Sticks and Stones Do Hurt…and So Can Words

Feeling insulted and damaged. Never measuring up. Walking on eggshells. These are just a few of many indicators of an emotionally abusive relationship. Emotional abuse is the consistent pattern of abusive words and bullying behaviors that wear down a person’s self-esteem and undermine their mental health. I want to help you recognize this often seemingly invisible, yet very real type of abuse.

The definition of abuse is regularly or repeatedly treating a person with cruelty or violence. In discussing abuse, physical abuse (like shoving, cornering, breaking and throwing things) is likely the first thing that comes to mind. Emotional abuse is often devoid of physical violence; it is speech and/or behavior that’s controlling, punishing, or manipulative. This can include withholding love, communication, support, or money as indirect methods of exerting control and maintaining power. Emotional abuse might also look like someone controlling where you go, to whom you talk, or what you think. Spying, stalking, and invading your personal space or belongings is also abusive because it disregards personal boundaries.

You may be experiencing emotional abuse if someone wants to know what you are doing all the time or requires you to be in constant contact; demands passwords to your phone, email, and social media (digital abuse); acts jealous; frequently accuses you of cheating; prevents or discourages you from seeing friends or family; tries to stop you from going to work or school; gets angry in a way that frightens you; controls your finances or how you spend your money; stops you from seeing a doctor; humiliates you in front of others; calls you insulting names; threatens to hurt you, people or pets you care about; threatens to call the authorities to report you for wrongdoing; threatens to harm himself or herself when upset with you; says things like, “If I can’t have you, then no one can”; decides things for you that you should decide (like what to wear or eat); etc.

The most common form of emotional abuse is verbal, though it often goes unrecognized because it can be subtle. A client recently told me that she remembered a session from years ago when I stopped her now ex-husband from telling her to shut-up as she tried to speak. She did not even hear him say that, but she remembered feeling her body tense up. Research has shown that there is so much more to verbal abuse than people realize; in fact, some people are verbally abused on a regular basis without even recognizing it! Some forms of emotional/verbal use will undermine your self-esteem or make you feel inadequate as a way to establish hierarchy. 

Emotional and verbal abuse may be manifested outright or more insidiously in any of the following manners:

  • Using threats
  • Judging
  • Yelling
  • Patronizing
  • Criticizing
  • Lying
  • Blaming
  • Publicly embarrassing you
  • Ordering
  • Raging (showing violent, uncontrollable anger)
  • Belittling your accomplishments
  • Insulting your appearance
  • Digital spying
  • Tracking your whereabouts
  • Lecturing
  • Denying something you know is true (gaslighting)
  • Trivializing
  • Demanding respect (but not giving it)
  • Keeping you from socializing (isolating you)
  • Interrupting
  • Treating you like a child
  • Name-calling, even using derogatory pet- or nicknames
  • Disguising something hurtful or controlling by saying it in a loving, quiet voice, indirectly, or even concealed as a joke

Whether disguised as play or jokes, sarcasm or teasing that is hurtful is emotional and verbal abuse. There are innumerable signs of emotional abuse–unique to each couple and individual. If you fear you may be being emotionally or verbally abused, please seek help today. 

An emotionally abusive relationship can change you forever. You may feel powerless, controlled, worthless; you may question your memory, live in fear, change how you act to avoid upsetting your partner. Staying in an emotionally or verbally abusive relationship can have long-lasting effects on your physical and mental health, including leading to chronic pain, depression, or anxiety. This is no way to live. Help is available and you DESERVE it. If you suspect your partner, family member or friend may be emotionally abusing you, contact a counselor, an advocate or a pastor for assistance. You can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 1−800−799−SAFE(7233) or visit their website (thehotline.org) and chat online with someone right away. I will be posting a follow-up blog discussing what to do if you are in an emotionally abusive relationships in the future. Please, do not suffer through emotional abuse. You and your happiness matter. My door is wide open; allow me to help you! Contact me today!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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The Magic of Saying No

“Whenever you say yes to something, it means you’re saying no to something else.” ~Susan Biali

We all feel badly when we have to say no to something or someone.  It is so much easier to say yes when people need help–even if it comes at personal expense. Though selfless service is necessary and admirable at times, there are other times where it is more applaudable to say no. Saying yes to everything means you will be spread too thin and will not able to get things done well or at all; it is physically impossible to take on something new without slacking on something else!  This post will focus on the magic of saying no in hopes of giving you the courage to say so when appropriate.

(Disclaimer, I am not specifically referring to saying no in relationships regarding boundaries and physical intimacy–though that topic is incredibly important. I will write about this specific subject in the future. Instead, I am referring to saying no instead of yes when asked to take on additional responsibilities that you simply cannot accommodate.)

Whether you have been asked to help watch a pet or child, pick something up, drop something off, or take on additional responsibilities at work, you have certainly been asked to help. Oftentimes it feels like yes is the only acceptable answer, even if it comes at great personal expense. Saying no means you could potentially hurt, anger or disappoint the person you are saying no to. You may fear appearing selfish, lazy, or uncaring. You want people to love (or at least like) you. So you inconvenience yourself and say yes.

However, saying no is actually a sign of strength because it shows that you know yourself and your limits. It allows you to give of yourself fully, within your limits, and not overextend or exhaust yourself. Having and maintaining personal boundaries can build important relationships by fostering honesty, openness and trust. (I am not suggesting you immediately decline an opportunity to help someone when asked. I believe in the power of service and have written several times about its power.) Saying yes when the answer should have been no only leads to frustration and resentment. Learning to say no can be a magical skill when used appropriately!

Now, let’s discuss the steps involved in the art of saying no:

Step one: Honor your time and priorities.

Time is an extremely precious commodity for everyone. There are only 24 hours in a day, so you must choose to spend your time wisely. Even if you do happen to have some extra time (which for most of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want or need to spend that time? Does it honor what is most important to you? Are your priorities in line? If you are asked to take on a new commitment that will cut into your valued family time, it may make saying no easier.

Step two: Take a moment + Raincheck

When someone asks for help, instead of giving an immediate (most likely affirmative) response on the spot, say that you need to check your calendar and will get back to him/her. If you end up needing to say no, maybe volunteer yourself to help in the future when you are more available. This can assure them that you are willing and want to help, but are unable to at the moment!

Step three: Do not apologize.

A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. Your time is your time. How you choose to spend your time is your choice. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about safeguarding your precious, finite time!

Step four: SAY NO.

You may cringe at the very thought of saying the abrasive, n-o word to someone. That’s okay! There are many ways around this that will still get your point across. Let’s say your friend asks to borrow your car, and you are less than excited about the idea. Here are seven ways to assertively, yet diplomatically, decline:

I prefer to be the only one driving my car.“

I prefer not to lend out my car.”

It doesn’t work for me to lend out my car.”

It’s important to me that I keep my car for my own use.”

“Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to lend you my car.”

I’m uncomfortable with letting others drive my car.“

I made a promise to myself that I’m not going to let other people drive my car.”  

Notice that all of these suggestions are “I” statements. This puts ownership on you and therefore makes it more difficult for the listener to dispute. If someone is persistent in wanting you to do what he or she wants, keep repeating “no” using any combination of the statements above. Hold your ground until the person realizes you mean what you say.

Remember, saying no does not mean you are an uncaring, selfish person. It simply means you know and honor your time, priorities, and limits. Saying no protects you, earns the respect of others, and frees you to spend your time doing what is most important to you. It is actually quite magical! Setting skillful boundaries is an act of self-compassion. It is liberating and it is your right.

Next time you are asked to help someone, consider your priorities and how you wish to honor your time, pause before answering, offer a raincheck, do not apologize if you are busy and cannot feasibly rearrange things, and if necessary, say no. Remember that there are only 24 hours in a day. In order to spend it wisely, sometimes it will be necessary to say no! As always, please feel free to contact me with questions, and click here if you would like to schedule a session.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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The Direct Path to Happy Relationships

“Be direct. Be clear. Don’t worry about being correct. Worry about being real.” ~Jill Telford

Who can relate to the episode of That 70’s Show when Jackie is trying to get Kelso to do something, so she goes radio silent and expects him to figure it out? Of course he has no idea what she wants, and he actually goes the other direction–instead of getting closer to her to see what is wrong, he backs off, thinking things between them are great! She is left feeling frustrated because he did not magically figure out what she wanted, and this little tiff requires words in order to be sorted out.

In seeing this acted out, it is obvious that Jackie’s methods are comical and ineffective at best. However, it is not uncommon for this type of behavior to be employed in relationships outside of the 1970s. When you want or need something from your partner, what do you do? Do you sulk, whine, or pull back from the relationship as your way of indicating you need to be heard? Or do you speak up and directly voice your needs? Jackie’s type-of-response is referred to as “indirect support seeking” behavior and has a strong correlation to low self esteem. Ironically, such behavior elicits rejection–the exact thing Jackie’s type is trying to avoid! If this is something you do in your relationships, I imagine you are wondering…is there a better way to get what I need?

The answer is yes!

What I am about to say might sound too simple to be possible, but there is a way, and that way is by simply being direct. By saying what you need or think.

I have a close friend who I never have to worry if she is mad or if I offended her because she will tell me. She has taken the lead with being authentic, and has shown me how advantageous it is to have real, honest relationships. She says what she feels, thinks, and needs. It has created an incredible level of trust and openness in our relationship. Being direct removes so much anxiety and promotes closeness and trust. This can be done in any type of relationship!

Being direct and assertive involves being honest and genuine while remaining appropriate, diplomatic and respectful of yourself and others. It is not passive (being a doormat or a wimp), passive-aggressive (indirect communication, like not returning calls or emails hoping somebody gets the hint), or aggressive (being hostile and rude.) Being direct requires courage–the courage to be vulnerable and real.  It might be difficult to be direct when you tell someone you love them (or do not love them), when you need to confront someone about a problem, when you need to give difficult feedback, fire someone, say “no” to anything at all, or a host of other scenarios. In short, it is safe to say that you are likely to come under fire of potentially uncomfortable situations each day. Will you respond directly?

The following are suggestions for being more direct in your important relationships:

  • Consider the feelings you are holding inside and make your words match those feelings.
  • Before speaking, take Shirdi Sai Baba’s advice and ask yourself first, “Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it true?” This will help you keep your ego in check and stop you from saying destructive things out of anger.
  • Keep it simple. Concise, clear, and brief is always better.
  • Speak in terms of “I” rather than “you” (“I need more physical affection” rather than, “You don’t show me enough affection”).
  • Focus on the behavior, rather than the person (“I need you to let me know when you are running late” rather than, “You are inconsiderate for making we wait”).
  • Avoid “always” and “never.” These superlatives are often unfair and untrue.
  • Avoid triangulation by speaking directly to the source.
  • Choose to love yourself by saying, “no” as needed. Know your limits!
  • Say it face to face. Do not express important sentiments or needs over text or email. Phone is okay, but in person is best. This will help prevent miscommunications.

Being direct is a skill that needs to be practiced and developed, but it can be done! Once understood, it will improve all of your important relationships. Indirect support seeking behaviors will nearly always leave you feeling rejected, alone, and misunderstood. Avoid this altogether by learning to say what you mean and meaning what you say. Be direct! I can speak from personal experience and say that communicating directly is liberating. It is the best way to get what you want or need out of all of your relationships. Communication is key in relationship satisfaction; if you need help communicating to the important people in your life, please do not hesitate to schedule a session. My door is always open!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: “Low Self-Esteem Predicts Indirect Support Seeking and Its Relationship Consequences in Intimate Relationships”

Avoiding the Silent Killer in Relationships

“Expectation is the root of all heartache.” ~ William Shakespeare

We all have experienced disappointment in a relationship before. There are a million reasons we may be let down by our friends, family members, or romantic partners. In our most important relationships we often feel our most painful feelings. When we have been hurt by those that love us, we may start to believe that getting disappointed is inevitable and unavoidable. What if I were to say that there is something we could do to lessen the disappointment we feel in our relationships? Such a thing exists, and it may seem almost too simple! Almost.

Allow me to paint a picture to demonstrate this point. Kathy had an idea of how things would go for Valentine’s Day last month. She dreamt of breakfast in bed, maybe a voucher for a massage, some roses delivered, a bit of extra help with the kids, a fancy dinner, and chocolate with a lovey card from her husband to top off the day. Unfortunately, her reality involved nothing from the above scenario; instead, a brisk hug as her husband rushed out the door for work, a long day at home with fussy children, no card, no flowers, no chocolate. She was left disappointed and discouraged.

What happened? Her expectations went unmet. While this was somewhat of an extreme example, the point is clear. Kathy’s expectations did not match reality, and it led to dissatisfaction in this important relationship.

Having unmet expectations is not just a marriage problem. It is a LIFE problem. All of us have important relationships. It does not matter whether we are single, married, working, unemployed, old, or young. Having unmet expectations is lethal to everyone in any kind of a relationship. No one is immune.

So what can be done? This may seem like a very obvious solution, but what if we tried communicating our expectations? I have a very wise client who asks his wife what she expects for her birthday, their anniversary, Christmas, any holiday, and even ordinary week nights. He will say, “What do you want tonight to look like? What can I do to help you?” That way, they are on the same figurative page and team, and no one is left feeling frustrated because the night did not go as planned. And for those important holidays, his wife has had to learn to really use her words and communicate that she wants a mushy card and some one-on-one time. This type of direct communication has satisfied both of their needs and helped them to avoid unmet expectations.

We can do the same! Communicating our expectations is a sure-fire way to avoid the grief and frustrations that come from unmet expectations. It really can be that easy.

There are some who say to not have any expectations at all — that if we do not have any expectation for our spouse or partner on any given day, we will not be disappointed. While I can kinda see the logic there, I would not apply this advice to important relationships. We get what we expect, so if we expect nothing, we will settle for less than what we ultimately want or deserve. I advise having firm, yet realistic expectations in any given relationship — whether that is with a brother, friend, neighbor, parent, or lover. I encourage expectations of respect, honesty, trust, support, and communication. It is realistic for each of us to hope for and expect these core elements in our relationships!

Healthy, realistic expectations, that are communicated, are essential in a relationship. You deserve it! When we come into a situation where our expectations are not met (as we assuredly will) let’s take a breath, discard our expectations for how that moment should have gone,and deal with the reality at hand.  Later, have a conversation with the other party involved, about what was expected and why, come to an agreement about each other’s expectations, and discuss how any misunderstandings can be avoided in the future.

It is noteworthy to mention the need to not expect perfection. We need to remember that our siblings, friends, and partners are imperfect beings doing the best they can. When Kathy (from the story above) berated her husband for the unremarkable Valentine’s Day, he was not only surprised by her expectations of him for the day, but also discouraged about her uncommunicated idea of what the “perfect husband” does. We all need to set goals in our relationships, and it is equally important that those goals be realistic and clearly communicated.

Having unrealistic expectations or not voicing our hopes for a given circumstance/situation can lead to frustration, resentment, and disappointment. But if we have realistic expectations that we verbalize to one another, we will watch our relationships flourish due to this honest and open type of communication. Should you have questions or concerns, click here to contact me. My door is always open. Click here to schedule a session today.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Healing From Trauma: A Newer Treatment

EMDR - Cluff Counseling - Lewisville TherapistWith over 500 kinds of psychotherapy available today, one relatively new kid on the block has been widely heralded by the media, practitioners and mental health consumers. More than 60,000 trained clinicians believe in the power of EMDR–Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing–including me!

Just a few months ago, in June, I posted on my blog about anxiety. Did you know that an estimated 44 million American adults suffer from anxiety, and only one-third receive treatment? I shared nine signs that often indicate anxiety, and urged my readers to seek help for this treatable ailment. In today’s post, I wish to share one of the newer methods of treatment available today: EMDR.

What is EMDR?

It is more than likely you have never heard of EMDR. That’s okay! It is a relatively new form of treatment, and kind of a funky acronym. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and it is a breakthrough therapy with a special capacity to overcome the often devastating effects of psychological trauma. It was developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro, an American psychologist, in the late 1980s. Shortly after its discovery, an ever-growing community of therapists saw its power to transform lives, controlled research studies consistently demonstrated its efficacy and effectiveness, and many therapists sought training to become EMDR certified. Often therapists have said that EMDR felt like a gift to themselves and their clients, and they were eager to “pay it forward” by spreading the word to colleagues.

How did EMDR start?

Like many great inventions, EMDR was born out of serendipity. One day in 1987, private California practitioner, Francine Shapiro, went for a walk in the woods. She had been preoccupied with disturbing thoughts. She discovered that her anxiety lifted after moving her eyes back and forth while observing her surroundings. Intrigued, Shapiro tried out variants of this procedure with her clients and found that they also felt better. She concluded that trauma can be resolved naturally when a person recalls parts of disturbing experiences while stimulating the eyes (by moving them laterally). EMDR was born!

Initially, EMDR was utilized and studied as a therapy for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and other anxiety disorders, such as phobias. Therapists have since extended this treatment to a host of other conditions including depression, sexual dysfunction, schizophrenia, eating disorders, addiction, and even the psychological stress generated by cancer. EMDR therapy is applicable to a wide range of psychological problems that result from overwhelming life experiences. Although I mostly use EMDR for trauma, I have also used it for certain situations where the client faces OCD or is working through fear.

How does EMDR work?

EMDR therapists begin by asking their clients to identify events or situations that provoke anxiety or fear in the present–like the painful memories of a frightening accident. After the history of related anxiety provoking events has been gathered and the assessment phase is complete, the therapist, with the help of a client, identifies a “target” event to start with. By leading the patient in a series of left-to-right, or lateral eye movements, as the patient simultaneously focuses on a disturbing memory, “bilateral stimulation” occurs. Basically the the brain’s two hemispheres synchronize, which allows clarity. A therapist may use her hands, or other EMDR developed devices, to stimulate these bilateral movements.

Dr. Shapiro and her associates developed a number of procedures for coordinating what she termed, “dual awareness,” or the unifying of the two hemispheres of the brain.  The procedures have been refined and validated through controlled research at several centers around the world. Precise and careful use of these procedures can lead to the safe processing of memories, where negative thoughts and emotions can disappear.

This is more than a set of techniques. The EMDR approach provides a model for understanding human potential–including how positive experiences can lead to adaptive living, and how upsetting experiences can lead to psychological problems that interfere with a person’s ability to meet life’s challenges. The EMDR protocol requires clinicians to carefully assess and prepare adequately, particularly for persons with histories of multiple traumas.  

It has long been assumed that it takes a great deal of time to heal from severe emotional pain. However, multitudes of studies have been done on EMDR which repeatedly show that by using EMDR therapy, people can experience the benefits of psychotherapy much quicker. Two particularly notable studies include one where findings indicated that 84%-90% of single-trauma victims no longer had PTSD after only three 90-minute sessions; and another in which a whopping 77% of combat veterans were free of PTSD in just 12 sessions! In fact, there has been so much research on EMDR therapy that it is now recognized by several important institutions (like the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization and the Department of Defense) as an effective form of treatment for trauma, other disturbing experiences, and even the more “everyday” experiences that bring individuals in for therapy (like low self-esteem, anxiety, or feelings of powerlessness).

I became interested in EMDR after witnessing the positive outcomes it had on my clients at an inpatient treatment center. I recognized that many clients, not just those with addictions, come into my office with trauma, and I wanted to find a way to decrease the power that the trauma had on them. This model of treatment works to decrease the intensity of emotions connected to a traumatic memory, and thus lessens the power these events have on them. I have seen EMDR work for countless clients. Two particular clients come to mind when I reflect on the power of EMDR 1) A young female adult, recently involved in a serious car accident, had trouble meeting the demands of her daily life after the accident due to flashbacks. Within 5 EMDR sessions, she was able to function like she had before her accident and the flashbacks had stopped. And 2) A client’s pet passed away which triggered the tragic death of her best friend as a child, which made sleeping impossible and caused her emotionally and physically shut-down. After multiple EMDR sessions, she was able to sleep throughout the night and started reaching out to friends (and even dating) again!

EMDR procedures should only be used by a fully trained EMDR clinician, who holds licensure in the mental health field. I have been fully trained in levels 1 and 2, and use this method on a regular basis. Just today I did three hours of EMDR with my clients! If you or someone you love could benefit from EMDR treatment, contact me today or schedule a session to be evaluated. I would be more than happy to give you an evaluation and offer the relief that can come through the effective administration of EMDR!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area. 

Resources:

Love Languages: Giving and Receiving Love

Love Languages - Giving and Receiving Love - Cluff Counseling - North Texas Therapist

“Our most basic emotional need is not to fall in love but to be genuinely loved by another, to know a love that grows out of reason and choice, not instinct. I need to be loved by someone who chooses to love me, who sees in me something worth loving.” -Dr. Gary Chapman

For the past six months, I have been focusing on each of Dr. Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages. In February, I gave an overview. In March, I focused on Words of Affirmation. April was on the Love Language of Service. In May, I discussed Receiving Gifts. June was all about Quality Time, and last month we finished up this series with Physical Touch. Each Love Language is unique with its own pros and cons, but all offer us insight into our lover’s expectations, wants and wishes. I am such a firm believer that understanding love languages is powerful, and can have a profound impact on our relationships. Today I want to end this series with a couple of important takeaways.

For which relationships?

When I say relationships, I do not only mean our romantic relationships. Heavens no! I mean that applying our newfound knowledge of each of the 5 Love Languages can affect all of our relationships! This stuff is for real. It will change how you interact with your boss, your mom, your sister, your children, your friends, your neighbor, etc.  I have found that I have been able to connect so much better with my dad as I have come to understand how he receives and gives love, and our interactions are much more meaningful now that I am trying to speak his love language.

Not always bilateral!

Point number two, these Love Languages are not bilateral. Meaning, the way someone receives love may not always be the same way in which they naturally express love. Here’s an example to piggyback off what I just said about understanding my dad better. Because of his upbringing, he is not an affectionate person…at all. He does not say lovey things, nor is he physically demonstrative; he has maybe hugged me five times my whole life. But he expresses his love for me through gifts–he is very thoughtful about my birthday and Christmas gifts, and always nails it by giving meaningful and generous presents. Conversely, he does not receive love through gifts!!  He receives love through Quality Time; he just wants me to spend time with him. So I sit by him when I go visit him, and we chat about life for a little while, or I plan a family get together for his birthday where we eat, laugh and play games. We are able to strengthen our connection that way, and it has done wonders for our relationship.

You may have noticed this about yourself–that you naturally give love differently than you receive it. Or maybe you reciprocate the love language that you like! I receive love by quality time (ex: meaningful conversation during an ice cream outing) and I give it through a mixture of gifts and service (ex: going to the peach orchards and bringing some to a friend). The point is to be aware of the 5 Love Languages and to apply them to your relationships. Explore them, talk about them, practice them! The more you do, the more proficient you will become in expressing love in whichever way your loved one receives love. And you will find that it is incredibly satisfying and effective!

Start today

Remember, all of our relationships (both romantic and not!) can be improved. Again, I am a firm believer in the efficacy of the Love Languages. I recommend reading the book, perusing the website, and/or taking the quiz that will help identify one’s primary Love Language. While I am no expert, I certainly subscribe to the 5 Love Languages, and would be more than happy to answer any questions you may have about them. If you and your partner–or even you and your sibling, parent, or friend–are having a difficult time connecting and having meaningful interactions, I recommend evaluating each other’s Love Languages and coming up with suggestions for how to meet each other’s expectations. My door is always open for a session as well. Understanding and applying the 5 Love Languages to each of our relationships is powerful. I wish you the best of luck as you go and apply what you have learned through this series!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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How to Talk to Your Child About Porn, Part II

How to Talk to Your Child About Porn, Part II - Cluff Counseling - Lewisville Therapist

No parent wants to talk with their children about pornography. It can seem overwhelming, uncomfortable, and maybe unnecessarily early–depending on the age of your child. While there may be validity to all those feelings, I urge you to communicate openly, honestly, and early with your child about the fallacies and dangers of pornography… before they learn about it elsewhere.

Children are now learning to use electronic devices at a very young age, and often stumble upon inappropriate pictures or videos. Like many others, you may be caught off guard and quite surprised by how early in your child’s life this happens. Upon entering puberty, pre-teens may be curious about sex and sexuality as their brain, body, and hormones change and develop. Your children may hear things in the playground or at a friend’s house. Inevitably, they will want to know more and asking Mom or Dad about sex can be embarrassing. You can be ready for this conversation by preparing some talking points and creating an environment of open communication. You will be grateful you did so!

Last month, I posted the first part in this two-part series on talking with your children about pornography. The world is different than it was 20 years ago; the ease and and convenience of viewing porn at our fingertips–plus the increased dependence on technology–is a recipe for disaster. We must adapt to the pervasive and dangerous drug that is sweeping through our internet, TVs, phones, and homes. It is everywhere. Your children will see porn; it is a matter of when, not if. My wish with this post is to help you prepare for when you decide to talk with your children about pornography. I know it seems like a daunting, horrible thing to need to talk about, and you may want to put it off as long as possible, but I urge you to read this post and mindfully consider what will be best for your child(ren).

Part 1 focused on 9 foundational points that will help guide you as you prepare for this conversation (or hopefully the first of many conversations) with your children. Click here to read that post in its entirety. To briefly summarize, those 9 points are:

  1. Build trust.
  2. Talk about it sooner rather than later.
  3. Prepare for it now.
  4. Explain why porn is problematic.
  5. Teach that porn is inaccurate.
  6. Treat pornography the same for your daughter as you would your son.
  7. Teach them (especially daughters) that their worth is more than skin deep.
  8. What to do if my child comes to me with a porn addiction.
  9. Make it an ongoing conversation.

Again, I recommend reviewing that post because I explained each point in greater detail that will offer clarity and guidance as you apply them. The most important thing about this talk is that you deliver it with the needs/preferences/personality of your individual children in mind. Follow your innate parent gut and speak with love.

What do I say?!

It is 100% natural to have no idea where to begin. Might I suggest that you begin by asking questions and then LISTEN. Encourage two-way conversation. Questions may include (but are not limited to) the following: What do you know about pornography? Do any of the kids at school ever talk about it? What do they say? Have you ever seen it? Did someone show it to you? Or did you find it yourself? You may be surprised and/or horrified by their responses, but try to remain calm. Reassure your child(ren) they are not in trouble. Try to find out how they found it and why they were searching for it. If they have seen it, ask when/where they saw it and how it made them feel. Then discuss those feelings.

Because children are generally pure and tender, they may feel “yucky” for what they have seen.

Explain to them that pornography teaches attitudes towards sex and sexual behaviors that are inaccurate and unhealthy. I highly recommend utilizing the suggestions found in Kristen Jenson’s book Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn Proofing Today’s Kids. She explains how to make it a comfortable conversation about what pornography is, why it is dangerous, and how to reject it. By explaining porn in a developmentally appropriate way (found in the book), young kids are able to porn-proof their own brains. If having this conversation is making you feel nervous, remember that professionals actually encourage parents to have this talk with their children. Avoiding the subject will only lead your children to satisfy their curiosity by searching elsewhere!

You may choose to discuss some of the false content portrayed in pornographic material (such as lack of respect and consent, violence, and dangerous sexual practices) to help them understand why you are concerned about them viewing it. Talking about these feelings will help them understand that this is for their protection and not just another rule you wish to impose upon them.

Then help them prepare for the future. Ask them what they could do if someone tries to show them pornography again and let them suggest options. Discourage them from seeking it out and encourage them to come to you with further questions. Explain that you will put protection up to help avoid further exposure in your home (through parental controls on smartphones, TVs, computers, blocking certain sites, installing filters, etc). You can even work with your child to find ways to protect against pornography! Your children might surprise you by agreeing with or even suggesting certain ‘house rules’, such as not deliberately visiting these sites, avoiding searches with potentially dangerous keywords, using devices in open areas at home and not behind closed doors, being offline by a particular time of night, no sleepovers, keeping phones in mom and dad’s room at night, etc. Together come up with consequences, and then as the parent, enforce the rules.

Okay so at what age do I do this?

This will depend on you. There is no hard and fast rule. Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, says parents can talk about potential issues as early as third grade, because even the youngest children can pretty easily find things like pornography online. I know several families who have this chat as early as eight years old. Basically, follow your gut. If you are thinking about this already, there is probably a reason! And remember my final suggestion from Part 1 of this post, to make this an ongoing conversation. Let your children know that you are always available and willing to continue the discussion, and encourage them to come to you before looking elsewhere. And as they grow and progress developmentally, I invite you to tailor this same conversation to their understanding.

No one looks forward to having the pornography chat with their children. But you must have this conversation in order to protect and prepare them. If you still have questions or concerns after reading this series on talking with children about porn, please feel free to contact me! Please remember–pornography is not just a male or an adult problem, it is a human problem. The children in your life need protection from pornography. They need to understand what it is, why it is harmful, and have a plan when they see it. And they need to have our support through loving, mentoring relationships, and know that we will be there for them when (not if!) they see porn. Keep it short. Be honest. Try to make it part of an ongoing and open discussion about sexuality and sexual development. Let’s have the wisdom, courage, and compassion to face this problem head on so that our youth will not have to face it alone.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

Resources:

Love Languages: Living the Love Language of Physical Touch

Love Languages - Living the Love Language of Physical Touch - Cluff Counseling - Denton Therapist“It’s not always about sex. Sometimes the best type of intimacy is where you just lay back, laugh together at the stupidest things, hold each other, and enjoy each other’s company.” -Anon

When physical touch is referred to in a dating or marriage context, our minds go straight to the obvious: sex. But in actuality, the Love Language of Physical Touch is so much more than that and sometimes the simplest touch can make the biggest difference to a couple’s relationship satisfaction.

For the past five months, I have been focusing on Dr. Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages. In February, I gave an overview. In March, I focused on Words of Affirmation. April was on the Love Language of Service. In May, I discussed Receiving Gifts. Last month was all about Quality Time, and now we are finishing up this series with Physical Touch. Each Love Language is unique with its own pros and cons; this Love Language is no different. The individuals who receive love through Physical Touch are not oversexed or have an insatiable appetite for sex. In fact, most of the people I know whose primary Love Language is that of Physical Touch simply want to be physically close to their partner–not necessarily through sexual intimacy.

The Love Language of Physical Touch is just that–physically touching. Here are some ideas:

  1. Holding your partner’s hand while you sit and talk. (Try this while talking about bills or a stressful day…there’s something so calming about it!)
  2. Kissing your spouse on the cheek/forehead/nose.
  3. Putting your foreheads together.
  4. Nibbling on your sweetie’s ear.
  5. Sitting on your partner’s lap.
  6. Giving each other a back-scratch, neck, or head massage.
  7. Putting your arm around each other.
  8. Slipping your hand along the belt-line under his or her shirt while you kiss.
  9. Holding on to a hug (and just hugging in general).
  10. Cuddling and talking about nothing.
  11. Slapping his bum while he empties the trash.
  12. Gently stroking his/her hair or face.
  13. Putting your arm on her shoulder as you pass her in the hallway.
  14. Holding your spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend in your arms.
  15. Having a tickle fight.
  16. Touching them in a teasing or provocative way.
  17. And of course…sexual intimacy.

You may have noticed that when you and your partner are in a relationship funk (or fight), you literally distance yourself from each other. There are no hello hugs, goodbye kisses, or pillowtalk snuggles. It is in these moments that you can link arms with him while you walk, or snuggle her at night to signify that you want things to be good. And even when you are not fighting, such simple acts of physical touch can demonstrate your love for your partner and symbolize that you want to be even closer. And isn’t staying close and getting closer to one’s partner always the goal in marriage and relationships?!

Physical touch allows us to keep those “in-love” emotions and makes marriage (and life) much more enjoyable! So if you find yourself farther from your spouse than you’d like to be, try scooting a little closer…both figuratively and literally. Try any of the above methods or go ahead and be creative.

If you are not naturally affectionate in your platonic relationships, it is likely that you are not overly affectionate with your romantic partner, either. But if your partner’s primary Love Language is Physical Touch, you may need to learn a new Love Language! Being touchy-feely may be out of your comfort zone to begin with, but with time you can learn to speak this Love Language and it will become easier. He or she will certainly appreciate your sustained efforts!

Partners of those whose primary Love Language is Physical Touch may feel unloved, unwanted, or rejected if there is a mismatch of libido/sex drive. In particular, much frustration and resentment can result if one person almost always has to be the one to initiate, so making a conscious endeavour to do more of the above would be welcomed. And if you are the partner with Physical Touch as your primary Love Language, please remember your partner is not a mind-reader. You will need to clearly and respectfully communicate what it is you would like more or less of!

Every relationship has areas that work well and areas that could use improvement. Feeling more loved and appreciated is something all of us would like! If you do not know your partner’s (or your own) love language, I highly recommend taking the quiz from the 5 Love Languages website. Understanding love languages will enable you to directly and efficiently communicate how much you care about your significant other.  If your partner is learning to communicate your love language, offer gentle guidance and point out progress. If you are trying to speak your partner’s love language, be patient–it takes time to learn a new language. Learning to express love through Physical Touch can happen throughout the normal course of your day. Should you ever need additional assistance implementing love languages and working towards a more fulfilling relationship, you know my office door is always open!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

Resources:

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How to Talk to Your Child About Porn, Part I

How to Talk to Your Child About Porn, Part I - Cluff Counselingn - Lewisville Therapist“For some reason, we don’t talk very much to youth and children about one of the strongest urges and biggest temptations they will face. Our reluctance sets them up to be taught primarily by the internet, other children or teenagers, or even Hollywood.” -Joy D Jones

Children are now learning to use electronic devices at a very young age, and often stumble upon inappropriate pictures or videos. Like many others, you may be caught off guard and be quite surprised by how early in your child’s life this happens. Upon entering puberty, pre-teens may be curious about sex and sexuality as their brain, body, and hormones change. Your children may hear things in the playground or at a friend’s house. Inevitably, they will want to know more and asking Mom or Dad about sex can be embarrassing. You can be ready for this conversation by preparing some talking points and by creating an environment of open communication in your home. You will be grateful you did so!

Last month, I posted about how women can also fall prey to the temptations of pornography. Pornography is not just a male problem, it is a human problem. Knowing that women and girls are just as susceptible creates more of a sense of urgency to combat the pervasive nature of pornography. Your children will see porn; it is a matter of when not if. My wish with this post is to help you prepare for when you talk with your daughter or son about avoiding pornography. I know it seems like a daunting, horrible thing to talk about, and you may want to put it off as long as possible, but I urge you to read the following points and mindfully consider what will be best for your child(ren):

  1. Build trust. Your child needs to know that he/she can count on you to talk about the hard things and that your love is unconditional. It is impossible to have influence when there is no trust. Invest time in your relationship with your child to help them feel loved and accepted. Not only will discussions about sexual matters be more effective when you have a trusting relationship with your child, but they will feel safe coming to you with sensitive questions.
  2. Talk about it sooner rather than later. Kids are curious. Be the one to teach your children. If you do not, the Internet, Hollywood, or their friends will do it for you (and who knows how good of a job they will do)!
  3. Prepare for it now. This might entail talking with other moms, reading the latest research, contacting a reputable therapist for guidance, or conversing with your spouse/partner–whatever it is, plan and prepare today for this conversation with your children. It needs to be done correctly or else they may feel shame, guilt, or heightened curiosity–which could lead to further (and maybe secretive) internet searches.
  4. Explain why porn is problematic. For some families, this might include religious convictions. But regardless of your religious views, we can all agree that pornography depicts erotic material unsuitable for young children. It is imperative to help your child understand that explicit material is literally harmful for the developing brain (as taught by Kristen Jenson in Good Pictures Bad Pictures Jr.: A Simple Plan to Protect Young Minds), and that it can lead to unrealistic expectations of oneself, unhealthy relationships with others, and even addiction.
  5. Teach that porn is inaccurate. Children (and adults) need to be reminded that porn stars get plastic surgery, that sex depicted in porn is unrealistic, and that the high porn gives is temporary at best. Having a frank conversation about the mechanics of sex will lead you perfectly into the realities (and fallacies) of pornography. Educate your children on the male vs. female sexual response, and teach them that pornography is a literal production and not a true representative of typical sexual encounters. If you have not yet done so, this may be an advantageous time to talk about masturbation as well.
  6. Treat pornography the same for your daughter as you would your son. Whatever pointers/rules/guidelines/lessons/lectures/rules you have in place for your son, they need to be the exact same for your daughter!  Use the same protective measures with your daughter as you do with your son. Help them to develop an “internal filter” against pornography from an early age by teaching them what pornography is, why it is harmful, and how to reject it with a plan when they are exposed to it.
  7. Teach them (especially daughters) that their worth is more than skin deep. Society will teach your children–daughters especially–that their outward appearance is what really matters, and pornography definitely builds on that. Your children need to know that their worth is so much deeper than what they see in the mirror. Compliment them on their accomplishments or character traits as much or more than their appearance. As I stated in point four, porn stars are not meant to look real; many of their bodies are surgically, hormonally, and photographically enhanced. No one should expect–or expect others–to look that way!
  8. What do I do if my child comes to me with a pornography problem?  It is incredibly difficult to have a child confess a pornography problem. But the very best advice I can offer is to remain emotionally neutral. It is critically important that you not become unglued in front of your child, as this will increase their shame as well as make them less likely to listen and open up to you in the future. Be encouraging and supportive. Remember, porn is the enemy, not your child!
  9. Make it an ongoing conversation. Help them know that while the topics of sex, pornography, or masturbation are certainly not easy things to discuss, that you are always available to talk with them. Teach them that your chat is not a one-time occurrence and that you are and will always be a safe place to ask questions!

These nine points are guidelines for you to use as you navigate the when and the how of talking to your children about pornography. Next month I will share part two of this post, which will include specifically what to say to your children, as well as when–what age–to say it.   

Absolutely no one wants to have the pornography chat with their children. But you must have this conversation in order to protect and prepare them. Keep it short. Be honest. Try to make it part of an ongoing and open discussion about sexuality and sexual development. The children in your life need protection from pornography. They need to understand what it is, why it is harmful, and have a plan for when they see it. And they need to have our support through loving, mentoring relationships, and know that we will be there for them when (not if!) they see porn.  Let’s have the wisdom, courage, and compassion to face this problem head on so that our youth will not have to face it alone.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

Resources:

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Love Languages: Showing Love Through the Gift of Quality Time

Love Languages Through Quality Time - Cluff Counseling - Dallas Therapist“I encourage couples to make a resolution to schedule 15 to 20 minutes each day for a number of reasons: You have something to look forward to throughout your day. You demonstrate to your partner that they are a priority and the relationship is a priority. You can use this as a time to show your partner care and support. ” —Zufall

This year I have dedicated one week each month to delving deeper into the love languages. This is not only because I profoundly believe in them and their efficacy, but because speaking your partner’s love language is a simple way you can start to improve or enrich your relationship today. This month, I want to focus on my personal favorite, the love language of Quality Time.

Those who receive love through Quality Time really just need you–and they need all of you. By this I mean put your phone down. Turn off the TV. Tell your friends to wait. Spend undistracted time with your partner. Not only will you fulfill their emotional needs, but you will notice that this Quality Time truly enhances the quality of your relationship! It is a win-win for both of you.

How can I do this?

The great thing about this love language is that you can spend quality time together in the normal course of your day; you do not need to go out of your way doing something special, nor do you need to buy anything.  The biggest deterrent from spending time together is getting sidetracked by life’s responsibilities. How can that be overcome? By planning. Set aside a specific time at a regular interval and stick to it. This may mean that you plan on catching up on the day for 5-10 minutes directly after work. Or it could mean that each Sunday you play Uno over hot cocoa or ice cream. Or you could plan on going to bed at the same time and having pillow talk every night. Or one night a week you try preparing a new recipe together. Or Saturday mornings you work out at the park. Whatever the time limit and whenever the frequency, be sure to make it a priority. The time you set aside and plan around will soon become a couple ritual between you and your partner that you will begin to look forward to and cherish.

What are some specific ideas?

You or your partner may be under the false notion that Quality Time is staring blankly at each other or simply just talking. This is absolutely untrue! Although conversating is a great way to reconnect (not to mention easy and convenient!), there are a great deal of activities you and your partner can do to really enjoy whatever Quality Time that you do have together. Dr. Chapman goes into this in greater detail and explains that Quality Time can consist of either Quality Conversation or Quality Activities.

Quality Conversation is not just chatting or surface level dialogue (eg. talking about bills or childcare). It is where you share experiences, thoughts, feelings, and desires in a friendly, uninterrupted context.  It means you focus on what you hear, you draw out your partner’s thoughts, listen sympathetically, ask questions, maintain eye contact, refuse to interrupt, and do not multitask. Quality Activities can include anything in which one or both of you has an interest.  The purpose is to experience something together, to walk away from it feeling that your partner cares for you and vice versa.  It can mean a great deal to your partner if you do something that he/she is interested in that you may not be particularly drawn to. Examples of potential activities for Quality Time include:

  • Making dinner (or any meal)
  • Meal planning (surfing Pinterest in search of recipes to try together can be a fun activity)
  • Folding laundry
  • Playing a game (if you do not own board or card games, play something simple like 20 questions to get to know your partner better!)
  • Cleaning your home/apartment
  • Going through old pictures/journals
  • Being close (cuddling or being intimate)
  • Working on a bucket list or long-term goals
  • Reading a book (Dr. Chapman recommends reading “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” together and discussing each chapter)
  • Working out/exercising
  • Having a relationship evaluation; discussing where you could improve and where you are succeeding

There are infinite possibilities of things you can do during your quality time. It will vary and depend widely on the interests, hobbies, lifestyle of both you and your partner. My friend’s sister and her husband take their time together early each morning as they work out. One of my favorite professors and her husband planned on reading their bible together each night before bed. Another couple plans to go on a long bike ride up a canyon near their home each Friday morning. What matters is that you are spending time together, and that you are focusing on spending Quality Time with your partner. As you make an effort to spend more quality time with your partner, you will find that he or she is more satisfied in your relationship and feels more connected to you. This truly does wonders for a relationship!

You may be wondering how your partner can have your “undivided attention” if you are doing something else together–like playing a game or scrolling Pinterest for recipe ideas. What I mean (and what Dr. Chapman means) by “undivided attention” is that you put the rest of your life on hold. Phone calls, texts, emails, the news, even your children (!) can wait. Your relationship and its health comes before everything else. Some couples choose to put their phones in a basket or in another room while they spend their Quality Time together, so as to not be distracted in any way. If you have children and find it nearly impossible to have a single moment of peace and quiet, plan ahead! Take advantage of whatever time you do have on your own and give some of it to your partner. Yes, life will always be there and you will always have demands pulling you several different directions, but if you can put as much of life on hold as possible, you can focus on the most important thing in front of you–your relationship with your partner. That is what I mean by giving undivided attention to your partner. Pause everything else and physically/emotionally/mentally BE with him or her.

Every relationship has areas that work well and areas that could use improvement. Feeling more loved and appreciated is something all of us would like! If you do not know your partner’s (or your own) love language, I highly recommend taking the quiz from the 5 Love Languages website. Understanding love languages will enable you to directly and efficiently communicate how much you care about your significant other.  If your partner is learning to communicate in your love language, offer gentle guidance and point out progress. If you are trying to speak your partner’s love language, be patient–it takes time to learn how to speak a new language. Learning to express love through Quality Time can be fun because there are so many ways to spend time together. The most important thing is to just be present. That is the best gift you can give your partner! As the old adage goes, “love” is really spelled T-I-M-E. Should you ever need additional assistance implementing love languages and working towards a more fulfilling relationship, you know my office door is always open!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

Resources: