Finding the right balance


Ellie Lathrop, MSW, RSW

As in many things in life, striking the right balance is an ongoing process. As a parent of two teenagers, right now my kids are 13 and 17, I know this all too well. This is also something that comes up often in my work with teenagers and parents. As a social worker on a hospital psychiatry team I regularly see teens and parents who are in conflict with one another. Very often, when we sit down together, both parents and the teen express feeling disconnected from each other. Asked about their hopes for therapy and I will often hear a wish for better communication and more respect, from everyone in the family. But as a parent it is often difficult to know what to do in any particular moment. Should I leave her alone in her room or go and talk to her? Do we let him stay home or insist he goes to school?

Adolescence is all about autonomy, finding out who you are and in many cases that means challenging parental authority or experimentation. As a parent you want to maintain a good relationship with your teen, but how can you get close when they keep pushing away. A common phrase from my 13 year old right now is “leave me alone!”. As a parent there is a sense of loss when your kids don’t run to greet you at the door any more, let alone want to spend time with you. They still need you but only seem to want to talk to you when that need is financial.

Keeping the lines of communication open and finding a balance between supporting your teen’s independence and making sure they are safe is a lot of work. I will often say to parents that during adolescence the only leverage you have with your teenager is your relationship, so that is worth investing in. You want to be someone who they will come to for advice. Knowing what you need from one another and how you can feel like you are on the same side, is a process, but it is worth the effort.

I’m just joining the Counselling for Toronto Teens Centre and really looking forward to working along with Jessica and Matthew. I know we will be working together on the ongoing practice of striving for balance. Hope to speak with you soon, Ellie

Emotionally Focused Family Therapy training event

I’m delighted to announced that Wendy Gage and I are coordinating an Emotionally Focused Family Therapy (EFFT) training event for two days in June.

Here are some details…

Trainer:  Gail PalmerGail PalmerGail Palmer is a well-known and respected trainer in the Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) community.  She is the primary trainer for both couple and family therapists in Ontario.  She also trains therapists internationally.  Gail is also Sue Johnson’s (author of Hold Me Tight and Love Sense) right-hand person in The Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (ICEEFT).

Location:  Leonard Hall @ Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, 5 Hoskin Ave.

Dates and times:  June 10th & 11th, 2016 from 9am to 4:45pm

For flyer and/or registration form:  email me at

Please pass on the word to GP Psychotherapists, Psychologists, Psychotherapists, Social workers, Mental Health Practitioners, Community Workers, Teachers, Youth Workers, Pastors, etc.

Hold Me Tight/Let Me Go – a workshop for parents and teens

Flyer for Family HMT August 2015

It’s up and running.  This is the first Hold Me Tight/Let Me Go workshop in Canada.  It’s been developed by Drs. Paul and Nancy Aikin who are clinical psychologists from Davis, California.  They are currently writing a Hold Me Tight book for families.

They’re going to be running this workshop and this is likely the only time they’ll be in Canada to run it themselves.  So this is an AMAZING opportunity for parents and teens.

Please consider coming yourself.  We’ve set the cost low to keep it accessible.  Please also let other parents know.

Another couple’s retreat

This is Jessica, owner and therapist, Toronto Counselling Centre for Teens.  I’ve encouraged my other therapists to write something to post on this blog.  So far it’s just me.

The post below is from my general practice site,  I’ve included it as a couples retreat will also be something relevant to the parents who come to this site.  The couples retreat is based on a book called Hold me Tight by Sue Johnson.  It’s a great book and I recommend it to all couples.  It works with Emotion Focused Therapy which is an attachment-based therapy.  The good news is that there is a Hold Me Tight book for families in the works.  Also, Terry Noble and I, are investigating the possibility of hosting Hold Me Tight retreats for families.  I will keep you posted on those developments.  Until then, here is the information for the couples retreat:

Terry Noble and I are hosting another Hold Me Tight retreat for couples.  As we’ve seen incredible growth, healing and connection happen at these retreats, we’re now committed to hosting them twice annually.

This one will be held again at the Kingfisher Bay Retreat on Stony Lake from Friday October 16 to Sunday October 18, 2015.

We have space for eight couples.

Here’s the poster:

Poster for October 2015

If you’d like a registration form, please email me at

Emotion affirming families vs. emotion dismissing families


Jessica Zeyl, Certified Canadian Counsellor

Once again this is Jessica, owner and therapist at Toronto Counselling Centre for Teens, writing this blog entry.  This blog entry is also posted to my private practice blog here.

John Gottman is a couples researcher and therapist trainer.  He writes a number of books that are popular and available online as well as at most book stores.  There are also a number of videos posted of him on youtube.  I like him.  I appreciate his quirky approach and his commitment to research.  In his early research days he used to get couples to fight and he hooked them up to a number of machines that would measure their movements, heart rate, etc.  Now he has a love lab in Seattle where there is an apartment that couples stay in and they are monitored for research.

There’s an important part of his research that I want to highlight today.  He looks at a variety of aspects of couples, what hinders them from relating and what helps them to relate.  One of the areas he looks into is their families of origin.

He (as well as others) have focused on two types of families: emotion affirming families and emotion dismissing families.

Let’s start with emotion dismissing families.  There is a range of qualities or behaviours that you might find in an emotion dismissing family.  These families believe that a person can decide or will what they will feel.  Action is favoured over self reflection.  You’ll hear phrases used like “suck it up”, “roll with the punches”, etc. in these families.  Having needs is usually bad.  Feeling or reflecting on sadness, anger or fear is a waste of time.  Children in these families become effective at compartmentalizing/suppressing emotion.  Parents are quick to correct behaviours and emotions.

Emotion affirming families, by contrast, tend to believe that emotions are a guide on how to manage life.  Emotions can’t be decided, they simply just exist and they contain information about a person and their situation.  Self reflection is encouraged and understanding emotion is the basis for action or making decisions.  They believe that all feelings are acceptable, but not all behaviour is acceptable.  In these families a variety of words are used to describe emotion.  Knowing one’s needs is considered a strength.  Parents are quick to praise positive behaviour.

Some families will fall under one of these two categories.  Some families will have some sort of blend of the two categories.

Which one is better?  The answer isn’t simple.  There are situations where it is helpful to favour action over self reflection and, of course, situations where the reverse is true.

In general, however, the research indicates that emotion affirming families (as opposed to emotion dismissing families) produce children that grow up to feel more secure in the world and are more likely to have satisfying relationships.

So both John Gottman and I are inclined to encourage families to be emotion affirming families.  For me, this is informed by my years of experience as a therapist.  I have worked with countless people who are quite effective at suppressing their emotions and it causes them a lot of problems.  In my opinion, people who suppress their emotions tend to either cut themselves or have high levels of depression and/or anxiety.  They also have little sense of how to trust their own intuition.  They can struggle in intimate relationships with having the language or understanding of how to talk about the relationship itself.

If possible, I like to end blog entries on a hopeful note.  This is because in every situation there is the possibility for some level of empowerment and positive change.  When thinking about the families we come from or the families we are parenting, the good news is that people from all types of families can heal, grow and adapt.

The descriptions of both types of families are paraphrased from Gottman’s chapter in the Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy Fourth Edition edited by Alan S. Gurman.



Jessica Zeyl, CCC

This is Jessica Zeyl, owner and therapist at Toronto Counselling Centre for Teens, writing this blog entry.

We’ve seen a lot in the news about the tragic consequences of bullying.  Bullying has also gotten so much more complex and devastating with the presence of the internet and social media.  While I wish the tragic circumstances of the bullying cases that hit the news had not happened in the first place, I am grateful for the raised awareness that has come with the media response to these cases.

In the various capacities I have worked as a therapist, I have helped both teens and adults that have been bullied.  Many of them don’t even know that what happened to them was bullying.  It has broken my heart to work with people in their 50s and 60s who are still trying to sort out the effect bullying has had on their lives.  One of the reasons I love working with teens who have experienced bullying (both the bullies as well as those bullied) is that they can sort some of this out sooner and be spared the years and years of pain that the adults I have worked with have had.

We as people tend to believe the things we are told.  I heard someone explain once that self esteem is the esteem of others.  That is a bit simplistic, but it holds a lot of truth.

People who are bullied tend believe what the bullies tell them.  In fact, many of them start to beat up on themselves with the same criticisms as the bullies.  They continue to beat up on themselves (often without realizing it) long past their time with the bullies, sometimes even after they forget the names of those who bullied them.  Why do people beat up on themselves like this?  Here’s my theory: it is somehow less overwhelming to be criticized by yourself than it is to be criticized by someone else.  If you can anticipate someone’s criticism (by criticizing yourself first) and adjust yourself around it before they notice, then you could avoid the criticism and protect yourself.  It is a creative way to cope with the situation while the situation is happening.

The problem is that we form ourselves and our identities in a way that’s interconnected with our ways of coping.  So our ways of coping tend to last.  And criticizing yourself as a way of coping, perhaps even more ruthlessly than the bullies did in the first place, is helpful in the moment and devastatingly harmful in the long run.

The good news is that it can change.  People who are critical with themselves, who even hate themselves, can learn to love themselves and be gentle with themselves.

So this blog entry ended up being more about those who are bullied than about those who bully.  I’ll say this briefly about those who bully.  There are often sad circumstances involved that have taught those who bully that the only two options/roles/ways of being are to be an oppressor or a victim.  Usually they learn this by being the victim or being close to a victim and the only way not to be a victim (when your relationships are organized as theirs are) is to be the oppressor.

One last comment…  I have a friend who is a grade six teacher in one of the Greater Toronto Area boards/regions.  She has been involved with anti-bullying initiatives and training.  The teachers who have taken up this cause are teaching kids that the power to change the situation lies with the bystanders.  (Who often don’t step in for fear of the consequences to themselves).  Kids are now being taught that there is no such thing as a neutral witness and are being encouraged to step in.  I cried when she told me this because I know and care about many clients that would have been saved decades of pain had someone stepped in.  I’m also aware that if a good number of kids really, really get this concept and run with it, it could be a game changer in our culture for generations to come.