Thursday, 17 November 2016

Advice Etiquette

Advice can lead to some heated arguments despite the good intentions it may have been dispensed with, particularly when it is disguised as an opinion.  When a friend or family member seems to complain about a situation, most people try to ‘fix’ the problem by making suggestions on how to tackle the situation next time it arises.

Sometimes people just need a place to vent, to get something off their chest.  When this is met with advice, whatever sense of calm was gained by venting is abruptly overridden as a perceived lecture ensues.  Unfortunately, people are not great fans of quiet space and offering advice is the quickest way to fill that space.  Advice should only be given when it is asked for, and even then one should consider if one has the knowledge to offer sound advice.

In the advice-givers defence, sometimes it is unclear whether advice or a listening ear is being sought, and it is up to the person seeking the advice or sympathetic ear to make their needs known.  Once the advice has been received, the interaction often ends: the advice seeker leaves feeling better to varying degrees, or at least with further information to ponder on; the advice giver is left feeling mostly ‘consumed’.

Advice can only be given from our own frame of reference and there is usually some trepidation of whether our advice was well received and if it will be used.  As the advice seeker, there is some onus to let the advice giver know – at some point – what decision was made.  Particularly if the advice giver is someone regularly asked as they may feel that there is little point taking the time to consider the problem and offer some advice as it may not even be used in the decision making process.

To avoid good intentions and vulnerabilities turning into debates and arguments, advice givers and seekers must take responsibility for their roles and see the interaction to its end, which may not always be at the end of the conversation.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Accepting an Apology

While an earnest apology takes a minute or two to make, accepting an apology can take a day, a week, a  month – or two.  Or longer.  It will differ, as with all things human, from one person to another and from one situation to another.  Many articles point out that forgiving does not mean forgetting; in a similar light accepting an apology does not equate to everything being forgiven which would suit our sometimes linear thought patterns.

As an apology is an acknowledgement of wrong-doing, accepting the apology is an acknowledgement that the wrong-doer feels remorse.  Phrased this way, it is all about the wrong doer; the wronged has not yet begun the journey toward mending the relationship which the wrong doer is already two steps into.  It is this feeling of being behind in the process that is most difficult to manage.

“I know person is sorry, why can’t I get over it?”

Because there are many emotions to deal with: betrayal, anger that the incident happened in the first place, fear that it will happen again, and even a sense of loss.  We cannot deal with these emotions all at once, and passing one does not mean it will not circle around again at some stage in the process.  Communication, perhaps ironically, is vital, not necessarily about what was done as this often leads to blame, but about what is needed. 

This communication is essential if the parties have different methods of dealing with conflict.  Some personalities require introspection, while others need an immediate conversation.  Pushing one’s own need onto the other will be counterproductive.  If a contemplative, cooling off period is needed, regular phonecalls or texts may draw the process out; if increased trips to the gym are needed, suggesting a lunch date may be viewed as interfering instead of sweet. 

Once all the above emotions have been worked through, the decision to forgive or not can be made.  As stated many times over the years by numerous articles, forgiveness is not synonymous with condoning or forgetting.  Forgiving means wanting to remain in the relationship, albeit with potentially different boundaries.  

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Remediating the Effects of ADHD

While it may appear that every second child is being diagnosed with ADHD (a topic for another day perhaps), obtaining that diagnosis can offer a sense of relief.  Of understanding why some tasks have been so difficult.  Of guilt for  applying pressure and placing demands.  Of hope for a better way forward.

Regardless of the treatment option followed, there is an expectation that things will get better.  Sometimes these expectations need to be reined in a bit, but they are there nonetheless.  Often there is some trial and error in getting the treatment just right, and annoyingly once that is achieved something else will crop up and an adjustment will again be required.  At some point though, the (modified) expectations will be met.

But what if they aren’t?  What about those cases where every conceivable recommendation has been followed and the school marks are still not coming up?  Colleagues and bosses are still complaining that tasks are not completed satisfactorily.  It is not an expectation that has been overlooked, rather a history of experiences and habits.

In the case of school age children, the treatment(s) will improve behaviours and concentration moving forward, but there are potentially numerous skills that were missed which are now being built upon.  Even if full attention is given to all classes now, there will be gaps which are likely to result in confusion, not to mention a large amount of frustration at still not being able to succeed.

While the above can be applied to adults in the workplace, there is often the added bad habits that crop up and sabotage matters.  As an example, being organised is a skill we have to learn, one which those with ADHD find immensely difficult.  Just because the ADHD is now being treated does not mean the skill of being organised miraculously happens.

There is an amount of remediation required once treatment has begun.  To replace poor habits with good ones.  To consolidate partially learnt or missed skills which are now being built upon.  To change thought processes.  This is as important as obtaining the diagnosis and finding a suitable course of treatment, because if skipped, the two previous steps may seem pointless.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Good Conversations

Of late, there have been a number of articles on various platforms urging one not to use the word “busy” when asked “how are you?”.  The articles express how this one word can ruin friendships and conversations.  Unfortunately, it is true.

This one-word answer is the adult version of the teenager’s “fine”: it offers no substance and often closes conversations which should not be the aim when socialising with friends or family.  The fact of the matter is, everyone in today’s day is busy.  Whether blame be to technology, the expected immediacy of requests, longer working hours, more homework, there is simply more to fill a 24 hour period than there was “back in the day” (whenever that may be for you). 

Even if “busy” is followed by a barrage of supporting statements, chances are whoever you are speaking to was not after the full blown details of your day-to-day existence when asked how you are (which may have been a greeting and not necessarily a true question).  We have become consumed with the whats over the whys and hows: what we are doing should be far less important than why we are doing something and how it makes us feel.  It seems a silly distinction to make but in practice, speaking in whys and hows offers the listener more depth.  Obviously, a casual chat with a stranger does not require such depth, but the individuals close to our hearts certainly do.

As an example, if asked about plans for the weekend a what answer may be “going to a braai”. In comparison a why and how answer may be “spending some long overdue time with an overseas friend at a lunch braai”. Not only does this provide information about how important friendship is, it allows for further questions and generally an easier conversation with fewer awkward pauses. As with any changes, implementing this one will likely be difficult at first and may result in the odd mouth full of teeth situation; but with a little practice the art of the tête-à-tête can be mastered.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The Joys of Homework

I came across an article I started in 2011 on homework, and laughed out loud. The article went

I would like to say I understand the concept of homework, but I don't.  Studying for a test, at home, sure; repeating exercises done in class, not so sure.  What tends to happen when children are introduced to a new concept is they understand it at school, however, when reaching home the concept appears foreign. And this is were the trouble begins as children seek out their parents for guidance.  Parents who have not seen this topic for many years; parents who were taught the topic in a different manner; parents who will approach the topic with an adult mind.  Frustration. Tears.

In theory, the homework should be left incomplete; in practice this leads to demerits or some other form of punishment.  Granted "I didn't understand the work" is an easy line to get out of homework but surely there is a better system?

I would like to propose that parents get an estimate from their school of how long homework should take for the specific grade (not studying for tests and completing projects).  Lets add 15 minutes on top of that to account for slower readers, or children who take time to mentally switch between tasks.  Create a homework chart with a time and subject column and have children write down the time they started each piece of homework.  When their school allocated homework time (plus the additional 15 minutes) has been reached, it's pen down. After a 20 minute break it's time to tackle studying or projects.  Better yet, study or do projects beforehand knowing that x time is needed at the end of the day to complete homework. 

This is going to create great stress for some children as they anticipate the trouble they will get into.  However, if they can get past this, it will provide them with a tool with which to support their argument of there being too much homework.

After all, is substantiating a point not a vital skill schools expect from children?

Side notes:
something along the lines of how children should take more responsibility for their homework and included some tips on how to ensure they have the tools to take this responsibility. While the tips are still useful, the rest of the article met my trash bin as the sheer volume of homework has become a great challenge for many families.
  • teachers will need to see some attempt at work not understood
  • sitting and watching the birds or a TV programme does not count as maths

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Being Defensive

Conversations consist of statements and questions and the various reactions to these.  Generally, reactions are easy to anticipate allowing for a comfortable flow.  There are times, however, when a reaction is defensive and unless the parties are involved in a debate, a defensive reaction seems to come out of the blue.  This type of response will often leave many confused, including the person who reacted defensively.

Often blame is assigned to others for being insensitive or naïve when it would be more beneficial to discover the reason behind one’s defensiveness.  An example, that often comes up, is the statement “she doesn’t work” in response to a question around the wife’s occupation.  The wife tends to become very defensive arguing that looking after the children and cleaning the house is indeed work.

The simple reason behind the wife’s reaction may often be a feeling of insufficiency at not contributing financially.  The difficulty comes in (as discussed in the article on Confrontation) in the wife’s definition of work and the statement “she doesn’t work” implying she is lazy. 

The question then is would she want the care of her home and children to be considered a job, the connotation of which is something that she has to do but doesn’t necessarily want to do?  Does she expect some financial remuneration for the job?  If there is no promotion in the foreseeable future, would she want to quit?  These questions may seem silly but they succeed in reorganising the definition of work for this instance. 

A defensive reaction to seemingly simple statements often has more to do with the person being defensive than the other party.  While counselling will uncover the reasons behind such reactions some self-reflection can sometimes achieve the same.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Subject Choice

For our grade 9 children the time to choose subjects has arrived.  In an ideal world, the subjects should be chosen with a career in mind to allow a seamless transition from high school to university to the world of work.

The reality is that frontal lobe development is only complete somewhere in our twenties.  Being the area of the brain responsible for planning, decision making and impulse control it is completely unfair to ask a child of 15 or 16 years to make decisions that have large life implications.  How then do children go about making this important decision?

A very common trend is to take the subjects friends are taking; after all the assumption is they’ll be friends forever and will always like the same things.  As parents – and older beings – we know different but our opinions seem to have little impact on this age group.  Another common trend is to take the subjects one enjoys.  Again, with frontal lobe development still continuing, interests may well change before the end of school making this another unsuitable option.  What then is left?  The subjects one is good at?  Considering we tend to succeed in subjects because we enjoy them, this too is not an ideal solution.

For those families – and it does tend to be a family decision – where the subject choice is unclear, an aptitude test can be the answer.  The results provide an indication of where innate ability lies.  Together with an occupational interest assessment, a broad profile of interest and ability can be determined and where these areas overlap should lie the ideal subjects to take.  Yes, I did say interests may change but by looking at occupational interests over the immediate subject interest we gain insight into greater and varied areas of occupational interest.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Harmful Praise

Most people thrive on praise.  Praise leads to the repetition of the behaviour that garnered the praise in the first place; this behaviour could be good manners in a toddler, a teen independently tidying her room,  or landing a large client at work.  Irrespective of age, praise makes people feel that what they have done was worth the effort.  How, then, can praise be harmful?

Firstly, the manner in which praise is given may be damaging in the sense that it makes the person receiving the praise feel uncomfortable.  Not everyone enjoys being in the limelight – often referred to as introverts – public praise will likely cause these individuals embarrassment resulting in the behaviour not being repeated.  This is not to say that an opposite behaviour will then be followed: considering the large client example above, the person embarrassed by public praise, such as mention during a department meeting, will not stop garnering clients, but may not reach for the prestigious ones or would rather assist someone else in getting these.  For these introverts, getting the job done is more important than outward praise.  However, as all people do like a pat on the back, sending an Email of praise would be far better received and would likely encourage the go-getter attitude.

The second instance of harmful praise applies mostly to children: using praise to motivate.  Parents and teachers want their children to achieve and be polite, and praise them for attaining these goals.  Who needs more praise than the little tyke who is struggling, right?  It depends.  When children struggle with something, they know they are not good at it and receiving continual praise of little milestones in the efforts to motivate results in the praiser losing credibility and often the child’s self-esteem is lowered. 

Please note continual praise of little milestones can be harmful.  If the umpteenth attempt to tie shoelaces has been unsuccessful, praising that the right shoe went on the right foot doesn’t cut it as this was already legitimately praised when that portion of the task was mastered.  Rather than looking for areas to praise (which can be difficult), be honest with children and praise their efforts over the outcome.   

Continual praise may also result in praise becoming addictive where a child requires praise to do anything, including everyday chores. As with any ‘addiction’ a pat on the back will eventually not be enough; this is when praise turns into bribery and tangible things are required over the voiced praise.

Apart from loosing credibility, continual unreserved praise can result in an inflated self image which runs the risk of being seriously hurt when moving into an environment that offers praise less quickly.  Teaching someone to link their self worth to the amount of praise they receive results in low self esteem.

In order for praise to have the desired effect of repeating behaviours:
  • Be mindful of the personality and determine whether public or personal praise would be better received.  
  • Ensure the degree and time of praise are relevant to the effort put in the task, not necessarily the outcome, to remain credible and appear genuine.  
  • To avoid creating a ‘praise addict’ vocalise praise rather than provide items.
Above all, praise from others should not replace your own commendation of your hard work.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016


Nobody enjoys confrontation.  There may be people for whom not addressing a problem is more uncomfortable than the confrontation itself, but no one looks forward to it.  Despite this, it is something we of all ages must do on a regular basis, and make no mistake the child confronting a sibling and the employee confronting a boss are equally as difficult for the individual involved. 

There are two important aspects to this topic: planning and defining.


Here is an example of a personal situation where I failed to plan.  We have had very noisy, party happy neighbours for the past two years.  On one night these neighbours were particularly loud and I ventured outside to confront them, sans planning.  My request for them to keep the noise down was met with anything but understanding.  While the confrontation was over in mere seconds, nothing was resolved.

Had I planned my argument I would not have chosen this particular time (2am); the venue (the street); the circumstances (a drunken party) or my frame of mind (sleep deprived).  Admittedly, we cannot guarantee the perfect scenario but planning will at least reduce the possible negative outcomes.  Had I planned my confrontation I would have chosen a more suitable afternoon time (not the morning as this group tend to rise later) and invited them to my home where I feel more confident and relaxed (and could practice my line of reasoning in the actual space).  There is no assurance my request for quiet after midnight will be met, however, I will have been pro-active about a problem I have and would not have received a drunken retort.


I have used many synonyms for “confrontation” above, some appear aggressive and others less so. 
The way you define this term for yourself will contribute to how confidently you approach your issue.  If you define it as someone wronging you, you are likely to be more antagonistic.  If you define it as a misunderstanding, you are likely to be more composed.  By no means should a misunderstanding have any less weight than an outright wrong.

If it went wrong the first time

Once a topic has been poorly confronted it is very difficult to revisit it later as the confrontee will have a bitter or trivial memory of the first attempt.  A bitter recollection immediately places them on the defensive, while trivialising the event puts them in a position to dismiss the topic before your argument can be brought forward.  This is not to say if the initial encounter went abjectly the whole topic should be discarded; rather state out right that your first attempt did not come across well and you’d like to revisit the matter.

In short

Defining the problem in a way that fits with your values and practicing what you want to say can make all the difference in how successfully your confrontation goes and ultimately the likelihood of a favourable resolution.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

ADHD and Autism

The intention in writing this article was to develop a concise understanding of the relationship between Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and ADD/ADHD; the road was far from short and generated its fair share of questions on the way.  Nevertheless, I succeeded, albeit momentarily, to adjust the circles to some semblance of a straight line. 

The first of my circles, oddly enough, began right at the beginning: do ASD and ADD occur together in a significant number of cases?  The answer is both no and yes.  According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (DSM-IV), the tool used by members of mental health professions to diagnose disorders, a diagnosis of ADD can only be made once Autism has been ruled out; the two cannot co-occur.  Yet the same professionals who use this diagnostic tool have seen with their own eyes a single child who ticks all the boxes of both ASD and ADD.  To appease the DSM and allow for a comprehensive treatment plan ASD can be said to co-occur with features of ADD including inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity (as a side note I tried to rephrase this since inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity define ADD and ADHD, but to avoid another circle I accepted it in all its humour). 

After avoiding that circle, I stepped straight into another one: the development of a comprehensive treatment plan.  For some, a change in diet and various therapies, such as OT and Behavioural Therapy, can have the desired effect on a child with ADD to concentrate more effectively for longer periods of time.  For others, medication is the answer and for others still a mixture of everything is required.   For a child diagnosed with ASD with features of ADD, where non-medication therapies are not quite enough, the question of whether or not to introduce medication arises, followed immediately by which one: stimulant or non-stimulant? 

Stimulants, such as Ritalin, which are widely used to treat inattention and hyperactivity as a result of ADD and ADHD, often have the side effect of increasing anxiety.  For children with ASD anxiety is already, very often, part of the package; an increase is not welcome to say the least.  Furthermore, research has shown that those with Autism respond at a lower rate than those with ADD alone.  Side effects of non-stimulants such as Strattera can include mood swings and suicidal thoughts.  Mood swings are another symptom where an increase is unwanted.  Should the individual already be self-injurious, the addition of suicidal thoughts could be disastrous.  Having shared these terrifying thoughts, there are those on the Autistic Spectrum who have benefited greatly from stimulant and non-stimulant medications.  Some parents have reported an increase in language and calmer behaviour. 

This medication circle was never suitably uncurled in my mind beyond the fact that every child is different.  And so came the temporary straightening of my circular adventure; no eureka moment of how to completely separate or entwine ASD and ADD, nor a treatment option that worked for at least 99% of individuals with a primary diagnosis of ASD or ADD with features of the other.  After my momentary frustration I decided to take solace in the fact that I confirmed something we all know:  despite a diagnosis, each child comes with a unique set of traits and needs to be treated accordingly; and that path unfortunately is rarely straight.

Published in Living ADDventure Issue 3 Oct 09

Monday, 4 January 2016


Thoughts of a Registered Counsellor is a blog on topics that regularly come up in my practice.  These topics range from school readiness, to subject choice to career counselling, and all the general difficulties that come with each life phase.