The Exquisite Pain of a Child’s Sadness: Finding Confidence to Bear It

Toni held the drawing up to the Zoom camera. for me to see A stick figure stood in the middle: big blue tears the size of her head lined the page reaching from her eyes to the ground below at her feet. Even through the screen I could feel the heart wrenching pain portrayed in the picture. Toni surprised me by then saying, “I want her to be able to feel sad.” I asked if she would tell me more. She vividly recalled experiences from her own childhood when she sensed that her parents could not accept her feelings. Sadness transformed to anger and then uncontrolled rage. The frustration of not being seen felt alive in her now as she held her daughter close.

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Parenting and the Stigma of Emotional Suffering

Families who struggle with substance use disorders can face enormous obstacles in their recovery. In caring for Leila and her parents I felt license to talk openly about stigma as a well-recognized part of the problem. Perhaps this experience can offer us a lesson for all families with young children.

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Born Into Violence: Listening as Prevention

In that moment of connection, Calvin made hopeful meaning of himself. If he had words, he might have said, “I can change my world to make it better.” He communicated with his mother in a way that also changed the meaning she made of his behavior. Her negative attribution based on her experience of violence shifted. Psychoanalyst Lou Sander referred to this kind of interaction as a “moment of meeting.” Parents and infants make meaning of themselves in the world through hundreds of thousands of moments. Unfortunately for this family, their circumstances did not allow for the calm space for listening offered that night in the hospital.

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Parenting Through Grief: “I’m Her Only Mother”

I refer to this process as “bringing in the baby” in clinical work with parents struggling emotionally around the time of childbirth. While certainly this mother’s grief remained front and center in my thinking, my unique role was to support her relationship with her newborn child. I have found that rather than various forms of “talk therapy,” the actual baby and their communication often offers the most powerful voice for growth and change.

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Peter and the Bear: Finding Hope in Child’s Play

3-year-old Peter and his family were referred to my behavioral pediatrics practice for help with “managing his aggression.” In the second session, having taken a full hour to listen to the story from his parents Jonathan and Jalissa the previous week, we are all sitting on the floor. Peter drapes himself across his father Jonathan’s lap, wriggling around while drawing with markers on a pad on the floor. His mother quietly observes. There is a long moment when it feels like nothing is happening. I notice in myself that feeling of not knowing what’s going on, but will myself to tolerate the discomfort of uncertainty.

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The Examined Life: Listening to the Baby

Photo by Aditya Romansa on Unsplash

No matter how messy the situation in which we find ourselves, this singular focus on the transformative impact of facilitating moments of meeting between parents and their young children brings a sense of calm purpose to the work. Again and again we observe how such moments produce extraordinary changes in families, shifting the narrative from generational trauma and disconnection to possibility for healing and growth.

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Through Shame to Belonging: Confronting Racism as Developmental Process

I will never know the experience of a Black person living in a world where people in power condone your murder simply because of the color of your skin. My family wearing a yellow star is the closest I can come to some kind of understanding. But unlike the Holocaust, which was a defined moment in history and is generally well-recognized, today many White people remain largely oblivious to the centuries of brutal violent systemic and structural racism perpetrated on Black Americans.

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Social Media Addiction: Beyond “Just Say No”

In my recent book The Power of Discord co-authored with renowned research psychologist Ed Tronick we address the problem of technology over-use within the context of human relationships. If we understand the problem as a symptom, we see that simple admonitions to limit time and find good content are not sufficient. When we eliminate a symptom without recognizing its function, we fail to address the underlying problem. Over-reliance on technology and social media may be a symptom of a social and cultural movement away from the normal messiness of human relationships. If so, only immersion in relationships can provide the solution.

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Can We Heal Our Country by Listening to Babies and Parents?

We learn to listen by being listened to. Our ability to find our way into another person’s experience begins to develop in our earliest months of life when caregivers naturally respond to our wordless communication. Our ability to listen is enhanced in a setting of connection and communication. Alternatively, our ability to listen can atrophy in an environment that does not model or value listening. When we protect this time to listen to the baby’s unique voice and support parents at this transformative and often disorganizing time, we set babies and families on a healthy path right from the start.


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The Growing Crisis of Stimulant Abuse

A wise colleague who works as a family recovery support specialist in a program for parents of young children identified a core contradiction. If we say that addiction is a biological disease that is treated with medication, how to we make sense of the narrative of the role of trauma? Could it be that the well-intentioned efforts to reduce stigma, in large part a response to the criminalization of drug abuse, has the unintended consequence of silencing stories that then reappear to exert their influence in other forms?

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