Monday, February 29, 2016

Connections With Grandparents Stabilize Teens

It's rough being a teenager, but having a loving, involved grandparent really helps teens smoothly transition through these turbulent years. While teens are busy individuating and separating from parents as they need to do developmentally, grandparents can be a safe place to attach emotionally. Teens with close, loving relationships with a grandparent are likely to have fewer emotional and behavioral problems than teens without that attachment.

A recent study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel surveyed 1,405 teens ages 12 to 18, involved in a larger study. Teens who enjoyed a close relationship with both their parents and grandparents experienced the lowest amount of adjustment difficulties on questionnaires measuring hyperactivity, and emotional distress like excessive worrying, social skills problems, fighting and bullying. The study was published this past year in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry online.

While grandparents have long been considered by family therapists as a help to teens who are having conflict with one or both parents, this study suggests that there are benefits to teens of being close to grandparents even when the teen is well connected with parents. Teens who were securely attached to both parents and grandparents had the least problems. Being close to grandparents didn't seem to help as much if the teens weren't close to their own parents. For teens who indicated a moderate or a strong bond with their parent, the close relationship with a grandparent played an increasingly strong role in decreasing adjustment difficulties.

In my counseling practice, I always encourage people to make the most of the relationship they can have with their grandchildren and other young people. Being a grandparent is one of those interesting roles in life that is highly variable. You can make much of your emotional contribution to the role or none, it's up to your willingness and your adult children's openness to having you involved. If you don't have children or grandchildren, consider reaching out to other teens who may need your stabilizing influence and loving concern.

I can remember my parents' house being a wonderful haven for our children when they were teens; a great place to learn to cook, do art, try gardening, watch classic movies or go for a swim with Gram and Gramps. As it works out, research backs up my observations that grandparents and teenaged grandchildren can provide meaningful connections to each other and memories that can last a lifetime. It's good to be needed.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Are You A Highly Sensitive Person?

Do you respond more intensely to experiences than the average person might? Do you cry easily? About 20% of the population fits into the category of being a highly sensitive person (HSP). This trait is distributed pretty equally among men and women. HSP is different from introversion, although both can get overstimulated and need to retreat at times. It's believed that sensitivity may run along a spectrum, like some other traits, from low to high. This is not a disorder, but a trait which tends to be permanent over one's lifespan.

HSP was first identified in the 1990's by research psychologists Elaine and Arthur Aron. HSP is also known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity. The Arons developed a 27-item scale to assess for being highly sensitive, which you can take online at  Here are a few sample items:

Other people's moods affect me.

I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics or sirens close by.

I have a rich, complex inner life.

I am deeply moved by the arts or music.

I am conscientious.

I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time.

Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration or mood.

Changes in my life shake me up.

When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise.

Highly sensitive people show brain scan differences in their neural activity, as compared to non-HSPs. Those with this feature are more empathetic, pay close attention to the environment and non-verbal cues from other people. A study at University of California, Santa Barbara published in the Journal of Brain and Behavior in April 2014, demonstrated that people identified as HSP have more neural activity in parts of the brain when looking at the face of a loved one than people with an average level of sensitivity.

People with HSP are believed to have a deeper depth of cognitive processing. They can get overwhelmed, be more aware of emotional subtleties and have stronger emotional responses than others do. HSPs are well-suited professionally to work as counselors, teachers, artists, pastors and writers.

There are liabilities that come with being an HSP, too. They can be easily hurt. They can get exhausted from people and too much stimuli. HSPs can be vulnerable to stress. Dr. Arthur Aron, research professor at Stony Brook University in New York and visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley acknowledges that HSPs can get easily overwhelmed and that they tend to process information more deeply than others.

In relationships, both HSPs and their partners need to be aware of the sensitivity. The highly sensitive person can learn to identify when they are a needing a time out during disagreements with their partner or when overwhelmed. HSPs need to do extreme self-care, being certain to eat healthily, sleep well, and get downtime to relax. HSPs must appreciate that their partner probably processes events and experiences differently, and appreciate the differences.

People who are partnered with an HSP are best to never say "calm down." It's best if you are not critical, and validate your partner's feelings. Telling an HSP partner that they are making a big deal out of something won't help. Be supportive, and express that you understand what they are feeling.

Being a highly sensitive person can be both a gift and a burden. Understanding yourself as an HSP or your HSP partner is of critical importance for a well-balanced, happy life and relationship.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Being Known: The Seven Levels of Intimacy

Matthew Kelly wrote the classic relationship book The Seven Levels of Intimacy: The Art of Loving and the Joy of Being Loved. The book is simply written, easy to read, and has some really interesting ways to begin thinking differently about some of your closest relationships.

Kelly believes that the purpose of the healthiest close relationships is to help you become your best self, and encouraging people that you love to evolve, develop, and become their best selves as well. If you are in the right primary relationship, it should be challenging you some. We want to spur each other's development along to become the best version of ourselves.

Intimacy isn't needed in all relationships. We all do better, though, if we have real intimacy in some of our relationships. Intimacy takes mutual disclosure and self-revelation. Lower levels of intimacy are fine with people you don't know well or want to get close to, but with people you want to go deeper with the lower levels of intimacy are just a warm-up.

Here are Kelly's seven levels of intimacy:

1. Cliches: at this level, we are having flat, brief conversations with others, with very little disclosure or significance. Think of how most people interact with the grocery clerk. It's boring, monotonous, and repetitive. An example would be asking how work was and getting the reply "fine." These are fine conversation starters and may be appropriate with strangers, but are unsatisfying if this is the level your closest relationships stay at. If you hang out in clichés, it's a sure fire way to avoid intimacy.

2. Just the Facts: We discuss sports, current events, the stock market, weather, celebrity gossip,and what we did today. It's safe to discuss facts. It pretty much guarantees that there won't be conflict. Facts are usually impersonal.

3. Opinion: You don't have to make yourself vulnerable at all to announce your opinions. It can lead to conflict. Arguments can occur here which reveal a lack of maturity, inability to transcend self and empathize with another's view, and a shortage of self-awareness. Getting stuck on this level can cause disagreements, demonstrate a lack of a common goal, and cause people to downshift back into clichés and facts. As we mature, we should be able to agree to disagree and to accept differences.

4. Hopes and Dreams: Sharing our vision for our life, what we are hoping to accomplish and experience is far more personal, and takes us deeper with the other person. We need to feel fairly safe to do this. I can't imagine sharing my hopes and dreams with anyone who I experience as critical and judgmental. Revealing your dreams and learning about those of the other person charges the relationship with energy. Building a dream together with an intimate other is a powerful connection between you. Dreams give our lives focus and purpose.

5. Feelings: Going beyond facts and events to share the more personal elements of how you feel about your life, your day, your work, your relationships, will take you still deeper into knowing and being known. One catch is that you have to be able to identify your own feelings before you can share them. You can deepen a close relationship by asking about how the other person feels. Listen intently from the heart. It takes being willing to be vulnerable to share feelings, but that's where all the good stuff is in relationships. It's a risk, but what is life without a little risk?

6. Faults, Fears and Failures: You don't have to be perfect to be loved or loving. It is in sharing our misadventures, mistakes and mess-ups that people often feel closer to us. These flaws make us real.  Kelly describes this level of intimacy as emotional nakedness. if we can take down our guard at this level with those we are closest to, we help them also feel safe to reveal more. It's a mutual thing. Asking for help also comes in here. Being able to put down your pride and admit mistakes also allows the other person to be imperfect. We all have fears and a shadow self. It's normal.

7. Legitimate Needs/Dynamic Collaboration:  We all have legitimate needs in the four aspects of life: physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. Expressing your legitimate needs and asking to understand those of the other person leads you into a thriving relationship. The highest level of relationships require that you also have the heart to try to help meet the other person's needs. There should  be both people giving and receiving. The needs must be legitimate, not superficial, manipulative or unrealistic.

Kelly also has a lot of valuable tools to suggest to making relationships intentionally closer. He suggests creating unstructured time together, which he calls carefree timelessness. It might just be spending a day with someone you love and doing whatever you both feel like. He encourages giving up criticizing others, and avoiding gossip. He suggests we be mindful of the words we choose and that we practice self-discipline and forgiveness.

The Seven Levels of Intimacy is a wonderful gem of a book. It will inspire you to be better, love more, go deeper, and be more aware of what you are co-creating with others. Not only will it help you learn how to develop more meaningful relationships, but it will also inspire those of you who are parents about how to help teach your children to creating intimate relationships in a healthy way.