Bay Area Parent magazine published an article about my mindfulness lessons for families with children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder in their Sept. 2012 issue. Below is a transcript of the complete interview for readers who want the full context.
1. Please introduce yourself. How did you get into your line of work? What are your credentials? Where do you currently live and work?
Ellen McCarty, mindfulness instructor, www.ellenmccarty.com
An SFBA native, I earned my undergraduate and graduate journalism degrees in four years at Northwestern University. During that time, I began practicing meditation and yoga to cope with my stress-level. After graduating in 1997, I accepted a marketing job in Switzerland and signed up for a 1-week retreat with Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village, France. That week changed my life. I had dedicated 16 years of my life to understanding the academic world and at that point, I decided I wanted to invest more time in understanding myself. A year later in 1998 I ordained as a temporary Buddhist nun in Burma. For me that ordination was secular in nature. As I saw it, I was beginning my studies in eastern psychology – an ancient understanding of the human mind. I spent 70 days on silent retreat and then returned in 2000 for another 21 days. When I returned to the States, I taught English to Burmese monks living in San Jose, Calif. and continued my meditation practice under their guidance. Working with children with severe emotional problems happened by accident. As a freelance journalist in my 20s, I also worked as a part-time nanny to supplement my income and discovered I had an ability to reach children whom others considered unreachable. I developed a secret code game for them based on my own mindfulness practice to help these children understand their minds. I now work for the Oakland-based non-profit Mindful Schools. I also teach my own private lessons and workshops. To date I’ve taught mindfulness to more than 700 children in the San Francisco Bay Area including those with Oppositional Defiant Disorder.
2. Can you please describe mindfulness for those of us who don’t know what it is?
Mindful Schools’ definition of mindfulness is “a particular way of paying attention. It is the mental faculty of purposefully bringing awareness to one’s experience. Mindfulness can be applied to sensory experience, thoughts, and emotions by using sustained attention and noticing our experience without reacting.” Mindful Schools also posts on their website the power of this practice: “Mindfulness creates space, changing impulsive reactions to thoughtful responses.”
I would add that mindfulness is not about becoming perfect. It’s not about being peaceful 100% of the time. Mindfulness is about knowing oneself as you are. The more we know about our own minds, the more we can help ourselves and others. Judgment of oneself and others can be incredibly destructive. When we learn to accept a moment of who we are with kindness and objectivity, then happiness, change and healing are possible.
3. How can a parent teach mindfulness? How is it different from teaching mindfulness to an adult?
A parent has to learn and practice mindfulness before teaching it. Intensive retreat is an ideal format for adults to learn mindfulness but barring that, lessons are the next best option. An effective mindfulness curriculum for children is simpler than for adults but just as powerful. When I first began teaching for Mindful Schools, I was surprised by how powerful the lessons were despite their simplicity. By teaching mindfulness to families as well as children, I’ve learned that every child and family is unique. My constant challenge is to teach specific mindfulness tools but also addresses individual needs and issues. It’s important to provide age-appropriate instruction and, especially for young children, keep it light and fun.
4. What, specifically, do you think kids can get out of learning how to live mindfully?
Mindful Schools, in collaboration with UC Davis’ Department of Psychology, just completed the largest study to date on mindfulness in education. The study of 829 elementary school students showed improvement in all four target development catagories: physical, mental, social and emotional. You can read additional research data at www.mindfulschools.org/about-mindfulness/research/. I would add that from a happiness point-of-view, mindfulness teaches children how to observe their experience with kindness and objectivity instead of judgment and knee-jerk reactions. For children suffering from emotional extremes like rage and severe anxiety, mindfulness can be an extraordinary relief. It gives them a psychological road map they can understand and the means to navigate these difficult emotions.
5. Can you walk me through a mindful play exercise?
My secret code game can seem counter-intuitive because it does not judge children who misbehave and act out. Instead it allows children, through play, to first identify their mental states (eg: red = anger, yellow = fear, green = happy) and then understand cause and effect (what causes certain mental states) by experimenting with their own actions and words and noticing how it changes their color. During a mindful play exercise I always maintain a neutral, kind demeanor toward children no matter what their reactions. My job as a mindfulness instructor is to remain objective and non-judgmental. Ironically we cannot help a person change until we accept unconditionally who they are now. I’ll give you an example. Anger is a defense against pain. It’s there for a reason. When we judge a person who is angry, that person will hold on tighter to who they are because they feel attacked and need to defend themselves from more pain. Understanding lessens pain. When we accept unconditionally who a person is, tell that person we understand them and care about them even when they are “code red,” we create the loving space they need to face the difficult work of self-change. I gave an ED (emotionally disturbed) Special Day classroom the assignment to do a task the students didn’t want to do and watch how their codes changed during the beginning, middle and end of the task. One student said he cried the entire time when he did an undesirable school assignment because the discipline was so painful (he labeled this mental state “code red”). When he finished the work, he discovered he was code green! He was smiling and happy that he had completed the work. Had I or his teacher added judgment to that scenario, or a lecture about the importance of finishing his work, I believe the experience would’ve been too painful for him to try. Because the context of doing this task was a game, this student could push himself and face his difficulties. I believe that curiosity, laughter and fun are the best antidotes to resistance to self-change.
6. You work with children with Oppositional Defiance Disorder. What are some common themes that you see in kids diagnosed with ODD?
My theory as a mindfulness instructor is that children with ODD have trouble understanding cause and effect. They perceive themselves as the victims not the perpetrators at all times even if they initiate a conflict. As a result they feel a constant need to defend themselves. Life is exceptionally frustrating and painful for these children and they tend to be intense and have difficulty accessing their sense of humor and playfulness. Defiance cuts across all socioeconomic catagories. My work began with the children of wealthy families and continues today with children from a range of economic backgrounds. Caring for a child who is emotionally disturbed can be overwhelming for a parent so when I think of someone with ODD, I think of them as part of a family ecosystem where everyone needs help, especially if the parents and siblings have been dealing with this for a long time and are experiencing burn-out and negative emotions themselves. If the family is judging the child or reacting harshly, it’s my belief that the child will not progress. Not judging the family is important for the family’s healing process as well so I try to provide them the mindfulness tools they need to process negative reactions in a way that doesn’t communicate judgment to the child with ODD.
When children with ODD feel judged (even though it may be judgment that arises as a result of their cruel speech or actions), they increase their defenses and react with greater negativity. The instinct at that moment at home or in the classroom is to label the child as “bad” and try to drill into them the idea that they need to be “good.” I believe this backfires because it creates more pain in the child. If an adult has aversion to a child and wants to “fix” the child or get rid of a problem, typically this only exacerbates the situation and the problem gets worse. This doesn’t mean that acceptance is easy. That’s where I come in. As a secular meditation practitioner for 15 years, I am not overwhelmed by extreme emotions. I can come into that ecosystem with the objectivity, kindness and spirit of fun that I believe is necessary for change to occur. One analogy is to think of how you would feel if you had the following choice. You have a big problem. In one room are a group of people (big adults) who love you but hate your problem and want it to go away and who react to it negatively. You know they are unhappy to see you and your problem. In the next room is a group of smiling adults who are happy to see you even when your problem manifests and want to help you with a spirit of patience and fun. In which room would you be more able to face your problem and change? Which room would you choose? Unfortunately rejection of a person’s problem always feels like a rejection of the person. The challenge then becomes to set firm boundaries while not sending a message that you are rejecting the child.
7. What are the major differences in the way that you approach ODD kids compared to other therapeutic methods?
I cannot speak to other therapeutic models because I’m not trained in them but I believe that mindfulness is an excellent tool that is compatible with traditional family therapy. The Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 19th Edition, states that ODD is characterized by “a persistent pattern of angry outbursts, arguing, vindictiveness and disobedience generally directed at authority figures such as parents and teachers. The patient with this conductor disorder typically shows little concern for the rights or needs of others.” The textbook goes on to say that parent management training for addressing ODD includes “developing a warm, supportive relationship with the child, child-directed interaction and play and providing clear and consistent rules with consistent consequences.” My mindfulness game helps create that healthy system of parent management of children with ODD. On this front, medical science and mindfulness are in agreement. You do not need to raise your voice or criticize a child to lay down the law. You can set boundaries with a smile and sweetness and this makes boundaries less threatening and less painful. I believe mindfulness goes a step further in that if the child takes to my secret code game for example, they are now applying the scientific method to potentially all of their interactions with the world and have a concrete way to measure the results of their choices and actions before, during and after an action takes place. This self-awareness empowers the child to see that being a good person doesn’t mean letting go of the need for self-preservation and self-defense. With mindfulness, children directly experience that being good makes them happy. In other words, being good can be its own defense.
8. How can parents use mindfulness to help children suffering from ODD?
There are three main mindfulness tools for parents dealing with ODD. The first is objective communication (rather than judgmental or accusatory communication). The second is creating consistent and firm boundaries with a neutral tone of voice. This is far more effective than authoritarian overly-harsh discipline or no discipline at all. Finally parents need to develop patience with negative emotions in themselves and their children and cultivate the mindfulness skill of observing instead of reacting. If a child’s extreme emotions cannot derail you emotionally as a parent, then the child will start to see that the emotions are not so powerful. This is a benefit for two reasons. Firstly if a child is manipulating adults with extreme emotions in order to be able to do whatever they want, the parental ability to stay present with those extreme emotions and demonstrate that the emotions don’t bother them sends a message to the child that their extreme emotions are not a form of power. If a child is indeed manipulating a situation with extreme emotions, when suddenly they react and don’t get what they want despite their emotional outbursts, eventually the child will understand that their emotions are not powerful and will let go of those extreme reactions in favor of healthy behavior that is rewarded. This takes time however and depending on how deeply entrenched the habits have become, a parent may have to stomach negative reactions for a long time in order to prevail. The second benefit is that if a parent treats these negative emotions as no big deal, everyone relaxes (including the siblings of children with ODD). If a child’s extreme emotions are sincere, they can frighten that child and siblings. If a parent demonstrates that the emotion is okay and that they can handle it, the children will be less afraid of their own difficult mental states and stabilize enough to begin navigating them effectively. This said, it can take years to teach mindfulness effectively. If you haven’t practiced mindfulness or been trained to teach it, then trying to apply these mindfulness tools will most likely not be effective. Like yoga, mindfulness is a skill that involves the physical body. Although we can read about it, applying mindfulness is not an intellectual, analytical exercise. As a mindfulness instructor, I have the ability to teach children about cause and effect while also modeling for them the emotions I want them to try out themselves. It helps if the parents are willing to acknowledge to the child their own negative emotions and communicate about them in an objective, fun way. “I feel a lot of anger in my body right now. Isn’t that interesting? What should I do?” This empowers the child to let go of defenses and inspires their curiosity so that they are more likely to investigate their own severe emotions as well.
9. What can parents do at home with their children — whether or not they have ODD-- to help foster mindfulness?
Take one deep breath and watch that breath from the very beginning (the “in” breath) until the moment it ends (the end of the “out” breath). After you concentrate on one entire breath, notice how your body feels. Then take another breath. Notice your body’s reaction. Have your children tell you what they notice. Don’t judge what they say. Just listen and say something like, “Wow, that’s so interesting. I wonder if I can see that in my own body as well.” If your child enjoys this exercise, begin a bedtime ritual where your child watches her breath as she falls asleep and you sit nearby on the floor or in a chair and watch your own breath, one breath at a time. Even five minutes a day of mindful breathing can be transformative.