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My Child Told Me They Are Trans or Non-Binary. What do I do?

By Kristen C. Dew, LMFT, CST

As International Trans Week of Visibility wraps up, I am reflecting on our services and am so proud to be the owner of a therapy practice that helps the trans community.

I thought today I would write a post on a couple of really common questions that have been coming up lately. These answers are not thorough, and seeing a therapist who specializes in gender to help with your family’s unique concerns is your best bet for support.

My Child is Saying They are Transgender or Non-binary. What Does That Mean?

At birth everyone is assigned a sex, Male or Female. Assigned Gender or Sex At Birth (AGAB/ASAB) does not always align with how people feel. Sex is biological, and still there is great variation to how biology presents itself- it’s not as straight forward as you may think. Gender on the other hand is a social construct- we are socialized to behave in ways that align with our society’s expectations for what is “male” or “female”. Some folks realize their assigned gender does not fit with who they are, and those people are transgender. You can learn more about transgender identities HERE. Some folks realize that they are both genders, their gender changes, or they do not align with any gender and those people identify somewhere on the Non-Binary spectrum. There are many NBi (Non-Binary) identities such as agender, genderfluid, genderqueer, or bigender and you can learn more HERE at the Non-Binary Wiki page. Gender is very unique to each person, so there is no way to know exactly what it means for your child unless you talk with them compassionately and non-judgmentally.

As a Parent, How do I Respond When My Child Wants to Talk About Their Gender?

First, get support for yourself from someone who understands all of this stuff. It is normal for parents to have a variety of reactions to hearing from their child that they are trans, non-binary, or questioning their gender. You may feel compassion, empathy, warm fuzzies, and closeness from being trusted by your child, but also confusion, uncertainty, frustration, disbelief, fear, or grief. Your child may want to change how they look, their name, and their pronouns. They may change these things more than once. It is certainly a lot to manage as a parent. You are your child’s #1 support team and it could mean a much higher rate of adjustment and well-being for your child if you are able to be affirming and supportive through this process. Tell your child that you love and accept them as they are and affirm how they see themselves by using their chosen name and pronouns. Tell them you will work on being affirming, and talk to your therapist or support group about how you are thinking and feeling.

What if my Child is Just Confused or this is a Phase?

Whether your child is questioning their gender and/or sexuality or seems quite sure of it, it is very important to be supportive and affirming. Research has shown that many LGBTQ* youth know from a young age what their identities are, but are afraid to come out from fear of reactions from others. Many individuals take time to come to understand how they truly feel and who they are, and as they discover more words to describe their identity their language and presentation may change over time. That is perfectly ok and healthy! Trust that your child knows how they feel and figure out how to be supportive. It is very scary to come out and risk not being accepted, which can often be mistaken as confusion or uncertainty. You will never harm your child or mislead them by supporting and affirming them.

Where Can I Get More Information?

  • Join a support group for parents, friends, and allies of LGBTQ* people
    • Growth Therapy is working on a parent support group – check the services page for more information!
  • Find a local therapist who can listen and respond to your concerns. Make sure to ask them about their credentials and training with LGBTQ* folks
    • therapyden.com
    • psychologytoday.com
    • zencare.co
    • goodtherapy.org
  • Good Websites for Information
  • Bibliotherapy!
    • The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals or The Transgender Teen by Stephanie A. Brill and Rachel Pepper
    • The Gender Creative Child by Diane Ehrensaft, PhD

Photos by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Dumping your Toxic Relationships

By Kristen C. Dew, LMFT, CST

Today, on the ides of March, I have been reflecting on toxic relationships. Just like Caesar was warned to beware of a relationship that would eventually betray him and lead him to his demise, we can all fall prey to toxic relationships in our lives.

Toxic is definitely a buzz word these days, but what does it mean? Anything that has the potential to become very harmful to your emotional health can become toxic. You might recognize the signs of toxicity in your life by reflecting on a person or situation that is causing you stress:

  • Do you feel disrespected, despite your clear feedback?
  • Do they intentionally push your boundaries?
  • Do you consistently feel confused or manipulated?
  • Do you consistently walk away feeling bad about yourself?
  • When you make attempts to be honest about how you feel or repair a problem, does the conversation somehow turn back to what you are doing wrong?
  • Do you feel that despite asking for change, the relationship is conditional and you have to sacrifice your own needs to make them happy?
  • Do they refuse to listen or become defensive when you try to express your feelings or needs calmly and kindly?

These are some of the indicators of a toxic relationship that you may choose to end.

If the relationship can be repaired, here are some of my favorite ways that I help people in therapy to dump toxicity:

  1. Know Your Role
    • As a therapist sometimes people can absolutely be toxic, but more often there are toxic patterns that we also play into. Think of it like notches on a gear, each nub is a part of the cycle that continues to show up and help the gear turn and stay in motion. How you react and respond is also a part of that cycle. How do you respond to the person or situation?
  2. Check in With Yourself
    • Close your eyes and put your hand over your heart. What exactly DO you want from this situation that would alleviate your stress? If you didn’t have to care what anyone else thinks or how anyone else would respond, what are you looking for?
  3. Dump Your Toxic Relationship with Yourself
    • Tailor your inner voice to be respectful, kind, and compassionate.
  4. Set and Communicate Your Boundaries
    • Yay boundaries! Boundaries are agreements with ourselves that we set and communicate with others, and hold ourselves accountable for following. Boundaries sound like any of the following:

Sometimes change is not possible and you find yourself getting exhausted and hurt with each attempt to de-toxify the relationship. Creating distance, setting rigid boundaries, or cutting that person off completely may be the only choice for your health. In addition, if you are a member of a minority or historically oppressed group such as BIPOC, disabled, or gender/sexual minority, you should never feel obligated to utilize your own emotional resources to educate someone else on their racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/ablist etc. behavior when they should be doing that on their own.

Contact Growth Therapy today to find a therapist who can help you dump toxic relationships from your life!

Photo by Gursimrat Ganda on Unsplash

Befriending your Anxiety

By Kristen C. Dew, LMFT, CST

How do I stop feeling anxious?

The key to managing anxiety is to understand that you can’t make it go away. You might have a few tips and tricks that help, but to really get control over anxiety you have to work at a few different angles.

  1. Somatic Coping Skills – learn some skills (like deep breathing, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, etc.) to manage when anxiety gets to be unhelpful and distressing
  2. Cognitive Coping Skills – the stuff you say to your brain (#1 and #2 are briefly described in my last post Your Anxiety Has Something Important to Say)
  3. Making friends with this part of you and embracing it

This third step is the focus of today’s post. It’s like building a house and having a strong foundation to build on. You can go ahead and just learn the coping skills, but your house might fall down (metaphorically, of course).

To make anxiety management really stick you need to *befriend* your anxiety. Think about how friendship works. When you make a new friend do you avoid talking to them, or tell them you hate being around them? Some of you might be saying yes (hardy har) but really you won’t have good friendships if that’s how you do it. Why do we treat ourselves this way? When we disown and push away parts of ourselves, we ignore the pain but we also ignore the good. You have to be kind and compassionate to all of you, not just the parts that other people approve of, the ones that are comfortable all the time, or the ones no one bullied you for.

So let’s take a look at your anxiety. Really, if you could see it outside of yourself, what would it look like? Can you imagine yourself walking up to it and introducing yourself? If the anxious part of you were across the room at a party could you go talk to it? Get to know it? Maybe even like it? Maybe even hit on it?? I know some of you socially anxious folks out there are sweating, and I feel that. Here’s an imaginary dialogue for both self-friendship (aka self-esteem) and anxiety management that is a GAME CHANGER.

A Conversation with Anxiety at the Party in Your Head:

  • *makes eye contact across the room, then walks over*
  • Hey anxiety, how are you?
  • I know, talking makes you nervous. That’s ok. What do you need? Sure I’ll give you some space. Oh and here’s a snack (FUN FACT: the magic of your imagination knows EXACTLY what your anxiety wants right now)
  • I see that look. Anxiety, today I just want to talk without being a judgmental @#%* I know I have been mean to you sometimes in the past. I’m sorry for that. I know I have been pushing you away and I want that to stop.
  • So, what do you do for work these days? You look our for any and all danger and think of what to do in an endless cycle until the danger passes? Damn that sounds tough.
  • What do you do for fun? Those to-do lists are really helpful, thanks for that.
  • Do you remember fall semester 2005 finals week? You kicked ass that year, we got a 3.9 GPA. Thanks again for that.
  • What’s on your mind today? Yeah I hear that, sounds pretty stressful. You’re really on top of all that stuff, wow.
  • How did you get this job? Oh right, that embarrassing moment from 4th grade. Yeah I totally understand why you react quickly to other people sometimes. That’s okay, I still love you.
  • I’d like to get to know the reason behind some other stuff you do too when you’re ready to share it with me.
  • Hey I keep forgetting to thank you for always remembering mom’s birthday and making sure I get her a gift.
  • You’ve been a really good friend, thanks for trying to keep me safe. There is a lot about you I like and appreciate.
  • Hey I have to get going. Can I get your number? I’d love to chat more with you and send you some funny memes.

Your anxiety is a part of you and it’s a great part of you once you get to know it. When you can listen to and talk to your anxiety with compassion, it lessens its response and you can have a more productive dialogue with it.

Photo by Josue Michel on Unsplash

Your Anxiety has Something Important to Say.

by Kristen C. Dew, LMFT

At Growth Therapy in Monroe, CT we focus our talents on helping people struggling with anxiety. Anxiety disorders are easily the most common problem therapists see. This post is part 1 of many blogs about managing anxiety.

Anxiety is everywhere.

America is just primed for anxiety disorders. Some of us work 40+ hours a week, some of us can’t get a job that will pay a living wage, there is political stress, medical stress, financial stress, all of this leads to family and interpersonal conflict, don’t forget there is a global pandemic…. I could go on but I’m sure you get the point. Anxiety is an emotion that can easily feel out of control since its primary job is to keep us safe and the reality is, the world is not always safe.

Your brain on anxiety

Just like all of the organs in our bodies, our brains have a job to do. When it comes to anxiety, brains are built to respond quickly and effectively to stress. We don’t sit around when there is an emergency thinking about what to do, we quickly assess that there is danger and leap into action to keep us safe. This used to be a straight forward thing when the only threats were natural disasters or animal attacks, but now there are many many things our brains see as “threatening” based on our experiences. This means almost every one of us have some situations that cause us to respond quickly and with worry and fear, they keep us up at night wondering what to do, or we try to avoid them at all costs.

Listening to anxiety

Anxiety is hard to manage because it’s a great and helpful emotion! You can’t just tell your brain to stop, that would be like telling your heart not to race when you’re on the edge of a cliff- it’s a primal and necessary response to move you out of danger. It is not in your best interest to shut off your anxiety responses. For the situations that you NEED to do that don’t pose a life threatening risk, you can change anxious responses that are unhelpful to you. This is done by befriending your anxiety and listening to it, validating it, and guiding it to a different response.

Here is what that sounds like and feels like in practice.

____________________________________________________________

*situation occurs, or you are thinking about a situation that might occur*

Body: HEART RACES, PALMS GET SWEATY, RESTLESSNESS, BREATH BECOMES SHALLOW, NAUSEA, HEADACHE, FEELS LIKE SOMEONE IS STANDING ON YOUR CHEST….

(signals of your body in fight/flight/freeze/fawn mode)

Brain: What’s going on? Oh no, it’s that thing again. Remember what happened last time? The FEELINGS will just be unbearable! It will be SO uncomfortable! You’ll be embarrassed. You can’t deal with this AT ALL. Everyone will judge you. You have to get out of this! Run away! Call in sick!

(Symptoms continue to get more intense and uncomfortable with that train of thought. I like to call it the hamster wheel: you’re running and going nowhere).

Body: You might have impulsive actions, rage at someone close to you, expect others to recognize your danger signals and save you, maybe even have a panic attack.

Brain: Ok okok, this is anxiety kicking in, thank you anxiety. I see what you’re trying to do here, getting me away from danger, and I appreciate you. Right now, actually, I don’t need your help getting away. I need to do the thing. I need to relax and then think of what to do next…

_______________________________________________________________

In the example above, the automatic way of thinking at a threatening situation is totally normal if there is an actual threat, like the house is on fire (that means your brain works, yay!). Many of our anxious signals, however, are just trying to avoid the discomfort in our bodies. The only way to move through anxiety is to learn to notice, acknowledge, and relax the body feelings of anxiety and tell your brain a different story.

To be continued…

Photo by mwangi gatheca on Unsplash

Rebuilding Trust after Betrayal

by Kristen C. Dew, LMFT

Many relationships experience a breach of trust at one point or another. It’s not just affairs that cause a loss of trust, it can be any secret-keeping, gossip, hidden spending, or what one partner thinks is a white lie. We may believe in theory that one type of betrayal (like an affair) may be worse than another, but our reactions tell us that any type of betrayal can harm the relationship and our sense of safety in all of our relationships. Our triggers are often reminders of past hurts or confirmations of our fears.

In my work with helping individuals and relationships rebuild trust after hurts, these themes always emerge:

  1. Expect that this will take time and hard work. Recovering from betrayal is a difficult process and requires lots of work. Time helps! In the case of affairs, it typically takes 18 months from the time the affair is discovered to start really feeling better.
  2. Begin healing as soon as you can. Lashing out or being defensive is normal, but largely unhelpful in moving forward. All people involved should begin taking steps to repair the relationship.
  3. Take a step back and decide how you want to show up in your relationships- including this one. Most people I talk to do not enjoy being angry and resentful. If you take time every day to nurture your relationship, seeking reassurance, and seeing the positive then you are well on your way to recovery. Choose to let go of negative feelings and anything that holds you back from happiness. A great relationship can prevail. It is possible and highly rewarding!
  4. Take responsibility for your contribution to the betrayal. Although there is sometimes a “victim” in the case of betrayal, there are often dynamics of the relationship that contribute to betrayal existing. For example, are you difficult to talk to? Have you flown off the handle when someone was honest with you and you didn’t want to hear it? Have you been neglectful in your relationship? Betrayal is never “okay” but it helps to make sense of how it was allowed to happen. 
  5. Own your emotions and feel them. You can feel anger, jealousy, blindsided, embarrassed, and grief. It will feel like a rollercoaster sometimes. Here are some ways to deal with feelings when they come up:
    • Know your triggers. Some will be internal (your own thoughts, worries, and feelings) and some will be external (places, conversations, situations, sights, smells, sounds, etc.) Remind yourself that the trigger is just that- a trigger. It is not the actual situation happening again.
    • Try to minimize triggers to the best of your ability. For example, driving a different way home, communicating and asking the person you are feeling betrayed with to share who they are texting with, or take a break from social media. Also know that you can’t control all of your surroundings.
    • Try reading this template to yourself for validating your feelings: “I am feeling anger, I feel it in my chest and stomach (or wherever you are feeling it in your body), it is ok for me to feel this way.”
    • Use deep breathing
    • Take 30 seconds as you breathe in say the word “let” and as you breathe out say the word “go”
    • Use visualization to imagine the situation going differently
    • Progressive muscle relaxation
    • Write it down- instead of lashing out, write when you are angry. When you are feeling calm, decide if it’s worth sharing or not.
    • My favorite coping skill for betrayal- depersonalize. You will be okay regardless of how this relationship works out or doesn’t. It doesn’t mean anything about you as a person or your worthiness for good things.
  6. Don’t do this alone. Seek supportive support (reading books or blogs, support groups, therapists). Sometimes friends and family members mean well, but they can influence how you feel about the relationship and make it more complicated to heal. Use your judgement and check in with how you feel to decide who is a true support to you. 

You may not be able to prevent feeling betrayed, but you can decide how to respond to it. Seeing your response as a bigger picture for how you want to respond to events in your life can help you to deal with the feelings that will inevitably come up, and choosing where to focus your energy can help you regain a sense of control.

Resources:

Affairrecovery.com

Infidelityhelpgroup.com

Marraigeadvocates.com

Deepak Chopra’s Advice

Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash

Favorite Apps for Mental Health and Relationships

by Kristen C. Dew, LMFT

According to a quick google search, most of us spend over 5 hours a day on our smartphones and check them around 63 times per day (Deyan G., techjury.net, 7/2020). It only makes sense to add a few apps that can improve your health and relationships! The apple or android store produces hundreds of results for anxiety apps. Here are a few of my personal favorites.

Superbetter – Free – This app is great for gamers and anyone who feels fulfillment from achievements. You choose your goals, which include friendships, health, and well-being, then it gives you quests to level up IRL! A very fun way to self-improve.

SAM (Stress and Anxiety Management) – Free – SAM helps you to learn your triggers and find evidence-based coping skills that can help you feel better in the moment. Download this app if you can see yourself feeling stressed or anxious and seeking real-time help while struggling since they have a crisis assistant (SOS).

PTSD Coach – Free – This one was created by the VA to help veterans, but is a great app for anyone working through past traumatic or super stressful experiences. The app includes a good amount of psychoeducation, or how to understand how trauma impacts you as FAQs, and offers well-known helpful coping skills including seeking professional help, crisis management, distraction techniques, visualization, grounding, and more.

Calm – Free Trial / Subscription – The Calm app is a great way to ease into a meditation or mindfulness practice. Mindfulness and meditation have shown to improve anxiety, depression, trauma, and focus when practiced regularly. Most of us have trouble just turning off our brains, luckily Calm offers guided meditations at all different skill levels and specific meditations for all types of struggles such as anger, focus, stress, food, and more.

Mindshift – free – Mindshift uses CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) techniques, which are widely regarded as first line treatment for most anxiety and depression, to help you learn and practice coping skills. The app offers small steps, coping skills, helpful reframes of your thinking, and feelings identification and tracking.

Gottman Card Decks – free – This app was created by The Gottman Institute, who are lead researchers in the field of what makes marriages successful. These cards can help you in your relationships by learning more about each other and starting difficult conversations that can improve your interactions and intimacy.

Alarm Clock App – Your phone’s included alarm clock likely has a function to set a daily or weekly alert and to edit what pops up on your screen. Many of my clients have found it helpful to set an alert to practice self-care, remember important tasks, do something nice for a partner, or to have a relationship check-in conversation.

All of these apps can be helpful when combined with therapy as well. It can keep you on track to practice skills you have learned during sessions with your therapist or to track instances of depression/anxiety/conflict and what triggered them to discuss later with your therapist.

Do you have a favorite app that helps you to manage your mental health?

References:

https://techjury.net/blog/how-much-time-does-the-average-american-spend-on-their-phone/#gref

Links to apps

Photo by Meghan Schiereck on Unsplash