Give up on Happiness

It’s early morning and Toothless is distressed.

“There are THREE mornings I have to go to school early.  I don’t want to!” he tells me.

I’m not a morning person either – he has a sympathetic ear with me.

I sit beside him on the bed, “That makes perfect sense,” I tell him.  “You’re only seven.  Three mornings a week is big for anyone.”  I explore with him each of his before-school commitments.  “You can drop any or all of them.  Which ones would you like to stop?”

His face is pained.   “I love ALL of them!!” he implores, “I don’t want to miss out on ANY of them!”

“I get that.” I tell him, “If you give up one of those activities, you will feel HAPPY that you don’t have to go to school early, and you will feel DISAPPOINTED that you’re missing out.  If you keep all of those activities, you will feel HAPPY that you’re doing things you love, and you will feel ANNOYED that you have to leave home early.  Which way do you want to go?”

He’s facing a tough reality.  There is no option where he gets to be just “happy”.

He chooses to keep all the activities – whilst repeating “I HATE having to get ready early!!”

“I know.” I say (hopefully compassionately),  “Are you WILLING to have those feelings you don’t like in order to do the things that matter to you?”

He gets out of bed and starts getting ready.


I tell this story often in my therapy room.  It encapsulates a truer story of emotions, rather than the one society sells us.  I often ask people what it is they hope for their family, their children, themselves in coming to therapy.  Almost without fail, there is some variation of “to be happy”.  Our society presents “Happiness” as though there is some kind of dichotomy where we can be “happy” or we can feel “other emotions” – with happiness being the desired goal.  But the reality is emotions are transient and do not occur in isolation – we can experience a kaleidoscope of any emotions at any given time.

I remember years ago the engagement parties for two couples in our network fell on the same evening.  Both were fabulously happy events, we were delighted for both couples.  We felt happiness that we had these wonderful friends who had found each other; and joy that we could go to their engagement parties.  We also felt frustration that we couldn’t be in two places at one time; guilt that we left one early and arrived at the other late; and exhaustion at the end of the night (oh, and I was pregnant – so there were swollen ankles too).  There was no option where we could just be “happy”.

Now I’m much older and my back isn’t what it used to be – I can do my physio exercises every day and be mostly pain free, or I can not do them and be mostly in pain.  If I take the time to do my exercises, I miss out on other things I would prefer to do with that time.  How do I solve this problem to ensure I am “happy” at all times?

20150708-P1010532Even in DISNEYLAND, “the happiest place on Earth” I wasn’t just “happy”.  It was amazing.  It met – no, it exceeded – my every expectation.  But was I “happy” the whole time?  There were moments of exhaustion, hunger, panic… And the entire, magical two days we spent there were also tinged at the very edges with sadness, because I knew that this special time with my young children would only happen this once and there was no way I could make it last forever.

Think about that – even our greatest moments of joy are tinged at the edges with sadness.

…and the reverse can also be true. Check out the beautiful illustration of this from Inside Out (spoiler alert):

Our constant pursuit of happiness has a darker side too.  When we seek to keep our children “happy”, we race to solve their problems, soothe their frustrations, before they have a chance to develop their own coping and resiliency skills.  In this process they instead learn a dangerous message – that they should actively avoid any emotion that isn’t “happy” – that if they feel anything else, it is somehow dangerous, wrong, or something faulty with themselves.  Children begin to experience anxiety and fear at the very idea of experiencing anything other than “happiness” – do you see what an impossible loop that sets up?  And so hard and heart-breaking for these parents who have only ever acted out of love and care for their most precious little people.

So I encourage you to give up on Happiness.  At least, give it up as an attainable, permanent state, the way society sells it to us. When we make an emotion our end game rather than an information source, we are already setting ourselves up for failure. There is no option to just be “happy”.

Steven Hayes, co-creator of Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, explains it this way:

“I think we’ve got the wrong model of happiness… Defined as a values based life of integrity and fidelity to yourself and what you most deeply want to stand for – THAT definition of happiness, man that’s the kind of life I want to live and I think that will support people, sustain people.  But this cheap thrills version, this sort of ease definition, the feel good definition of happiness is an empty promise

If we can give up on Happiness as our end game, we are free to explore something else: We can explore what it means to live with purpose; what it means to act in accordance with our values, the things that matter most to our heart; how to live a life that is rich and deeply fulfilling, even in moments of sadness and pain.  That’s what I’m choosing.  That’s what I’m aiming to model for my children.  After all, there is no option to just be “happy”.

I’d love to hear your reflections 🙂

PS – Sorry it’s been a while. This is such a huge, important topic (and my current soapbox). This post just scratches a tiny bit of the surface – check out the Books and Resources page if you want to delve further.




Posted in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Mental Health, Parenting | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

From the Lips of Those with Autism, on World Autism Awareness Day

It is an immense privilege in the work that I do that I come into contact with so many beautiful individuals with Autism.  My experience in doing so is that while there is a time and a place for parents, health professionals, educators, and others to advocate for these people, the people we really need to be listening to are those who are walking in their own shoes.

So for Autism Awareness Day I’m just going to share with you some of my favourite quotes ABOUT autism, by those who HAVE autism.


Stephen Shore, author of Beyond the Wall: Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger Syndrome.


Dr Temple Grandin is a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, and is well known as an author and speaker.


Read more about Neal Katz, self-advocate.


Patrick Jasper Lee is an author and musician.


Jerry Newport is an activist an author.

And to finish with, this from one of my greatest teachers, who is content to be anonymous just now:


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When Your Ex Takes Your Kids to a Psych


It’s not new information to say that parental separation/divorce has a significant impact on children.  In the short term, this includes the initial trauma of separation and adjusting to the changed living arrangements. Even in the most amicable, conscientious, child-focused separation, a child has a mammoth task of reconciling that the two people they love most in the world no longer love each other. Meanwhile, those two people are trying to parent whilst going through one of life’s most stressful, painful challenges. Not surprisingly then, parental separation is linked to multiple negative outcomes for children including psychological adjustment, academic performance, behavioural disorders, self-concept, and social adjustment [1] (that’s the bad news).

However, most kids of divorce grow up to be just fine, and 70% of risk factors are either preventable or modifiable [2]. To mitigate this risk and guide a child’s healthy development many parents at some point may call upon the support of a clinical psychologist or other therapist to support their child and family.  Ideally, this would be a shared parental decision, but sometimes it happens that one parent acts unilaterally, with the objection (or lack of awareness) of the other parent. This post is for parents who are concerned about or object to their ex taking their child to a psychologist, and will hopefully put your mind at ease by clarifying the ethical and legal safeguards the psychologist operates within.

What will the psychologist do?

Involving a psychologist for a brief or extended period in the life of your child is an awesome way to check that all their developmental, social, and emotional needs are being met, across all homes, and across contact with all caregivers.  The psychologist will use their clinical skills, knowledge, tools, and assessments to:

  • collect adequate information to inform their opinion and treatment plan, including (where appropriate) seeking the attending parent’s permission to contact the child’s school/daycare, AND – of course – the other parent.
  • build an informed opinion on the developmental, social and emotional needs of your child.
  • look for where and how these needs are being met; and any areas where your child could do with more support or development.
  • draw upon up-to-date research and best practice guidelines on child attachment, development, family dynamics, the impact of family violence and abuse, mental health of family members, and children’s views to design and implement interventions that support the healthy development of your child.
  • cease their service if no treatment is found to be warranted or when treatment goals are met.

Is my ex allowed to take my kid to a psychologist without my consent/knowledge?

Yes, maybe. It largely depends on the terms of your separation, particularly any parenting orders. Whilst the consent and involvement of both parents is usually desirable, there is no legal or ethical imperative on the psychologist to contact the other parent before commencing a therapeutic relationship with the child. The psychologist is legally and ethically permitted to assume, prior to the first appointment, and the parent making the appointment has the authority and consent to do so.

It is reasonable to expect that the psychologist will, at the first appointment, clarify any parenting orders and parenting responsibilities, and determine whether it is legal[3], ethical or appropriate to continue with sole-parent consent. The psychologist must weigh the benefits and risks to your child in proceeding with sole-parent consent. Where a psychologist determines that it would not be in the best interests of the child to involve the other parent, they may legally and ethically document their reason and proceed with sole-parent consent. In this instance, under a psychologist’s ethical guidelines, they are not permitted to confirm or deny to you whether your child is a client at their practice.

In the absence of consent by the client-parent and the young person for disclosure of information to the other parent and in the event that the other parent seeks information about the psychological service provided to the young person, psychologists have a duty to protect the confidentiality of the young person, which includes refraining from acknowledging whether or not a psychological service has been provided.”

APS Ethical guidelines for working with young people, s8.2, underlined emphasis added

However, the guidelines also direct the psychologist to assess at intake the appropriateness of advising you and involving you in the therapeutic process:

“In circumstances where the young person’s parents are separated, the psychologist clarifies with the client-parent and the young person at the outset of a psychological service the level of any potential involvement of the other parent and what, if any, information is to be disclosed to the other parent, and the possible consequences on non-disclosure”

APS Ethical guidelines for working with young people, s8.1, underlined emphasis added

So right from the get-go, the psychologist will be talking with the other parent about involving you in therapy – and the risks and benefits associated with it.  Anecdotally, in the clear majority of families I have worked with, this has meant that my very first action after the initial appointment(s) has been to contact the other parent and invite them to participate.

I’m worried it will somehow result in me having reduced time with my kids.

Working with children in acrimonious separations is a specialised area of work, and it is reasonable to expect and request that any psychologist involved with your child’s care has training and experience in working with separated families.

The Family Law Amendment (Shared Parental Responsibility) Act 2006 states explicitly that each parent retains parental responsibility, which is not affected by changes in the relationship (261C), and therefore the court must apply the presumption that it is in the best interest of the child for the parents to have equal shared parental responsibility”.  Exceptions to this are made when there are grounds to believe there has been abuse of a child or family violence. The Act ensures that the best interests of children are met by ensuring that children have the benefit of both parents to the maximum extent consistent with the best interest of the child, ensuring that children receive adequate and proper parenting to help them achieve their full potential, and ensuring that parents fulfill their duties and responsibilities.

It is in children’s best interests for their long-term health and well-being, including their capacity to recognize and build healthy friendships and romantic attachments, that any contact difficulties with regards to an “unfavoured parent” be satisfactorily resolved.  Thus, the psychologist is obligated to look for every opportunity to support the healthy development of your child, including wherever possible a healthy relationship with both parents.  If you are (rightly or wrongly) concerned that your ex is attempting to alienate you or build an unfair and/or untrue case against you, your ex will not find a complicit co-conspirator in a psychologist. 

What if I contact the psychologist to express that this is not a joint decision, and I do not consent to treatment of my child?

First, I would remind you of the information above – there is much to gain in ensuring the healthy development of your child by engaging a psychologist.  Here are some concerns that I have heard in the past:

  • My co-parent will give a false account about me
  • I don’t think my child needs treatment
  • My co-parent is seeking to alienate me
  • It’s the behaviour of my co-parent that is causing the “problems”
  • My co-parent is “coaching” the kids in what to say
  • My co-parent is “therapist shopping”

These concerns are all understandable, depending on the context of the separation between you and your co-parent.  Psychologists are trained to hold multiple hypotheses about your child’s context, including what has caused and maintains your child’s (stated) presenting issue. There are many complex assessment skills your psychologist has had significant training and supervision in, they do not simply take on the perspective of the presenting client and parent (indeed, this would be most unhelpful in many cases). If your child’s psychologist identifies that your ex is intentionally or unintentionally seeking to paint you in a poor light, alienate you, or in other way discredit you, this will be noted and addressed with that parent. If it is parental behaviours of the ex that are “causative”, then the psychologist will assist that parent to use different skills and behaviours or refer that parent to a suitably qualified colleague.  If the psychologist assesses that your child does not need treatment, treatment will cease.

Indeed, if you are interested in the healthy development of your child – of course you are – then you have nothing to fear, and a lot for your child to gain, from your child seeing the psychologist your ex has chosen.  Remember, the psychologist is interested in assisting, as much as possible, your child to have a healthy relationship with BOTH of you.  This may be the very opportunity you’ve needed.

I still object.  Should the psychologist cancel my child’s appointment if I don’t give consent?

Ethically the psychologist is always guided by what is in the best interests of the child – so the psychologist must determine the risks and benefits of proceeding without your consent.  If the risks to the child outweigh the benefits, the contacting parent will be advised that treatment cannot go ahead unless issues of consent are resolved. However, the psychologist is unable to form this opinion without, at the very least, meeting with the parent who has scheduled the initial appointment.

Okay, any tips for me when I contact the psychologist?

Yes, I’m so glad you asked! The psychologist is well aware of their legal and ethical obligations. No matter how much they do (or don’t) like you, your co-parent, or your kids, they will not risk their reputation and their registration for your family. This means it is unlikely they are operating in a way to deliberately make your life difficult or frustrate any process. We like to help people reduce suffering – not increase it. So…

  • If you have concerns, be polite when you raise them. It doesn’t help to start a conversation by accusing the psychologist of unethical, uneducated, or biased behaviour. You can be assured the psychologist will be making an assessment of YOU based on how you choose to introduce yourself – put your best foot forward and assume they want to help you and listen to you.
  • A polite, brief email is likely to help the time-poor psychologist rather than an unsolicited phone-call.
  • In my opinion, it is appropriate to politely check (if you’re concerned) that the psychologist has all relevant information (e.g. court orders; court reports that they have permission to read); and that they have training/experience in working with separated families.

TL/DR – What are my take-home points?

  1. If your ex decides to take your child to a psychologist, in most circumstances this should be done with joint consent.  However, depending on the Parenting Orders, or the other parent’s concerns about risk to your child, they may do so with single-parent consent.
  2. The psychologist will be working for the best interests of the child at all times, and is guided by a clear Code of Ethics and associated Guidelines.
  3. In some circumstances the psychologist cannot cancel or cease treatment at your request, and may not even be permitted to confirm or deny appointments have been made. However you can politely advise the psychologist that you do not consent, and the psychologist will discuss this with your co-parent, and incorporate this information in their overall assessment.
  4. You may wish to discuss with your lawyer the legal implications of advising your non-consent.
  5. Your ongoing involvement will be discussed with the attending parent in the intake appointment(s).
  6. If the child lives, spends time, or communicates with you, and the attending parent and child do not consent to disclosing information to you, the psychologist is obligated to discuss the possible implications of this with the attending parent and child (if appropriate) prior to agreeing to provide a psychological service, and may indeed decide not to provide treatment when disclosure to you is not agreed to.  There are many factors the psychologist will consider in making this decision, and paramount in all of those is what is in the best interests of your child.

In summary, the involvement of a psychologist in the life of a child is guided at all times by what is in the best interests of that child.  Assuming this is your base position too (of course it is), then you and the psychologist are already on the same team, and they will very much value and rely upon your willingness to participate in the process. Your child stands to benefit a great deal when both parents can co-parent from the same page even if the only remaining bond between you is the child you’re both raising.


  1. For example, see Seijo, Fariña, Corras, Novo & Arce, 2016
  2. Bernardini, S. C., Jenkins, J. M. (2002) An overview of the risks and protectors for children of separation and divorce. Presentation to Family, Children and Youth Section Department of Justice, Canada
  3. Family Law Act 1975 (Cth)
The information contained in this article is general in nature.  You should speak with your psychologist and/or lawyer for advice for your own situation.
For ideas on how to speak to your child about this process see “How to talk to your kid about seeing a psych”. For other resources for separated families, see here.


Posted in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Frequently Asked Questions, Parenting, Separted parents | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to talk to your kid about seeing a Psych

image-20160930_145105This would have to be one of the questions I’m asked most often by concerned parents.  They have reached the point of deciding psychologist support is a useful step for their child, but Oh!  How to broach that topic???  It’s Mental Health Week, and this is my guide for how to approach this with your child.

Compare Psychologists to Coaches and Teachers, not Doctors

Your Young Person is not broken.  They are not sick.  A psychologist will not make them better.  I have often heard, and in the past even used myself, analogies along the lines of “you go to the doctor when you’re sick; you take your car to the mechanic… ergo it’s okay to see a psychologist when you’re mentally unwell.”  These are well intentioned messages, but they all support the idea that something is WRONG with your child, and the magic psychologist will FIX THAT RIGHT UP for you.

Instead, remind your child that they are under construction – they are learning many, many life skills right now.  Depending on their age, they’re learning to read; or they’re learning algebra.  They are learning the rules of team sports, how to ride without training wheels, or maybe how to play an instrument.  Some of that – a lot of that – happens at school and through incidental learning.  However, sometimes the skills we need for a particular situation require more specialist attention.  I might teach my kid to kick a footy in the park, but if he’s serious about AFL, I’m gonna send him to Auskick.  Not because his kicking is broken and defective; not because there is something wrong with his hand-passes; but because kicking and hand-passes have become important to him and I don’t have the skills to teach him that myself.  Also, I’m his mum, there’s some things the boys just don’t want to learn from me!

Sometimes our kids find themselves in situations they’re just not developmentally ready for – maybe they’ve changed schools; social dynamics have unexpectedly left them feeling on the outer; mum and dad are a bit more stressed than usual; their amazing brains are making really scary / anxiety-provoking connections at a rate they’re not able to make sense of – any number of situations can emerge where suddenly your child needs some skills they just haven’t mastered yet.

Our teachers in our schools are amazing – and the expectations on them are high; and the demands of the curriculum leave little wriggle room for more.  It would be ideal if much of what is covered in a psychologist’s room was actually covered as part of the stock-standard school health curriculum (and people like Louise Hayes and Joseph Ciarrochi are working hard to make that happen). But it’s not yet.  So sometimes it’s really useful to spend a few sessions with a psych to do the essential stuff that teachers can’t cover when they’re forced to teach six year olds how to write persuasive text.

Let your child know that you’re looking at this as a skills development opportunity for both of you.

In the same way that your child is under construction, so are you as their parent, always.  Let your child know that you hope the psychologist will be able to guide YOU in how to provide better support to your young person.  As parents, some of what we do makes things better, some things make things worse  – but we are never, ever neutral.  Let them know the two or three of you are going on this adventure together.

Help them make an informed choice.

If your child is reluctant to see a psychologist, help them explore the pros and cons of what that is about.  Are they making assumptions about what will happen in the psych’s room?  How do they know those assumptions are right?  Have there ever been times they thought something would be dreadful and it turned out it was okay?  Let them know that it is normal to feel anxious, scared, uncertain, etc, and that you’ll be right alongside them.

My recommendation is to encourage your young person to come ONCE – meet the psychologist, find out what’s involved in the process, and from there the two or three of you can make an informed decision together.  Until you’ve had that first go, your child does not have enough information to make an informed choice.  Praise them for their willingness to be brave and vulnerable in the face of something that may feel really scary.  Talk with the psychologist for strategies for continued engagement if you believe further sessions are in your child’s best interests and s/he is still reluctant.

Use this same language with all Health Professionals

If you have an appointment with your GP to organise a Mental Health Care Plan and/or referral, use this same language (we are looking to build skills together and would like some coaching / guidance from a psychologist in how to do that), and help the GP to use that same language when speaking directly to your child.  If your GP starts using language to suggest brokenness and fixing, politely steer them back on course (NB you do not need a referral to see a psychologist; but you do need one if you want to claim the Medicare rebate).  Use this same language when you first take your child to the psychologist; and if there are significant details you would like to convey to the psychologist that may contradict that message, request that the child leaves the room before you share this information.

But is it too early?  Maybe things aren’t “bad enough” yet?

I can’t speak for all psychologists, nor all parents.  Here is my view on this:  As a mother, I would far rather jump in early and be told I’m neurotic than wait longer and discover my child has had to navigate a much harder road than was necessary, without the most useful equipment.  As a psychologist, clients coming in at the start of a potentially tough road are a joy and delight.  There is excellent “bang for your buck” when you come in for some strategies to support healthy development right at the start of difficulties becoming apparent.  Clients sometimes comment that they are worried about “wasting” my time on their issues, when there are people with “bigger needs”.  My view: Come now!  Be short-term, do a teeny bit of work together, and get on with your totally awesome life.    Send me an email five years from now to tell me how great things are.  Or better yet, forget my name all together because we seriously only met a handful of times 😉


PS – if you seriously thought my last post WAS my “Last Post”, go back and read it again 😉

Posted in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Parenting | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Tasting Freedom – and why this is my last Blog Post ever.

There’s this moment when I’m flying down the hill, wind in my face, blue sky above me, and I notice this thought passing by – that this is it, THIS is tasting freedom.  It’s exhilarating, and not just because I’ve got all that lovely exercise endorphin flowing through me.  In fact, this freedom has nothing to do with the bike.

Nine-ish years ago, a close relative was having a hard time.  I rang one of my senior colleagues and asked if he would help.  I told him my loved one probably just needed some really good Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.  My colleague respectfully replied, “Sure, but I think I’ll try ACT first.”  Okay, whatever, if you say so…  I have heard of this Acceptance & Commitment Therapy stuff.  And then as I watched the most beautiful transformation occur in the life of someone I loved so dearly, I realised my colleague had something in his toolkit that was far more powerful than anything I knew I had in mine.  I needed to get me some of this ACT (said as one word).

Though when I went to my first ACT workshop eight-ish years ago, it wasn’t my professional toolkit I was thinking about.  I was busy raising our first precious son, recovering from my unrecognised and undiagnosed post-natal OCD , and all I knew was I was seriously missing out.  This beautiful, precious child was growing up before me, and I could barely get out of my head long enough to be there with him while he did it.  My mind was holding me prisoner, and it was time for me to find my way free.

What’s that freedom all about?  Oh gosh, the words sound so simple, and yet it reflects years of practice, stumbling, and many, many more of those still to come. I’ve learned and I’m learning to take my mind less seriously.  Like all of us, my Beautiful Mind is hell-bent on protecting me and keeping me alive.  She just doesn’t care too much whether I’m having a fun time – so long as I’m not dead, her evolutionary purpose has been achieved.  She’s a bit like that gloomy friend who sees the downside of everything.  She loves to tell me who I AM, to define ME, give me my box DO NOT GET OUT OF THE BOX IT’S NOT SAFE AND YOU WILL DIE OUT THERE AND PEOPLE WILL LAUGH AT YOU WHICH MAY, IN FACT, BE WORSE.

My Beautiful Mind tells me I never finish anything.  She tells me this the whole time I’m methodically stepping through each step in any given project.

For many years she wanted me to know I wasn’t athletic, and because of my eyesight deficits and lack of coordination that I would never ride a bike.  Besides, everyone knows you can only learn that in childhood.  She often tells me it’s better to sit on the couch or drive the car than be physically active.

She thinks it’s terribly important that I check my phone for news updates rather than connect with my children.

Then she berates me for not being a good enough mum.

She tells me I have nothing of value to say, and even if I did, others say it far better than me, so this (and every preceding post) will be my last blog post EVER.  For real this time.  Totally.  She thinks it would be safest if I stopped writing this one now (and she can be pretty convincing, it has been three months since my last post).

She tells me that it’s pretty bad news that I’ve taken on a research project with Telethon Kids Institute because I’m dreadful at statistics and this time FOR SURE everyone will discover how rubbish I am.  The results won’t be significant because I will mess up by not being a good enough therapist while presenting the two treatment conditions.  This means I will let down the whole Contextual Behavioural Science community AND Telethon Kids Institute all in one swoop.  I will probably have to wear a dunce hat.

She tells me these things, and I love her so much for the way she looks out for me.  And I love that whilst she tells me all of those things, she and I can walk hand-in-hand and choose actions that reflect who I- we – WANT to be.  I don’t need to argue with her (okay, sometimes I try anyway) – she can just chatter on while together we go ahead and do the things that actually matter.

This morning she was so convincing – the clouds were threatening, the weather was cold, my muscles were aching, surely today, TODAY, it would be better if Hiccup and I just stayed home??  She natters away to me while I put on my cycling gear; and I notice a similar voice is chatting away to Hiccup while he puts on his.  We are 30seconds into the ride – 30 seconds, and already pumping our quads to make it up our first hill – and my boy calls out behind me

“I love this, mummy!  I am with one of my favourite people in the world, doing one of my favourite things in the world!!”

OH GOSH, FOR THIS.  I will carry my nay-saying negative know-all a thousand miles and more for THIS moment, right here.

So I ride my bike. I start a research project. I learned to quilt (you can’t sew, don’t you remember the leggings from Year 9?). I started singing lessons. I post another blog entry.  I wonder in amazement at this life I’m building that looks nothing like the future my Beautiful Mind had mapped for me.

I’m not alone in this.  I watch my inspiring mother as she uses her retirement to commit to volunteering work; to take assertive action in standing up for our refugees; and lobbying Australian politicians to support evidenced-based programs to foster nurturing communities.  I follow my little sister’s adventures as she gets described on the radio as a “Fitness Guru” (A WTF??  We’re the family that were relieved if we managed a “C” in sport).  She runs events at Fringe, champions to reduce mental health stigma… the list goes on.  My father, who in his retirement started a whole new career in Mental Health advocacy; and warmly, lovingly, passes his musical legacy to his grandsons in teaching them piano.  My older sister and brother-in-law, who bravely retrained to follow their calling in teaching.  Stoick, who never lets anything block him from reaching his dreams, who I think lives by the motto ‘If anyone can do it, so can I.”  Professionally, I am inspired by personal stories such as the one Steven Hayes tells in this TED talk, or this blog by Kelly Wilson, two of the co-creators of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and it’s wider family of Contextual Behavioural Science.

It’s not like we weren’t already each challenging the limits our minds set for us.  The skills in the ACT process are not a silver bullet.  However, they’ve given me ways to attend to the things that matter in my deepest heart on purpose, and with greater consistency, building skills over time with repeated practice.

Also, just word up to my Beautiful Mind – she’s not just full of useless hurdles and insults.  She was the one who pointed out to me that the recent difficult time I was having with my son was probably related to how short and impatient I was being with him – and that maybe if I did something about THAT, things would improve for us.  She was right.  I could’ve done with less of the “bad, bad, bad mum story,” but I’m getting more compassionate with her and my greater self, looking for the useful information she has for me, unhooking it from her criticisms, and connecting back to the actions that matter.

Kelly Wilson has a powerful Yoga metaphor he uses, and it sits with me every day.  He says, “What if we consider falling as part of the pose?”  What if every time we stumble, we consider it as part of – not a failure in – the process; a wonderful opportunity to come back to the practice again.  Sometimes my mind convinces me to move away from my values – to shout at my children when I care to give them patience and nurture; to sit on the couch; to put foods that are not good for me into this body that I would rather treat healthily and respectfully. But I love that this is a choice now.  I love that there’s this moment, every time, where I can choose to come back to the pose.  Where I can choose to unfold my life with my values, not with my Beautiful Mind’s concept of who I should be.

That’s my freedom.

The book and workshop that got me started on this (very much unfinished) journey are here.  There’s a bunch of other resources I think are really useful here.  You can find me and other ACT therapists at The Charles Street Clinic, or find an ACT therapist in your local area by searching here.

See you next time.


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Stuff that Definitely Doesn’t Suck – a review of Ben Sedley’s “Stuff that Sucks”


Good things come in small packages – and this is very, very good!

I don’t know what your reading list is like – maybe it’s a little like mine. Last year, I was super excited to hear a colleague of mine had his book published.  What a magnificent achievement.  Then I looked at the pile of books beside my bed I was slowly making my way through, and committed to finishing them before I would move on to this one.  That was my mistake. Don’t make the same one.

Today, Clinical Psychologist Ben Sedley’s book, “Stuff that Sucks”, arrived in my mailbox, and by the time I had finished reading the first page, I was hooked.

Stuff that Sucks is a book written for teenagers, and across 89 succinct, well laid-out pages, Ben takes the key elements of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and presents them in ways that are immediately accessible, relatable, and actionable.  On page 8, Ben writes “I don’t know you. But I do know a few things about you.” As I read on, I see he’s absolutely, unequivocally right.  Over the following pages he lays bare exactly the thoughts and feelings I had in my teenage years. His tone is caring, his text in plain, and it’s clear that this is the human experience – that we are not alone in this, there’s a bunch of us (okay, the whole human race) in this together.  He doesn’t hold back from the hard stuff either – touching on the very hardest issues and darkest, most painful thoughts teenagers (and the rest of us) face.  With humility, Ben invites his readers not to take him at his word, but to try offered ideas out for themselves, and use those which are helpful.

I admire Ben for what he’s achieved with this book. In my view, adolescents are a really tough audience to write for.  Potentially the harshest of critics, teenagers can detect a patronizing, condescending tone a mile away, and yet many books aimed at this age group hit exactly that.  Ben writes for his adolescent readers with dignity and respect, and I found myself longing to have had such a book in those tough years of my own.  Indeed, as I turned the pages I found myself thinking of each of my current teenage clients in turn – and what a useful resource it could be for them right now.

And whilst I’ve left it to last to mention it, this final point is not insignificant – it is EASY and FAST to read! I unwrapped my parcel at 3.30pm this afternoon, and by 7.30pm I had hosted a play-date for the boys, supervised sight-words and home reading, listened to music practice, washed the dishes, cooked dinner, read a bedtime story to Toothless and… read this book from cover-to-cover.  Not, might I add, because I wanted to rush it – but simply because I couldn’t put it down.  I would encourage the teenage target audience, however, to take it a little slower to make time for the brief exercises that are scattered throughout the text.

Readily available to purchase online, this book retails for $15-$20ish and at that price is exceptionally good value.  Relevant to all teenagers, this is one I’ll be recommending both in the therapy room and over the school-mum coffee table. Judging by this article, I’m not the only one.

Other excellent ACT resources for teens:



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It’s not the boundaries that matter

I’m at a business lunch talking with a stranger.  He’s a father of two, and he looks at me intently and asks “How do we keep our children safe?  How do we protect them from all there is out there?”

In a memory, I’m nine years old and the fire is crackling in our lounge room.  We’re all in our jarmies, squished together on the couch.  Mum’s in the middle, she opens our new story – this time it’s Seven Little Australians.  I’m an independent reader, and have been for some time now – but my Mum, she reads to us from this big, hard-covered, fully-illustrated tome and there is nowhere else I would rather be.

I’m talking to this guy who is tough and tattooed, but this day I see something else.  A quiet boyish smile plays on the corners of his mouth, and his eyes mist as he lets a memory spill out.  He’s a small boy arriving at Nanna’s and can smell the baking from her front door.  She wraps him into her arms, and there’s a delight in her laughter that is just for him.  Later that afternoon, he snuggles next to Pop and they watch cartoons together.

“There is this thing we’ve always done,” another man explains, with a shy look across to his wife.  “We dance in our kitchen.  It starts out with just us, but then all the kids come in and join us.”  They giggle, and for a moment they forget I’m even in the room.

How do we keep our children safe?  As parents we set boundaries, of course – we teach our children parameters of behaviour, and hopefully we go with them as they explore the edges and make decisions for themselves, using us as a guide, a credible source of information.

AND there is something else, both powerful and enjoyable, that we can do.

The biggest predictor of kids engaging in risky, antisocial, dangerous, delinquent behaviour is that they have done so previously.  We can’t do much about the past (until my son achieves his ambition of inventing time travel).  The next biggest predictor of delinquent behaviour is hanging around with the “wrong crowd” (see here).  The two biggest predictors of children hanging around with the “wrong crowd” are:

  • Disengagement from school, and
  • Disengagement from family


Image courtesy of nenetus at

The way we keep our children safe?  We have to make it worthwhile to hangout within the boundaries.  We can concentrate on making sure HOME is a good place to be (and school, but let’s tackle that another time).

I look to my parents as awesome role models on this.  My school years were tough years, and my 9-3 Monday-Friday was filled with taunting, being spat on, a soft place to land a kick or a punch – or, worst of all, exclusion.  The factors that contributed to me being bullied aren’t as important as the factors that ensured I survived.

Outside of the schoolyard, I felt wholly loved, and my home was my sanctuary.  Our weekends and holidays were full of picnics, camping, Sunday roasts and board games.  Our opinions were heard and encouraged; my high school days began with a cup of tea in bed; and there was always time for a cuddle on the couch.  My Mum made my school lunch Every Single Day through to year 12 – a little care package and reminder she loved me right there in the middle of my day.  We ate dinner every night around the table together.  Our achievements were celebrated, and our losses were supported.

Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of conflict and imperfect moments too.

But what my parents did was enough to hold me.  It was enough to keep me safe.  And through all of it, they were reliable, up-front, trustworthy sources of information about the world.  It wasn’t always easy to talk to them about “stuff” – but when I did, I always got all the information I needed, and I wasn’t judged for asking.

Except for when I got my tattoo.  Dad definitely judged me for that 😉

Here are some things you’re probably already doing a lot of the time, that help create a home environment worth hanging out in:

  • Talk openly with your children, and with others, about the things you value, love, and appreciate about your children.
  • Family mealtimes (with no TV or other devices).
  • Work on projects together – whether it be home renovating; planting a garden; geocaching – or ask your kids for their suggestions.
  • Find interests the whole family can share in.  Personally, I would never make the choice to go fishing.  But when I go with Stoick and my boys – the joy on their faces is like nothing else.  I go, just for that.
  • Make sure there’s plenty of times when all of and only your family are engaged in pleasant events together.
  • Speak kindly to each other.  Sarcasm, insults, name-calling: they have no place in healthy relationships.  Ever.
  • Say what you mean, and mean what you say.  Our children need to be able to trust us as credible, reliable sources of information.
  • Model the behaviours you want from your children.  It’s not sufficient to tell them – they watch us, and actions teach louder than words.

I know I’ve raved about his book before, but for more on how to (and why you would want to) create nurturing environments for our children, I implore you to read Anthony Biglan’s “The Nurture Effect”.

Meanwhile, we are a village raising children together – what do you (or your parents) do in your home, to create an environment worth staying in?  Comment below 🙂





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The Jacarandas are Blooming – The Importance of Stories

It’s the eve before Toothless’ birthday and we’re enjoying a goodnight snuggle as I start to tell him the story of his birth.  He wriggles and giggles with anticipation – he’s heard this many times before, and he delights in this special tale that is all about how incredible it was that he came to join our family that day.

It’s a story I love telling him.  Partly to remind him how much he has always been loved; and partly because I remember when I was his size, on the eve before my birthdays, and how loved and cherished I felt each time mum told me MY birth story.

Our parents were always tellers of stories and our family folklore takes on a life of its own.  I know that mum scratching her leg will turn on the light; that even if my little sister “did it she wouldn’t have”; and how the kind ladies gave strawberries and fish to my dad until they mistook my mother for his mistress.  I know what happens in a kitchen floor episode; we still tease dad about the bits and pieces; and my cousins will attest to the Evil Uncle with his glasses falling down his face who actually Peeled Back the Roof of the Tent whilst we were Astral-Traveling.

As I said, it’s now folklore.

It turns out that what my parents did instinctively – as many others have for generations – was incredibly important to our development throughout childhood.  Who knew, huh? Thanks Mum’n’Dad.

The importance of telling family stories:

jacaranda-268926_1280The jacarandas are in bloom again.  In my family’s stories, we know the jacarandas herald the arrival of my big sister.  The whole country blossoms to celebrate her birth.  Toothless doesn’t get to have the jacarandas in his story, instead he hears of how his jacaranda Aunt was the one who made his belly button so his bum won’t fall off.  She lives a long way away, my sister.  I hope her street is full of stunning purple blossoms, and if she can’t quite remember her birth story, I know a special lady who tells it really well.


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Mental Health – More than an absence of illness

It’s Mental Health Week – and the fact that it’s not called “Mental Illness Week” is not insignificant.  We will hear a lot about mental ill-health this week, and so we should – but mental health, mental wellness is more than the absence of illness.

Me & Sig - we were both younger then!

Me & Sig – we were both younger then!

I’m considering this topic against a painful backdrop for our family.  On Sunday night our family dog died after a brief, severe, surprise illness.  He was 11 years old, and this is our children’s first real experience with grief and loss.  That they – and we – are taking the time to experience that grief is part of us taking care of our mental health; and no matter what we do, we are also shepherding our children as they learn life lessons about pain.  None of us want to walk through this week – the house is empty; the routines are wrong; a large part of our family is missing and we hurt so much.  But we hurt because we loved – two sides of the same coin, a package deal.

Life does this to us all the time.  This isn’t my first major loss, and of course it won’t be my last – and you, reading this, you will know my family’s pain this week, because you have been here too, and life will ask you and I to go there again and again.  There isn’t a pause button we can press while we regroup, there is only putting one foot in front of the other.

Some of life’s trials we can predict, and many others come from seemingly nowhere.  How important it is then that we look after our physical and our mental health to the extent we DO have control, to give us greater resiliency in those times we are most tested.  Again though, mental wellness is MORE THAN avoiding mental ill-health – in much the same way that people don’t strive to be physically fit purely to avoid physical illness.  Mental health is about thriving, more than surviving.

Here are some things I do to look after my mental wellness.  Some I do very well, while others I forget and need to regularly bring myself back to (hopefully with kindness and self-compassion).

Some I can do on my own:

  • Eating well
  • Getting a good night’s sleep every night (which means I have to limit screen time  before going to bed)
  • Keeping physically active
  • Limiting the time I spend internetting and facebooking

Some you would predict a psychologist (particularly an ACT therapist) would say:

  • Formal and informal mindfulness practice
  • Staying connected to my values and choosing actions that line up with them
  • Having a flexible relationship with my thoughts
  • Making room for my emotions to be as they are

Most involve being with others:

  • Playing and just being present with Hiccup and Toothless
  • Being intentional in the way I care for my relationship with Stoick
  • Hanging out with my family and in-laws
  • Making time to regularly catch up with my dear friends
  • Plenty of time to be playful
  • Singing and dancing
  • Risking being open, genuine and vulnerable with my loved ones when they ask me how I am
  • Accepting love, support and gestures of kindness

When these things fall out of balance, I fall out of balance too.

Let’s add to the list.  What helps you nourish your mental health?  What ideas can you share below?

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I Want to Change the World. What about you? Can we do it together?

Me with Giving West CEO, Kevin MacDonald. A very special moment. Shame about the bad hair day ;-)

Me with Giving West CEO, Kevin MacDonald. A very special moment. Shame about the bad hair day 😉

I’m reflecting on the amazing five weeks I’ve just had traveling abroad with my family, an opportunity which was made possible by a generous scholarship I was awarded by the Perth Convention Bureau and Giving West.  I had an incredible trip of planning research, attending workshops, networking, and a brilliant conference interspersed with gelato, volcanoes, ancient monuments and Disneyland.  I’ve got pretty much nothing to complain about right now.

The trip was absolutely jam-packed full of blog-fodder, and I have written to you all a thousand times in my head.  Various themes will probably make their way through in my coming posts.  But as the dust begins to settle, here are the things I’m sitting with:

  • I still want to change the world.  I care about reducing suffering, and not just in a 1-by-1 approach as people’s suffering becomes so great that they seek support in my therapy room.  I want to use what we know from decades of research in contextual behavioural science to support change in families, schools, communities, corporations.  I want to help create and sustain environments that are nurturing, where people may experience pain (can’t get through life without it), but will not need to experience suffering.
  • I can do a lot, but I can’t achieve all that alone.
  • Thankfully I’m already not doing it all alone.
  • You’re already doing your part, and what if we do MORE, TOGETHER?

Some of the Australian and New Zealand Conference delegates

Some of the Australian and New Zealand Conference delegates

I used my scholarship to attend the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS) World Conference in Berlin – a phenomenal opportunity to learn from, and break bread with, world-class prominent researchers and clinicians who share this common purpose and vision.  One of the things I love about the ACBS Community is that these people, on the whole, WALK the WALK as much as they TALK the TALK, and that’s a pretty special thing.  It builds a sense of community akin to a family, a tribe, and it’s a lovely place to belong.

If you’re not a part of it already, I want to invite you into that space with me.  It’s the main reason I write this blog.

And we can do more – if you’re willing.

I am so excited, because some of my favourite trainers are headed to Perth.  Their workshops, presented around the world, are accessible not just to psychologists, social workers and other mental health geeks – they are targeted far wider, for TEACHERS, NURSES, SPEECH THERAPISTS, OCCUPATIONAL THERAPISTS; and other ALLIED HEALTH.  This is so incredibly important.  If we are really serious about changing the world, we cannot make psychologists and psychiatrists the gatekeepers of this information.  There’s not enough of us, and we’re too darned expensive.  We need this main-lined and these trainers are making that a reality.

So I am inviting you to some upcoming workshops, and you can pick and choose what might be most relevant to you 😉  Or perhaps none of these are suitable for you right now, but maybe it might be of interest to your children’s teachers, therapists, or other people in your network.  Many of you have been traveling along reading my blog for a while now, and I really appreciate your feedback on the topics I write about.  If there is stuff that is meaningful to you in the way I write about topics, you will love the chance to go deeper through these incredible upcoming workshops.

PS – these guys do not fund me in any way to promote their gigs.  I’m just a little bit excited that people I respect so highly are bringing their stuff to the West.

Dr Louise Hayes, ACT for Children (and their Parents), Sept 21-22

Louise is the current president of the Australian/New Zealand ACBS chapter, co-author of the best-selling book, Get Out of Your Mind and Into your Life for Teenagers: A Guide to Living an Extraordinary Life, and the forthcoming book for teachers, therapists and counsellors on ACT for young people, The Thriving Adolescent. Louise uses ACT with young people in schools and clinical settings. She is a clinical psychologist, peer-reviewed ACT trainer, an academic, author and speaker.

All workshops should be conducted against this backdrop!  Bressanone, Italy

All workshops should be conducted against this backdrop! Bressanone, Italy

Louise was presenting one of her workshops in Bressanone, Italy, whilst I was there. During the tea/lunch breaks I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the reflections of the students on their experience of Louise’s workshop, the skills they were learning, her awesome presentation style, and just how much of a wholly beautiful, compassionate human being she is. Being the only other Australian there, people may have thought me kinder and smarter just by association;-) The glowing feedback continued as she presented throughout the ACBS world conference the following month.

The workshop will present a new developmental model developed by Louise and Joseph Ciarrochi for applying Acceptance & Commitment Therapy in work with children (and their parents). From her website: “ACT’s approach to families can help them learn to manage their emotions using acceptance and mindfulness, as well as try new behaviour connected to values. It is perfect for helping parents and their children.”  No prior experience in ACT required – it is a great introduction, and suitable for all allied health professionals and teachers.

Dr Russ Harris, ACT Two-day Introductory Workshop, Sept 10-11; and ACT Two-day Advanced Workshop, Oct 22-23

Best selling author of The Happiness Trap (and a long list of others), prominent peer-reviewed ACT trainer Russ Harris faithfully makes the trip out West generally once or twice a year (he even lived here for a while).  He’s responsible for the initial training of just about every ACT-therapist Australia has 😉  Once a stand-up comedian (and a GP), Russ has an entertaining, warm, and jargon-free, accessible presentation style.  Russ provided my initial introduction to ACT and the wider ACBS community, and it’s not over stating it to say the experience was life-changing.

Dr Eric Morris, ACT for Psychosis: Recovery through Psychological Flexibility, Sept 14

Okay, so this one is advertised as an advanced-level course, but if you are a psychologist/social-worker/psychiatrist/mental health nurse working in this field – or if you know someone who is – this workshop will be incredible.  Eric is a member of the ANZ ACBS Board, and is a warm and charismatic presenter, researcher, clinician, academic, DJ (in his spare time), and co-editor of a new textbook, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Mindfulness for Psychosis.  Although now working in Melbourne, after a decade in the UK, he is originally home-grown here in WA and is a fellow Murdoch alumnus.  Click here for more details on the workshop and Eric’s long, interesting, and relevant bio.  I’m thrilled he’s bringing his work back home 🙂


PS: Thanks to Stoick, Toothless, Hiccup, and my beautiful Mum and Dad, for sharing the journey, and being the most awesome support crew on the road. Love you guys xxx

I am so grateful to Perth Convention Bureau and Giving West for enabling me to travel abroad to experience rich, diverse, inspiring professional development – and I’m grateful to the incredible presenters above that you don’t have to travel, since they’re bringing it all to us 🙂

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