Family Therapy 101

I spend a lot of time talking to families. It’s a wonderful job to be present as families rediscover how to respect one another, talk through problems, and make plans together. Towards that end, here are the top three issues that tend to come up in joint therapy between children and their families in session.

1. Spend more time together: Many families who have faced divorce, death, or some other traumatic event may become terribly isolated from one another even though they live in the same home. It’s also possible that the loss of communication and closeness is related to long working hours, conflict in the hierarchy of the parenting dyad, or exhausting disagreements with a stubborn child. Your children need not only quality time, but also a reasonable quantity of time as well. There is no substitute for your guidance, interest, and attention. The families that are least helped by therapy are those in which the parents want the counselor to “fix”’ the child, but have no interest in changing any of their own patterns. That’s like changing the flat tire on your car and deciding that you then no longer need to put gas in it.  If you’re withholding quantity or quality time until your child “does better” please reconsider. That fuels a vicious circle of blaming and withdrawing that will disempower both of you.

2. Strengthen the couple: If you are a part of a married couple or a committed partnership, it is important for the children to see you as a united front. This is true not only in areas of discipline, but in terms of genuine companionability and interest in one another. It is not uncommon for children to act out in some way the troubles with which they believe their parents are struggling. This can manifest as aggression towards one parent, stealing, staying out to late, or any number of negative behaviors. Your children will try to be mini relationship counselors by both covert and overt means. If they don’t have to worry about the state of the union, it’s easier for them to respect boundaries and believe that you mean what you say. If you are divorced or separated, it is doubly important that kids develop the understanding that though you and your former partner are no longer together, you will continue to co-parent without attempting to draw the children into your struggle. It is a temptation for parents who are already lonely and vulnerable to use their kids to reinforce their fragile sense of self. However, all you teach your kids is that when push comes to shove, he or she must step up and be responsible for issues that are not his or her own.

3. Don’t be afraid to parent: We live in a time in which norms and old, out-dated ways of relating and thinking about families are quickly challenged and put aside. This has, in many ways been a wonderful thing.  Many of the rigid gender roles that defined families of the past have been renegotiated with more room for each parent to freely use the gifts he or she has in a more flexible manner. However, this has brought with it some differences that are, in my opinion, dangerous. Children need parents not friends. There is a distinct and important difference between being a parent who nurtures uniqueness and offers a forum for discussion of differences, and one who allows his or her children to run roughshod in order to be a popular parent. Children know they are safe when we give them strong, predictable, boundaries. So if you don’t give them that boundary in a loving, clear way, guess what happens? Those kids will continue to push and search until they find that safety point. This is a recipe for early sex and substance abuse. The 20 and 30-something adults I see in my office are rarely angry at the parents who were a little too strict. (Though, there is a line where punishment and control become punitive.) However, they do struggle to negotiate a sense of self worth when parents were not actively willing to say, “I love you so much that I will not allow you to do/experience this now, even if it makes you upset with the decision I have made.”

Your Partner in Healing,   Holly

If you would like to schedule an appointment or a free 15-minute phone conversation, please feel free to email me at or call 407.913.4988.

Couples Counseling 101

Not that long ago, I was at a large, corporate Christmas party attempting to explain just what in the devil it is that I do for a living. “Yes, I talk to people for a whole career.” “No, I don’t analyze everyone I meet outside of my office.” “Yes, I do quite a bit of couples work.” That last admission is usually the one that grabs their interest.

As we stand there, festive drinks clenched in hand, my fellow conversationalists drop to a low, conspirital tone. “What really makes marriages work?” they want to know. “What is really the most important thing?”

Since we may never run into one another at a dinner party to have this conversation in person (and shame on you for not inviting me) here are a few tips for a more contented partnership:

  1. Communication: I bet you thought that one would be first. But, wait a moment; it’s not simply any old kind of communication. The guy two cars behind me who keeps blowing his horn is communicating something. So was the bully at school who called you a booger-head. Good communication is respectful of differences and open to the influence of the other partner. John Gottman, the Big Daddy of couples research, found that couples who thrive employ frequent “repair attempts.” These are defined as any remark (“I know this is hard for you”) or gesture (making a funny face or grabbing your partner’s hand) that builds a bridge across the conflict. However when these repair attempts are rejected by escalating (screaming) or stonewalling (withdrawing) even well-matched pairs can enter the relationship equivalent of a sudden-death round.
  2. Restraint:Marital research also demonstrates that couples who start arguments with bitter words or accusations do not outlast their counterparts. While I know that your spouse or partner can get your knickers in a twist at a moment’s notice, it is your responsibility to create half of that relationship. Relationships are like ecologies, they are the living systems of our social world. If oil is spilled in the Everglades, the fix is not to get angry and throw more oil on the Everglades. But, that is precisely what many couples do. If you do not want to live in a toxic ecology stand up for it. Don’t pollute it with more of what you don’t want just to get even.
  3. Defensiveness: This one is so important that Gottman named it as one of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”  This is a harbinger of doom for any good union because defensiveness puts vulnerability, active listening, and creative problem solving in a head lock. Therapy is often helpful with this particular horseman because defensiveness comes from feelings of being threatened or unsafe. It is possible that certain kinds of arguments with your partner trigger old relationship hurts and unresolved family of origin issues. To prevent yourself from going on autopilot and responding in patterned, intractable ways, you need to get those blueprints of thinking, feeling, and engaging out into the light. Then, you can set about collaborating with your partner on how to talk to you in a way that will get better results for both of you

Those are just a few of the many topics we can develop further in couples sessions. Just let me know if you have any thoughts about them.

Your Partner in Healing,    Holly

If you would like to schedule an appointment or a free 15-minute phone consultation please contact me at or call 407.913.4988.

How to be a good client

Let’s talk for a moment about the care and keeping of the rare and wonderful beastie we call the therapy session. Most people are not prepared for what it will be like to undertake therapy. Why would they be? We live in a society that still stigmatizes those who seek help, and often information about how therapy works is given second-hand by a friend or family member who has had treatment.  So to that end, I am writing a bit today about how to best take advantage of your session.

You can expect any therapist to do some pretty routine things when you come in for your first appointment. Most of us will ask you to fill out paperwork stating that you understand what kinds of risks and benefits clinical work presents, explains the limits of confidentiality, and tells you how that clinician will keep your private health information safe.  In addition, we usually want to know something about any past history of treatment you have had, and how helpful or not that was for you. We ask this so we can better tailor your treatment to your preferences. And, we want to assess for any other professionals we might need to refer you to in the course of our work together. Sometimes, I refer clients for a medication evaluation, or back to their family doctor to rule out physical problems that can masquerade as mental health issues. Finally, we will ask you to talk some about your hopes for how therapy can be helpful to you, and what goals you would like to work on in session. Often, family therapists inquire about your family of origin and other important relationships to understand in a systemic fashion how you relate to the world around you.

Now that you know how to get started, let’s look at three of the best ways to get the most bang for your therapeutic buck.

<!1)      Therapy is a team sport: Some clients are able to take better advantage of the therapy or life-coaching process. It’s not that these clients have less difficult problems, rosier histories, or even better coping skills than others. They simply do better because they are active participants in the process. While therapists are trained to ask good questions, we’re not mind readers– we’re facilitators that can help make the ‘stuck’ patterns in your life more transparent. If I assumed that I knew everything about you or had all the right answers for your life, I would be a pretty terrible therapist.  And, that would rob you of the important task of knowing that you have the strengths and insight to confront your troubles in a head-on fashion.  I have never met a client who does not have more success when they are able to take some ownership over the process.

<!2)      What’s the issue: Before you come in, think about what, specifically, you would like to be different in your life when the problem is not so powerful. Though it’s sometimes very comforting to think about merely the absence of the issue, what will really make your work more focused is articulating how your experience of yourself and others will look when you have become successful. Many clients have their “Ah-ha” moments when taking a considered look at what they are working towards, not what they are running away from. This can take several different forms. For example, I ask couples what, specifically and behaviorally their partner will be doing differently when the problem does not have as much influence. I often ask folks with anxiety to name 3 things they will be doing that will let them know they are on the right track. It’s best if these are very small things. Folks have told me everything from, “I will be smiling 3 times a day,” to “I will be telling my boss more often when I feel she is taking advantage of me.”

<   3) Be willing to cut yourself some slack:  When people ask me how long therapy will take, I often answer, “As long as it takes.” I tend to work briefly, and most of my clients find some relief from their presenting problems in around 12 sessions. However, if you have delayed coming into therapy for a long time, have experienced trauma or significant mental illness, or you need continued support as you implement changes, you might be charming me with your presence  for a bit longer. If you are able to give yourself permission to work at your own pace, you will be able to take better advantage of the time we spend together. You are trying to make changes in the way you think, experience, and behave. Whew, that’s some heavy lifting. Your whole life has trained you for the problems you are bringing in to resolve. Just as you wouldn’t want to tell the guy laying the foundation on your house to just hurry up, realize that you are laying the foundation for a better life. Love yourself enough to savor the courage it takes to undertake this kind of effort.

Your Partner in Healing,  Holly

If you would like to schedule an appointment or a free 15-minute phone consultation please contact me at or call 407.913.4988

Put me in coach! Life Coaching 101

So you’re not totally nuts. Maybe you should try Life Coaching!

That’s one of the tag lines I came up with when trying to think of a way to invite more clients into one of the areas of my practice I love the most—life coaching. What do you think? Ok, so all my therapist and life coaching friends rejected that one too. I just thought it got to the point of what most people believe to be the fine line between traditional therapy and life coaching. It’s not necessarily true, though.

I happen to believe that most of my clients, sometimes particularly those who come in for mental health counseling, are really looking for solutions rather than presenting to endlessly revisit problems. Clients like this are a real joy because they understand that pathological behaviors are sometimes nothing more than habits. Or better said, they are behaviors or thoughts repeated over and over that somehow got elevated to the category of a belief. Beliefs are stubborn little mules. Good ones, like those in a higher power or your own wonderful possibilities will trek us all the way up the mountain of life. Bad ones, like a conviction that you are an “anxious” person, or that everyone is out to get you, keep you backed into a corner as they kick you into submission. Wasn’t that an elegant way to say that? Now you can tell everyone when you’re having a bad day that your belief mule is biting you on the behind. Credit me in your memoirs.

Life Coaching is different from most traditional psychotherapy in that it is short-term, solution-focused and sometimes rather narrow in scope. Clients who come in for this service are not suicidal, self-harming, or struggling to get control of significant mental health issues that may require more depth-oriented intervention. That doesn’t mean you can’t pop your Prozac and come to Life Coaching. It does mean that for the most part, you have your life in perspective and have developed some criteria for how things can be different. Clients most often seek Life Coaching services to:

  • Develop a Vision for the Future
  • Foster Appropriate Risk Taking
  • Transform Relationships
  • Live a Life of Integrity
  • Set Well-Developed Goals
  • Develop Conflict-Resolution Skills
  • Improve as a Leader
  • Implement New Coping Skills
  • Architect a Competitive Edge
  • Manage Stress and Anxiety

And, there are many, many more. I love life coaching because it offers a way to celebrate the growing strengths and sense of direction that many people feel as the develop their “edge.” If you have ways you are creating the life you have always dreamed of I would love to hear them!

Your Partner in Healing,    Holly

If you would like to schedule an appointment or a free 15-minute phone conversation, please write me at or phone 407.913.4988.

Depression Decompression

Are you singing the blues? If you are, you’re not alone. Though there has been significant debate about just how many Americans are suffering with Depression, it is generally agreed to be one of the most disabling mental health maladies troubling us today. There are a wide range of mind-body approaches to managing these symptoms. Here are a few:

  1. Sing the Body Electric:
    If you have not had one recently, please go get a physical. There are numerous ailments that can masquerade as mental health problems—thyroid complaints chief among them. Tell your clinician that you are considering seeking therapy and/or psychotropic drugs to address your feelings of sadness. Let her know that you are trying to rule out any underlying conditions that might complicate your search for wellness. If you are already on psychotropic medications to address clinical depression and they are not helping, let your psychiatrist know.
  2. I Think, Therefore I Am:
    Your thoughts shape your reality and mediate how you evaluate emotions. In plain English, the more you drive in the rut, the deeper the rut gets. Many popular models of therapy (not to mention “The Secret” and “The Law of Attraction” if you lean that way) assert that what we think about and how often we allow ourselves to think about it makes our worlds go ‘round. I’m not asking you to stop thinking negative thoughts right away. Some of those pesky thoughts might be sticking around because you need to put them out in the light of day and figure out how they first got into heavy rotation in your mental Top 40. A good professional can help you do that. Once you have, you can come up with a competing thought or word to repeat every time that thought takes its habitual amble across your emotional landscape. You have to create a new rut, and new ruts take time too.
  3. Talk About It:
    You can find a good sounding board in lots of places. Therapists and clergy are usually good places to start. Depression, anxiety and sadness can talk you into believing that you are alone or that others won’t understand. It’s a lie. Some therapists will allow you to do therapy online or by phone if you don’t want to come into the office. I will contract with you for both of these, and I also offer shorter time slots for those on the run. You may not need therapy every week to get back on track.
  4. Pull Out That Etch-A-Sketch:
    Depression (or even good, old-fashioned misery) can block your creative juices. Depressed people often report feeling numb, or like they are on the outside looking in on life. Remind yourself that you are a vibrant person with the skills and strengths to pull through this. Even if your art, poems, journals or music are dark and scary, it is still one way to get some of those toxic emotions out of your emotional system and into the world. Also, research shows that activities like writing engage more parts of your brain than simply thinking about something. This promotes improved processing. You have that big brain up there—use it!
  5. Eat, Drink, and be Merry:
    It is not unusual for folks who are feeling very badly to self-medicate with sugary or fatty foods. This, compounded with a lack of exercise can exacerbate a negative mental and spiritual frame. Your body and mind do their best to mirror and support one another. If you improve your physical functioning your emotional landscape may follow suit. That’s not to mention all those fun endorphins!

This is, of course, by no means an exhaustive list. I would love to hear about creative ways you have managed your sadness or depression. I believe that each person has a wealth of creativity that will allow you (sometimes with the help of a good therapist) to generate some tailored ways to feel better.

Your Partner in Healing,  Holly

If you would like to make an appointment or schedule a free 15-minute phone conversation, please feel free to email me at or phone at 407.913.4988.

Welcome to My Blog!

I am so delighted right now I could kick off my shoes and do a little jig!

Sometimes, great therapists and savvy computer people do not come wrapped up in the same little package. I had been laboring along, troubling my ever-patient site designer and web master to add this or that to my website when finally– in a moment of exasperation– they suggested a blog that I could manage myself. Eureka!

Now, I can share information about relationships, anxiety, depression, and finding life balance in an easy-to-access spot. Better still, all the nice people who read my entries can share their thoughts about the issues I am discussing. I’m so excited about this opportunity that I am transferring a few of my old newsletter entries over to this blog. I apologize to those of you who have already read through them on my main site,  I look forward to continuing to add helpful tidbits to my little counseling corner of cyberspace!

Your Partner in Healing,  Holly

To make an appointment or schedule a free 15-minute phone conversation email me at or phone 407.913.4988.