Carolyn is an experienced psychotherapist who has been working in private practice on Manhattan’s Upper West Side since 1996. Empathic and direct, she offers therapeutic services for individuals, couples, and families. She appears as an expert on parenting issues for both television and magazine and is a regular speaker at local and national organizations. Carolyn holds a Masters degree from New York University, is a certified Imago Relationship Therapist and is a graduate of an advanced institute specializing in Parent /Infant therapy from the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services.
Carolyn, we enjoyed our collaboration with you on Parent, Caregiver and Educator workshop so much. You‘ve offered workshops like this before. Prepare has been offering parent and educator workshops for years as well. Why did you agree to work with Prepare to develop the updated Parent, Caregiver and Educator workshop?
I loved the idea of working with Prepare because everyone I know who has worked with Prepare has had an excellent experience. This is subject matter that people struggle with. The professional, appropriate, and responsive style of Prepare’s instruction matches really well with the work I do communicating with parents on difficult topics.
What, if anything, did it clarify for you as you reviewed the body of best practices that exists?
My “ah ha” moment was the concept of removing blinders (gently) so that the issue of child safety can be addressed. It is critical for adults to be able to open dialogues (with children and other adults) rather than assume that situations will handle themselves or go away.
Which message from the workshop is the most important one for parents?
No question it’s the importance of being an “ask-able” parent. When the communication roadway is clear, then you can reach kids and teach kids by looking at things together instead of lecturing. As young as 2 years old, you can invite kids to be your partner, in their way and at their level, to look with you at a situation and strengthen assessment skills. The foundation for good communication is trust and the ideal is a family home base that is emotionally safe for processing life no matter what gets thrown at us.
What can you say to parents to support them if they feel blocked from following that advice?
First, we can own our history and consider how these things were handled for us as we grew up and connect that to how we parent our children now. Are we repeating a pattern or doing the opposite?
Second, we can learn to manage our anxiety. Anxiety gets in the way of good listening to our own gut. It prevents us from tuning in to what our children are feeling and understanding how they are making sense of a situation.
Which is the most important Workshop lesson for parents to communicate to their kids?
Parents and children alike should trust a child’s “uh oh instinct.” Tell your children, “I will believe you and I will support you.” For example, if a child is digging in their heels about not wanting to go to Johnny’s house, don’t respond with ridicule or an admonition that you have to be nice. Continue to be curious about what’s up with Johnny’s house, work it through and figure it out. Be very careful not to override their instincts and force them to do things that feel unsafe for them.
What blocks parents from teaching kids this message?
Parents have anxiety, don’t want to think things are wrong, or be embarrassed. Parents struggle to take in the depth of a child’s experience.
They can begin by taking kids’ thoughts and feelings seriously and refraining from imposing one’s own feelings on top of your kids. Appreciate that their own experiences are real and profound and valid, despite their less mature viewpoint. Kids can be less filtered and more honest! Like us, they are trying to make sense of their lives and need our assistance and understanding.
Parents are busy with meals, laundry, bedtime and morning routines, the daily challenge of getting kids back and forth to school, getting homework done, managing team and activity schedules. When can they find time to have these conversations?
It doesn’t take a lot of time! Generally, it is way less about quantity, and way more about quality. Take 15 minutes a day and have a real check-in, where you enter the child’s world and really hear what is of importance to them about the day. Put aside your own agenda of what you want to hear or say and leave room for child to talk about what they want to talk about. Teachable moments, while a situation is under way or just after, are found opportunities to have these conversations.
What do you see as the major issues for families in your practice in terms of kids’ safety and/or communication?
Kids need help processing all that they are now exposed to: through technology, crime and sexualized images in the media, and from peers at parties, for example. The day-to-day bombardment means there is a lot to talk about!
What is the most important communication skill for parents to have?
Listening between the lines, under the surface. Listening to what is communicated verbally and non verbally. Parents need the same skill as a clinician – we have to listen carefully to the answers on a number of levels.
You raised two great kids who are now in their older teens. As a therapist, what was most important in terms of life lessons to learn, or life skills to impart to them?
Respect for self and others. We really enjoy each other because of the respect we have for each other. Laugh.
What role does a workshop like this have on helping families meet their goals in therapy?
Better communication is an essential goal common to almost all the families I work with. Workshops like this can set stage/groundwork for how to build a relationship with your child where you can and do talk about anything.
Carolyn Meyer-Wartels, LCSW-R
156 West 86th Street, Suite 1A
New York, NY 10024