This episode is a normal Q & A. My voice progressively died as I recorded the episode, so you get croaky Robert again. Great variety of questions this time including:
- How can I find a positive male role model for my boys since their father died?
- Should I talk about my trauma in therapy even though I haven’t spoken about it for 30 years?
- Has my history of hydrocephalus affected my speed of thinking? How can I improve?
I’m new to your podcast and enjoying it throughly. Thank you. I’m also so glad you’re taking time to stay at home with your newly born child. As a stay at home parent, I can attest to the beautiful bond that is created when you choose to be with your children.
I am 35. I have two sons, both just turned two and six. My husband, their father, unexpectedly passed away five months ago. We immediately sought family therapy for us and play therapy for them. Our therapist said they’re doing beautifully and so am I as their parent.
My questions are:
- Who will be their strong male role model? Our male family members are not the best. They have qualities I’d rather not see in my boys.
- How does remarriage affect them? What about future siblings? I know it’s crazy to ask so soon. I never want to do anything to hurt my boys.
Just a side note, my husband’s 33rd birthday was yesterday. I asked friends and relatives to do a random act of kindness and I plan to compile them in a book for the boys every year. I wanted to share the idea to inspire others.
Wow how tragic. I’m so sorry that happened. I can’t imagine what things have been like for you. It’s such a testament to your strength as a woman and as a mother that you’ve been doing what needs to be done and have been so proactive about trying to provide the right conditions to survive this.
Your question is interesting. It presupposes that one needs a male role model to succeed. I don’t think that is necessarily the case, but I do understand why you would want that.
I’ll say this – one area that gets people into trouble is trying to force a male role model situation out of a scenario where it’s not the best idea. In other words, don’t let the desire for a positive male role model make you blind to negative qualities of the person or of the interaction. I used to work in a domestic violence center and I have definitely heard from women in abusive relationships that they tolerated a lot of abuse just so that their kids could have a man in their lives. I’m sure you can see how that would be counter productive.
Now all of that said, I think there are some good ways to go about this. One of the best ones would be to encourage and support them in their involvements. There’s a reason that sports coaches are stereotypically portrayed as being a second father or a wise advice-giver. It doesn’t necessarily have to be sports, but having some sort of organized activity with a responsible adult that can teach them a sense of discipline and responsibility can be very healthy.
Some of this will depend on your values, your community etc. For instance, some people are able to find this role model in a youth group leader at their church or something like that. All of this said, please don’t undervalue what you have to offer as a parent. Teaching them how to be human is so much more important than teaching them how to be a man. You get to choose what things are emphasized, played down, or avoided. Your strength in this situation is already teaching them very important lessons.
As to the remarriage question – a lot of that will depend on the age that your remarry and the circumstances there. It will be important for you to try to encourage open communication, but also realize that behavior is communication and they may not be able to articular what they feel as much as they can show you in their actions.
At a younger age, they may feel initially like you are trying to replace their father. This doesn’t mean that you should avoid it. It just means that its a point that will need to be addressed and talked about over time. In some cases, there is no conflict at all and things go smoothly, so on the flip side, it’s also important not to overpathologize and try to find something wrong when in reality the kids are taking it really well. I think you’re already on such a good track. Keep those good intentions in your heart. Stay consistent with your love and support of them. Get help when you need it. You will be in good shape.
I am currently working with my therapist on starting to look at the childhood sexual abuse i encountered. I’ve kept that hidden for over 30 years. It is an intense source of shame and pain.
I’ve been trying to find a way to tell my therapist my story, with an appropriate level of detail. It’s hard! She has reassured me numerous times that I don’t need to tell her the details. In fact I don’t need to tell her anything as I find it extremely hard to say the words. They literally catch in my throat and I stammer and choke. I cannot read or write or speak the word R*pe.
She has spoken about solution focused therapy, where we don’t talk about what happened at all, just what life would like like if the therapy was completed and I was “over it”. She likens it to looking at the sun. It hurts to look directly at it. Maybe now again glance to make sure it’s there, but don’t look directly at it to save yourself from permanent damage. She says she worries that I will retraumatise myself by talking about it.
I fear that maybe she doesn’t want to hear it. That shes not ready for it. I think maybe this is because the one time I tried as a child to tell mum she wasn’t ready to hear it and it was dismissed. I don’t know if she is trying to protect me or herself. And while I am struggling hugely with the telling of my story, I feel a compulsion to tell it. I feel like I need to take back control by deciding who knows what and on what time scale.
My question is this… In your experience, when processing and dealing with this issue, is it best to leave the specifics out and just focus on the after effects rather than what happened. Can someone process and heal without talking about it? Or is it better to take it apart bit by bit and deal with it fully?
I really hope you will choose me as I have been desperate to find the courage to look at this for thirty years, and now I have I want to get it right, because I know I won’t have the strength to do this twice.
Glad you’re thinking about this. It’s scary, but it’s clearly important to you and I’m proud of you for honoring your instinct that is telling you that you maybe should pay attention to it.
I can’t fully comment on what your therapist is thinking, because I haven’t been the one treating you. There could be signs that it would be very very rough on you to talk about it and she is just being sensitive to that, but in general the idea of retraumatizing you is not as much of a risk as you might think. I couldn’t say if your therapist is afraid about your trauma, but I doubt it. That’s something that we should be trained to deal with. It could be outside of her main comfort zone and area of expertise, but I wouldn’t expect it to be something that she is worried about. So there is always a chance that she feels that clinically, you are in a place where it would be too intense to dive into the topic and is trying to help you understand that by whatever words she can come up with, but again I don’t know.
I think there is a ton of bravery in your desire to finally share and unpack your story. You should think about this as a type of exposure activity. To reduce the trauma symptoms and anxiety that you feel from these memories, you need to be exposed to them. Our memories are very fluid. Every time we recall something, we store it back in our memories in a different way.
Right now, you trauma memories are stored in a very threatening way. It feels like they are happening all over again when you are triggered by something. By continually addressing them and not avoiding the unpleasantness involved, you can actually store them with new information and insight. You can store them in a way that feels more like a movie scene and less like a virtual reality simulation. In your case, it would probably be wise to not jump in head first, though. You would want to take a more systematic approach.
When you develop a hierarchy or a courage ladder in exposure treatment, you start with the lowest level than can cause you a moderate amount of anxiety. For instance, if someone has a phobia of driving, they might start with talking about cars in general or maybe looking at pictures of cars or people driving. If that creates a moderate level of anxiety, but it’s not going to drive them to full panic freak out, that’s a good starting point. Then you gain exposure to that level for extended periods of time until your body stops reacting and it becomes fairly easy to endure. After that you go up a notch and make it more intense. You continue working in this way until you are able to do the actual thing.
So for right now, you might not want to dive into specifics and tell the entire story, but maybe you want to start with talking about trust issues or trauma in general or describe how it makes you feel. Develop some ideas with your therapist as a starting point. You can build toward telling the actual story once you achieve some mastery over these other steps. You will want to pace yourself and make sure that you have built up some good skills and coping strategies so that you don’t completely unravel at each step. I know that you want to do this on your time, but there is no timeline for this. Push yourself, but don’t rush yourself.
If you feel like your therapist doesn’t know what she’s doing in this regard or can’t seem to move forward in a way that you are satisfied with, it may be worth looking into a therapist that works specifically with trauma clients. They would be very well equipped to guide you through this process.
The last thing I want to address is your last point – that you need to do this right because you won’t be able to handle it twice. You are engaging in some thinking traps here. Namely black and white thinking. Anxiety wants you to think that you have one shot at everything and that if you mess it up, you are screwed forever. That is not the case.
You can tackle this bit by bit and if you attempt to tell your story to someone and aren’t able to, that does not mean that you cannot try again. In fact, you may need to take a few tries before the words actually come out. That’s normal.
I am interested in hearing your insight regarding the differences between working memory and processing speed. I have experienced difficulty in both of these areas ever since I was really young. One of the most frustrating aspects of this is being unable to solve math computations problems automatically. I become extremely embarrassed when someone randomly asks me for the answer of a math problem and I am unable to provide an answer automatically. Based on what I have shared with you regarding my struggles as a result of being born three months prematurely and having a diagnosis of acquired hydrocephalus, could the difficulties I endure with working memory and processing speed result from the brain bleed I developed shortly after I was born? Are there strategies I could use to help compensate for those weaknesses? I greatly appreciate any insight you could provide. Thanks!
Thanks for the good question. I like these sort of nuts and bolts technical questions sometimes. This is related to what I do in my day job as a neuropsychologist.
So let’s start with processing speed – it’s very much what it sounds like. It’s just the speed with which you can think. It’s measured by having someone do basic tasks, but do them quickly – usually timed. For example you might have someone connect number dots as fast as possible. Working memory is basically a type of short term memory. It’s your ability to temporarily hold information in your mind and manipulate it.
Your example of mental math is a perfect example. If you think about it, that requires you to temporarily hold on to the numbers and change them around before providing some kind of output. One of the ways this is measured is by having someone repeat numbers backward.
Both of these are fundamental skills that underlie a lot of real life situations. Processing speed can also influence working memory. If your brain is working more slowly, it can affect your ability so quickly manipulate information, which is more taxing on working memory. I’ll talk a little bit about your condition as well. I’ve taken a question from you on the podcast before, but I’m not sure how much I’ve gone into the specifics of what happened to you.
The brain has hollow cavities inside it called ventricles. This is where cerebrospinal fluid is produced and it circulates from then throughout your brain and spinal chord. When you have hydrocephalus, there is an excess build up of this fluid in the hollow spaces, which causes them to enlarge. When the ventricles enlarge, the brain has nowhere to go, so it gets squished against the skull. Typically hydrocephalus can be treated with a shunt, which drains the fluid to either another part of the brain or another part of the body like the abdomen.
Hydrocephalus can cause difficulties. Some of the most common difficulties in hydrocephalus are attention and working memory. Brain bleeds can also definitely cause impairment, it just depends on the location within the brain.
The difficulties that you are describing are typically in the frontal lobe area of the brain. That’s where you get your working memory, but also your multitasking ability, your ability to filter out distractions, and your organizational skills. Processing speed can also be impacted by that area of the brain, but is also influenced by the internal part of your brain called the subcortical region. The subcortical part of your brain has all of the interconnections between your different lobes, so it influences how efficient your brain works.
For instance, when people get older, they tend to decrease in processing speed. That’s because the blood vessels in the subcortical space become less elastic and tend to break and rupture more often.
In terms of strategies, it is possible to improve a bit with practice, but it’s also important to recognize the limitation that is there and adapt to it. You may never be able to take in information and quickly process it as easily as your peers, but that doesn’t mean that you will necessarily not be able to understand – it just takes some time to digest. So it may be important to make sure you have that time.
Working memory deficits often lead to being overwhelmed when there are too many things to keep track of. Instead of trying to hold everything in your brain at once, this is where lists can come in or handling one task at a time.
In terms of things you can do to improve – as funny as it sounds, if you don’t play video games, that might be a good hobby to pick up. There has been some research that has shown that playing video games can lead to improvements in speed of processing and working memory (specifically visual working memory).It is also helpful to pick up new hobbies or learn new skills because it forces your brain to think in a different way, which can increase efficiency.