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The Power of Connection

January 7, 2014

TLC GUEST BLOGGER: Barb Dorrington, MEd

A few short years ago, I became a grandparent to a beautiful and happy little girl named Sadie. Sadly she lives far away, so I have to make each visit count. It led me to think of neuroscientist Mark Brady’s big brain question as to how I could be there for her, in spite of the miles that separate us. That question, and my love for Sadie, got me to thinking how to be that special grandma.

Bottom line; we all want to connect, and the new brain research points to the reality that social pain, such as longing to hear and spend time with a grandchild, is every bit as distressing as physical pain. Social connection is our human motivator to live, work and play. UCLA Director Matthew Lieberman’s two decades of work on social connection verified that our brains are wired for social connection. He noted that when we are feeling loss, pain medication actually minimizes that “pain of heart”. Hence, our brains treat social and physical pain similarly. As Lieberman points out, we don’t just tell someone to “get over a broken leg,” so we need special training and tools to figure out the best ways to connect.

Researchers like Stephen Porges have discovered that our ability to think socially is so central to our survival that the human brain has developed a network just for social thinking. This network helps us see people as social beings with thoughts and feelings. It is like we have mind-reading abilities to assess the faces of those around us, not only to keep us safe, but also to help us connect. Social connection is one of the best predictors of happiness, well-being and productivity.

Think about how our worldview would look different if there never had been a John Lennon. Lennon was asked to write a school assignment about what he wanted to be when he grew up. When he wrote down “happy,” he was told he did not understand the assignment. Lennon’s Aunt Mimi, who raised him from infancy, bought him his first guitar and nurtured his desire to find happiness. Thank goodness for Aunt Mimi, and thank goodness for Lennon’s “Imagine”

As counselors and debriefers of tragic events, let us never question the impact of our connection and our support. We will never replace a parent or grandparent, or be that special Aunt Mimi, but the quality, timeliness and rhythm of our support at a time of crisis cannot be underestimated. Many of the children we invest in are seeking a safe haven with close, nurturing, people who listen. They want to feel happy again, and some fear they will never get there. It is through our trauma training and how we learn to “walk” with the survivors of a tragedy in those first dark days and months. It is here that we recognize the value of having a well-designed and well-researched blueprint to follow, and thank goodness for the many TLC programs that support these trauma skills.

I perused the TLC website to look at the 40 online courses listed, and all of them offer “roadmaps” to help clinicians after the initial trauma. They focus on safety and connection. Self-care is a key component in the programs. We all want to make a difference with the clients we meet. In order to give, we need to explore our own strengths. Take a look at “Clear Vision 2,” a course that helps us fully uncover our “resiliency within.” Or have a look at the newest of the courses, “Healing the Helper,” which raises awareness about compassion fatigue. Stay current, stay connected.

Barb Dorrington

How to Create a New Year’s Resolution That Works!

December 21, 2013

TLC GUEST BLOGGER: Barb Dorrington, MEd

Having fought excess weight all my life, I feel qualified to represent the eternally failed New Year’s resolutions from years past to lose the excess pounds. Recently, Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, spoke about the human brain being more like an old cassette recorder rather than a modern iPod. Finally, someone is talking my language! Dr. Hanson suggested cultivating a positive mindset by first visualizing a positive mental state, then “installing” the attached positive feeling. How? Hanson talked about holding that image on pause, sensing and imagining the experience intensely as if it were really happening. He suggested absorbing the multi-modal experience by repeating that same positive thought a handful of times in a day and attaching a body sensation and motion to it. For Hanson, he called it staying with a “Goldilocks moment” of being not too big or small, not too hot or cold. He refers to this approach as “Let Be – Let Go – Let In” to make the lasting change, shifting from the negative to the positive.

Positive thinking alone never helped me reach my long-term goals. My job is stressful working as a school social worker, and I recognize I am a stress eater. There is nothing better than a handful of chocolate almonds. Neurons that fire and wire together for me historically have been if I have eaten something bad today, I might as well eat bad food all day!

TLC’s William Steele and Caelan Kuban wrote in their book, “Working with Grieving and Traumatized Children and Adolescents,” how trauma interventions need to incorporate a safe place for children where they can see it, hear it, smell it and touch it. In this way, children absorb this positive experience. The authors discuss how finding a personal relevance for “what happened” is crucial, including helping a child make meaning of the previous experience through the eyes of the helper, who acts as witness. People around us, especially helpers, can have significant impact on our own feelings and behaviors. Negative thoughts get bottlenecked and block the transmission of positive thoughts, so connection with others who are positive is an important part of being human.

WorkingwithBookAnother concept that Steele and Kuban shared in trauma work is to be curious, to think like a child, and realize empathy can grow from this, including empathy for our own personal goals. There are many effective sensory interventions shared in this new book. I encourage you to read this soon, to stay current with how we can heal the wounds of small or large traumas.

What are the lessons learned from brain science and trauma work for sticking to a resolution? Well, I need others to bear witness and help me avoid unhealthy food, I need to hold myself accountable and recognize that relapse is normal. In order to stay motivated, my goal has to have relevance to me. I need to think like a child, to create space in my mind, to daydream and to imagine. I have to show gratitude for the smallest of accomplishments. Just as in trauma work, it is sometimes a matter of getting through the next ten minutes when avoiding a temptation.

You may see me closing my eyes to embrace a moment of walking away from that handful of chocolate and sweeping my arms out as if to say, “Ta da!” Trauma is within each of our personal histories, some are large and some are more on a stress continuum. While I am not sure if I will lose all those unwanted pounds, I will celebrate every ounce I do lose!

Gratitude, Thankfulness and Thanksgiving

November 15, 2013


“Gratitude is the inward feeling of kindness received. Thankfulness is the natural impulse to express that feeling. Thanksgiving is the following of that impulse.” 

Henry Van Dyke

Nov. 28 is Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. – a day set aside to perhaps take a moment to invite our awareness and attention to what we are grateful for in our lives. It might be in response to the kindness of others or simply being in awe of the beauty in the world around us. Like today, watching the multiple shades of pink rising with the sun shimmering through a soft veil of snowflakes. Then, to my delight, the dark shadow of antlers began moving across this backdrop, and the moose carried on into the beautiful dawn sunrise. That was my morning prayer.

When we experience that sense of gratitude, as Henry Van Dyke writes in the quote above, we may have the impulse to express this gratitude by offering thankfulness. I sometimes wonder what happens with that impulse to express – do we follow it through with action? With a reciprocation of kindness?  Do we pay it forward?

The action of gratitude is following our impulse of thankfulness and expressing it through acts of thanksgiving. We teach children to be gracious by thanking others for their kindness. It doesn’t have to stop there. We can teach children about being grateful for one another, for seeing the flowers blooming in the garden, the smell of freshly cut grass, and the fun of building a snowman. There is no end to what we can be grateful for.

I often wonder about the children and youth I journey with as a therapist, who have gone through much trauma and abuse. I wonder, “What do they think about gratitude?” Post-traumatic growth would suggest that perhaps some people who have gone through traumatic times will have a deeper sense of gratitude or purpose in life. True, some of us become stronger in character as a result of living through the tough and rising tall on the other side of adversity. I personally have experienced this, and I have professionally, over and over again, witnessed teens/children rising on the other side with gracious hearts.

What is clear to me is the power we have right now to cultivate an awareness of gratitude and to create a practice of expressing our thankfulness. Action. As with most things in life that we want to change, shift up, develop – we make a plan of action. If we don’t have the habit of expressing gratitude, we can certainly create a plan to begin shaping the habit.

In life, we can open ourselves to give thanks for the little things, even the annoying things, especially the challenging and frustrating things that happen. Can we train our brain to pay attention to the “cup half full”?  We are full of potential, to shift, to change, to rewire our habitual ways of being. And truly, it is never too late to change our focus. In fact, something beautiful just might happen!

Here are some ideas you might want to experiment with, if you haven’t already:

• Practice Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty
This fall, with my craze on for painting and writing on stones, I found a website where a woman has painted peace symbols on over 12,000 small stones. She travels to various places and leaves these peace stones for others to find. Why not join her? Google Peace Rocks with Alison Ciarlante. Imagine finding one of these little treasures and how it might brighten your day.

Gratitude Rocks

I followed suit with painting many peace stones and share them with my clients, friends and family, but writing words of gratitude and giving them to those around you is also a nice gesture. I have also invited young people I work with to create gratitude stones that have words or images on the stones of things they are grateful for.

Pay it Forward
Up here in Canada, there was a cool trend happening at Tim Hortons – our famous coffee shops – where someone bought coffee for the next 500 customers in Edmonton, Alberta. Then it happened again in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  This similar trend continued to happen all across Canada. We can pay it forward in small ways, like buying the cup of coffee for the next person in line, bringing a treat for a coworker. Start your own trend!

A Tree of Thanks
Using real branches from a pruned tree makes a nice start for this project. Cut out paper leaves for you and your family to draw or write on things you are thankful for. This makes a lovely display for the thanksgiving meal.

Chalk Board Fabric
This is another festive project for the thanksgiving table. Cut out a funky design with the fabric to make a runner for the table, write “Give Thanks” on the center and invite everyone to write on it during the meal. The discussion generates a real theme of gratefulness of Thanksgiving.

Secret “Thanks”
Make little cards of thanks to people you want to take a moment to offer special notice of. It can simply be thanks for their presence in your life!

Gratitude Journals
I remember back in 1996 when Sarah Ban Breathnack published the “Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude.” I wrote in my journal for years later. Since then there has been a proliferation of gratitude journals. Make your own gratitude journal, and collage the cover to your own delight.

‘Tis the season to find inexpensive pumpkins and squash at the local grocery store. Pick one up and, using markers, write, “What are you grateful for?”

Gratitude Session
Cultivating gratitude in your daily life can become habit forming! Take 2-3 minutes, perhaps on the drive to and from work, and focus on the things you are grateful for in that moment.

Morning and Night
Another opportunity to cultivate gratitude daily. Develop the habit of noting five things you are grateful for first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

Something I Haven’t Thought of Being Grateful For
In the quest for being grateful, this question struck me in a new and fresh way. What have I not acknowledged being grateful for? Makes me think a little deeper.

What are you waiting for?  The next person you see or talk to – give thanks for their presence in your life.

Perhaps you have an idea to share – post it!

“If the only prayer you every say in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”

  Meister Eckhart

Being A Childhood Hero Is Not So Great

November 4, 2013

TLC Guest Blogger: William Steele, PsyD, MSW

Given the tragic and often traumatic events children are exposed to, we often hear stories of brave acts carried out by children. Many are called heroes.

Emalee Ayers was taught how to call 911 at age 4. Shortly after she called and saved her mother’s life, she was called a hero. Eric Cafazzo, age 10, applied the Heimlich maneuver on his younger sister and saved her life. He was called a hero. He learned to do the Heimlich maneuver at one of his Cub Scout meetings.

Seven-year-old Titus Adams was called a hero for running a half a mile through a mud field, crawling under an electric fence and pushing through a barbed wire gate to get to a dairy farm so someone could call for help. His mother’s car had flipped over five times. She was thrown out and was unconscious. He left his 5-year-old sister in the car, telling her not to cry and that he would be back (

Six-year-old Robert Licata from Sandy Hook Elementary was called a hero for leading a group of children to safety (

First, what these children did may be heroic or acts of bravery. I think it is important to distinguish between the two. Secondly, regardless of whether these were brave acts or acts of heroism, we need to appreciate the burden that comes with being called a hero, not only for the children who emerge as heroes but for those involved in the same situation as their “heroic” peer.

Dick Stodghill, veteran of the Normandy Invasion and Korean War and today a daily columnist, presents the following example of the difference between being a hero and acting bravely: “When a fireman is hosing down a burning building ready to collapse, he is acting bravely (doing what he was trained to do). If he runs into the heart of the flames to save another person with slight chance of survival, he is a hero.” (

When individuals do what they have been trained to do in the face of great challenges, they are acting bravely, as were several of the children in the examples we cited. They were trained to call 911, and in one case give the Heimlich maneuver.

That such young children could also do what they were trained to do when faced with a real danger is quite remarkable and certainly evidence of the value of early training regarding emergencies, strangers and other crisis situations. Perhaps the other two children were trained to run for help or to a safe place. Perhaps their reactions were instinctive and heroic.

Unfortunately, whether children act bravely or heroically, referring to them as heroes can become a significant burden because of how others now relate to them, as well as the expectations that come with being a hero.

In most cases heroes do not see themselves as heroes, as they feel they were simply doing what needed to be done. Most will tell you they hate being labeled as such because of the ways others begin to relate to them. Heroes are immediately placed on a pedestal and viewed as different by others, often as untouchable and perfect. Seen as perfect, they begin to find it difficult to openly express their fears, anxieties or worries about everyday developmental challenges to those around them. They are expected to be able to manage anything.

For these reasons, heroes often feel alienated from their immediate peers, especially those who may have been involved in the same threatening situation. For some of those peers, that hero is a constant reminder of the shame or guilt they may experience because they did not act in a similar manner.

This causes them to pull away from or totally avoid the hero. There really is no benefit to calling a child a hero. However when we refer to their actions as brave, we reinforce the value of what they were trained to do or the instinctive actions they took. We prevent alienating them from their peers, from being perfect and from expectations too difficult for children to manage.

We do need our heroes. They give us hope. They reinforce our goodness and strength. They give us a path to follow in the face of significant life challenges. They remind us of what is possible.

But let’s allow children to grow up being brave rather than possibly burdened by being called heroes.

Stories From Sandy Hook Elementary School Staff

October 24, 2013

By TLC Founder William Steele, PsyD

On Nov. 14 of this year, staff from Sandy Hook Elementary School will be spending the day with TLC sharing their stories. It will be almost one year since that unimaginable, violently tragic end of so many young, innocent and promising lives. What is unique about the gift these survivors will bring us are the lessons they continue to learn about surviving, the challenges of remaining resilient, the value of community, the many ways surviving children and families are coping and what has helped as well as hindered efforts to heal. Equally important, we will hear how our presenters are managing their own reactions as they continue months later to respond to the ongoing needs and worries of their students and staff.

This will be a unique perspective, as rarely do we hear from or even focus on the way survivors are experiencing themselves, their environments and their lives months following exposure to such tragedy. As we all know, the abundance of help and support provided following critical incidents begins to diminish after the first few weeks. When that help disappears, people are often left with limited resources. Rarely do people realize that the lives of many survivors change drastically in the months that follow and create new challenges that can compound and intensify their initial reactions. Consider for a moment how some of the staff at Sandy Hook have perhaps engaged in self-induced wounding when comparing how they responded to those staff who died as a result of their efforts to help. We know this self-induced wounding is not at all unusual, yet rarely is it discussed. There are so many elements to consider when thinking about survivors. Through their stories we all discover valuable lessons.

happygirlteddyHaving spent time with staff from New York City schools following 9/11, I can guarantee that while you are listening to the stories of the Sandy Hook staff, you will often say to yourself, “I would’ve never considered this possibility.” You will hear about experiences, reactions and challenges you would never have planned for in your efforts to be ready to respond to similar acts of violence in your schools or communities. However, you will leave the day feeling more prepared and likely add approaches to your current recovery protocol and procedures. You will also leave the day inspired by the strength and resilience of our presenters, despite how difficult it continues to be for them in the role of helping the children and families in their community most impacted by this tragic loss.

Their presence is a gift that will touch all of us in different ways. I know it will be one of those experiences you remember forever. We do hope you’ll show your support of our presenters and their community by joining us for this very exceptional opportunity to hear firsthand what they have discovered matters most to the their children, families and staff. Click here to register.

Anxiety and Depression

October 14, 2013

By TLC Guest Blogger: William Steele, PsyD, MSW

October is National Depression Awareness Month. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2013) reports that an estimated 1 in 10 Americans report depression. A great deal of attention is given to depression, as should be the case. However, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in this country, affecting more than 40 million Americans, twice the estimated number who experience depression (ADAA, 2013). I always thought it curious that we view anxiety and depression as two separate disorders. The fact is 60 to 70 percent of those experiencing depression also have anxiety (Marano, 2011). Furthermore, the onset of depression is often preceded by childhood/adolescent anxiety disorder. Should anxiety and depression be two distinct disorders? More often than not the two coexist, and there’s growing agreement that they are not two separate disorders but two outcomes of facing life challenges. Actually, one nonprofit mental health advocacy group, Freedom From Fear, supports one week in May as National Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week. In Australia the entire month of October is Anxiety/Depression Awareness Month.

Anxiety is fear based, a constant worrying about what is going to happen next. Depression involves ongoing fear in addition to the belief that: “I will never get over this. I might as well give up.” They share many of the same genetics, neurobiology and symptoms, which make differential diagnosis difficult. However, the recommended interventions for both are the same, generally cognitive behavioral therapy, which TLC research suggests follow sensory-based interventions to be most effective (Steelev& Kuban, 2013).  The use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are also recommended for both, often on a trial basis to determine the most effective SSRI.

In summary, we ought to advocate for Anxiety/ Depression Awareness Month. Since anxiety generally precedes depression, more attention ought to be given to treating anxiety in early childhood and adolescence to help prevent later onset of depression. Assessment by symptoms alone can be misleading and make it difficult to differentiate anxiety from depression, suggesting we should evaluate the subjective experiences of individuals to support the presence of both depression and anxiety. The subjective experience common to both anxiety and depression is viewing oneself as incapable of coping with whatever is feared or appears to be hopeless. Engaging in sensory-based experiences that allow anxious and depressed children, adolescents or adults to alter their view of self as vulnerable and helpless to that of being resilient and empowered is what ultimately alters symptoms and behaviors. When these experiences result in shaping our thoughts (private logic) about self and life, it becomes much easier to engage new coping skills, involving changes in both our thought processes and behaviors. In essence we want these sensory-based, subjective experiences to enable individuals to view self as empowered and resilient.  When this occurs avoidant behaviors, common to both anxiety and depression, begin to diminish.

Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Retrieved October 10, 2013 from

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). An Estimated 1 in 10 U. S. Adults Report Depression. (2013). Retrieved October 10, 2013 from

Marano, H. (2-11). Anxiety and depress Together. Retrieved October 9, 2013 from

Steele, W. & Kuban, C. (2013). Working With Grieving and Traumatized Children and Adolescents: Discovering What Matters Most Through Evidence- Based Sensory Interventions. New Jersey, John Wiley and Sons.

Bullying and Moral Disengagement

September 30, 2013

By TLC Guest Blogger Mary McHenry, MSW

October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Please take some time to explore websites such as,  where they state, “We have a variety of resources you can use during October — and throughout the year — to engage, educate and inspire others to join the movement and prevent bullying where you live.” Of significance in this quote is “throughout the year.” We rise to the occasion when there is a month dedicated to a cause, or we are impacted by an incident that stirs us and prompts us to take action. Unfortunately we can forget about it later.

The sad reality is that bullying, whether it is overt or covert, is thriving like a disease we have no cure for and is responsible for trauma reactions in many children. Despite our efforts to prevent bullying, there are many who still accept it, saying things like, “There are always going to be bullies.” Further, many parents teach their children to “fight back,” providing a rationalization for the immoral conduct of fighting. What is significant to this discussion is the fact that teaching children to fight back is promoting just what the bully does; rationalizing the act as being justified, dehumanizing and blaming another so as to act unjustly, diffusing responsibility, and justifying behavior we know is morally wrong by convincing ourselves that in this case, it is OK. The process I described above is what many feel is at the root of understanding bullying; moral disengagement. (Hymel, et al 2005)

Moral disengagement is a socio-cognitive process by which people will rationalize or convince themselves that questionable behaviors are acceptable, despite the fact that when examined, the behavior is actually bad from a moral standpoint. (Bandura 2002)  Although we operate as a society within the structure of a moral code, “good” people can do “bad” things and can do so with a clear conscience. This is through a process of moral disengagement, including the process of cognitive restructuring, where we can convince ourselves that harmful conduct is OK using a “moral justification” or identifying a perceived greater good. The act of dehumanizing and/or blaming the victim is also prevalent when we can leave the morality of society and act “badly” toward another. (Bandura, 1991)

So for a moment, I would like to look at us, the adults. Have you ever told a white lie? Have you supported the need for military action despite the killing of innocent people? Have you ever cheated on your tax return? I’m sure you can add to these examples and while you consider these, I suspect you are rationalizing why you did what you did.  That is moral disengagement, perhaps in it’s minor forms, but it is what bullies do so they can be a bully. Understanding and accepting that we are capable of moral disengagement can help us understand and help the bully, along with the bystanders and those who are bullied.

According to Bandura (2002) “Initially, individuals perform mildly harmful acts they can tolerate with some discomfort. After their self-reproof has been diminished through repeated enactments, the level of ruthlessness increases, until eventually acts originally regarded as abhorrent can be performed with little anguish or self-censure. Inhumane practices become thoughtlessly routinized.” If we accept that moral disengagement is a gradual process, we must recognize the importance of providing early intervention to prevent moral disengagement from really taking hold.

It is clear that early bullying prevention is critical, and careful consideration must be given to developing strategies that challenge morally disengaged behaviors.  Peer groups, parents, teachers, counselors and society as a whole must be prepared to challenge these behaviors at the outset, not accept, rationalize or ignore. (Hymel, et al 2005) Looking at ourselves and how we behave must also be considered.  When we look at bullies and wonder how they can do what they do, we must remember moral disengagement is a human response that we are capable of as well.

Take a look at this 2012, Dateline report entitled “My Kid Would never Bully”:

Despite having a strong understanding of bullying and knowing it is wrong, we see how easy it is to be a bystander, do nothing to help, and justify the lack of support for the victim. Although the bullying epidemic is complicated, it appears to me that understanding moral disengagement is an important piece of the puzzle. I hope you will explore this further as I plan to.

Bandura, A. 2002. “Selective moral disengagement in the exercise of moral agency.” Journal of Moral Education, 31: 101-119.

Bandura, A. (1991). Social cognitive theory of moral thought and action. In W.M. Kurtines & L. Gewirtz (Eds.), Handbook of moral behavior and development (Vol. 1, pp 45-103). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Hymel, Shelley, Natalie Rocke-Henderson, and Rina A. Bonanno. “Moral Disengagement: A Framework For Understanding Bullying Among Adolescents.” Journal of Social Sciences .8 (2005):1-11.

Unsullied-Non-Knowing: The Essence of Discovering What Matters Most

September 11, 2013

By TLC Founder William Steele, PsyD

James Dyson, the creator of the Dyson vacuum cleaner, powerful fans and other household appliances, is an engineer and a billionaire. He credits his success to the principle of hiring “unsullied” people because he says, “I want us (our team) to approach projects as knowing nothing but willing to experiment on something” (10 questions, Time, August 19, 2013 p. 60). In essence he is defining curiosity. In “Working with Grieving and Traumatized Children and Adolescents: Discovering What Matters Most Through Evidence-Based Sensory Interventions” (Steele and Kuban, 2013) an entire chapter is devoted to curiosity and the value of being a non-knowing practitioner as a means to encourage children to take us deeper in the world and the ways they experience themselves and their world as they know it. Hughes (2009) wrote, “When curiosity is directed toward the child’s experience rather than toward the factual events in his life and when it is conveyed with both affective and reflective features, the child is likely to go with the therapist very deeply into his or her life story and experience a co-regulating of emotions related to what is being explored and the meaning given those events” (p.169).

Being curious does not come natural to many practitioners simply because they have been taught to be the knowing practitioner, able to determine what is best for struggling children rather than allowing children to teach them what matters most in their world. Unfortunately, in the clinical setting, county and state regulators and reimbursement entities insist that we plan ahead and devise our treatment plans following the initial intake interview. It forces practitioners into being the all knowing, being confident about what is best for children following such a very brief period of time. Padesky wrote about therapists who are too confident with where they are going. He stated, “(They) only look ahead and miss a detour that can lead to a better place.”

girldrawIt always amazes me, when conducting trainings, how difficult it is for practitioners to be naturally curious. For example, when I assume the role of a child who experienced a house fire and ask participants what they’re curious about regarding that house fire, rarely does anyone ever ask, “Are you OK and did anyone die?” If you were a close friend, your initial natural curiosity would be immediately directed at wanting to know if I was OK and, if so, you would immediately want to know if anyone died or was seriously hurt. Similarly, after drawing a picture of what happened and presenting this to participants they will begin by asking, “Tell me what this is about.” When I respond that my grandma is dying, rather than asking questions about her dying, such as, “What she is dying from or how long she has been dying?” they immediately redirect their questions to the other elements of the drawing. In essence, they immediately begin to look ahead, trying to make sense of what this all means, rather than being curious about where I initially take them — to grandma dying.

Dyson also stated in the same interview, “We don’t use technicians because it’s in the building, which is a mundane thing to do, that you really start to understand what you are doing.” Curiosity really is the cornerstone of building an empathetic relationship in which children feel we are attuned to their world. Once they experience this, they then reciprocate by taking us further into their worlds in ways that allow us to better understand what matters most to them, not what we think will matter most. What matters to children is not how technically efficient our clinical skills are but how much time we spend in their world, not as knowing clinicians but as curious witnesses, building an understanding of what we must provide to be helpful.

Hughes, R. (2009). Attachment Focused Treatment for Children. In Kerman, M. (Ed.). Clinical Pearls of Wisdom. New York: Norton 169-181.

Padesky, C.A. (1993). Socratic Questioning: Changing minds or guiding discovery? A keynote address delivered at the European Congress of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, London, 24, September.

Steele, W., & Kuban, C. (2013). Working with Grieving and Traumatized Children and Adolescents: Discovering What Matters Most Through Evidence-Based Sensory Interventions. New Jersey: Wiley

Come Together and Grow

August 7, 2013

JeanAssembly TLC Guest Blogger: Jean West, LCSW, CTC-S, CT

I admit I am still on a training “high.” It’s that feeling you get when you have the opportunity to be around like-minded passionate practitioners whose goal is the same as yours, to learn more about helping others heal from trauma.

As I write this blog, I am contemplating why it feels so good to come together and grow. Maybe it is because the work we do can be so incredibly difficult at times.

I remember last winter two brothers were referred to me whose father had committed suicide. They had walked in with their mom and found their dad after he had committed the act. I went through the drawing process separately with both boys, one after the other. I often quote the movie “Warhorse” in trainings, where the mom is describing why the father who has returned from war is so silent on his experience. She says, “there are some things there are no words to describe.”

That is why drawing is such a powerful tool, enabling us to help the integration of the right and left brain, and helping others to be able to put their experiences into words. After going through these two sessions, I was emotionally, physically and even spiritually exhausted. I ran home and laid down in front of my fireplace and took a short nap, needing rest from the stories that spring forth from our children’s souls.

That is why I love the TLC Summer Assembly. It is rest, rejuvenation, excitement, relationship and renewed learning for me. This is crucial for the work we do. However, I realize that all of us may not be able to attend trainings as much as we would like. How do we stay positive, focused and continue to grow?

First, when we do have the opportunity to attend workshops or trainings from anyone, stay positive. I have heard so many coworkers lament the fact that they are required to go to this or that. They have “too much work back at the office” to be away. However, it is even more important when we are feeling that overwhelmed to have a time away to remember why we are doing what we are doing. If we lose our purpose and joy in our work, how long can we remain a positive relationship in our client’s lives? In Daniel Siegel’s book, “The Whole-Brain Child,” he states, “The kinds of relationships our children experience will lay the groundwork for how they relate to others for the rest of their lives.” Our relationship teaches those with whom we work important relational skills, such as communicating and listening well, interpreting facial expressions, understanding nonverbal communication and much more. Never underestimate the power of a positive relationship in regards to healing.

Second, find a system for using what you learn. It is too easy to file away new knowledge without applying it to our current work. I recommend a checklist for every learning opportunity you receive:

  1. What are three concepts I learned I don’t want to forget?
  2. What is one area I caught a glimpse of that I want to learn more about?
  3. What is one hands-on activity I can use right away with those I work with?

JeanAssembly2Third, I imagine we have all been to a workshop where we thought, “Oh no, I picked the wrong one!” (Hopefully not mine!) I have learned long ago that there is always, always something I can learn and take away. It has to do with having a teachable spirit and being open to new ideas that maybe are different from our own. Last winter I attended a breakout session at a conference where I kept thinking, “Oh boy, I’m not sure about this.” The majority of the presentation was not my favorite, but I decided to stay and be positive. At the very end, the presenters brought forth a concept that spoke to me. I immediately saw how it could be a tool in family therapy and have been using it with great success since. Continue to be open to new learning!

Finally, find the one main concept in each book or article that you read regarding the work that we do that speaks to your heart and write it down. I am an avid reader, and until I learned this concept I wasn’t quite sure how to decide what was important to remember from all that I read and how to keep track of it. What I do now is keep a notebook of what I have read and the most important concept for me from each book that I learned. Some books will have more then one idea, but I limit my list to no more then two or three. This has helped me to remember and use what I am learning on an ongoing basis.

However you choose to grow, continue to grow as a person and a practitioner. When we are whole, we have more to give.

Keep growing, my friends, and keep impacting lives every day.


Siegel, D. & Payne Bryson, T. (2011). The Whole-Brain Child Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. Delacorte Press.

Get Up Off the Chair! Repairing the Relationship to the Body

June 17, 2013


“She danced to free her spirit and to free other spirits too…she danced for the living and for the dead in birth and in mourning for peace, beauty and creative expression.”  –Shiloh Sophia

Trauma and the Body
What happens to a child or adolescent’s relationship to their body when they have experienced trauma? When trauma happens there is significant impact on our physiological, emotional and psychological states. The ability to delight in and feel safe within our body becomes impaired. In essence trauma has the potential to create a disconnection to the body. Children learn and begin to believe things like, “My body is not safe,” “My body cannot be trusted” and “I feel chaotic and out of control.”

Body-Focused Interventions
In therapy we want to activate the necessary function of the left hemisphere, which is shut down during trauma experience. The body is a key entryway to help with this activation. Stein & Kendall (2004) state that the neurological basis for providing body-focused interventions such as expressive arts is:

“…because traumatic memories are often firmly lodged in the right hemisphere, children tend to be controlled by negative emotions and self-defeating behaviors. Thus an important goal of treatment is to help children process experience through as many modalities as possible (i.e. images, thoughts, emotions, sensations, and movement), and to design experiences that can activate both hemispheres, especially the left (i.e. experiences that stimulate positive emotions and encourage initiative and action.” (p.137).

van der Kolk (2005) emphasizes the need for interventions that involve movement and pleasure. He states:

“Complexly traumatized children need to be helped to engage their attention in pursuits that do not remind them of trauma-related triggers and that give them a sense of pleasure and mastery. Safety, predictability and “fun” are essential for the establishment of the capacity to observe what is going on, put it into a larger context, and initiate physiological and motoric self-regulation. Only after children develop the capacity to focus on pleasurable activities without becoming disorganized do they have a chance to develop the capacity to play with other children, engage in simple group activities, and deal with more complex issues.” (p. 407).

As trauma-informed practitioners, it is useful to understand how we can bring awareness to the impact of trauma on the body and how to support the reconnection to the sensory experiences of feeling free and safe within the body.

The Body’s Natural Language is Movement
Mindful movement brings one back into the body. We can help children and youth re-establish healthy connections to their bodies and help repair any disruptions of their own attachment to their bodies by designing safe ways to connect to the body through awareness and movement. If we offer a safe, creative play space for our clients, the repair through mindful movements can assist with:

  • increasing trust in the body’s integrity
  • reestablishing a sense of pleasure and ability to delight in positive sensations
  • creating opportunities for self-soothing experiences
  • experiencing power within their own body through self-regulating experiences (i.e. move from sadness to playfulness)

As therapists we help children notice the sensations associated to their inner world, we invite experiences and experiments to expand the sensations and then teach how to savor these positive sensations/feelings. These experiences help children begin to experience in a bodily way, the innate ability of their body to experience play, pleasure and calm.

We do not have to be trained dance/movement therapists to integrate play, gesture, movement into our practice with young people. Movement is a natural part of our life, however, we may have been conditioned to primarily use talk therapy and to stay still and stay put in our respective client-therapist chairs. We are conditioned as human beings to live mostly in our heads, moving in the world as though we don’t have bodies. If we check within ourselves as therapists, we will likely encounter our own notions/ideas about moving in therapy – perhaps our own discomfort in our bodies. It is important that we feel comfortable moving in our own bodies if we are to invite our clients to engage in mindful movements.

Ideas for Practice
The following are some simple ways to bring movement into the creative therapeutic space in our work with children/teens. It is not only the activity itself that can be healing, it is the mindful awareness we bring to the movement, that is noticing the sensations that are aroused, to be curious about them and to invite experimentation through movement (i.e. “What movement expands that openness in your chest – when we stretch way up high or when you put your hand on your chest?”).

1. Beginning of Sessions (fun openings that increase sense of pleasure and playfulness)

  • toss a ball
  • play with sticks (I have 3’ long doweling sticks that I painted a variety of colors) -use these sticks to balance between two people or on your own
  • various games with tossing balloons
  • blowing bubbles

2. Middle of Sessions (used within a structured and evidence-based approach to treating trauma such as Structured Sensory Interventions – TLC)

  • show me the hurt – gestures, dance
  • use the drum to tell the story of the hurt
  • body scan – tuning into the inner world of feelings and sensations and mapping them out on a life-size body outline, find movements/gestures that correspond with those sensations and feelings
  • use stories and rhymes to act out the various rhythms of fight, flight, freeze

3. Ending Sessions (returns the body to a sense of calm, playfulness, self-presence and we are grounded in the here and now)

  • Movement Thumb Ball (I love this ball – if you are coming to the Summer Assembly, pick one up at the Self-Esteem Shop!)
  • play songs our clients like and dance with scarves
  • Yoga Deck – client chooses a card and we make the pose
  • mirroring movement with or without music (one person moves and the other follows, switch roles)

Just a reminder: These are not just therapeutic activities to be used randomly. They are important interventions that are part of a well-thought-out practice framework that guides the treatment of trauma in children and teens.

“She danced to free her spirit and to free other spirits too…
She danced for the living and for the dead
in birth and in mourning
for peace, beauty and creative expression.”
Shiloh Sophia


Stien, P. & Kendall, J. (2004). Psychological trauma and the developing brain: Neurologically based interventions for troubled children. New York: Haworth Press.

van der Kolk, B. (2005). Developmental trauma disorder: Towards a rational diagnosis for children with complex trauma histories. Psychiatric Annals. 35(5), 401-408.