Can you change? Maybe. Maybe Not. Probably.

lightbulb

Have you heard this psychologist joke?

Question: How many psychologists does it take to change a light-bulb?

Answer: Only one – but the light-bulb has to really want to change.

In my experience as a psychologist and marriage therapist, I have often see people struggle with the question of how much they are capable of actually changing. At social events, when people discover my profession, they will sometimes ask, Can people really change, even if they want to?

Can it change its spots?
Can it change its spots?

Some folks believe in the philosophy that “A leopard cannot change its spots” while others believe  “anything is possible”  in terms of ability to change. As is often the case in psychology, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Obviously, certain habits and some personality traits are changeable, many psychiatric conditions (such as phobias, depression, sexual dysfunction and anxiety) are now very treatable,  but certain core character traits, attitudes toward life, core personality traits, and personal beliefs are not.

A question that often comes up in therapy (or socially) is: “Can an unfaithful partner change or is cheater  always a cheater? Too bad questions about human behavior are not more easily answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”‘  Truth is, some unfaithful partners can and do change and others don’t. Depends on the circumstances (the type of affair) and the character structure of the offender.

The reason the “change” issue  is an important question is that it lies at  the core of setting expectations about people. It is our expectations that determine to a large extent what we will feel toward others or certain situations. If we have in our minds that someone could change if they really wanted to, but, in fact, they cannot, we may unjustifiably  get upset with them.  We may also get unduly upset with ourselves for not changing something about ourselves when, in fact, we need to accept  limitations in that particular area of our lives. People often have unrealistic expectations about themselves and then either unduly berate themselves (expectations too high) if life turns out differently than they anticipated or, give up too easily(expectations too low)  when they could have done more!

What does change require?

Can You Change? It Requires Ability To Do So

The philosophy that “anything is possible” does not square with life experience,  although this notion is popular in our society. For example, for ten years my first wife was convinced she could teach me how to sing. Being a music teacher, she saw me as a real professional challenge the first time she heard me, even though I told her that I couldn’t even carry a tune in a box. Poor woman really tried..and tried. We both eventually gave up, bowing to the harsh reality that one has to have the proper brain structures to be able to sing, no matter how hard one tries, desires it, or commits to it.

Is It Worth It? Change Requires Motivation

On the other hand, we can we learn to change how we communicate, how we handle anger, how we function or show love as a wife, husband, partner, or parent! Many times it is not innate limitations holding us back, but simple lack of skills. If you didn’t get the skills earlier in your life,   you can still acquire them, but this will involve motivation to do so, assuming the thing is changeable in the first place.  Take the young women who comes to our anger management classes because she has just lost her third boyfriend in a row because they could not deal with her anger. Is she motivated to change? You bet! Was she motivated during her first conflictual relationship? No, because at that point she did not see herself as the problem. But, now she does!

Should You Change? It  Requires Trait of Flexibility in Your Personality

Some people do not believe in change. My late mother was one of those people. She did not believe in personal change and could not successfully deal with change in others or change in circumstances. At age 63 she was proud of the fact that “I am the same person today as I was at age 19.”

When I went away to college  and then returned home with fresh ideas and life views, she was very upset because she did not see me as the same boy that had left home (“College has changed you” ). Change requires the flexibility to accept it rather than being scared of it or threatened by it. It requires the ability to be adaptable (instead of rigid) in a changing world and to see the necessity of changing in order to be a more effective person. It is the attitude: “Well, if that doesn’t work for me, I better try something else.” Unfortunately, many people are the opposite: they hold onto what obviously doesn’t work any longer in the hopes that somehow it will work again for them.

Are You Ready To Change?
Are You Ready To Change?

When Should You Change?  Often it  is required to Deal with Life  Stages. Most people realize that children go through  developmental stages, but fail  to recognize that adults do too. What you need and how you see the world is often quit different at age 60 than at age 20. People sometimes naturally change at different life stages. The man who was a terrible father because he was always gone to support the family when younger,  may be an excellent grandfather at age 60. The 19 year old girl who was attracted to the “hot” young men , at age 40 may value stability more than muscles in a man now. To some extent, nature forces us to change as we age, but some people fight it more than others or become frightened because different survival skills are now needed.

Some people mellow as they get older while others sour. Perhaps one reason for the difference is that of adaptability – or change.  It seems to me that happier people are better at accepting change as natural and as part of the universe while sour people are often bitter, disillusioned, disenchanted or unfulfilled with their life or life situation.

Believe it or not, old dogs CAN learn new tricks. Life is change and the wise person asks themselves what they need in THIS life stage to be happier, to be more effective, and to deal with the current as well as future personal challenges.


Six Tips For Parents to Handle Child Anger

Strong Willed Child
Strong Willed Child

Often, we get phone calls from parents who are angry at their children, usually because they happen to have what I euphemistically call a “strong-willed child. ” These children are often defiant, controlling, rebellious, and non-compliant with normal parental demands or requests. Sometimes this extends to their behavior in school, but in other cases they seem to be fine at school and only problematic at home. Things can become so bad that the child can be labeled an “explosive child” involving verbal and behavior aggression and even violence.  In its extreme, these children may be given numerous psychiatric diagnoses such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), intermittent explosive disorder, Tourette;s Disorder, Depression bipolar disorder, Asperger’s disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Parents of strong-willed children often feel guilty and inept. But, while parenting certainly hasd a lot to do with the milder problems within the normal range, truly explosive children are a lot more complex than previously thought and may be the result of numerous factors. An excellent book to help parents with these children is “The Explosive Child” by Dr. Ross. W. Greene. Click here to learn about his “Collaborative Problem Solving Approach.”

Screaming accomplishes Little
Screaming Accomplishes Little

For cases in the more normal range,  we teach in  our anger management classes and Online programs  how to better cope with strong-willed or difficult children by learning the eight tools of anger control – and then applying these tools to themselves too!

It was labor day when 8 year old Brandon’s mother heard a commotion from her child’s room. Seems that his 14 year old visiting cousin said something that upset Brandon which caused Brandon to strike the other boy. His mother Michelle hysterically called her therapist wondering what to do and how to handle the anger in her young son which seemed to be escalating as he became older.

Her therapist wisely explained that children become angry in a variety of situations. Common causes of childhood anger include: frustration, needing attention, feeling powerless, being misunderstood, not feeling good about themselves, feeling helpless, being belittled or made fun of, not having physical needs taken care of, having a parent take over instead of asking if the child wants help, being disappointed, having difficulty saying what they need, or being punished.

The problem of excessive childhood anger is growing. Yet many parents—like Michelle—feel they don’t have the tools to teach their children how to deal with normal angry feelings in an appropriate manner, without hitting or yelling at others, or losing control. Therefore, some parents ineffectively deal with their child’s anger by demanding that he or she stop being angry. Worse, some parents actually yell at or hit their child in attempts to “teach” their child not to be angry. That is like putting them alone in the woods unarmed with a raging black bear to teach them not to be fearful!

Alternatively, good parenting requires teaching children the practical skills needed for anger control.  Although feeling angry is a part of life that no one can avoid because it is “hardwired” in our brains as a protective and survival mechanism, we can teach our children positive ways to cope with these normal angry feelings. Learning the tools of anger management empowers children, makes them more effective and pleasant human beings, and improves the world by decreasing hatred, violence and conflict.

Following are six tips for parents to help their children manage anger, based on our model of anger management called the “eight tools of anger control”

Tip #1- TEACH HOW TO RESPOND INSTEAD OF REACT
Parents can teach their children the difference between feeling angry and acting on anger.  Michelle explained to Brandon that feeling mad is neither good nor bad, but hitting someone out of anger is not OK. She then explained that we have choices as to how to deal with angry feelings.  Encouraging your child to take time-out until they cool down, to keep a journal, draw, or talk out their emotions are positive outlets for feelings of anger.

Providing a means by which to channel feelings into positive actions is another tool to help your child deal with his or her angry feelings. Examples might include taking a relaxing walk, writing letters and cards, doing something nice for another person, or donating time to a worthwhile community project geared toward helping others.

In the short run, life at home will be easier when children learn how to work through anger. In the long run, children will continue developing ways to cope with anger as they become teenagers and adults, and will pass these skills along to their own children.

Tip #2- BE AWARE OF HOW YOUR CHILDREN ARE SEEING YOU
Start by setting a good example. Children learn from observing your behavior. Be aware of the messages you are sending your child in terms of how you behave toward them, how you behave toward other people, and how they see you handling your own anger and stress.

Unfortunately, some misguided parents create hatred in their children by modeling prejudice, intolerance, disrespect or violence toward other people that may be different from them or have different word views. Teaching “empathy” (the ability to see the world from the perspective of another), openness, tolerance and understanding are extremely valuable anger-management tools to teach yourself and your children.

Tip #3-TELL CHILDREN PERSONAL STORIES OF TRIUMPH
Your children need to hear stories of how you may have overcome hardship, adversity, or other life challenges. Research shows that hearing your stories of empowerment over rough times or situations can make your children feel more attached to you, and give them more hope for themselves to be able to overcome their life difficulties. Having more optimism and developing more positive attitudes can often reduce anger in children and adults alike.

Tip #4- BE CONSISTENT IN PARENTING
At any age, anger is often generated between the gap between what is expected and what actually occurs in reality. With children, it is especially important to outline exactly what the consequences are (positive and negative) for their behavior—and then stick to it! Consistency makes children feel more secure, less anxious, and less likely to react angrily if they don’t get “their own way.” Parental consistency between parents or other adults in your child’s life is also very important to create stability and a sense of predictability.

Tip #5- REDUCE FAMILY STRESS
Coping with family stressors is an important tool of anger management, as angry outbursts are much more likely to occur as personal and family stress levels rise. There are many ways to buffer family stressors such as maintaining regular rituals for eating together, sharing the day with each other, finding time to play together, and emotionally supporting each other.

Parents can also help their children learn to calm themselves or self-sooth when angry.  It is often helpful to calm their anger by using the five senses: touching, smelling, tasting, hearing, and seeing. Squeezing play dough, splashing in water, running around outside, listening to music, painting a picture, tensing and relaxing muscles, taking slow deep breaths, or eating a healthy snack are all good responses to angry feelings.

Children who respond well to touch can be taught how to massage their own neck or arms as a self-calming technique. These same children also may find a great deal of comfort in stroking or caring for a pet. To reduce stress, try telling your child the following:
* let’s draw a picture about how you feel
* a warm bath sometimes helps wash away angry feelings
* when you feel hungry and irritable, tell me and I’ll find a snack for you
* sit down and take slow deep breaths until you have calmed down.

Tip #6 – TEACH YOUR CHILD HOW TO SOLVE PROBLEMS
Parent can teach their older preschool, school-age and teenage children to problem solve as a “prevention” tool for getting angry. Michelle, for instance, taught Brandon to “stop and think” the next time he was angry—before losing control and striking other children. She also taught him how to listen to his cousin with both his eyes and ears, before getting upset so that he could “name” the problem and discuss what was upsetting him.

Turns out that Brandon’s cousin had made a disparaging remark about Brandon’s father who happened to be incarcerated. Once the issue was named, Michelle taught Brandon to think of different ways to solve the problem. They agreed on Brandon telling his cousin how much it hurt his feelings to hear “bad” things about his father. As a final step, they agreed to discuss how well their planned worked in a few days.

Most children will need adult help in thinking through this process and coming up with creative problem-solving techniques, but the skills learned will serve your child well throughout his lifetime and might greatly reduce stress in you rhome.

Anger sometimes due to our expectations

Have you ever had the experience of not seeing something that was right in front of you because you didn’t expect that it would be there? I recently had that experience with trees that the city was supposed to plant in front of my house. For months there were no trees where they should have been planted. One day I saw some city trucks outside my house and went to the supervisor asking him when they were going to plant the promised trees. Imagine my surprise and embarrassment when he told me. “sir, we planted them this morning.”  Indeed they had been. Why didn’t I see them? Because expectations determine perception. I didn’t expect to see them there..so I didn’t.

This got me to thinking of the many individuals and couples I work with in anger management who have told me similar stories of how expectations determine what they see or don’t see in other people or situations. Sometimes we get angry when something isn’t the way we think it should be. Adjusting those expectations is an important tool of anger management. Not only do expectations influence our emotions, they also partly determine how we see things in the first place. For instance, if we expect our teenage son to be lazy, we might well miss or mis-perceive some of his behavior that is not lazy at all.

Expectations are subtle and we often we don’t even realize they are influencing us, but they are. Research shows that happy people seem to be happier because they know how to manage their expectations so they don’t experience a great  deal of disappointment or anger when there is a gap between what they expect and what they get. Try it and see if your anger doesn’t decrease! Some tips to help you do this include the following:

  • Mentally prepare yourself ahead of time for what happens
  • Stop “shoulding’ in your self-talk. This is being judgmental. Ask yourself why “should” things be as you think they should?
  • Practice seeing disappointing things from a different perspective
  • Believe that limitations are “built-in” most relationships. Learn to accept them.

Click here for more in-depth article on expectations by Dr Fiore

Share Expectations to Decrease Conflict and Anger

John and Sarah spent The New Year holiday season in Las Vegas where they had hoped to have a relaxed time with little tension. Things went well until they decided to stop at a retail outlet mall in the way home which was attached to a casino. Both agreed they would “stop at the mall” on the way home, but later discovered that what they expected would happen when they stopped was quit different. To Sarah “stopping at the mall” meant that they would first stop at the casino, gamble about an hour and then shop at the mall. To John “stopping at the mall” meant driving directly to the mall and shopping, by-passing the casino altogether.

You can probably guess what happened! John was driving, so he skipped the casino and drove directly to the mall. which made Sarah upset and angry because she not only wanted to gamble, but had the expectation that they would eat breakfast in the casino coffee shop. John, who didn’t have a clue about all this, couldn’t understand why Sarah was so upset, as he was doing exactly what, in his mind, they had agreed upon.

In our anger management classes, we teach that adjusting expectations (Tool #6) is a major tool for anger control. Anger often results from the discrepancy between what is expected and what actually happens. Going one step further, the conflict between John and Sarah illustrates how important it is for couples to also share expectations they have so that they are on the same track. It is easy to assume that what you expect is the same as what your partner has in mind, but any married person knows that this often is NOT the case.

To share expectations, it is often helpful to simply communicate what you would like to happen specifically in a future situation. After all, neither you or your partner is a mind-reader; besides the same words often mean different things to different people, especially husbands and wives. Taking the time and trouble to spell it out and communicate clearly often goes a long way toward reducing misunderstanding, conflict, hurt feelings and anger.

More at www.angercoach.com