By Mike McMahan, LPC
We all play roles in our life, and this is something that a therapist can explore with clients. How do our behavior and feelings change when we are in parenting mode versus work mode? It’s also something that can be explored (in a subtle fashion) with children. But if you can explore playing roles, can it be done via role-playing games?
I must confess, this article from Kotaku, which discusses the possibility of playing Dungeons & Dragons as a way for therapists to engage clients, is pretty much my favorite thing in some time. If you view your life as a story, what better way to shape and explore than through a world of fantasy in which all interactions and situations are controllable within the therapy room? There are a lot of possibilities with thus, both literally and metaphorically. On the literal front, it is a way to explore social interactions and “what would you do in this scenario” for any number of social situations. For clients who need help with day-to-day social interactions, their character can go to a shop and practice buying swords and magic items. As the article points out, this benefit may be magnified for clients with autism who struggle with social skills. For clients who need help with decision making, the therapist can help their “character” (wink wink) learn to weigh the pros and cons of making a certain decision and later explore what the benefits and consequences of that decision were.
Another possible benefit not explored in the above article is character creation itself. This can be a way for kids to reflect on their strengths and how to apply them. “Are you better at being strong or being smart? What makes you say that?” Kids respond well to this sort of concrete thinking.
So, if you aren’t a D&D player yourself (or, if you’re like me, you were a player as a kid and only remember endless arguing), what can you do with this to help you parent? Rory’s Story Cubes can accomplish many of the same things with less effort on parent’s part. And it is also applicable to younger children. I have used this type of thing a number of times with clients and it has never failed to produce results; this applies to younger kids and those who are intellectually and developmentally disabled.
So get out your swords, your gold pieces and your Monster Manuals and Fiend Folios. Let’s go on a quest…
Mike McMahan, LPC, is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
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In A Great Move, Disney’s Beauty And The Beast Will Include A Gay Character. How Will You Discuss With Your Kids?
By Mike McMahan, LPC
Huge kudos, thumbs up and all the rest to Disney for their announcement that the new live action Beauty and the Beast starring Hermione Granger herself will include an openly gay character. There are a lot of reasons that this is positive, many of which I discussed previously when advocating for #GiveElsaAGirlfriend. In the most predictable move ever, Christian social conservatives are not one bit happy. I know this goes against their values, but, really; it's not as if this is going to be some sort of explicit sex scene. It's Disney.
I’ve tried to more or less stay away from politics on this blog, because, let’s face it: there’s a million other places to discuss this and virtually every site in the world is Trump 24/7—love him or hate him. But the field of psychology is very pro-LGBTQ, as am I personally. But I also understand that the issue of homosexuality can be tricky to address with kids; as can, frankly, any issue of sex or sexuality. So how to discuss this matter with children, especially younger ones?
I am a big fan of books, and the best one that I know of concerning LGBTQ families is And Tango Makes Three, the charming story of a penguin with two dads. What I like about this book (besides everything) is that the fact that Tango has two dads isn’t a huge issue. It just is. That sort of normalizing is a perfect way to address an issue with kids without beating them over the head with it.
Another option is just to be open with kids. Though I am not gay, I do have LGBTQ friends, family and co-workers; as, I’m sure, the social conservatives railing against this film do. When my daughter, who is almost five, met a friend and colleague who is lesbian, I mentioned that she was getting married. When my daughter asked me about it, I responded that “mostly boys fall in love with and marry girls, and mostly girls fall in love with and marry boys. But sometimes boys fall in love with boys and girls fall in love with girls.”
Her response? “Oh.” Talk over.
Someday we will get to a place where this will be virtually everyone’s reaction. We’re getting there now, but we aren’t all the way there, clearly. The Bible is currently being used as the key argument against homosexuality, just as it was in the not-too-distant past, when interracial marriage was much more controversial (and much less common) than it is now. And when we hit that point, it won’t be news that there are gay characters. But we aren’t there yet. And for those LGBTQ youth who are scared and isolated, Disney’s move is an important step in letting them know they’re loved just like all children should be and deserve to be.
Mike McMahan, LPC is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
By Mike McMahan, LPC
It’s been said that there are only seven basic plots in the world. While this is intended to apply to novels, given that we build narratives in our own lives, there is no reason that it should not apply to narrative therapy. I previously discussed the idea that we can change our own story with a few carefully considered “edits”. If our life has a plot, there needs to be a villain; in this case, that villain will be a monster. For that reason, the plot that will be considered in this post is “Overcoming the Monster.”
A few weeks ago, I had the real pleasure of attending a signing and talk from author Justin Cronin, whose recently completed Passage trilogy is one of the best horror/fantasy reads in years. He hosted a Q&A session prior to signing, and talked about the origins of the book, noting that there are “only four kinds of monsters: zombies, werewolves, vampires and frankensteins.” I’m sure someone can dispute the veracity of this claim (hello? Elmo, duh) but I agree that this group of four makes up the vast majority of monsters. Please note I don’t consider witches to be monsters—so strike that one off the list. For The Passage, Cronin chose vampires, but if you observed that his vampires act a lot like zombies, you wouldn’t be wrong. So, in a way, Cronin had his cake and ate it too. While there may be four archetypal monsters, they can be mashed up in new and creative ways. I mean, mummies are basically zombies wrapped in toilet paper, right?
Language usage can play a very important part in the therapeutic process. Even subtle shifts in self-description can play a role in how a client perceives themselves. For example consider the very common statement: “I’m bipolar.” This suggests a person who sees a psychiatric diagnosis as a core part of their being. On the other hand, I always describe clients facing these types of challenges as “a person with a bipolar diagnosis.” This captures a client’s essential humanity as well as giving them room to think about their qualities outside of their diagnosis. Consider also the difference between “my child is autistic” versus “my child has an autism diagnosis.” Yes, there is no “cure” for autism, but with skill building and patient parenting, children with autism can certainly lead rewarding and fulfilling lives.
There is a technique used in psychotherapy called externalization. It is basically what it sounds like—a way to help clients stop thinking of their problems as an intrinsic part of who they are. This builds on the idea that a person is not defined by their problems but, instead that their problems are something that can be overcome and not necessarily a set-in-stone, permanent thing. Going back to the example of monsters that opened this piece provides an opening that can be especially effective with child or adolescent clients. Though I love fantasy type shows, books and movies as much as anyone, there is an undeniable appeal to adolescents. The idea of monsters as metaphors for teenage challenges was used to tremendous success on the long-running TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Once we accept this idea, the possibilities for narrative therapeutic techniques are virtually endless. Imagine a teenager with a mood disorder such as depression or bipolar disorder. Externalization can be used to help this young person get outside of the idea that they “can’t” overcome the challenges faced by the symptoms of this diagnosis. Questions such as “what is your depression stopping you from doing?” or “what will your life be like when you kick depression out?” are helpful in getting started.
Externalization may, as well, be useful to this process. The diagnosis can be renamed as a monster. It’s not depression—it’s a werewolf that takes control of you every so often and causes you to feel and act different than you might if you weren’t under the influence of depression. This allows the possibility that the illness/monster may be defeated. For example, a silver bullet is known to kill werewolves. So a therapist might ask “what is the silver bullet that will help you defeat the werewolf?” Having used this technique extensively myself answers can range from “being more involved in activities,” “exercising,” “not listening to what the other kids say” and more.
So keep in mind, you are NOT your problems, even though they may cause you distress and create obstacles in your life. What kind of monsters are you facing down?
Mike McMahan, LPC is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
By Mike McMahan, LPC
There has been a push by progressive-leaning folks online for Queen Elsa, one of the main characters in Disney’s beloved Frozen, to identify as lesbian in the anticipated sequel and to have an on-screen love interest. I fully support this idea.
Lesbian and gay people have gained more and more acceptance in society as they have taken on more visible, public roles. This shift is very evident in pop culture as well. I remember a time when no one blinked that Eddie Murphy had a track on one of his stand-up albums called “Faggots” (he has since apologized for these jokes). And did you know that the Beastie Boys considered calling the classic Licensed To Ill album Don’t Be A Faggot? Thankfully, for the Beastie Boys, the record company refused to release the album under this title (the one time a record company refusal to release something actually worked out well for everyone, just sayin’). It’s safe to say that, had the LP been released under this title, it would have been reissued at some point with an alternate title. Whether the Beasties would still have been the icons of progressive values that they are now is pure guesswork.
In 1997, it was a major news story when Ellen DeGeneres came out, and the titular character on her sitcom, Ellen, came out at the same time. It will be interesting to see how history regards DeGeneres, especially now that the fight for things like marriage equality has been christened “the new civil rights movement.” She took a lot of risk in doing what she did and, though she has been highly successful in the time since, there were no guarantees at that time. She literally risked her career.
My personal feeling is that as more LGBT people have come out, many of us have gotten to know them as people. It’s very common these days to have gay family members and co-workers, which has led to the shocking realization (gasp!) that they’re people just like everyone else. This, in turn, led to the relatively quick turnaround from the popularity of Defense of Marriage Acts in the early 2000s to the Supreme Court’s landmark decision recognizing marriage equality in all 50 states.
The CDC has identified numerous health issues associated with homophobia. For example, gay and lesbian youth who’s families reject or resist their child’s sexual orientation are eight times more likely to have attempted suicide and six times more likely to report high levels of depression. Having a lesbian Disney princess will undoubtedly reduce homophobia, as it normalizes being gay and reminds kids that LGBT people are just like other kids, only they happen to fall in love with people of their own gender.
The field of psychology strongly supports LGBT rights. Recently the American Counseling Association cancelled a convention in Nashville in protest of a law that allows counselors to refuse LGBT clients on religious grounds. In addition, the American Psychological Association has issued a statement condemning conversion therapy, which seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation from gay to straight. While the field of psychology as a whole now strongly supports LGBT equality, that was not always the case. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which describes criteria for diagnosis of different psychiatric illnesses, listed homosexuality as a “mental disorder” up until its third edition, which was published in 1980(!).
Which brings us up to now. Disney has made strides to be progressive, including having their iconic princesses come from minority groups. In addition, Frozen itself laid waste to the idea of “love at first sight.” Who wants to end up with someone as two-faced as Prince Hans? So, perhaps, as the idea of a Frozen sequel continues to gain steam, it was only natural that there would be a push for Elsa (conspicuously single in the first film) to have a love interest and for Disney to bring another formerly disenfranchised minority to the forefront: members of the LGBT community.
In a previous post, I discussed the possibility that Elsa was suffering from depression, symbolized by her isolation in a castle of ice. This symbolism could just as easily be applied to the idea that she feels isolation due to having to hide her sexual orientation. After all, she does have a power that she has to hide under gloves. Even actress Idina Menzel, who voiced Elsa in the first film, supports the idea. So what’s the problem?
Well, that depends on who you ask. As expected, this proposal has generated a significant amount of controversy and sparked a counter-movement, composed of those who do not support this idea. I support free speech, discussion and understand that people have a right to their opinion. That said, these arguments are largely based on religious objections. I don’t want to make this a discussion about religion and morality, so I’ll just say that while I respect the role that religion plays in people’s life and understand that it can be a source of strength, I don’t believe these arguments are a valid reason to deny people things like basic respect, civil rights or health insurance.
Another objection (or question) that will arise from parents is “how did I discuss this with my kids?” In my opinion, this is a valid question, but let’s put it in perspective. This is a Disney film, not an R-rated adult film or a piece of pornography. At the most there is going to be a kiss between Elsa and her girlfriend. My suggestion would be that this discussion be similar to any other discussion about adult matters such as sex. Children of different ages will have different sorts of questions, and what parents feel is age-appropriate will vary from family to family. I always recommend books as a way to explore issues with your kids. An excellent book on this subject is And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson. This book (which is based on a true story) is a very family friendly title that has two male penguins falling in love, but is more or less just like any other family story about two parents welcoming a beloved child into the world.
As the father of a four-year-old and a man who has gay friends and co-workers, I have told my daughter “most of the time boys fall in love with girls, but sometimes girls fall in love with girls and boys fall in love with boys.” As homosexuality continues to be more accepted in our society, it is likely that your kids will have friends who have same-sex parents. I myself have worked with several same-sex couples who have children. The definition of family is changing and evolving with the times. I hope Disney takes a huge next step and does the same.
Mike McMahan, LPC, is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Texas.
Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture