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?

Posted in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Mental Health | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

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 🙂

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

An Answer to the “War on [Pretty Much Everything]” – reviewing Anthony Biglan’s “The Nurture Effect”

There’s this mother sitting before me and she tries to stem the tears. It’s been weeks since her son has been to school. We’ve been tracking this for a while, her and I – and today her exhaustion is palpable. This mother who would move the heavens and the earth for her children; whose resources are stretched beyond breaking point. He’s slipping through the cracks, and she’s doing all she can to hold on.

A lot can be achieved in an hour a week – but when the risks are high, and the complexities are many, progress can be dangerously slow. I ring the program with the resources to provide this family with wrap-around intensive support that will secure a positive future for this young man.

“I’m so sorry” says the voice on the end of the line, “they’re outside our catchment area.”

There is an award-winning evidenced based program that saves the economy $5 for every dollar spent, and this child will miss out because he has the wrong address. The part that breaks my heart? His address used to be in a catchment area – MY catchment area, back when I was a clinician in the program I know can help him – Multisystemic Therapy (MST). Unfortunately, Corrective Services cut the funding to that program in 2010. The Department of Health has continued with MST – but not for his address.

An MST Clinician has flexibility to engage and support the entire system around a child, including parents and other family “stakeholders”, collaboratively designing strength-based interventions and providing support to overcome barriers across home and school environments.  MST programs work around the clock, seven days a week to maximise pro-social connections, including academic engagement, for the child.

Without those resources?  It all falls to me and mum, and the plans we can make in one hour a week to change an entire system that was years in the making.

Against that backdrop, I have been reading Anthony (Tony) Biglan’s The Nurture Effect and my heart is jumping with possibilities. I remember well a chance dinner I had a couple of years ago with Tony and his colleague Dennis Embry; giants in the world of prevention and behaviour science. I was filled with excitement and hope as they shared their visions, based on hard science, for a better tomorrow for entire communities. THIS is why I became a psychologist. I still want to “save the world” – and Tony, he’s bringing it all within our reach.

The Nurture Effect gently steps readers through over 40 years of research in behavioural sciences, sharing how the accumulated knowledge can be applied at all levels of society (family, school, corporations, policy-makers) to

“create a society where it is unthinkable that a child suffers abuse, fails in school, becomes delinquent, or faces teasing and bullying… a society in which diverse people and organizations work together to ensure that families, schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods are nurturing and that our capitalistic system functions to benefit everyone” (Biglan, 2015, p3)

It sounds somewhat utopian, doesn’t it? And yet throughout each chapter Tony outlines time and time again the research evidence that shows both how this is possible and why it is necessary – including the economic value for the holders of the purse strings (and there’s an inspiring review of MST).

376809_10150897344610064_886566565_nIt comes at a time when society needs it most. My whole body shuddered recently when I saw the statement pictured left.  It had been shared on Facebook 111,654 times.  How often our society, in desperation, reaches for coercive tactics again and again in an attempt to solve problems and yet only making them worse. As he draws upon the research, Tony asserts:

Children raised in coercive families are more likely to act aggressively, fail academically, begin smoking, develop drug and alcohol problems, and become delinquent.” (Biglan, 2015, p28)

In contrast to:

“We can boil down what we have learned in the last fifty years to a simple principle: we need to ensure that everyone lives in a nurturing environment.” (Biglan, 2015, p18)

Tony not only presents the research, much of which he has been a key part of, he constructs a blueprint for action. Each chapter concludes with strategies that can be applied at the individual, family, school, community, and policy level to create the nurturing society that he envisages. Easy to read and accessible, this is Tony’s life’s work. The implementation is up to us – ALL of us.

This is a book worthy of your time. Please read it – and if, like me, you are also refreshed and reinvigorated, be part of the solution! Whilst you take on board recommendations from each chapter, here’s something else you could do: put it on book club reading lists; gift it to school teachers and principals; send a copy to your local MP; use it as a stocking filler for all your loved ones (if you can wait that long).

If there is only one book you read this year, make it this one.

With grateful thanks to my client for permission to share a little of her story.

Posted in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Mental Health, Parenting | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Five Ways to Prep our Kids for Porn

This is what I hope for my children: that they reach adulthood before they stumble across or seek out pornography.

I remember what it was like to be almost-holding-hands with a boy for the very. first. time. I remember the butterflies, the excitement, the anticipation – and Oh My Word, when we actually HELD hands –

Image courtesy of noppasinw at

Image courtesy of noppasinw at


Next – some time later – came the anticipation and the transition to the first kiss. Holy crap, does it get any better than that? I nearly fainted with my first kiss. I will encourage my boys to slowly savor each and every new experience, lingering as long as possible before proceeding further – because once you take that next step, that which came before is never quite as magical. I want them to have all of those intense experiences, heightened emotions, rushing hormones, and intense arousal all FIRST HAND, with a real, live, consenting human being.

I don’t want porn to get there first.

I am raising boys in the age of information.  I am not naive. A staggering 90% of children aged 8-16 report having watched pornography online, and whilst I’m concerned, I’m not really surprised. It’s not like fascination in sex is a new thing for this generation. It’s just that when people of my vintage were tweens/teens and curious about sex, society looked after our access to information. We could ask our parents; or our friends; or access carefully selected books in the library. Maybe some encountered magazines stashed under beds; and maybe some found a couple of blue videos. To seek out porn, one had to be determined. Now our children have the same inquisitiveness about sex – and the entire world wide web at their fingertips. Where the onus used to be on society to safeguard our children, now the responsibility is on our CHILDREN to be savvy consumers – to be mature enough to know that just because they can doesn’t mean they should. And how are they to know the difference?

A tween explained to me why she had been accessing online pornography – she said she thought it would help her to be a better girlfriend – that she would know what to do, and how to act.  Recent Australian research found that many young men actually believe that what they watch in pornography provides an accurate template for sexual activity (Crabbe & Corlett, 2013).  What template are they learning? An analysis of 50 randomly selected films from the top 250 grossing pornography movies released in 2007 found over 3,300 acts of verbal and physical aggression (11.5 acts per scene analysed), of which 94% were perpetrated against women – and in over 95% of those scenes, the women responded with either neutral or pleasure expressions (Wosnitzer & Bridges, 2007).  The Australian Psychological Society (APS) has expressed concern that “much pornographic content depicts unsafe sexual acts that are harmful for sexual health, and frequently overlook crucial notions of mutual pleasure, respect and negotiating consent”(Sampson, 2015).

I think we need to prepare more broadly than simply having “The Porn Talk”.  I think there’s a lot we can be doing – and are already doing – right from the get-go that will help prepare our children to navigate a porn-filled world.


Yes, there are Net Nannies, etc, that can be part of our solution. I advocate for parental controls on computers and devices, if not just to stop kids accidentally installing viruses and shopping on e-bay. But their use is limited, and any teenager will have a work-around for every barrier we put in place. We need to equip our children, rather than just try to fence them.


Like many parents, we have a rule that prohibits the use of devices in bedrooms (and it applies to us too). At a young age, this helps in monitoring the safety of our children from on-line predators or viewing inappropriate material; but it also helps in the setting up of healthy computer habits. The blue light emitted from devices interrupts melatonin and therefore sleep cycles; and it’s useful to model and teach “unplugged” time. By the time they hit tweens, devices outside of bedrooms is part of a family culture, rather than a newly imposed rule.


My children can’t have preservatives and colours (Oh My Word No They CANNOT). Sometimes, well-meaning others would attempt to help our children with their restrictions – “Oh, these cupcakes actually aren’t all that nice.” I would take a deep breath, “Actually, they taste really good. That’s why everyone else is eating them. Whilst you would enjoy eating them, this is what else happens for you when you eat Bright Red Icing…” Because one day, my kids will pick up a cupcake; they will bite into it; that sugary, buttery goodness will hit their palate; and they will like it. When that happens, I want them to know that it was exactly as I said it would be. Because when they’re older I’m going to talk to them about porn.  I will tell them that porn will most likely arouse them, and they may well enjoy watching.  It may also screw up their natural sexual arousal and give them some pretty inaccurate ideas about sex and relationships.  By the time we get there, I want my children to have a huge database of things playing out exactly as mum said, so that it is worth trusting mum on this one!


From a protective behaviours perspective, we need to be teaching our children the words penis/vulva/vagina, rather than cutesie nicknames. When we don’t use proper names for body parts, we are already sending the message that there is something awkward about those bits. Something we’re not so comfortable to talk about. If our kids pick up on our embarrassment, they will run a mile from talking these things through with us.  They will source their information elsewhere.


We need to steep our children deeply in a tradition where violence plays no part in a sexual and/or loving relationship; where sex is connected to a narrative of relationship building, respect, and consent.  I grew up knowing many rich narratives about the great loves (and losses) of my wider family.  I know the story of my great-grandfather swimming the Swan river to court my great-grandmother; the courtship, engagement and marriage of my parents; and those of my aunts and uncles.  These, in turn, shaped my expectations of love, sex, and relationships.  In life we will break hearts, and we will have our hearts broken, we will have love that is unrequited and that which is reciprocated.  Our children need to have real life stories within which to make sense of their own experiences – not the scripts of Hollywood, and certainly not the reductionist view of pornography.

Similarly, we know that children learn not from our words, but from our actions.  Raising boys, I’m acutely aware that they are learning how to fulfill their future roles of father, partner, and man by observing Stoick.  They are learning lessons about partners and mothers by watching me.  Knowing that our children are learning by our examples is one of the many reasons to choose to be intentional about the care we take of our partnerships, and ourselves.

One day my boys may well fall within the 80% of the adult population who use pornography at least once (Traeen & Daneback, 2013).  As long as it is against a backdrop of a life full of love and richness, after a time when they’ve been able to learn about their sexuality in healthy and respectful contexts, then that will be okay with me.


Crabbe, M., & Corlett, D. (Directors) (2013). Love and sex in an age of pornography. Australia: Rendered Visible and Looking Glass Pictures.

Træen, B., & Daneback, K. (2013). The use of pornography and sexual behaviour among Norwegian men and women of differing sexual orientation. Sexologies, 22, 41-48.

Sampson, E. (2015). APS highlights concerns about the harmful impacts of pornograpy. In Psych, 38/2, 18-19

Wosnitzer, R. J. & Bridges, A. (2007). Aggression and sexual behavior in best-selling pornography: A content analysis update. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, San Francisco, CA. Retrieved from

Posted in Parenting | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

My son wanted to lose weight. When he told me why, I was speechless.

My son is lanky and lean – a rippling body of bones and muscle and not a skerrick of anything else.  So when he told me he really wanted to drop a couple of kilos, I was ANGRY.

My mind screamed:


The thing about conversations with boys is that you have to pick your moment.  I let his comment hang – made some brief remark about his body being perfect as is, and waited to see if it meant nothing at all.  Over the next few days I heard it several times over – different variations, but all on the same theme.  My son wanted to lose weight, and my heart was aching.  I didn’t see this coming…  and I didn’t anticipate what would come next.

Hiccup talks best when we lie side by side on his bed; or driving along in the car, just him and me; or when we go swimming at the local pool.  This night, we’re driving, and the moment is right.

“So, how come you want to lose weight?” I ask, with as little loading as I can.

His reply frightens me: “Well, it’s really good to be skinny.  I want to be as skinny as I can be.”

I breathe, and ask gently “And what would be good about being more skinny?”

His answer isn’t thought-out – he pauses and says “Well I could fit into tight spaces that no one else can, and be really flexible.”  It’s something he’s coming up with on the spot, and I’m no clearer.  We talk a little more and I let some silence hang for a bit.  After a time, he speaks.

“I’m just a bit confused, Mummy,” he says.  I wait.

“How come when you’re talking to other adults, you seem really happy if they think you’ve lost weight?  How come it’s good if you lose weight, but not if I do?”

BANG, there it is.  Oh My Freaking Gosh The Problem Is MEEEEEEE.

Hiccup and I, we talked a bit more.  I think we got it squared away okay.  It’s been about a month since then and he’s stopped trying to get “skinny”.  Also, I’ve asked family and friends not to comment on my weight around him anymore.  I suffer the same condition as just about any woman – either too heavy or too light, never just right, but in the context of my life it’s a rather insignificant metric.

But it served as a reminder to me that little ears are always listening – even when we think we are using our “adult” voices in “grown up” conversations.  When we tell our embarrassing/difficult-child-anecdotes; when we speak tensely to our partner; when we have hushed conversations with the teacher – those little ears are listening, and we can’t always know the sense they’re making.  The wider context is not always salient to them.  When people would commented on my possible weight loss, he would hear me sounding happy.  I never thought to say “by the way, it really doesn’t matter”.

Posted in Diet, Parenting | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

5 Steps to Increase Kids’ Veggie Eating (evidence from an exciting new study)

Image courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat at

Image courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat at

It must be just about every parent’s struggle – the constant attempts to increase the vegetable intake of our little bundles o’ joy, through their toddler years and beyond.  Often it starts out fine – many the smug mother of an infant has boasted that her little one eats ALL his veggies… only to discover that toddlerhood is the great unpinning of it all (hmm, I remember being one of those mums…).  I remember a parenting book that stated ALL children go through an “only peanut butter sandwiches” stage (excepting those with peanut allergies, I suppose).  I can’t remember which book it was in – if you know it, send me the reference.

In Australia, 61% of children aged 4-8 eat the recommended serving of fruit, and only 3% are eating the suggested amount of vegetables (see here).  It’s not getting better by the time we’re grown up either, with only 50% of us eating sufficient fruit, and 9% having an adequate vegetable consumption (see here).

So how can we right-set our children and start increasing their vegetable intake?  An exciting new study offers a promising approach.  Abigail Kennedy, Seth Whiting, and Mark Dixon trialled two Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) based interventions with a group of six children (aged 3-5).  The results of their second intervention were startling: using ACT with an emphasis on values and committed action, paired with rewards delivered upon tasting foods, resulted in a 69.2% increase in the tasting of (previously undesired) vegetables; 25.3% for fruit; and 43.2% for beans.

What I particularly liked about their intervention (apart from its success), was its SIMPLICITY and, therefore, easy transference to the home setting.

Here are some key elements to try yourself at home:

1. Set the Scene

Children were given simple, clearly defined “rules” for engaging in the meal time. Compliance with these rules resulted in a sticker (chosen by the adult) on their sticker chart.  The rules were:

  • Stay in your seat
  • Zero instances of yelling
  • Zero instances of playing with food (putting food on the table/floor/chair, or throwing in the air)

Applying it at home: Keep it simple.  Family rules could be determined by the whole family, and a visual reminder put up somewhere near the table. Children will watch what you do – do Mum and Dad yell at the table / fidget with their phones / etc?

2. Create some space around their thoughts

When children used phrases such as “I never eat this,” the facilitator reminded them that this was just a thought, and they could notice that as they notice any other thoughts.

Applying this at home: In addition to the reframe, remember that you and any other adults are also modelling attitudes to food.  Do mum and dad eat their veggies? How do parents manage being served food they don’t like?

3. Encourage progress towards trying new foods

In this study, children played a game called “Look, Feel, Smell” in which they were presented with the (undesired) food items, without a requirement to eat, and encouraged to talk about what they observed with their senses (rather than thoughts) .

Applying this at home: Reward attempts that are a step closer to the behaviour you want. Before swallowing a new food, it is normal and helpful for a child to explore the food through touch, smell and taste.  Another programme, the SOS Approach to Feeding, advocates for the use of a spitting bowl (at times) so that a child may taste a food without having to commit to swallowing (a barrier for some children).  This idea was very counter-intuitive to us when we first came across it – and proved to be an essential step when our boys were toddlers.

4. Reward eating attempts

This is my FAVOURITE part of this study – it was the component that created the most change, and it was incredibly simple.  Children were told “Today if you eat any amount of the [vegetable], you can choose one sticker from the special sticker box to put on your sticker card. If you do not eat any of this [food category] but sit calmly during the food activity, you will earn a sticker that I choose for you.”

That’s it.

That simple option, that children would be able to choose their own stickers for eating any amount of their veggies, resulted in a massive 69.2% increase in veggie tasting!

I could fall over, it’s so simple.  The kids weren’t even offered anything they could trade their stickers for.  Just being able to choose their own stickers was enough. Often when we think about “reward charts” we can go overboard and complicate things – and  yet this simple, tiny, financially insignificant reward had a HUGE impact on these kids. (The authors note previous research has found that preschool children prefer to choose their reward rather than simply earning a previously specified reward – a handy tip to keep in mind)

Applying it at home: This is a great reminder that rewards needn’t be huge – but their existence can create change in a child’s motivation.  I love this one because it doesn’t use unhealthy rewards (ie dessert / lollies) for healthy food choices.  The authors of the study acknowledge they didn’t do long-term follow-up, and a phasing out of the rewards would be necessary.  In your home, you might trade a full sticker sheet in for some kind of reward (think: extra 1:1 time with a parent / staying up past bedtime / a movie night – again keep it simple).  Over time, you could also increase the behaviours required in order to earn stickers (eg eat larger quantities of the presented veggies; use utensils correctly), and gradually fade out as the child continues eating veggies as part of a newly formed healthy habit.

5. Don’t give up!

You’ve probably heard that children need to be presented with food many times over before they will eat it reliably.  The authors note that “repeated exposure to food has been shown to result in more positive judgements of food” (Birch, McPhee, Shoba & Steinberg, 1987; cited in Kennedy, et al, 2014).

Applying it at home: Children take time to learn that food presented in different ways is still the same food.  A child may eat raw carrots and yet balk at the cooked variety; eat chips but not mash; pumpkin in soup but not roasted… Each different presentation may need many multiple attempts before success is reached.

Over to you!

Which of these strategies have you already had success with? What else do you do in your house that helps?


Kennedy, A. E.; Whiting, S. W. and Dixon, M. R. (2014). Improving novel food choices in preschool children using acceptance and commitment therapy. Journal of Contextual Behaviour Science, 3, 228-235

Further Reading:

Changing the way our children eat: a behavior analytic approach Giovambattista Presti, Silvia Cau, Paolo Moderato

Posted in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Diet, Parenting | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Kids starting school? Here’s the Low-Down on School Mums!

* This one’s for the ladies – School Dads are a different kettle of fish all together * 

“So I was watching this show, and there’s this psychologist – no psychiatrist -,”

“Or clairvoyant, whatever,” I interject.

We all laugh.  It’s an in-joke reference, now several years old.  I pause in this moment to look around the table.  It’s easy company, with dear friends, enjoying our sacred ritual of morning coffee after school drop-off.  These women are woven into the fabric of my heart, and are friendships for a lifetime.

But it wasn’t always that way.

This image is not an accurate reflection of reality.

This image is not an accurate reflection of reality. Our coffee is not served in a martini glass. Image courtesy of photostock at

Here we are in January, with a bunch of parents about to take their eldest children to school for the very first time.  It’s exciting – daunting – and definitely a Whole New World.  For many families, you will be about to meet a new community which you will be attached to for the next 14 or more years.

A Google for “new school mum anxiety” returns a plethora of advice about how to help your CHILD adjust to schooling, and a large selection of advice for dealing with separation anxiety (yours and theirs).  But what about those other anxieties that crop up?  In a survey of 1800 first-day-mums, conducted by, 55% of mums were concerned about how to make friendships with other school mums; and 54.5% were worried that they wouldn’t look as organised or “glam” as other mums.  Other anxieties I commonly hear about include:

  • I didn’t fit in / was bullied at school – going back there now brings back all those memories
  • The other mums are all connecting better than me
  • They’re not interested in me
  • They’ll judge me because I’m an at-home mum
  • They’ll judge me because I work

What to do about it?

  • Acknowledge that these feelings are normal and common.  You are not alone – and the mum beside you that you might be worried about is probably feeling the same way.
  • Treat yourself with the same compassion you are (hopefully) extending to your child.  You are expecting him/her to enter this new environment every day; to open up, be present, and make friends.  They’re going through this too, and you can be their model.
  • Be open to the (likely) possibility that your protective mind isn’t accurate on this one.
  • Remember that the more open and approachable you are, the easier it is for other mums to connect with you.  You can act this way, even if you don’t yet feel it.

Why bother connecting with School Mums?

I cannot overstate how incredibly valuable school mums are in my life.  I learn from them All. The. Time.  These are the women that see me day in / day out.

  • Often when I’m stressed that Hiccup or Toothless is doing something unusual or concerning, talking with other mums I discover that actually, that’s what all their cohort is up to at that moment. All five-year olds are fussy eaters… Most six-year olds aren’t sitting still at the table… Everyone gets end-of-term ratty behaviour… School swimming IS making them all over-tired… Apparently the specialist teacher was cranky with ALL year ones that day…  Most year twos are swapping lunches right now…
  • Sometimes it’s the other mums that realise before me that I’m tired, over-analysing, out-of-sorts – and they gently guide me back.
  • Other parents have alerted me to important school-yard dynamics that my children hadn’t deemed important enough to share with me.
  • Friendships at the parent-level can help monitor and support dynamics in friendships at the child-level.
  • School-mum-friendships are easy to stay in touch with – they’re right there, every day!  If your kids are in a public school, then they’re all living in your local community too.

Ways to foster connection:

  • Be the one to “go first” – greet other mums, open up conversations, show interest (remember the mum that appears “stand-off-ish” is probably actually just anxious and shy – like you)
  • Start play-dates.  A wise friend of mine advised me to do as many playdates as possible with as many different children during kindy and pre-primary – at that age it’s still okay for the parents to go along too, so you’ll feel more comfortable later when they’re ready to go it alone.  It’s also a great opportunity to build some one-on-one connections with other mums.
  • Leave your phone in your bag so that you’re clearly available for communication!
  • Send out an invite to all parents (via the teacher) to a class play-date in a park / play centre; or a parents dinner/lunch/morning tea.  The parents who are most interested in connecting will either (a) come; or (b) express their disappointment that they can’t come – this helps you narrow the pool to know where to focus your friendship-building energy.  I’m grateful to the first mum that did this in Hiccup’s year (it wasn’t me!).
  • If you have time after drop-off, invite other parents to join you for a coffee nearby.  If conversation doesn’t flow easily the first time, try again.  The more often, the better! I find a minimum of once a week is incredibly beneficial for maintaining a sense of connection (and my sanity).  It is worth prioritising this.  If your school isn’t near a coffee shop, why not organise a coffee van to arrive for half an hour around the start or end of the school day?
  • Arrive a few minutes early for school pick-up to actively make time to chat.
  • Consider attending a P&C meeting, or becoming involved in a school committee.
  • Remember that friendships take time to blossom and grow – it’s okay if you’re not all great buddies by the end of kindy – you have YEARS ahead of you yet.
  • Stay open to new parents within the school community – avoid become the very clique you worried you’d be excluded from 😉

Most of the tips above are ones that have been passed to me by other wise parents.  This blog has greater value to all when we build it as a community – please share your wisdom, ideas and experiences below.

As for the fabulous school mums in MY life:  You know where you’ll find me the first week of term – and I’ll be desperate for you all to join me xxx

Posted in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Parenting, School | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Thriving through the School Holidays

IMG_20140920_152448It’s nearly here – that gorgeous six-week break at the end of the school year.  It’s a time I look forward to SOOO MUCH!!  I LOVE the extra time with my little people… oh, and that break from the school-day routine!!

But have you ever had the experience where the IDEA of school holidays has been better than how they actually panned out?  How do we make the BEST of that time, so that it remains something we all look forward to?  How do we carve out space for making memories and sharing in joy together?

Ideas for Thriving through the Holidays

1. Remember the parent you want to BE

Life is so busy, right?  We get so busy DOING, it’s easy to lose track of BEING.  But you’re making time to (skim)read this right now, hey?  I give you “permission” to race through the rest of this piece – heck, skip the whole damn lot – if you will do this for me now:  At the end of this paragraph, sit back and close your eyes.  Take a couple of breaths to pause and centre yourself.  Then ask “When I’m at my best, what kind of parent do I want to BE?”

Go on.

Don’t rush this part.

If you get caught up in what kind of parent you ARE, or all the shoulds and should nots, notice your busy mind, and ask yourself again – When I’m at my best, what kind of parent do I want to BE?

Chances are, your list isn’t too different from mine.  The kind of words that show up on my list include: loving, patient, kind, compassionate, playful, reliable, trustworthy, available… it goes on, you get the idea.

Here’s the next question to ask yourself: “Is it possible for me to also BE these things when I am (or my kids are!) at my worst?”

The reality is children sometimes press our buttons; and sometimes really shit things happen and life has no damned pause button.  But if I’m honest, I can still choose to be loving, patient, kind, etc, even when I’m angry, tired, hurt, or frustrated.  What if you choose to parent in line with how you want to BE, no matter what is going on around you?  What would that be like for you?  For your kids?  What would that help you bring to the experience of school holidays right now?

Maybe you could write those BEING words on a list – stick it up on your bathroom mirror, or somewhere to remind you from time to time.  Maybe you could set a reminder in your phone to prompt you periodically “right here, right now, what action can I take that is in the direction of these values?”  Of course, this doesn’t just pertain to school holidays, but it’s as good a time as any to strategically plan/review parenting for a moment.

2. Prompt, notice, acknowledge, celebrate and reward the behaviour you DO want (and not the behaviour you don’t).

If you’re taking your kids somewhere, let them know what behaviour you expect of them (rather than the list of behaviours you don’t want), and when you see it happen, let them know you’ve noticed.  A typical spiel in our car goes like this: “I’m so excited that we’re doing ____ today; and what I really love is the way you two always use your manners and are so polite when we’re out and about.  I love the way you do good listening, and I feel so proud of you when I see you using your good sharing and play skills.  I’m looking forward to your usual exquisitely good behaviour whilst we’re out today.  It’s because of your usual excellent behaviour that we get to do things like this so often.”  Yep, I’m wordy 😉  – and there’s a follow-up in the car on the way home: “Kids, thanks so much for you awesome behaviour today – I noticed this, and this, and this.  I feel so proud of the way you did this, and I especially noticed you doing that even though it was difficult.  The behaviour you demonstrated today makes me want to plan more of these types of activities together.”  I’ve written more previously on this topic here.

3. Not all routines need a holiday

Many young children thrive best when they can predict what comes next.  School terms are full of predictable routines – both within the classroom, and out of school commitments.  The break from the monotony of making school lunches; being able to stay in PJs until 10am; or relaxing around bedtime routines can be what some parents (me, pick me) particularly look forward to.  It’s okay to relax and change routines in the holidays – just be aware that some kids still need some structure around this.  They don’t always have the insight to say “my life lacks predictability right now and I’m feeling anxious” – so you may cop it behaviourally instead.  Talk with you child about what the plan for the next day is, and if they need it, give them a visual reminder.  If you have a few days that are more chaotic / ad hoc / full of people / extra late nights, etc, give your child some grace to not be at their behavioural best.

4. Balance, balance, balance – and boredom!

I don’t have the perfect equation, I’m afraid, for how to balance out how many activities to DO, how much money to SPEND, how many places to GO, whilst still providing DOWN TIME to rest and recover… Here’s what research shows, though:  boredom makes room for creativity to flourish; and unstructured time allows kids to learn about setting and achieving their own goals.  If your children tell you they’re bored, this is an awesome opportunity to do… Nothing At All, and see what comes next!

5. Over to you!

I learn SO MUCH from the awesome mothers and fathers around me – we only get one shot at this, I love that we can all learn from each other.  Please will you share with me, and the other people having a read, what YOU do to make a success of your school holidays?

Posted in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Parenting | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Why TV could be making you – and your children – unhappy

At the recent Australia/New Zealand Association of Contextual Behaviour Science conference, I was enthralled by guest speaker  Dr Tim Kasser (Professor of Psychology at Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois), who spoke on the contradiction of what society tells us will improve well-being, and what actually does.  I’m cut from the same cloth as Dr Kasser when it comes to our shared belief that what psychology has to offer on this topic is far too important to wait for people to stumble across it once they get brave enough, and/or things get tough enough for them to come through our doors one-by-one. As a scientific community, we know this stuff NOW – why should anyone else have to wait?  In that vein, today I share a brief summary of some of Dr Kasser’s presentation, including his own research.

After commenting that the current message our society gives us about well-being is that it can be purchased – that “life is meaningful and people are successful to the extent they have money, possessions, and the right image;” Dr Kasser went on to share what the science actually shows.

He presented the work of Grouzet et al (2005) and Kasser & Ryan (1996) on the Aspirations Index, which examined the goals that people endorsed as being important.  Broadly, seven categories of aspirations fell into two over-arching themes; which were labeled Extrinsic (eg “I will have enough money to buy everything I want”) and Intrinsic (eg “I will help the world become a better place”) – and using funky science and a circumplex model they found that essentially, it is difficult to pursue both Extrinsic (give me money!) and Intrinsic (save the world!) goals at the same time.

A bunch of people then examined how having goals that were Extrinsic (popularity; image; financial success) or Intrinsic (affiliation; self-acceptance; community) impacted on well-being.  A meta-analysis of these studies, conducted by Dittmar, Bond, Hurst & Kasser (in press, JPSP) found that high endorsement on Extrinsic goals was associated with higher rates of:

  • Compulsive buying
  • Health risk behaviours
  • Negative self image
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Negative affect

And lower rates of:

  • Positive self image
  • Positive affect
  • Well-being
  • Physical health
  • Life satisfaction

Dr Kasser summarised this as “materialistic values lead to choices and experiences that do a relatively poor job of satisfying psychological needs” (2002).

Here’s what else they found: high levels of Autonomy (choosing what one does of one’s own accord), Relatedness (feeling connected to and loved by other people) and Competence are all associated with high levels of well being – and Materialism decreases people’s sense of all three of these (Dittmar et al; in press).

But you want MORE ;-)?

Kashdan and Breen (2007) found in their study “people with stronger materialistic values reported more negative emotions and less relatedness, autonomy, competence, gratitude, and meaning in life…experiential avoidance fully mediated all associations between materialistic values and each dimension of well-being.”

Image courtesy of Naypong at

Image courtesy of Naypong at

So here’s the quick summary: the more materialistic we are, the more unhappy we are. So what does this have to do with our kids watching TV?  Well, as Dr Kasser explained, it’s all to do with their exposure to advertising.

  • Children in schools with Channel One (an initiative that gave free televisions to schools in low SES areas in America, on the condition that they watch a news bulletin that contained an advertisement segment) were found to have a stronger consumer orientation (Brand & Greenberg, 1994)
  • Children who watch more TV have higher consumer values, lower well-being, and worse environmental attitudes (Good, 2007; Nairn, Ormrod, & Bottomley, 2007)
  • As the percentage of GDP/capita from advertising increased in the US from 1976-2007, so too did the materialism of 18 year-olds (Twenge & Kasser, 2013)

So my take-away from Dr Kasser essentially was: the more materialistic my kids are, the poorer their well-being – and the more they are exposed to advertising, the more materialistic they will be.

Dr Kasser had three recommendations for action:

  • Support policies to remove ads from schools and public places
  • Legislate change so that advertising can no longer be written off as a tax-deduction
  • End advertising to children.  Brazil and Scandinavian countries have done this already – there’s precedent!

As parents, here’s what we can put into place right now:

  • Restrict TV time, and be judicious about what our children are watching.  I’m so grateful we still have the ABC!  See here for Australian guidelines on screen time for children.  There is no evidence of any educational benefit of screen time for children under the age of 5.
  • Watch for advertising sneaking into schools and P&C events – advocate for its removal.
  • Talk to your children about advertising – that the purpose of ads is to sell products; and they do not always tell the truth (watch Gruen or The Checkout to unpack the spin).  This strategy was demonstrated to reduce materialism in Dutch children (Buijzen and Valkenburg, 2005).
  • Talk with your children about upcoming purchases and things that are influencing your decision (eg “We are looking at buying a car because…, and these are the considerations we’re thinking about….”), as well as your own decision-costs.  Recently Hiccup and Toothless were asking me to buy decorations for Halloween.  After I had explained that for us, purchasing Halloween decorations would be us spending more money on things we don’t need, I then talked with them about my desire to use our limited resources to spend money on things that did matter to us – and as a family we decided instead to give money to Commit and Act to support their work on preventing the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone.
  • Talk with your children about your own values – what matters to you, who you want to be in this world – what’s worthy of YOUR time, attention – and money.
  • Encourage family members to express gratitude, which has been linked with reducing materialism (Lambert et al, 2009)
Posted in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Mental Health, Parenting | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Learning to be Human – my journey through Perinatal OCD

IMGP1665It’s Mental Health week. As a psychologist, I am honoured to hear the most sacred of stories – but the only one I have permission to share here is mine. So to raise awareness, here it is.

I remember the moment I learned I had a Mental Illness. Sitting midway back in an auditorium full of colleauges, arms resting on my pregnant belly, there was a moment when the floor fell away. A moment when my ears buzzed, my peripheral vision became black, and there was nothing in the room except me and the man up the front. At the podium stood a renowned psychiatrist, and my heart pounded, as the story he was telling was my story. The anecdotes he was sharing were my lived experiences. I had never met him; I had never voiced those words to anyone, barely even to myself – and there he was, speaking them to everyone.

But of course, he was actually talking about someone else – and this meant I was not the only woman with this story. It still seems bizarre to me now, but this was the first time I realised I was not alone; and there was a name for what was happening to me.

This was the moment I knew I had Perinatal Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.


First time around caught me completely by surprise. In the hospital, shortly after giving birth, bizarre and frightening thoughts appeared in my head. They shouted loudly “take us seriously!”, accompanied by terrifying images. I drew the obvious conclusion – there was a completely crazy part of me, and the best thing I could do was ignore it and hope it would go away. Oh, and definitely not tell anyone about it. Nine months later, they disappeared as mysteriously as they had come. Gone. As if they’d never been there. I thought no more about it… until 10 weeks prior to the birth of Toothless, suddenly there they were again, as if they’d never left.

But NOW it had a Name – and with a Name comes a Map to plot a course out.

Now that I had something I could Google and research and find evidence of successful treatment for – I could finally find words to tell Stoick what was happening to me. It’s hard to find a way to say “I will never intentionally hurt our children, but my mind is constantly plagued by intrusive thoughts and images that I will.”

Anytime I’d played that scenario in my head, it had always ended with Stoick leaving and taking Hiccup; waiting for the birth of Toothless and taking him too. My mind was super skilled at presenting the scariest scenarios possible and telling me they were all true, horrifically true.

What actually happened? It was the first piece of evidence for taking my mind less seriously. Stoick held me as I cried; he read the pages I’d bookmarked on the internet; and he reminded me he loved me, he knew our children were safe with me; and we would find a way through this together.

I knew the tools and skills I taught my own clients were the same ones I needed right now – but my mind was so frightening, I needed to find a guide to help me through.  Where on earth does a Clinical Psychologist working in Perinatal Mental Health go for treatment of her own Perinatal Mental Health issue? Everyone is a colleague, a peer, a friend. I chose a private clinic that specialises in perinatal mental health; and elected to see the psychiatrist. Partly because that meant she was a little outside of my discipline. Partly because it would make it easier if it turned out medication was part of my treatment plan.

I saw that psychiatrist, initially weekly, then fortnightly, then monthly, for eight months. Obviously it was a very painful time in my life – but it was also a time that was, to borrow from Russ Harris, exceedingly “rich, full, and meaningful”. With the lessons I learned, and the things I discovered, I would not trade out of that experience. It’s how I learned to be human – and I really, really love being comfortable in my own skin.

Despite professionally advocating to reduce mental health stigma, I still felt a powerful level of self-stigma. After confiding in Stoick, it took me a further three months to name the diagnosis to my parents, and six months before I could tell my closest friends. Me, there, then would never have imagined that me, here, now would write this article.

Here are some of the lessons I learned through PN-OCD:

  • I discovered what it’s like to sit on the opposite couch in the therapy room. On the way out the door once, my psychiatrist said “next time, we’re going to talk about why you have such an issue with seeing a psychiatrist.” “Oh, that’s easy,” I replied, “it’s BECAUSE YOU’RE A PSYCHIATRIST!” I bet she really loved me that day 😉
  • I learned how to hold my thoughts far more lightly, and take them a whole heap less seriously.
  • I observed that when painful emotions like intense anxiety show up, it’s generally because I’m doing something that really matters to me deep in my heart. That’s always going to be scary.
  • I learned how useful it was to have a “box” to label my “condition” with – and that there was a time to let that box go.
  • I began to see my OCD-mind more like a misguided friend – like X-Men’s Magneto, desperately trying to protect me, just not in the way I desired. “Come, old friend, let’s play chess.”
  • I risked being more vulnerable with people, and experienced how that vulnerablity opens relationships up to a whole deeper level. As I got more comfortable with saying “I’m NOT okay,” I noticed how often it freed others up to say “I’m not okay either,” and we could sit there, being not okay together and neither of us being alone anymore.
  • I like me better when I accept that I’m not perfect. I can celebrate being flawed – beautifully, humanly flawed, and all of us in this together.

I don’t claim that my experience of PN-OCD was typical, a majority experience, or a minority experience. It is simply MY story, and if it has touched you today, please consider sharing it with others and help me in raising awareness.

For more information on PN-OCD and helpful resources, see here.

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