Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Decoding troubled children

My “secret code” game allows children to understand their minds while having fun.

Mindfulness can help troubled children identify and understand mental states, which is the first step in their healing process. Rather than approaching a child as an authoritative adult trying to control behavior, I’ve created a game where the child feels he is in control. Because it is a game, the child is more engaged and more likely to use these mindfulness skills in daily life.

First I ask the child if he wants to create a "secret code" (the answer is always YES). Then I have him choose two or three colors for the code. The child decides who knows the secret code (parents should be “in” on it but the child should be the one to share it with them). The child can tell their friends and teachers if they wish. For the purpose of this article, I'll choose the colors red, yellow and green (like a traffic light). The color red will represent negative mental states that manifest as destructive behavior. When a child is acting out, he is “code red.” Humans are social animals so I explain to the child that when I see code red, I'll know that the child wants to be left alone. I do this because children who act out at school are isolated from normal classes and often from potential friends. Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder may end up in Juvenile Hall. For some children, their code red is so severe that they need to be physically restrained. In this case, instead of leaving the child alone, you can use the language “Your code red is telling me that you don't want to play (a board game, for example).” It's important that the child makes a connection between code red and losing privileges, but it's also critical that the loss of privileges is communicated in a neutral, caring tone that demonstrates that the adult is not judging the child.

Code green represents healthy, kind or disciplined behavior. I'll tell a child that when he’s “code green,” I’ll know that he wants to spend time with me having fun. It's important to reward code green with praise, attention and social interaction. Two colors are probably enough to start with but if the child wants to have a more complicated code by all means, let him create it (be sure to keep a copy of the colors for yourself so you don't forget the code -- your participation is critical). Allowing the child to choose the colors and the code gives him ownership of the game and his healing process.

While using the “secret code," I remain neutral and non-judgmental toward the child's mental states. This is important for two reasons. Firstly I am modeling the behavior I want the child to emulate, so I want to model self-control and keep a lid on my own negative emotional reactions. The second reason is that I want the child to understand his reactions -- not feel guilty about them. If this game lowers a child's self-esteem, then that child will lose interest in the secret code very quickly and understandably so!

When the child acts out I respond with, “I see you're in code red so I’ll give you some space. I'll be in the next room. When you're code green, come get me and we'll play a game.” This reinforces the idea that negative behavior pushes people away while good behavior attracts friends. The next time the child acts out, I'll ask, “What code are you?” If the child says “code red,” I'll say with a neutral tone, “Okay, no problem. I'll go in the next room.” If the child doesn't want me to leave, that opens an opportunity for dialogue about their mental state. If the child does want to be alone, my respecting his wish and leaving the room proves to the child that the “secret code” game is real. I postpone dialogue in order to win the child's trust.

If the child wants me to stay, I may say, “Okay, but in order to stay, I have to see code green. What does code green look like?” It's important to be patient and not judgmental at this stage and let the child figure it out. Don't tell him how he should act. The transition between mental states will be slow at first. If the child can't switch gears, I'll ask, “How does code red feel in your body? Where do you feel it?” Most likely it will feel like muscle tension and heat, but don't correct the child. Just listen. Once the child can observe the sensations in their body, you can suggest that the child take one breath and watch the air move in and out (a natural breath, not slow or fast). When it’s over, ask the child how watching the breath affected the physical sensations. Try observing a few more breaths together. Have the child describe how their physical sensations change. At a certain point, you can say, “Guess what? I think you're code green! Am I right?” The child will usually be amazed as well.

“How does code green feel?” Asking a child to notice how they feel in code red and green is an important part of their healing process. Healthy, kind, disciplined behaviors always feel better but many children (and adults) don't realize that until they take the time to notice. At first the child will assume code red will feel better than code green. When he discovers the reverse, he may be very surprised. Over time, the child will choose code green for this reason -- because it feels better! If a child notices anything about code red, be sure to praise him for what he observes (don’t correct him). By praising the child for their mindfulness of negative mental states, you're laying a foundation for self-esteem and greater insight into his mind. When anger is no longer “bad,” but something fascinating to explore and understand, negative emotions become gateways to code green. Over time the transition will be faster.

Once the child has a handle on codes red and green, try introducing code yellow. Code yellow is hard to catch. You can set the stage for this new challenge by saying to the child, “You’re ready for the next level of the secret code game!” It's very exciting. Code yellow is the cause of code red. When code red happens, now I not only say “I see you're in code red” but add with a neutral tone “What was your code yellow?” The child may pause for a moment in the middle of acting out to think about it. Be patient and wait for a reply. When he shares, say, “Well, isn't that interesting! Very good! Your mind is getting so much stronger. You can see more and more. Are you proud of yourself because you should be!” You can also say, “Oh yes, I've had that code yellow too.” The child will be very interested to hear about your negative mental states and over time will start to identify not only his own codes, but yours as well. Celebrate this! Do not get offended if the child catches you in a code red or yellow. Use it as a teaching moment by asking the child, “You're right. I'm in code red/yellow. What should I do?” Let the child fix you. This makes the game fun for him. He'll probably tell you to breathe or ask you how it feels in your body. It's fun to say, “I have tension in my arms and back and it's so painful. What should I do?” As the child is teaching you, he is reinforcing his own mindfulness as well.

Over time, the color codes train the child to use language -- rather than acting out -- to get what they need. “I'm code red” becomes “I'm trying not to be angry right now, but I can't help it!” You can relate to this, right? Tell the child you understand and that we all lose control of our emotions sometimes. Tell the child how wonderful it is that he can talk about emotions because then you understand what he needs and how to create happiness. Then look for opportunities to change anger into something funny. For example, paint funny pictures of what you look like when you're really mad. Compare your picture to the child's. If you both laugh, hang them on a wall! A moment of anger becomes a moment of bonding. The next time the child's blood boils, he'll remember how he laughed the last time, and that memory will ease his transition to code green.
Ellen McCarty is a mindfulness instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at http://www.ellenmccarty.com/ or follow her status updates on Facebook at "Ellen McCarty, Mindful Youth."
Copyright 2011 by Ellen McCarty

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Loving Kindness as Wholeness

Most people assume that meditation is about getting away from suffering. Loving kindness meditation reminds us that the difficult and painful aspects of ourselves are critical to our peace of mind.

Warrior cultures are obsessed with eliminating weaknesses and imperfections. Many people begin meditation by incorporating this notion of self-rejection. They only accept the strong, perfected aspects of themselves. They believe that they cannot be happy until they get rid of depression and anxiety, get rid of excessive weight and other weaknesses. Throughout our lives, most of us have been instructed to overcome or medicate difficult mental states rather than understand them. Self-rejection not only fails to make us better people, it often backfires and makes us (feel) worse.

Loving kindness meditation is a practice of reclaiming our weaknesses and imperfections because we need them for wholeness. A moment of suffering arises and instead of trying to get away from it, we create space for the mental state and surround it with loving kindness, which I define as unconditional love and acceptance. We marvel at how fragile the human mind and heart are in the container of life and how as humans we are designed to react to this container. The ability to accept with kindness our suffering and our reactions to suffering is an act of compassion.

A perfect example of the contrast between self-rejection and loving kindness is Oprah Winfrey's ongoing struggle with her excess weight. She knows it is unhealthy but she can’t understand why it keeps coming back, why she can't get rid of it, why she can’t overcome her habit of over-eating. She is practicing self-rejection, self-hatred. Her excess weight will keep coming back until she accepts herself unconditionally. When we try to change ourselves with self-hatred and self-rejection, we fail because by fracturing ourselves into acceptable and unacceptable parts we cause ourselves tremendous psychological distress which then motivates further self-medication (destruction) with TV, junk food or narcotics and other addictive behaviors.

You cannot change other people by rejecting who they are and pummeling them with judgment. They will be offended and hold to who they are. Just as we cannot change another person with judgement, we cannot change ourselves by rejecting who we are now. Any lingering issue that won't resolve itself despite all of our efforts most likely needs our loving kindness and compassion, our acceptance. Once a mental state of suffering is unconditionally accepted, often times it dissolves because we are embracing all of who we are. We are whole. For this reason, psychotherapy is invaluable because it helps us reclaim aspects of ourselves that we rejected as children. The very act of bringing an aspect of self out of the subconscious into the light of the conscious mind is a moment of liberation. We are integrating all of who we are and our wholeness    our acceptance of our reality whether it be strength, imperfections, joy, suffering – manifests as peace and well-being.

We can treat ourselves with loving kindness on many levels. First we become aware of suffering within ourselves and hold that moment with gentle kindness. We can also practice sending loving kindness to ourselves when we become aware of our own inner critic. We accept that the inner critic is part of our human mind but not an accurate judge of who we are. From there we can begin the process of understanding our suffering (rather than just rejecting it and wanting to escape). Understanding is critical to liberation. The more we can accept and be present with the sensations of self-rejection, the less damage external critics cause us. That's because we accept unconditionally our emotional reactions to another person’s rejection of who we are. 

Once Oprah Winfrey accepts herself unconditionally, believing that all of her cells are worthy of love – no matter how many there are -- she will enjoy being present with herself. She will enjoy wholeness, rather than suffer rejection. From this state of peace, changing behavior is very simple. We spend one day eating just healthy food and notice how that makes us feel. We spend the next day eating only junk food and notice how that makes us feel. Wholesome, healthy, kind behaviors always make us feel better. Taking a mental picture of how she feels in each case, Oprah can look at those mental pictures whenever she eats and simply choose the behavior that will truly make her feel better. Healthy eating becomes an authentic reward rather than an act of deprivation and rejection.

Many people believe that anger and negative emotions are bad. This an example of self-rejection that promotes a culture of denial. Mindfulness is the opportunity to be honest with ourselves about what's really happening. A moment of anger that is acknowledged, accepted, understood and communicated is far less dangerous than a moment of anger that is repressed. We've all heard about good people who “snapped” because instead of endeavoring to know and understand themselves, they've bought into self-rejection. As Seinfeld so brilliantly illustrated, “Serenity now!” is a mantra that often causes the opposite effect. Anger and other strong emotions are defenses against pain that overwhelms us. When we hold strong emotions with compassion, we give ourselves the space to heal until we are ready to face the pain directly. When we deny negative mental states, we cut ourselves off from wholeness and with it, authentic happiness. Someone who rejects themselves via meditation will feel the opposite of wholeness and happiness (and probably not practice meditation for very long). For them the concept “life is suffering” can become the extent of their practice. With loving kindness meditation, we see that suffering provides a doorway to understanding and wholeness. By the same token, yogis who believe they are unacceptable until they have attained enlightenment are practicing self-rejection and are unable to progress in their practice due to their own intolerance.

A lotus flower blooms in warm sunlight, not the harsh cold of winter. Becoming aware of moments when we treat ourselves harshly is the beginning of our healing process, the beginning of our well-being. When we accept our whole selves with loving kindness and use meditation to be honest about what’s happening and to understand ourselves, being kind and compassionate to others becomes second nature.

How deeply can you accept with kindness all of who you are?

Ellen McCarty recently gave a talk about Loving Kindness Meditation at San Francisco State University for the psychology course "The Science of Happiness.” Learn more about her mindfulness instruction at www.ellenmccarty.com or post questions about this blog on her Facebook page “Ellen McCarty, Mindful Youth."

Copyright 2011 by Ellen McCarty

Recommended reading (book thumbnails link to Amazon):

Please note: I've included the Tao te Ching above because I find it a powerful source of inspiration to help balance the mind and open the heart during retreat. Mindfulness and loving kindness can deepen one's relationship to any religion or spiritual practice, or in the absence of religion, deepen one's understanding of oneself. The Buddha did not claim divinity. One can choose to develop meditation and loving kindness as a spiritual practice or as a practical mental health exercise. For a more universal or cross-cultural view of Buddhism, click book links below.