. Yup – that works! Ben drops the cup, puts both hands on his face and bursts out crying.

Now the mums are up.

  • What would you do if Ben was your child?
  • What would you do if Zoe was your child?
  • Is there a “right” way of intervening, and if there is, what philosophy of “rightness” is being enforced?

Before I weigh in, here are ways some parents respond:

  • Remove Ben from the pool with harsh words on the “you’re a bad boy” theme, and put him in time out for taking something which is not his;

[What might Ben tell himself when the adults around him only see things from the other kid’s point of view?]

  • Remove Zoe from the pool, maybe with a smack (because she hit someone else and that’s not a nice thing to do) and put her in time out;

[What might Zoe tell herself when the adults around her only see things from the other kid’s point of view?]

  • Smother Ben with hugs and kisses and “oh-diddums-are-you-alright-let-me-see-your-poor-sore- nose-whiles-Mummy-kisses-it”

[What might Ben tell himself when the adults around him only see things from his point of view?]

  • Smother Zoe with righteousness and console her because “that nasty boy had no right to take your stuff and he pushed you first so he had it coming to him anyway…”

[What might Zoe tell herself when the adults around her only see things from her point of view?]

OK – so an empathic teaching moment?

Each adult would go to their child and lead him or her gently out of the water, wrap them in a towel and sit them on their lap. Then (if they’d read this blog first, of course!!) they could work their way through these five steps:

1. Adopt a “Teachable moment” Attitude

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 6.09.14 PMYou need the “Oh good – a teachable moment” attitude. Not the “I can’t believe these kids are so dreadful” attitude. You need the “Messy moments are behavioral rough drafts” attitude. Not the “Bad behavior is caused by bad kids” attitude.

Ben and Zoe have no idea how to navigate the two-kids-wanting-the-same-toy dilemma. Learning how to share stuff is tough and right now you have a chance to be part of this “teachable moment.” So, right then as you intervene, right as you take in that deep breath, invite your inner Mr. Rogers and bring with you compassion, curiosity, a light touch and some creativity.

2. Broaden The Context

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 6.11.57 PMWhether we’re tiny or all-grown-up, it’s tempting to see the world-according-to-me. The first step in helping your child get a bigger picture is to broaden the context. Offer an establishing shot. Pull the focus way back and describe what went down in a non-judging way.

As in, “Boy, I just saw two kids having a tough time. A little girl brought some toys to the pool and the little boy wanted to play with those toys and wasn’t sure how to do that. And both kids got a bit hurt – one falling in the water and one because he got his nose hit. That must have been a tough few minutes for both of them.”

See what this does? Now your child hears a non-blaming description that captures the action of the two protagonists. Already the experience is now in some space beyond the initial small “It’s all about me” frame of reference.

In this case it’s not so hard to present a neutral narrative, and it’s important to not use any negative descriptions like “The bratty girl wouldn’t share!” or “The pushy boy took what he wanted.” Most helpful is to stick with the facts and dump the adjectives.

3 Label Feelings

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 6.17.02 PMIf we want our children to understand how someone else might feel, we have to help them learn how they feel. In fact, studies show that children who are highly empathic are more likely to have been well empathized-with. (Barnett MA. 1987. Empathy and related responses in children. In N Eisenberg and J Strayer (eds): Empathy and its development. New York: Cambridge University Press.)

I’ve written a lot about emotions in this blog.

Type  “Emotions” into the search box, or click parrott-emotions-tree-2001(3) for some Emotions Vocabulary. But in brief, labeling feelings is just that – it’s you giving a vocabulary word to the child’s emotion, again with a non-judgmental or non-directive attitude.

If you’re Ben’s mum you might say “I bet you felt a bit sad that we forgot our toys today Ben. And it looked like you felt frustrated when the little girl wouldn’t let you use one of hers. And then, when she used her bucket to hit your nose I’m guessing you felt shocked and hurt and then a bit mad at her too, eh?”

Same idea for Zoe’s mum – to acknowledge her combination of anger that the boy took her cup; embarrassed when she fell over; frustrated she couldn’t reach the cup; a bit triumphant when she thought of hitting him, and then surprised and upset when the cup hurt him.

Emotions are like the weather: they are best noticed and reported upon without judgment. If it’s cloudy with a chance of meatballs, your grumpiness won’t lessen the meatball mess. If your kid is angry with a hint of jealousy – same difference. Naming these feelings won’t doom your kid to their permanent influence. In fact the opposite is true. Naming them helps your child move through them.

4. Swap Perspectives

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 6.38.04 PMRight here – Step 4 – is the heart of teaching empathy. It’s the big juicy opportunity that the more typical parenting responses miss (like the ones above in red and blue).

The parents who use punishment miss the chance to empathize with their own child. The parents who are overly solicitous miss the chance to empathize with the other child.

So right after you’ve spent time with your own child understanding and labeling what they felt, it’s time to invite them to try out a different perspective. In this case, to see things from the other child’s point of view.

As in, “Ben, I wonder how the little girl felt when she saw you playing with her cup. Maybe she felt worried you might keep it. Or maybe she felt mad because she was about to use it.

You can use the child’s immediate parallel experience too;

As in “You know how hurt and shocked you were when the girl hit your nose? I wonder if she felt a bit like that when she fell in the water as you both pulled on that cup?”

Building empathy is all about perspective-taking.

If it feels a bit raw to use the immediate examples your child has just been through, you can reference a book or movie where a character might have felt hurt and shocked. Or look about you at the pool – are there other dramas unfolding that your child might now understand a bit more fully?

5. Leverage the Moment

Once your child has experienced being empathized with (you listened and accepted his or her feelings); and once your child has taken a stab at empathizing with the person they just had a fight with (you helped your child imagine how this other kid might be feeling), it’s time to tie a bow around the whole thing with the great “teachable moment question” “How could this have been better?”

Depending upon the ages of the children, you will totally guide these conversations (ages zero to 6 or so); brainstorm together (ages 6 – 11 or so); or allow the young person to come up with his or her own age-appropriate solutions. But for our two four year olds Zoe and Ben, you might say something like:

Zoe, now that we’ve seen how much Ben wanted to play with some toys, and how sad he was that he didn’t bring any to the pool do you think it might work to see if he’d like to borrow a couple cups if you knew you’d get them back. Shall I help you ask?”


Ben, now that we’ve seen how worried Zoe was that you might take and keep her cup and how mad she was about how you held it over your heard, do you think it might be good to try asking first – to see if you could just borrow it? Shall I help you give that a try?”


I know this is super specific – but the five principles for teaching empathy remain, no matter what the age of your child. Your way of dealing with this will grow with your child. And – as I think you’ll discover – these simple teachable steps lead beautifully into the wonderfully deep work showcased last week in Roman Kruznaric‘s work.


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

Beyond Emotion Coaching-Listening For Your Child’s Needs

Because children aren’t just small adults, listening to a child is a unique skill. Not knowing this can get parents and kids off to a rocky start.

In fact, very often when adults wonder why their child doesn’t listen to them, one explanation might be that the child is simply modeling the listening they’ve received. Oops!

Screen shot 2015-04-01 at 2.01.31 PM← This is a terrifically helpful book on the subject of listening to your child, and it’s based on (to my mind) an even more wonderful book, Between Parent and Child, by Haim Ginott.

Both books speak to the importance of ~

  • listening for the emotions behind a child’s words or behaviors;
  • naming the emotions as your child experiences them;
  • listening empathically – which means avoiding the denying, minimizing, interrogating, pitying, defending the other person, advising, teaching, philosophizing and all the other things we do to manage our own discomfort when we are asked to simply be present to someone else.

Reading these books will help you become an emotion coach to your child, and studies show how emotion coaching helps cultivate emotionally intelligent kids. And, for success in life these days, EQ counts.

Here’s my favorite contemporary researcher talking about EQ.  John Gottman writes:

Emotional intelligence means being able to read your own and other’s emotions, and being able to respond to the emotions of others in a cooperative, functional, and empathetic manner. Emotional intelligence is a kind of social “moxie” or “savvy” about even very complex social situations. It requires knowing who you are, knowing your own feelings, knowing your own needs, and being able to handle yourself and compromise these needs with the needs of sometimes very complex social situations. EQ (Emotional intelligence) is a much better predictor of how children will turn out than IQ or achievement test scores.

(For the whole article, click → EMOTIONALLY_INTELLIGENT_CHILDREN_Updated2 )

So its good stuff, right!

However, since great resources for emotion coaching already exist, and since I have experienced an even deeper level of listening – both as a child and a parent – I’m here with two questions to push a little deeper:

  • What is it that sets good-enough listening apart from great listening?
  • What does it take to go further than emotion-coaching your child?

Remember yourself as a kid?

Screen shot 2015-05-27 at 2.48.04 PM

Were there some adults with whom you could share your thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears, stories, and even your slip ups?

And others who could hardly drag a civil response from you?

What was it about the adults you talked to?

My guess is they checked some of these boxes for you.

When you were with them, you felt ~

  • safe but not smothered
  • exhilarated but not frightened
  • loved but not controlled
  • significant but not in a way that gave you false airs
  • capable but not burdened by expectations
  • inspired but not pressured

Sure these qualities speak to an emotional sensitivity on the part of the adult listener. But there’s more there, and cracking that nut will help you become not just a good enough listener, but a great listener. The sort of listener a child (whether a just-verbal toddler or an articulate teen) will joyfully and consistently turn to because~

  • not only do you listen
  • not only do you help the youngster understand him or herself more fully,
  • but your listening actually helps the child meet one or more of their deepest human needs.

I’m drawing upon Tony Robbin’s work on core human needs. Here are the six as he identifies them:

Screen shot 2015-05-27 at 1.02.13 PM

So – what does “beyond emotion-coaching” look like in the midst of real life?

Four-year old Ian comes running up to you from the sand box at the park where he’s been playing with some other kids using his shovel and pail. He is now empty-handed and screaming.

First – be his emotion coach. There are 3 steps.

1)  Listen for the emotions behind a child’s words or behaviors;

Quietly assess what you see – a kid formerly engaged in sand play now running to you empty-handed and screaming … you can begin to guess what might haven gone down.

2)  Name the emotion;

“Ian, looks to me like you’re super angry and maybe sad too?

3)  Offer empathic listening.

Tell me, what happened?

Now you just listen. Pop him on your knee if you want, or crouch down and hold his hands. Look him in the eye and let him unburden all the yukky stuff he’s feeling. Probably some other kid took his things and he feels helpless, angry, frustrated, alone. Listen until you can see he feels fully heard. Keep helping him find names for his emotions, guiding as you go.

If, for example, Ian says “I hate that kid – he took my shovel” show him it’s OK for him to express his emotions to you, but notice the difference between parroting “You hate that kid


Right now you’re so mad at the kid who took your shovel you feel you hate him.”

See how the first example seems to set in stone that Ian hates the kid, whilst the second example places the emotion in the specific context of the situation so the person with the emotion can be seen to own the emotion – not the other way around!

The two books I recommend above have so much great information on how to listen in such a way that your child feels heard. This IS subtle work, but you can master this.

But now here comes the “beyond emotion-coaching” part.

Second, help him meet his deepest needs.

Knowing Ian as you do, what does Ian NEED right now?

And can you use your understanding of Ian’s needs  – not just his developmental needs although those of course are in the mix, but his needs as a unique, particular human being – to help guide the next step?

Here’s the list of our core 6 human needs once more:

  • Certainty
  • Variety
  • Connection & Love
  • Significance
  • Contribution
  • Growth

So, back to little Ian who’s been able to share all his yukky feelings about the shovel and pail incident. Now what?

Does Ian need a bit more certainty, predictability and security?

Has Ian experienced a lot of change lately? Maybe a trip? New sibling? A move? A divorce?

Maybe what Ian needs now is for a solution that creates a bit more stability in his life? In the midst of uncertainty, a child needs certainty. This would not be the day to push him to share, or use his words to negotiate turn taking.

It might be a good day to find a place where Ian could count on having his shovel and pail to himself, with some calm and predictability.

Or, does Ian need a bit more variety, surprise and novelty?

Have things been in a bit of a rut for Ian? Does he play here a lot and often come to blows?

Maybe what Ian needs now is for a solution that opens up some exhilarating new ways for him to relate with this other kid, or with this predicament of his toys being taken without his permission? Or even with his response to the fact his toys get used by other kids?

It might be a good day to brainstorm with Ian to find all sorts of ways to respond to the situation. It might be great to get playful and fun and resourceful.

Or, does Ian need to feel more love and connection with you, or someone else in his life?

Have things been a bit rocky for Ian and his relationships? Has he been running to you screaming a lot and maybe you’re getting irritated and he feels this? Is grandma playing with his new baby sister and he’s feeling left-out and second best?

Maybe what Ian needs now is for a solution that builds connection and love.

It might be a good day to see if Ian would like to play with you a bit? Or it might be a good time for a huge hug and snuggle before he goes back to the sand box.

Or, does Ian need to experience himself as significant in your eyes? In his own eyes?

Has Ian been going through a bit of a regression developmentally so adults have been doing more for him and you sense he needs to reclaim his power a bit?

Maybe what Ian needs now is for a solution that offers him a chance to be brave and creative.

It might be a good day to remind Ian of some prior brave creative thing he did (or of a character in a story he admires) and see if he’d like to find a way to be that boy again in the sand box?

Or, does Ian need to contribute a bit today?

Have you noticed Ian trying to be helpful but not quite getting the thanks and recognition he might be craving? His attempts often fall short (since he’s only four!) but he’s often saying “I’m a big boy now!”

Maybe what Ian needs now is for a solution that offers him a chance to contribute? Maybe the solution involves thinking about how “big boys” might figure out what to do about two boys who want the same shovel and pail?

Or, is it time for Ian to be inspired to grow a little?

Does Ian have a pretty good life? Do things usually go well? Is he emotionally stable and loved? Could he handle a bit of a push?

Maybe what Ian needs now is for a solution that inspires in him an opportunity to grow into a bigger, kinder Ian. What might that look like? Could he lend his toys? Could he give them away?

 * * * * * *

No matter the age of your child, this pattern of emotion coaching – followed by a deeply wise recognition of where the child’s needing-edge might be – will deliver to the two of you a connection built upon so much mutual trust, respect and delight that you will be, to your child,  a uniquely satisfying resource.  One he or she will turn to again, and again.

When s/he grows up, and someone asks , “Who could you turn to when you were young? Was there someone special whom you felt really heard you, really understood you?”

Your child will not hesitate, but will be able to turn with confidence and say

“Yes, absolutely. It was X. And do you know  why? Well, when I was with them, I felt ~

  • safe but not smothered
  • exhilarated but not frightened
  • loved but not controlled
  • significant but not in a way that gave me false airs
  • capable but not burdened by expectations
  • inspired but not pressured

WOW ~ What a legacy!


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

Narcissist~Leaving One

If you’ve stumbled upon this article, it’s Part 4 in a 5 part series on Narcissism*.  Today’s article offers the Top 10 Tips for how to successfully exit a relationship with someone suffering from severe narcissism.

  1. Do The Math  ~  If you’re unhappy, seem to have always been and can’t see things changing; if you’re beginning to feel you’re crazy; if fights far outnumber fun, take stock. Start a daily log of the lies, infidelity, insults, rages and abuse. After a few weeks or months do the math. Calculate what percentage of your life with this person is happy. If unhappy is a much bigger percent than happy and if every attempt to change things has resulted in things getting worse for you – it’s time to go.
  2. Prepare to Prepare  ~  Most people who leave abusive, narcissistic relationships report several “false starts.” Spontaneous “I’m leaving you” tantrums (initiated by either partner) do not last. If this is to be a true break from this nightmare you need to plan.
  3. Get Emotional Support  ~  By the time you’ve recognized how bad your relationship is and are making your plan to leave (which is right when you need to be super strong) you are probably feeling drained, lost, fragile, alienated, crazy, stupid, worthless and more. Priority #1 is to find someone who understands the nature of narcissism to help you: a therapist, minister, support group for abused women, or a forum on one of the many web sites about being involved with a narcissist. You need someone to confirm you’re not nuts, it’s not your fault and you deserve better.
  4. Get Tangible Support  ~  Since you’re planning to leave someone for whom life is “all about me” you are unlikely to get a fair distribution of your shared assets. So, get strategic. Do you have anything in your name? A car? Jewelry? Savings?  It can be wise to have a plan for where to go for the first few months – family out of the area, old friends? Take an inventory of what you might be able to hang on to, and what you are most likely to have to leave behind.
  5. Get Financially Savvy  ~  To the extent you can, take stock of where you stand financially. Familiarize yourself with credit card balances; bank balances; the mortgage; other monthly debt. You may be in for some surprizes. As you can, start a cash-stash. Even $1000 is better than ending up on the street with nothing.
  6. An Element of Surprize  ~  Be careful to keep your plan a secret. As you know, you are overly connected / addicted to the charms and terrors of the narcissist in your life and can easily fall prey to the pleas to stay, hand over money, take care of him/her etc.  Consider your safety above all else.
  7. Burn Your Bridges  ~  As miserable as you may be, the majority of people who have successfully made the break from a narcissist report it takes every ounce of their strength not to go running back. You’ve been so emptied, manipulated, put down, “rescued” and oriented by this toxic system that life beyond it seems vapid, empty, frighteningly without meaning. This is where your support system comes in. Buy a one-way ticket; have someone expecting you; make it impossible to go back.
  8. Build Your Boundaries  ~  You fell prey to the narcissist because you weren’t sure about the line between  “being nice” and “being used/abused.” There is one and it is never too soon to start building stronger boundaries. A great place to start is by reading Melody Beatie’s Codependent No More.
  9. If There Are Children  ~  Many divorces are caused by the narcissistic behaviour of one or other parent so you are not alone. Your children will survive. It will pull forth more from you than you thought you had to give but parents who’ve had the courage to leave their narcissistic partners will tell you that they are particularly motivated to make this break for the children.
  10. Harbour Hope  ~  Hold on to your self. There is no greater gift you can give yourself (or your children) than to make this move. No amount of money, real estate nor high roller distraction is worth the sacrifice of your very essence. You are not alone. Others have walked this path before you. You can make it!

*I am running a 5 part mini series ( 25-29 March 2013) on Narcissism. I am seeing more and more clients impacted by living with someone who suffers from NPD and the first step in the healing process is to learn as much as you can about this disorder.  I’ll print a list of helpful resources in Part 5.

A Happier World

What if we could all emulate Bhutan, where they measure Gross National Happiness? Apparently the United Nations agrees and in support of this “emerging shift in priorities, the very first United Nations International Day of Happiness is being held on 20th March this year.”

You can read a fuller article by Dr. Mark Williamson in The Daily In continued celebration of my March 20th Birthday (since it’s now March 20th all the other time zones!), I’m reprinting Mark’s Manifesto for a Happier World. Enjoy!

PS: Fun to note he advocates prioritizing relationships and happy homes.

For our political leaders:

Ensure a Stable Economy. A healthy economy is the foundation for happiness and wellbeing. We need an equitable economic system which puts long-term stability and high levels of employment ahead of “growth at all costs”.

Focus on Wellbeing. What we measure is what we get. In addition to conventional financial indicators, we need our governments to measure people’s wellbeing and consider the impact on wellbeing – for both current and future generations – in all policy decisions.

Support the Disadvantaged. Priority should be given to improving the wellbeing of those who are most in need, not just through financial support but also by empowering people and helping them to help themselves.

Prioritise Human Relationships. Relationships are central to our wellbeing. We need to prioritise healthy relationships in all policy areas, especially through support for troubled families and children in their early years.

For our institutions:

Healthcare for Mind And Body. Mental health is just as vital as physical health. We need a healthcare system that prioritises both mental and physical health and provides high quality support for all those struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental illness.

Education For Life. Education is about learning for life, not just gaining academic qualifications. We need schools that help children develop character and learn essential life skills, like emotional intelligence, mindfulness and resilience.

Responsible Business. Truly successful businesses have happy employees and a purpose beyond profit. We need workplaces where people feel valued and trusted and where sustainable and ethical behaviour is at the heart of all decision-making.

Balanced Media. The way we perceive the world affects what we do and how we treat each other. We need a media that portrays a balanced view of what’s good as well as bad in our world, not a constant diet of cynicism and negativity.

For each of us as individuals:

Family Values. Happy homes are the bedrock of a happy society and, above all, we need to cultivate warm and loving family relationships. For our children, our priority should be their emotional health and helping them to develop positive values and attitudes.

Contributing In The Community. When we connect with and help others around us, everyone benefits. We need to get involved in our local communities, be good neighbours and support those in need. Our actions can help to build trust and reduce isolation.

Making A Difference. Our working lives should be about more than just earning a living. Whatever job we do, we should aim to make a meaningful contribution – and help create a workplace culture which is trusting, friendly and responsible.

Taking Care of Ourselves. We can’t contribute to a happier society unless we take care of our own well-being too. We all need to look after our health, both physical and mental, and develop within us the life skills and attitudes needed for a happy and fulfilling life.

Together our actions make a profound difference. We can call for change from our leaders but we can also “be the change” in the way we approach our lives and the way we treat others. So if you share this vision for a happier and more caring world, please take the pledge to create more happiness and do whatever you can to support the Day of Happiness on 20 March.


Best FREE Birthday Gifts

Since today is my birthday, I’m offering you 3 things:

  • The best ever birthday gift idea for your child
  • The best ever birthday gift idea for adults with milestone birthdays
  • A self-indulgent birthday reflection from me that puts this blog well over my attempt to stay under 500 words ~ with no apology!

First,  in no particular order, here are 20 Gratitudes for the year just past.

I’m deeply grateful that I ~

  1. Started a private Relationship Therapy Practice in Auckland ( a whole new hemisphere, continent, country and city);
  2. Hiked the Tongariro Crossing with Mark
  3. Visited Hobbiton, Rivendel, Mount Doom & The Shire
  4. Became a vegetarian (too many cute lambs in NZ – am confining myself to plants and fish)
  5. Celebrated 30 years of a darned good marriage to Mark by renting a “Wicked Camper” and exploring New Zealand’s South Island for 10 days
  6. Grew even closer to Mark, Charlie and Mona
  7. Stayed in touch as best I could with dear friends and family far away
  8. Started to learn to sail
  9. Celebrated some fun July/August and December/January family adventures in NZ
  10. Tried fishing (NZ’s national sport, up there with Rugby). Didn’t catch a thing, felt  sea-sick, and now I can “retire” from this sport
  11. Made some dear new friends in New Zealand
  12. Became a regular guest on a weekly, national Live Radio Show
  13. Created a native bush front garden in our Beachlands home
  14. Started some regular clinical conversations with Dan Wile
  15. Swam many times in a turquoise ocean with my dogs at Shelly Bay Beach
  16. Started SUPing (Stand Up Paddle Boarding)
  17. Created a 4x1x1/2 meter raised bed filled entirely of grass clippings and horse poop which has yielded fabulous toms, spinach, courgettes and several unrecognizable brassicas  (I bought a bunch of starts)
  18. Hand fed the Lemurs at Auckland zoo
  19. Started this blog (thanks to the Radio Show’s nudge)
  20. Made some blogging friends (Hi Guys!) . So wonderful to make friends with no geographic limitations.

OK – now my TWO BEST GIFTS EVER ( I am not prone to hyperbole). One for children and one for adults. They are free, meaningful, build community, are easily stored, will be enjoyed into future generations,  and guaranteed to leave everyone involved feeling terrific.

KIDS ~ The “Bound” Birthday Letter

When Charlie turned 14 I realized he’d grown so much and while I kept family scrapbooks, I was worried I might forget who he was on the inside.  So Mark and I wrote an extended letter to Charlie. I started simply with ~

My Darling Charlie, Today you are fourteen. Somehow this seems so much older than thirteen.

And off I went. I spoke about what I had seen him struggle with, and overcome. I remembered funny quotes he’d come up with,  observations he’d had about life, school, our family, his future. I noted his interests – books, movies, games.  Mark spoke about things they shared – becoming a man, music, skiing and snowboarding and the values Mark holds as important for life: expressing feelings, being thoughtful, becoming a good listener.

I wanted to make the gift a bit more interesting than “just” a letter, so I printed it on card stock, and found some photos of Charlie through the year.

Around lunch time I took the pages and photos over to Kinkos. I asked to have the pages laminated in a particular order and then spiral bound.

“And you need this when?”

“By 6:00pm tonight” I pipe up – “It’s Charlie’s birthday dinner and this is our gift.”

The 30 something employee looked at his watch, looked at the backlog of work, looked at this funny collection of pages and photos and sighed.

“I dunno lady. Call before you come. I’ll see what I can do.”

“Oh thank you – it will make the whole event!” I beamed.  And set off to make the lemon poppy-seed cake Charlie loves.

I came back at 6:00pm I didn’t call first.

As I walked in I saw my helper beckon to me, so I sidestepped a long line.

“Hey” he said, thrusting the brown bag over to me with no obvious  invoice. I looked up – there were tears in his eyes,

‘Tell Charlie Happy birthday from me. He’s one lucky kid.”

He turned away before I could pay.

Before dinner,  as we sipped sparking apple juice from champagne flutes, I told Charlie the story of his gift before Mark and I read it aloud to him. This was the first of what has become a treasured tradition for both Charlie and our daughter Mona.  We Charlie's Booksall wiped tears from our eyes at the kindness of this Kinkos worker who – granted he had read the letter (wouldn’t you?)  –  understood the simple value of a loving letter, and added his gift into the mix.

The first Kinkos bound book is there on the upper center. His books for ages 15, 16 & 17 are there too.

Mona's BooksSince Mona is 4 years younger, we started her Bound Letters with her 10th birthday. Here’s her current stash to the left.

In early preparation for his 18th, we asked Charlie what he wanted. Mark proposed a new guitar. Charlie said no – he couldn’t think of anything he needed or wanted beyond a “Dad’s famous meatloaf dinner” with family and a few friends. Maybe an art book.

I saw a possibility for  “More letters”! I wrote to  extended family and friends who’d been special to Charlie over the years. Charlie's 18 I let them know he was turning 18. I sent them a one page summary of who he was now – and a photo (some folks had not seen him since he was tiny). I asked if they could please use the addressed enclosed envelope to send something for Charlie’s 18 – a poem, some advice, a comic, a funny anecdote. Maybe a photo.

Over 30 letters, cards, notes and a few gifts turned up. It took almost the whole day to go through them all. Some made us laugh. Some cry. Charlie 18 Album

Charlies 18 album babyI turned them into a larger album which had one page dedicated to each year of his life, with the letters stored in the back. To the immediate right is the Birth to One page, and to the right of that, Charlie s last year of high school complete with Prom photo.

Mona turns 18 this June 2nd. Her only request so far? “Mum, can I have the letters?”

ADULTS ~ The Birthday Retreat

Why wait for the wake?

For my 50th I took the liberty of letting my friends and family know – as I sent out our  Annual Christmas letter – that I’d be turning 50 on March 20th. My plan was to spend 4 glorious days in solitude (well – with the 2 dogs) at Rocky Ridge Yurt and I’d love to bring in any letters anyone felt inspired to write in return for a long, hand written response.  I said I’d love anything along the lines of “Now you are turning 50 here’s what I want you to know…”  or whatever anyone felt moved to send. In all honesty, I figured I’d have 12 things to bring in (I counted on the loyal aunts, immediate family and a few close girl friends). This would have been bliss enough. I adore snow, silence, chopping wood, and the company of wild things.  No letters would have been fine too actually!Into the Yurt

In the end, I hauled 55 letters and packages into the Yurt. I skied in, pulling an unwieldy sledge – here I am staging things in our front garden.

And all unpacked at the Yurt (below) . I apportioned the letters out over the 4 days I was there – reading and responding to each, one at a time. I had 55 mini tea-parties and birthday conversations, all alone up there with people I love.  Bliss! This too has become a simple album – with all the letters in plastic pages.

50 Largesse50th Album

Too much more to write.

I could dedicate a small book to how these letters have impacted our years and lives. I’d love to think the idea might catch on.

I would adore to hear of other non-material, meaningful gifts you’ve thought of for yourself or others.

Happy (un) Birthday to you all.

“From Hints to Commands . . .

It’s tough to get our needs met, so do try

Requests not demands.

A communications tip as Haiku!  Seriously now, when you want something from someone you love, how do you typically go about getting it?

Do you ~

WISH – you need a fairy godmother (or mind-reader); how’s that working for you?

HINT – you need Sherlock Holmes, so better be ready for clues to be misinterpreted.

INVITE – you better make what you need done sound exciting and be prepared for better offers to come up for the invitee.

REQUEST – you get to be clear about what you want, and prepare to be OK with a “Yes”, “No” or “Maybe”.

DEMAND – you feel fully entitled to what you want and you may even get it, but be prepared for some push back.

COMMAND – you have authority and “vil have zis done Macht schnell. “Yes Sir!” Captain Von Trapp tried it for a while but can’t say it won him much love and affection.

There are pro’s and con’s to each.

  • I have to admit to wishing my family would spontaneously apply the Harpic and clean the loos after each usage, and occasionally I’m duly surprised. The fairy Godmother has sprinkled her dust and  – hey Presto – lovely loos! So – the Pro is the possibility for pleasant surprises, the con is the intermittent nature of these rewards.
  • Hinting? “Well, I’m pretty tired, I think a lazy afternoon would be great” could turn out as I’d hoped and we all loll about with good books and gentle background music, or be misconstrued as “Let’s invite the neighbours over to chill with us –  I’ll BBQ!”
  • Inviting? I’ve tried inviting my children to share their English homework for my “oh-so-gentle” review. Strangely they prefer to suffer the praise or scorn of their teachers. Clearly I’ve made one too many “It could be good to expand on this point…” remarks. But at least my kids are still speaking to me, and they are making (and have made) their own steady progress as writers.
  • Requesting? Much better. I get to be clear and feel that I’m entitled to ask for what I want just as those of whom I’m requesting something are entitled to say “Yes”, “No” or “Maybe”. Takes a bit of creativity but leaves everyone feeling engaged and resourceful.
  • Demanding? Has a bit of a negative connotation. With no clear hierarchy, having one person demand something from another – with a snippy  “Clean up!” “Pass the salt!”  “Ask nicely!”  – it tends to elicit a surge of resistance and an indignant “No!” even if, and here’s the rub, you actually wouldn’t mind doing any of these things if asked nicely.
  • Commanding? Reminds me of that scene in Young Victoria where the newly married Queen tries commanding Albert to stay with her one night after they’ve had their first newly wed power struggle. He knows he’s being commanded by his Queen, but because he is first of all her husband, he turns on his heel and walks deliberately from the room. Yes! It does not work to command anyone you love. Period.

How do you usually try to get your needs met?

Is this working for you?

What might be a more effective approach?


Coming up.

An “Easy as ABC” way to get needs met.



Respond, Don’t React

Your spouse gets home, flings down their bag and snaps “What a hell-of-a-day! I need to go for a run. What’s for dinner?

Your knee-jerk REACTION might be “Ask me about MY day why don’t you! You’re so selfish you think the entire planet revolves around you!”

Your more thoughtful RESPONSE might be “Sorry you had such a terrible day. I’m pretty bushed too. Go for your run, and then can you finish dinner prep? I think 30 minutes of Yoga will cure what ails me.”

When we REACT we’re so deeply zoomed in on our own perspective there’s no room for any more information. We lead with our egos, assume we know enough to make snap judgments, take everything personally, and are entirely vulnerable to outside conditions for our mood.

When we RESPOND we swap out the zoom lens for the wide-angle. We pull our focus out beyond our immediate, limited perspective so we can see self-in-context. We become the director of our movie rather than the actor. As director, we can change the script at any time. We become “the one who watches” rather than “the one who reacts.”  In the pause, or space, this zooming-out creates, we can choose our response.

We humans tend to dwell in (and between) one of two psychological states most of the time

  • REACTIVE – we feel stressed, victims of events, rigid, and tend to say and do things we later regret
  • RESPONSIVE – we’re relaxed, in charge, flexible, and at our best.

Most psychological growth is about shifting the balance of these two states from REACTIVE toward RESPONSIVE. Meditation, mindfulness and therapy are all focused on teaching and practicing the three “Conditions of Responsiveness” (for want of a better term!)

  1. Cultivate Self-Awareness
  2. Inhabit the Pause
  3. Expand Possibilities

Here are my Top 3 Tips for Boosting Your Mastery of Each Condition

1. Cultivate Self-Awareness ~

  1. Check in with yourself.  Identify a trigger that gets your attention several times a day ( an hourly alarm, red traffic lights, a passing airplane, an urge to check Facebook). When you notice this, check in. What mood are you in? How do you feel? Parrott Emotions Tree 2001  Do you need anything? (see Use Feelings to Identify Needs). Note a few words about your state, e.g, 9:00am – exhausted, hungry, anxious; 11:00am – sugar buzz, irritated, bored.  This simple practice gets your out of your experience and allows you to “Be the one who watches.”
  2. Put your shoes away. I learned this at convent boarding school. Lose your beret or prayer-book and there was Sister Francis ready to swat. You probably don’t need to track your beret, but the simple practice of being mindful about the placement of one item in your life pushes your awareness.
  3. Replay a moment. In some down time, reflect upon a part of your day that comes to mind. What were you thinking? How did things go? Could it have gone better?  Again, this simple reflection and critique expands your ability to “be the one who watches.”

Inhabit the Pause ~

  1. Buy time.  Right at the impact – an incoming stimulus from your selfish spouse, angry kid, unreasonable boss – right then before you react, try taking a long slow, deep inhale; take off your glasses and rub your temples; stand up and stretch; shift your body somehow to break the spell.
  2. Be Honest.  Say something like “I’m working on not reacting, so give me a moment here.”  “Humm – let me think about that for a while.”
  3. Invite a Do-Over.  “Wow, that hit me the wrong way. Can you say that again, but more slowly, (more gently, less loudly)?”

Expand Possibilities ~

  1. Name the Issue.  To demonstrate you’re not trapped in your own perspective, name what you think is bugging you.  “Hang on, sounds like we both had dreadful days.” “You want to have a mid-week sleep over even though that’s against our family rules?”
  2. Invite Fantasy.  Rather than a knee-jerk insult or “No!” expand the realm of possible responses by inviting the other person to tell you what they wish you’d say. “Well high there Mr. Bad Day! What would your fantasy perfect wife say to that?”   “Well my darling, you know we think mid-week sleep-overs are a bad idea, but tell me, what do you wish I’d say?”
  3. Team Up. Unless there’s an emergency, you probably don’t have to come up with the definitive answer right now.  If you’ve named the issue, sought out some idealized (and probably impractical) possibilities, try teaming up for find a win/win. “Hum, how be you run first, then take over dinner while I do 30 minutes of Yoga.” Or “What’s so special about that night for the sleepover? Might other nights work? What is the real issue here?”

As with any of my suggestions, I’m always interested to know what works and what else you’ve tried that works for you.

PS: Another longer posting – sorry! This just over 800.

FREE~Attitude Adjustment

Dear Reader,

Do you, like me, swing from gripe to gratitude throughout the day? Today’s gripe? A costly sewer repair. Today’s gratitude, I have not lost any family members to war ~ see BBC World News.

I call this my BBC News Therapy.  I just have to listen to a story about rape in India, some new Gaza bomb, brutality anywhere, anything that hurts animals or children and my gripes (even about expensive sewer replacements) seem utterly trivial.

Clients have agreed with me – there is something very helpful about getting perspective on your life this way.  My friend Julia asked me once, “Gemma, if you could dump your problems into a big pot and pick out someone else’s problems instead, would you?”

Yipes – dump my expensive sewer for my friend’s recent diagnosis of a brain tumor, or the sudden death of a beautiful 21 year old daughter, or a failed pregnancy, or a Tsunami divorce or or or…no way!

So – in this spirit of gratitude and abundance I was drawn to an interesting challenge from Chris Guillebeau, whose quirky project and Blog The Art of Non-Conformity Dispatch   I’ve been following for several months. Chris is inviting us to participate in a social experiment by offering something of what we have or do for free.

Well – I’m not long on stuff. But time? I have 86,400 seconds a day, remember?

So, might some of these seconds be useful to someone who has never met me, as a free gift? Someone who normally can’t afford good counseling? Someone who could use someone on thier team for a bit, to listen and help sort an issue out?  Here’s what I do:

  • I listen deeply
  • I ask questions
  • I listen to your answer
  • I listen to your answer so deeply that I can perhaps discern before you can the tendrils of solutions to your problems
  • I work with you to co-create a plan forward
  • And to create some accountability
  • And follow-up.

So, here’s my FREE Attitude Adjustment OFFER

I am giving away two FREE two-hour counseling sessions  (we’ll meet twice, each time for one hour) to two NEW people ( sorry existing clients, but you can offer this to a friend )  who contact me at with FREE ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT in the subject line.

In the body of the email, I’d like you to tell me 3 things:

  1. Who is the counseling for (you or someone you know)
  2. How do you hope it will benefit you (or someone you know)
  3. How will this benefit to you (or someone you know) also benefit others?

If you are new to this blog, visit my web site to learn more. Then, pop me that email.  I’ll even pay for your long distance phone call too – I live in Auckland New Zealand – using skype.  If you too have skype – all the easier!

I’m going to be reading responses through the month of March. On April 1st I’ll write to everyone who wrote to me and let you know whether or not you’ve “won” the two free sessions.

I’m a relationship expert, so don’t limit yourself (or someone you think might benefit). Think how two hour-long sessions, focused on your ~

  • Spouse
  • Parent
  • Child
  • Friend
  • Lover
  • Boss
  • Co-worker

might make a world of difference.

Can’t wait to hear from you,



PS: Three people have asked for this already and I’m too much of a softie to say no. But this offer does need to be officially closed as of today – March 21st 2013. Thanks to those three for inviting me to share! Excited to work with each of you.

Don’t Die Without . . .

Expressing Your True Feelings


In Bronnie Ware’s heartfelt blog she notes that the five most common regrets of those near death are ~

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I didn’t work so hard.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  • I wish that I had let myself be happier.


How about that!

Feelings – those things I’m constantly encouraging us to become more familiar with and fluent in – rank as the number 3 most devastating loss when not expressed.

Here is what Bronnie wrote:

Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.

We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.

What does it take to express your feelings? If you are not sure, join me for Emotions 101,  a five-part fun series running 4th – 8th March 2013. Topics include ~

1. Is that a feeling, or a stomach ache? Don’t laugh – it can be hard to tell sometimes. Learn how to recognize your emotions. (Blog on 4th March  2013);

2. Sad? Mad? How about Lonely, Wistful, Incensed, Ashamed? Dump the kindergarten terms for your complex internal maelstrom.  (Blog on 5th March 2013);

3. “I’m fine.” Great, so is my wine! Aren’t you Enchanted, Elated or Thrilled?  Let’s liven up your Happy place. (Blog on 6th March 2013);

4. “I feel like you should…”If this is how you’ve been talking about your feelings, it’s time to learn how to be more honest and effective. (Blog on 7th March 2013);

5. “No you don’t!” If this is how you respond when someone shares their feelings, come learn how to listen so people will open up to you. (Blog on 8th March 2013).

So – whether you’re Oscar Wilde ~

I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them. ― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

or Elizabeth Gilbert ~

“Your emotions are the slaves to your thoughts, and you are the slave to your emotions.”
Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia

you’ll find something of interest. See you for Emotions 101,  4th – 8th March 2013.