Connection

Let's Talk About Teen Mental Health

Photo by  Raw Pixel  on  Unsplash

Photo by Raw Pixel on Unsplash

Recently, I had the honor and privilege of being interviewed by a local high school student for their Sociology class. Though I field many questions regarding specific client cases, I found this particular experience to be very eye-opening; I felt that if this teenager (who isn’t a client) had these questions, I’m sure that others are wondering the same things. With this individual’s (and her parent’s) permission, I am pleased to share our interview in hopes that it may help build connection and reach teens who may be looking for help and are not sure where to start.


Student Interviewer:  In what ways are therapists trying to solve the problem of teen’s mental health issues? 

Danielle: I love that you asked this question. It is my belief that we currently live in a “fix-it” culture where we expect to take a pill or see a therapist and then after 4-6 weeks, the problem very quickly just disappears and is considered “solved” or “cured.” While this would be convenient, it’s a very common misconception.

While I can’t speak for all therapists, I can speak on my own professional experience working with teens and their families. At least right now, I wouldn’t say I’m working to “solve” the problem as much as I am trying to honor, connect with, and normalize the adolescent experience.

Adolescence is unfortunately an unavoidable, yet necessary process of growth and development that is filled with self-discovery, self-comparison, and sometimes, even self-criticism. It’s the transitional period between childhood and adulthood, and the discomfort and awkwardness of it all is VERY REAL. The nice thing about that, however, is that everyone who lives to adulthood goes through it, and I mean everyone! So, at least you are in good company!

There are a number of transitional periods in your life when you will ask yourself, “Who am I?” Adolescence is perhaps the most memorable growth moments to happen across your lifespan, because it is the first time that your brain has developed enough for you to be aware of yourself and others in a social context, and then really remember it. It’s much like watching a baby walk for the first time. Those brain muscles and thought processes are new and a bit weak, so you’re going to fall or mess up. A LOT. The important thing is to get back up and keep trying. This leads you to get stronger and stronger, until eventually it somehow becomes second nature.

Sometimes, this transition can be a shock to our system and when you factor in family of origin and past experiences, it’s not uncommon to see anxiety, depression, etc. appear.  In my work, I use some Evidence Based Therapy approaches (those that have been researched thoroughly and have been shown to be effective in certain groups of people) such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Essentially, CBT is one way to help people see how their thinking can be a little faulty, and help them learn how to shift their thinking. I also incorporate what is called Interpersonal Neurobiology - which is just a fancy way to say that I’m looking at how our brain develops and changes in response to our life experiences - as well ways to connect to ourselves and to others. Connection to others is KEY to healthy development! Additionally, I utilize a lot of creativity through art, writing, and nature. Sometimes it can be difficult to put into words what you are experiencing, and it may feel safer to use a less verbal outlet.

The important thing to know about all of this is that it takes time, and likely more time than you think. The amount of time it takes depends on the client’s current abilities to process, face and incorporate change. As a therapist, I cannot “solve” these problems for my clients, but I can help support them and teach them ways in which they can help themselves. It is very important to remember that in adolescence, autonomy (aka self-regulating) is vital, and that the client (with support of parents, therapist, peers, and sometimes medications) has to do the work. It’s hard, but with support it is very much worth the effort ☺

SI:  Are there specific ways you try and reach out to teens? If so, what are they? 

D: In terms of outreach, I personally could be so much better - particularly in terms of social media. That’s the way to connect to your generation, yes?! Lol. Professionally, I have been fortunate to become a part of a group practice that has a positive and well-established reputation and social media presence. This has allowed me to accumulate clients, and then ultimately, it is word of mouth.

In a general sense, however, I reach out to teens by noticing them and making an honest effort to better understand one’s experience within a generation and culture. I ask questions. For example, I didn’t know what “stan” meant for the longest time, and I finally just asked (typing this out even just feels like that tiny, yet noticeable amount of embarrassing! Haha).  Do I use it in sentences now? No. Do I totally understand what it means to “stan” a musician? YES - 1000% yes (I love you, Fleetwood Mac!)

I also allow myself to be vulnerable with teens and show them that I’m a real person who has gone through real life stuff. I acknowledge when I mess up within the therapeutic relationship (it happens! People are people!), and I model what repair looks like in a social and relational context.

This is something that I am constantly working on!

SI:  How can a regular person help someone out who struggles with their mental health? 

D:   I think one of the best things you can do to not only help yourself but to also help others is to listen with compassion and without judgment. If you or someone else says that they need help or that they are questioning harming themselves or others, take it seriously and reach out for help, ASAP.  It’s then equally important to be familiar with available resources to get help. This includes trusted members of your community that you could talk to – parents, teachers, friends, church leaders, mentors, therapists etc. Additionally, there are a number of confidential and free resources available to teens such as:

For those in immediate/emergency crisis

  • 24/7 Austin Mental Health Crisis Hotline at 512-472-HELP (4357)

  • The Crisis Textline: Text CONNECT to 741741

  • Calling your closest hospital or 911

Non-Emergency

Free Apps: My favorites geared towards teens are Wysa, What’s Up? and  #Selfcare

 I like these because they guide you through ways to think differently about your situation as well as track your mood, behaviors, and give you ways to take care of yourself.

**Please note that these are NOT a substitute for professional treatment.

SI: Thank you so much! I hope to be able to reach out if I have any more questions, and I’m really excited to share these answers!

D: Absolutely, I’m so glad this was helpful!



I hope that this Q&A was as helpful to you readers as it was for my interviewer and I, and if you ever find yourself wondering more about how mental health affects teens, please be empowered to reach out to your trusted support system as well as the resources listed above. They are a part of your community and you are a part of theirs! You’re curiosity and questions matter, and as cheesy as it sounds, knowledge truly is power. Like, for real. Much gratitude to you all!

LoveTip: How Starting New Holiday Traditions Can Add Shared Meaning to Your Relationship

Photo by  Ian Schneider  on  Unsplash

Since I was a small child, my favorite time of year has always been the time in between the week after Halloween and the week after New Years. My family has countless traditions, ranging from Thanksgiving Day meals to Advent Calendars, tree decorating, donating to those in need, and we even have step by step rituals for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. These traditions have led me and my brothers to always feel connected to family, even when we live hundreds of miles apart. Each of us, in our own unique ways, have continued these rituals with our own families and have begun building even deeper connections with our spouses around this time of year.

Outside of my family, depending on who you ask, the holidays can be described with a smile, as “amazing,” or with a shudder, as “stressful.” Those in the first group will likely tell you all about the music, distant family, shopping, and ambience that contributes to their positive outlook on the season. Those in the latter will often cite expenses, traffic, repetitive tunes, and family drama as contributing factors to their “bah humbug” attitude. While traffic patterns and the music selections blaring at every department store, likely won’t change in the near future, I want to invite you to view the holidays as an opportunity. In this case, an opportunity to build shared meaning and intimacy with your significant other. The best part is, this opportunity does not have to cost a fortune, and most of these tips can be done in very little time with an impact that lasts long after the holiday season.

Before we identify ways to increase intimacy and shared meaning, let’s further discuss the idea of “shared meaning.” Drs. John and Julie Gottman have created an entire theoretical approach to couples and marriage counseling, with one of the ultimate goals being that couples have shared meaning in life. This shared meaning is the deeper connection that binds you and your spouse, and is created through rituals, traditions, goals, dreams, and appreciation for one another. Couples who have shared meaning tend to be “masters of their relationship”, and feel stable and loved by their partner.

So how do you achieve shared meaning? The Gottmans designed the Sound Relationship House, complete with 7 levels that culminate in Shared Meaning. Along with the levels, there are skills and understandings gained at each step that help propel your relationship towards greater satisfaction and shared meaning. Today, I want to focus on “creating rituals of connection,” which is one way to increase your shared meaning. The holidays provide a unique environment to incorporate and create new traditions and rituals that will fuel and connect your relationship for years to come.  

Begin by sitting down with your partner and talking about any current rituals you may already have in place (ie: birthday celebrations, daily greeting/departing affection, weekly dinners, etc.). Now examine the rituals and traditions that you have surrounding the holiday season. Which rituals have ties back to one or both of your childhoods? What were your favorite childhood traditions? Least favorite? What memories do these traditions evoke? How would you change these rituals to fit your current lifestyle? What meaning/symbolization do both past and current rituals have for you? How can you and your spouse continue to expand the traditions and rituals that you share? Consider the list below, as well as brainstorming together, to come up with new and exciting ways to celebrate the holidays, year after year, and to feel closer and more connected to your spouse, throughout the year!

Example Rituals:

  1. Plan a holiday meal or party together - Even if you spend the actual holidays away from home, plan a special dinner to enjoy at your house, with both you and your significant other contributing to the menu and preparation.

  2. Decorate your home in fall and/or winter/holiday décor together - Bonus points if you make the decorations, adding to your collection each year!

  3. Take Holiday Pictures- This one serves a few different purposes. Not only is this a great opportunity to create a ritual of getting dressed up or dressing in a theme with your spouse, but it will also give you the chance to look back at these photos in future years! With selfie-sticks, camera stands, filters and timed/remote photo apps, taking pictures at home has never been easier. And now there is no excuse not to include yourself in the pictures!

  4. Pull out your photo albums and reminisce on past holidays.

  5. Kiss under the mistletoe when you leave and return from work - This adds a holiday twist to a ritual you may already be doing (sending off and greeting your partner, when you leave and return home each day).

  6. Watch holiday movies together, or make a list of movies you haven’t had an opportunity to see this year, and use the extra time off from work to catch up together.

  7. Make cookies or gingerbread houses. Hate baking? Grocery stores now have pre-made ginger bread houses and sugar cookies with icing and candies included so you can save time on baking and focus more on decorating!

  8. Shop for extended family gift(s) together. Shopping often becomes a solo job, but when looking for gifts for hard-to-shop-for extended family, two heads can be better than one. Plus standing in long lines doesn’t seem so bad if you have company!

  9. Visit a Christmas tree farm - If a live tree that sheds in your living room doesn’t have you jumping with holiday spirit, lots of tree farms have other activities to enjoy (such as photo ops, petting zoos, corns mazes, festive gift shops, and delicious treats)!

  10. Sing Holiday Karaoke. Afterwards, every time you hear “Santa Baby” you will be inclined to laugh at the thought of your significant other belting it out in your living room or at the bar around the corner!

  11. Take a drive and listen to holiday music. Maybe singing isn’t your thing, but a scenic drive with spirited music can engrain the feeling of togetherness and bring back those feelings each time you hear those songs.

  12. Take a walk around your neighborhood after dark to look at the lights.

  13. Call family and friends together - Instead of you and your spouse calling or talking individually, facetime/skype/speaker phone friends and family to have group chat!

  14. Play in the snow or in the grass, depending on your local weather (snow: ski, snowboard, sled, snow ball fight; grass: bocci ball, horseshoes, washers, toss a ball or frisbee, etc.) ** The Gottmans describe play as, “dreaming while you are awake” and believe it to be a vital part of healthy relationships.

  15. Volunteer together. Whether you assist at a food bank, homeless shelter, or donate gifts to “Toys for Tots”/Angel Tree/Blue or Brown Santa, helping in your community is often easiest during the holidays because there are so many active organizations. This is a ritual that can also translate to your life after January 1st, with many organizations desperate for additional help after the holiday rush!

Keep in mind, when you are choosing rituals, you want to find activities that both you and your spouse can enjoy. If your ideas of holiday traditions are drastically different, try to find a balance between rituals geared towards you and your significant other’s interests - being aware that none of these new traditions should be “painful” for you or your partner, because that will likely only cause you to abandon them before you have an opportunity to recreate them year after year. As your repertoire of traditions and rituals grow each year, take time to discuss the ones you enjoy the most, the ones you enjoy the least, and discard unfavorable traditions, so you have time to introduce new rituals and spice up your holiday season!


LifeTip: You Are Not Alone

Photo by  Jared Rice  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash

You are not alone.

It’s easy to say, but when you’re standing in a crowded room with no one beside you, with no one to talk to, then the phrase just doesn’t feel real.

You are not alone.

How can this possibly be true even when you stand in a room of your “closest” friends and not one of them knows about that secret turmoil you keep hidden so well?

You are not alone.

Why do people even say this?

That’s some opener there, isn’t it? If you’re feeling a little heavy right now, that’s okay, just keep reading.

Have you heard about Dear Evan Hansen? It’s a musical about a high school boy with social anxiety. In one of the most beautifully written and composed songs in musical theatre, “You Will Be Found” brings the phrase “you are not alone” into a living, breathing promise. A promise. I heard that from my choir director as we were rehearsing this song at our last practice (yeah, I’m a choir nerd and a therapist!). “Sing this like a promise,” she said. That spoke to me and also weighed on me a little.

I have heard people say, and have said so myself, “Oh, you’ll find your crowd later in life. It’s just hard now.” What this can provide is a little hope but what this doesn’t satisfy is the pain and loneliness that too many feel right now, here and now, today. The lyrics to “You Will Be Found” remind me, though, that our connection doesn’t just exist in the physical. It’s beyond that. We are not alone. We ALL have one very core commonality and that is We All Feel. Our feelings may not stem from the same experiences, but my loneliness and your loneliness still have something in common.

You are not alone.

When you’re in a crowded room, see beyond the chit-chat and look into the eyes, posture, and hearts of people. What story might they have that tells a tale like yours?

You are not alone.

When you’re in a group of your friends, tell them how you feel. Embrace the vulnerability and brave the silence after you speak. Let them meet you where you are and maybe you’ll find that they understand more than you thought they would.

You are not alone. You will be found.

We say it because it’s true. Promise.

Here’s a gorgeous and moving rendition of the song that I think you need to listen to today.

Stay tuned for my next blog post titled “Light of the Clear Blue Morning!”

LoveTip: How to Be Silly (and How to Become a Rockstar Romantic Partner)

Photo by  sept commercial  on  Unsplash

Have you ever witnessed children in play? How easy it is for them to laugh, dance, sing, use silly voices, imagine they are dinosaurs, play dress up with their friends for hours? Children are so natural at play because they lack the restrictions and limitations that get layered on as life happens. But what happens when you grow up? Play becomes so much harder. We have work and find ourselves dealing with relationship and financial issues, and then we have to get the kids to school, soccer practice, ballet class, etc.

Much of the work I do with couples in couples therapy and parents in my parent coaching sessions is focused around learning how to be your true self around your partner, and how to be more spontaneous and silly as a couple. Being silly creates connection which cultivates intimacy, which generates trust. It’s a circular thing, because you have to trust your partner to be silly with them, and you have to feel safe that if you try out a silly or playful activity, they will respond with warmth and care. You could set the stage by speaking with your partner before these activities and say something like, “I love being silly! I think it might make us more connected, will you try out some of these things with me?” (Be brave here! Your inner heart might be saying, “I’m scared he/she won’t respond and he/she will think I’m weird” - but, remember, I’m weird. You’re weird. We’re all weird, and it’s so important to keep trying to stay connected to your partner). See how your partner responds.

10 ways to be silly with your partner:

  1. Spoil your dinner with ice cream. Talk about your favorite ice cream, and try out each other’s favorite.
  2. Buy temporary color hair spray and try out rainbow hair. Surprise each other with a new hairdo!
  3. Talk in a silly voice and make up a secret, inside joke that only the two of you know.
  4. Do artwork together and put it up on your fridge.
  5. Build a blanket fort and drink hot chocolate together.
  6. Make giant bubble solution and blow bubbles together (it’s relaxing!)
  7. Cut snowflakes together and hang them up on the windows in your bedroom.
  8. Play a couples version of Pictionary. Draw things that are special and unique to your relationship history - see if your partner can guess what you are drawing! The sillier the drawing better.
  9. Plan an activity with your partner that feels kid-like: go to the zoo, or climb trees, or to a kid’s movie! It can feel so nice to be reminded of our childhood experiences, and when we do this with our partners, it expands our interpersonal connection in a deep and meaningful way.
  10. Sing a song to your partner, even if you don’t like your voice. Ask them to sing one to you back. Oh, and dance. Dance to your favorite song.

Some things to remember are that not everyone responds to playfulness in the same way, and a lot of people need a bit of time to get comfortable with the outside-the-box activities. Try one activity, and then go onto the next one, if the first one doesn’t work! Give space to your partner if they don’t respond right away. And, don’t forget to say thank you to your partner for experiencing your activity. Verbal appreciation can be very helpful in reinforcing what we want to happen again.

As we move into the new year from this holiday season, it can be stressful to think about expectations related to your relationship and the ever important, “date night.”  But, try sitting down with your partner and taking just 10 minutes together to plan out some playful moments of connection, which don’t have to be limited to one specific night!  I would love to hear about your silliest moments with your partner. Share below!