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What Makes Families Thrive?


With the recent opening of Norfolk Island’s new child and family support service, it’s timely to find out what we know about families that thrive. Surprisingly, apart from a raft of Google pages devoted to blogs telling people to spend more time together, tackle conflict positively, recognise each family member’s strengths, and follow the lead of good role models, there seems to be little evidence-based research that unpacks the ingredients of successful families.


The guru of couple’s therapy, John Gottman, who has devoted over 40 years studying couples, is one exception who has turned his sights on families. Gottman’s research was the first to use observational coding systems refined over many years to map out the critical elements or building blocks of successful couples. His scientific research with thousands of couples and families included observations, interviews, physiological, and questionnaire data. Some families were tracked for as long as 20 years to observe changes in how this social system works at different stages in the family life cycle.


Gottman’s research pinpointed the emotional climate between the parents as being a core indicator of thriving families. By this he means the strength of each adults’ ability to manage their own emotional states, and to be attuned to the emotional states of their family members. Put simply, this means having the capacity to look inwards whilst also being able to look outwards. It means being focused on the multitude of subtle changes in emotional states we have ourselves in response to things going on around us, and at the same time being able to observe and make sense of subtle changes in the emotional state of another person (or in the case of the family, several other persons).


In his books, Gottman is critical of much of the popular parenting literature as he claims the focus on “discipline” rather than “attachment” and “interaction” is flawed. For families to thrive, people have to (a) feel safe and connected to each other, and (b) attune their brains to each other, like master satellite dishes constantly on watch for changes in each other. More importantly, he suggests that we must also have the skills for smoothing out ripples in the emotional climate, bearing in mind that there’s no “one size fits all” method for getting disturbed emotions back into a state of stability.


Another key element Gottman recognises is that there’s much more to re-stabilising emotional ripples than just words – saying “the right thing”. His work with communications experts like Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen led to developing the Specific Affect Coding System (SPAFF) for observing emotional shifts between people in families. These are tied to behavioural patterns, the habits people develop over time which becomes a kind of short-hand communication system


Another body of work that helps us identify what makes families thrive is that of Stephen Covey. His book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families” (1997) also took the focus off discipline and parenting. Instead, Covey emphasises “beginning with the end in mind”. That is, what is your vision for this family? He recommends looking beyond the front fence and developing a “flight plan” which is the end point at which you are aiming. Covey asks us to describe our family in 20 years’ time – how will it be operating?


Covey talks about being proactive – looking into the future and seeing possible road bumps, then putting in place plans to avoid or minimise them. He suggests learning to “hit the pause button” rather than instantly reacting and being able to respond thoughtfully rather than react uncontrollably. Part of being proactive is also depositing into the family’s emotional bank account.


Understanding is critical to successful families. By this, we mean not jumping to conclusions or making hasty judgements, but being able to listen with an open mind and heart, as well as being able to share openly your own views, needs or emotions. It’s about setting up an open flow of information between family members about they each tick.


Finally, Covey talks about celebrating differences rather than trying to clone every member of the family. Differences are what captivates our attention in the wild, and in our social systems it’s no different. Seeing and thinking differently give us the opportunity to critically review our own positions on thing. It is also a chance to see completely new and exciting ways to move on from an argument or stonewalling.


What Covey and Gottman have in common, apart from their guidelines being based on extensive research, is that they drill down into how families work based on good evidence which is now being supported by neuroscience. They also talk about good research showing that families can be coached to success in the same way we do with individuals and with work teams. Rather than waiting until the family is in trouble, both suggest learning techniques from coaching so that your family becomes a work or art, a dynamic living being that is constantly nourished to grow stronger and more resilient.


Dr Kate Lemerle, Psychologist

Chrysalis Counselling & Coaching, Norfolk Island

WEB: www.chrysaliswellnessservices.com

TEL: 52112 or email drkate@iinet.net.au


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Trying to Make Sense of the Unthinkable


Every now and then, things happen in our lives that are unthinkable. Our nice ordinary everyday routines are stopped in their tracks by a piece of news or an event that leaves us shocked to the core. We question whether it’s true, how it could be true, what made it happened. We try to come up with explanations to make sense of it, to put it into some form that eases our need for predictability. We feel compelled to find some reason for the unthinkable. And often we latch onto something that makes the unthinkable seem plausible, so we can then rest easy “knowing” why the unthinkable happened. All too often, we find that our first “explanation” is way off track…but only if we make the effort to dig down and find the real reasons.


The Birth of Brain Science: What Makes the Brain Tick?

The fact is, unfortunately, that many “causes” for human behaviour are still largely unknown. This is because “brain science” – the scientific study of how the brain operates – is still very much in its infancy when compared to our understanding of how other organs of the body work. This is despite evidence that early Egyptians knew about the importance of the brain. An ancient papyrus dating back to 1700 BC is the earliest known medical text discussing the brain, the meninges, the spinal cord and cerebrospinal fluid. It contains details of 7 medical cases that deal directly with the brain, and documents brain injuries that were described as untreatable. 

It wasn’t until 1929 that Hans Berger invented electroencephalography (the EEG, a device that measures electrical activity in the brain. In 1938 Isidor Rabi discovered nuclear magnetic resonance which led to the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In 1974 The first Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanner was invented, providing visual information about brain activity. 

The last decade of the 20th century was declared the Decade of the Brain, and in 1992 functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was first used to map activity in the human brain. In 2009 the Human Connectome Project (HCP) was launched to build a "network map" of the structures and anatomical functions of the human brain. This is the first time in human history that an investment has been made into finding out how the brain works and to link this to other aspects of our behaviour such as the genome and biochemistry of the body – basically to explore that question: what drives people to do what they do?

Brain “Fingerprints” and Human Behaviour

Recent evidence coming out of the project suggests that specific patterns or “fingerprints” of both structure and neural activity (the ways in which various types of brain cells operate) predict personal traits such as intelligence, personality, behaviour habits (for example, gambling) and even some mental illnesses. This is done by correlating patterns of brain activity with test scores on widely used psychological tests. One study has reported that scans explained more than 20% of the variability in an intelligence test based on verbal reasoning. However, as the HCP progresses, the complexity of the way the brain operates becomes more and more evident. The old model that suggested certain regions of the brain were the seat of certain human behaviours or experiences, such as Broca’s Area operating speech, have now largely been discarded. Recently, it was found that some brain cells communicate by biophotons (low visible light produced by biological systems).

Can We Understand Unthinkable Behaviour Using Brain Science?

So how do we make sense of unthinkable behaviour - doing things that most people would find utterly despicable like sex offending. The answer is, we simply don’t know, but what we do know is that “unthinkable” behaviours arise from malfunctions in the brain. Sometimes these are the result of injury or disease, like the case of a paediatrician whose unspeakable acts happened out of the blue and were found to be the result of an intracranial bone tumour that affected orbito-frontal cortex and hypothalamus. His behaviour never occurred again after surgery to remove the tumour . 
 
Recent studies have found that paedophiles show notable differences in certain brain areas like the anterior insular cortex, which is linked to nurturing responses, and these differences were not the same as brain activation patterns found in child sex offenders. About 40% of child sex offenders have been abused themselves, suggesting specific patterns of brain changes may be related to specific types of childhood trauma, and may provide the foundation for aberrant patterns of behaviour.

Whether understanding what drives people to commit unthinkable actions helps forgiveness is a personal process. For many, forgiveness of unthinkable behaviours will be impossible. However, we should all resist the urge to be quick to judge. Judgement can only come when we have all the facts and evidence before us, and sometimes those facts reveal back-end stories that put an entirely new slant on the question “Why?”


Dr Kate Lemerle, Psychologist
Chrysalis Counselling & Coaching, Norfolk Island
WEB: www.chrysaliswellnessservices.com 
TEL: 52112 or email drkate@iinet.net.au 

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Raising Resilient Children: Nature, Nurture or Both?


It’s often assumed that protecting children from adversity is important for their long-term health and wellbeing. Research such as the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, one of the largest studies of childhood abuse and neglect and later-life health and wellbeing, showed that the more trauma a child has, the greater the risk for a swag of physical, mental and social problems across the lifespan.

It’s believed that this is the result of biological and neurological changes in the body and brain. These changes come about either due to a build-up of repeated stress or from sudden changes or an event at a critical period of development.  

Whilst this research explains a lot of adult behaviour and health outcomes, there are a couple of issues that are often overlooked:

  1. Not ALL children exposed to adversity go on to automatically develop problems in adulthood. In fact, between 60% and 90% of people report lifetime exposure to at least one potentially traumatic event, yet only a fraction of them develop PTSD or related disorders;
  2. Not enough attention has been paid to finding out what gives some children the edge to go on and thrive despite very severe childhood experiences. Ann Masten’s research almost thirty years ago showed that adversity itself doesn’t “cause” problems, it’s adversity plus other risk factors like problems in the family that together put kids at risk.

We all come hardwired differently to respond to toxic stress or tolerable stress, in the same way that each of us is unique in terms of appetite, pain sensitivity, sleep needs and so on. Elaine Aron’s best-seller “The Highly Sensitive Person” (1996) was ahead of its time in suggesting that some people are simply hard-wired to be more sensitive to shifts in the outside (or inside) world than others. The converse is also true – some people come hardwired to be resistant to the damaging effects of toxic stress.

Thirty years on, new research comparing the brains of people who’ve experienced trauma and gone on to develop PTSD with those who haven’t, is supporting this view - differences have been found in both structure and function in various areas of the brain associated with memory and emotional processing when we compare resilient and fragile people.

As an example, magnetoencephalography (MEG) – a technique that detects magnetic fields above the surface of the head produced by changes in electrical potential between the brain cells – has revealed a highly distinctive, unique “signature” of brain activity linked to PTSD. Major differences were found in the brain “signatures” for those who are high vs low in trait resilience. That is, the brains of resilient people differ significantly from those who go on to develop pathology after trauma, and these differences (especially changes in right-hemisphere activity) are probably inherited. In fact, recent studies in epigenetics are confirming this.

The research suggests that the brains of people who are more vulnerable to developing trauma-related problems are somehow stuck in a trauma-encoding state due to faults in their neural networks. They are more likely to link harmless stimuli with threat, and this keeps them in a higher state of arousal that leads to unhealthy patterns of responding such as avoidance.

The interesting question is, can we strengthen this positive inherited difference for people who are resistant to trauma, and can we repair the “faults” in those whose brains are not as hard-wired for resilience?

Well, we’re not yet able to screen everyone’s brains to identify faults. But we can invest in mental health promotion programs that give all our kids the tools they need to become more resilient people. “Raising Resilient Rascals” is a three-hour community workshop designed to help parents pick up the skills they need to help their kids cope positively with life when it goes pear-shaped. Other resources including a self-help program will be coming online soon. Give me a call or check out the website if you’d like more information.

Dr Kate Lemerle, Psychologist

Chrysalis Counselling & Coaching, Norfolk Island

WEB: www.chrysaliswellnessservices.com

TEL: 52112 or email drkate@iinet.net.au

Please 'contact us' for more information.

Raising Resilient Children: Can we teach grit?


One of the key building blocks for resilience is called “grit”. It’s not a quality we often talk about, although we do talk about similar qualities like perseverance and hope. Grit – defined as a commitment to keep going no matter how hard the going gets – is part of a cluster of qualities we call “growth mindset”. To have a growth mindset, we need resilience, the skills and personal traits to bounce back when things get tough.
 

Give it your all
Redo if necessary
Ignore giving up
Take time to do it righ

A “growth mindset” is the belief that your abilities can be improved through effort. That is, you can get better and hard work pays off. Having a fixed mindset makes us quit when we don’t do well at something immediately. If you don’t believe you can really improve, why keep trying?

Hope comes into it because having hope implies that you get a sense of something positive in the future – it’s worth making the effort because there will be good outcomes. It also implies the ability to keep going rather than giving up – this is perseverance. It depends on having the belief that you can make changes, you CAN do it.

In a study with 373 seventh graders, some were told that their IQ was changeable, while others were told their IQ was fixed at birth. The kids’ grades were tracked over the next two years. The study found that the grades of those kids who were told their intelligence can change continued to improve, but the grades of those told their IQ was fixed stayed stable. Belief in possibilities predicted higher effort and better outcomes. A surprising finding was that the group who were told their IQ could change behaved significantly less aggressively, were more prosocial (caring and respectful of others) and showed fewer conduct problems.


How do we help our children develop grit and become more resilient adults? Here are some tips for parents:
1. Praise your child for specific “wins” or qualities rather than global abilities. For example, rather than saying “You’re such a smart person”, say “I really admire the way you stuck at that homework and came through with a great mark this time!”. This draws the child’s attention to the outcome directly connected to the effort put in on this occasion.

2. Respond positively to failure. Rather than saying “That’s just bad luck” or “You should have tried harder”, try exploring with the child what they believe they could have done differently to get a different outcome. For example, ask what they would do next time in the same situation using the wisdom from this experience.

3. Help children set positive goals (not avoid punishment). Telling kids they just need to make more effort doesn’t help with learning. Instead, teach them how to map out the steps needed to get to the desired end point, and break these down into small manageable chunks – goals. Put mini-rewards in place for each accomplishment.

4. Help them transfer skills from one area of life to another. Find something your child does already that involves setting goals, practicing, working hard, and celebrating success. It might be playing in a sporting team, learning music, or simple things like learning anew computer game. Show them how their determination and commitment have taken them from a beginner to a winner, then talk about applying the same process to a new skill like managing homework or study.

5. Share your own stories of grit. Or draw attention to other people they admire who have had to work hard and overcome adversity to get to where they are today. Children are much more likely to adopt new behaviours if they are inspired and fantasise about achieving the same greatness of their idols, rather than being nagged by well-meaning parents.

If you want to find out more about grit, and test your own “grit score” or assess your children’s grit, visit Angela Duckworth’s website and take the quick online test at https://angeladuckworth.com/grit-scale/ 

Dr Kate Lemerle, Psychologist
Chrysalis Counselling & Coaching, Norfolk Island
WEB: www.chrysaliswellnessservices.com 
TEL: 52112 or email drkate@iinet.net.au 

Please 'contact us' for more information.

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Making Schools Happy for Good Mental Health


Schools across Victoria in Australia are about to get a whole lot happier, with a recent injection of $6.39 million into positive education initiatives involving 27 state schools. Dubbed the “happiness revolution”, this mental health promotion project aims to protect students and teachers from depression by teaching them how to be resilient and flourish.

The first school-based project of this kind was started in Geelong Grammar, an elite private school in Victoria, in 2008. With a strong commitment to preparing their students for the future, Geelong Grammar invited Dr Martin Seligman and his team from the University of Pennsylvania to assist with designing a whole-school approach to promoting wellbeing as a core outcome across all levels of the education curriculum.

Dr Seligman is recognised worldwide as the “father of positive psychology” and has been responsible for triggering a profound shift in psychology practice from a medical symptom-based model to a biopsychosocial model based on building human strengths to buffer people against the risks of mental illness.

Ten years on, Positive Education as it became known has swept the world and many schools now integrate coaching for a “life well lived” into their programs. The International Positive Education Network (IPEN) provides a central portal for much of this work.

Evidence of the success of this approach for promoting mental health in schools has posed many challenges. Schools by definition provide an environment that in principle aims to foster the best in children whilst also providing teachers with a work space that is meaningful and satisfying career-wise. The boundary between academic learning and life-skills learning is blurred since both are entwined – feeling good is a necessary component for cognitive development.

Likewise, debate continues regarding the definitions of “resilience” and “wellbeing”, and how these can be operationalised into teachable packages. Whilst research in positive psychology has demonstrated benefits of activities such as reflections on good things in life, envisioning one’s best self, showing gratitude toward others, and identifying and using one’s strengths, we still have limited long-term evidence of the mental health impact of these activities on children’s development especially their potential capacity for positive mental health throughout their lives. Trying to evaluate these outcomes independent of other influences like family, peer groups, the local community, public policies, and broader cultural, historical, and social patterns continues to challenge researchers.

Despite this, the groundswell of government commitment to making schools more than just a place for academic learning is growing. The New Zealand Curriculum provides guidance for schools on how to design their curricula in order to cultivate key competencies for life and lifelong learning like resilience or goal-setting. Scotland’s ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ is driven by positive educational principles aimed at making students more than just successful learners but aims to foster confident individuals, responsible citizens, and effective contributors to the social good. Even Bhutan, the first country to employ the concept of ‘Gross National Happiness’ to measure societal progress, has experimented with a wellbeing curriculum that teaches mindfulness, coping with emotions, and problem-solving, with well-evaluated and highly significant outcomes.

The World Bank is running a large randomized controlled trial aimed at cultivating grit – passion and perseverance in the pursuit of long-term goals – among middle-school students in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. UNICEF has just recently introduced its ‘Happy Schools’ framework to improve learner well-being in the Asia- Pacific region with particular focus on its relevance for developing countries.

Concern about the rise of mental ill-health, particularly depression and anxiety and its burden on society, is global and doesn’t appear to be lessening despite huge investments by governments in public health infrastructure to tackle the problem. In western countries, schools increasing face challenges of antisocial behaviour amongst students, and a steady outflow of teachers leaving the profession in despair. Something has to be done. And if it takes a shift in education policy, backed up by meaningful investment of money, to adopt a whole new approach to education then this would seem to be a wise move. So congratulations to the Victorian government for its initiative!

Dr Kate Lemerle, Psychologist

Chrysalis Counselling & Coaching, Norfolk Island

WEB: www.chrysaliswellnessservices.com

TEL: 52112 or email drkate@iinet.net.au 

Please 'contact us' for more information.

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Sleep Apnoea and Mental Health


The link between sleep disorders and mental health is now well established. At any given time, nearly half of all adults are affected with one or more sleep problems. Sleep problems can be secondary to other conditions, like stress, they can be a side effect of medications, or they can signal underlying physical or brain-based disturbances.


Sleep problems like insomnia can occur when people react to life stressors with obsessive worry. Some antidepressants may worsen or induce primary sleep disorders like restless legs syndrome, sleep bruxism (teeth grinding), REM sleep behaviour disorder (sleep-walking), nightmares, and sleep apnoea.


Lifestyle-related factors like poor diet or lack of exercise with weight gain can result in disorders like sleep apnoea. Pain is a common physical cause of sleep problems. And in some cases, changes to brain function such as a fault in the "internal body clock" (circadian rhythm) or mismatch between this and the external environment is the cause. This is often found in shiftworkers, and increasingly found in young people who spend many hours at night on their smartphones.


Snoring is estimated to be the most common sleep problem. Snoring occurs when the muscles in the throat that hold open the pharynx (at the back of the of the tongue) relax, partially choking the airway. This blocking causes the pharyngeal walls to vibrate, giving the sound of snoring. A UK study found that 41.5% of the adult population snore. The male to female ratio is approximately 2:1, with about twice as many males snoring compared to females. It affects 2–5% of all children and is associated with cognitive and behavioural problems, resulting in poor school performance.


Whilst snoring alone might not be a major problem for the snorer, it can cause sleep disorders for their partners. This is because regularly disturbed sleep can reset your own brain’s circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle).


Sleep deprivation has serious physical and mental consequences including mood instability, impaired memory, decreased concentration, changes to brainstem activity resulting in hyper-aroused sympathetic system activity, and even specific changes to your genes. To check whether you might be suffering from sleep problems, try the Epworth Sleepiness Scale at https://www.kinnect.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Epworth-Sleepiness-Scale-Questionnaire1.pdf


Snoring doesn’t necessarily predict sleep apnoea, but it can be an easy frontline indicator.  One study showed that 76% of the habitual snorers and 64% of the non-habitual snorers had apnoea-hypopnoea scores >0 presumably with snoring (that is, they showed signs of brain oxygen deprivation). Diagnosis of sleep apnoea, especially when it comes to monitoring reduction in airflow, oxygen saturation, cardiac activity, and EEG, is a complex process and often considered too intrusive so many people go undiagnosed. Home-based portable devices are proving more acceptable and can provide a primitive diagnosis sufficient to start therapy. Given the severity of health impacts of sleep apnoea, though, routine screening and early intervention are highly recommended.


Guidelines published in 2017 by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommend that doctors routinely screen for risk factors linked to sleep apnoea. Warning signs include:


  • Frequent reports of low energy, daytime fatigue, or difficulty staying asleep throughout the night
  • Loud snoring, witnessed apnoea or gasping or choking
  • Diagnosed hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Overweight or neck circumference> 40cm
  • Waking in the morning with a sore throat or dry mouth
  • Morning headaches
  • Frequent night-time urination (often between 2:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m.)
  • New onset of symptoms during perimenopause or menopause in women.

To find out more about Apnoea and other sleep disorders, including non-medical treatment approaches, join the half-day workshop on Tuesday 26 June with Professor Leon Lack from Flinders University.


Dr Kate Lemerle, Psychologist

Chrysalis Counselling & Coaching, Norfolk Island

WEB: www.chrysaliswellnessservices.com

TEL: 52112 or email drkate@iinet.net.au

Please 'contact us' for more information.

Health Tip of the week


Forward locomotion such as walking or running is actually the process of losing and catching one's balance.

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