The Connected Family Podcast
How to NOT Talk To Your Teenager About Sex With Author Melissa Hopper

How to NOT Talk To Your Teenager About Sex With Author Melissa Hopper

October 19, 2020

Dr. Mark Vander Ley interviews Melissa Hopper author of "Can We Not Talk".  The Can We (Not) Talk? journaling study is a totally not-awkward way to have meaningful conversations with your teen about the topics that matter. As parents and teens work through the lessons in their workbooks and journal, they will be prepared to have discussions on topics like love, healthy relationships, boundaries, standards, pornography, and more.

Melissa is a homeschooling mother of four and the Director of Community Education at her local pregnancy center.  In her professional life she facilitates conservative and legally compliant sex education to over 6,000 California students per year.  She also offers resources related to parenting, public health, safety and more.  At home Melissa cares for her four children, enjoys spending time with her husband, gardening, road trips, and time in nature.

To find out more information about Melissa and her studies visit Instilled Studies

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The 4 Core Fears of Parenting

The 4 Core Fears of Parenting

October 12, 2020

Why does a person get angry?  What is it about a child’s behavior that can cause a parent to lose control?  Parents get angry and lose control with their children when they experience stress or anxiety above their levels of tolerance.  Typically, when parents experience this level of stress, one of their four core fears—danger, failure, loss of love, and loss of control— has been triggered by their children’s behavior.  Often, the end result of this fear is the parent’s extreme emotional response to the situation.  Learning to identify and better understanding the impact of these fears in our parenting helps us learn to maintain better personal control with our children.

Danger: The fear of their child being hurt, emotionally or physically.  Parents who experience this core fear feel anxious when their child takes risks or is out of their sight.  The most common way of relieving this anxiety is to protect.  These parents have a hard time maintaining personal control when their efforts to protect are being avoided by the child.

Failure: The fear of failing as a parent, or their child failing as an adult.  Parents who experience this core fear work hard to make their child a success and have a hard time maintaining personal control when their child’s behavior seems to work against them.

Loss of love: The fear of losing their child’s love.  Parents who experience this core fear may rely on their child for feelings of affirmation and value.  In times of trial they feel abandoned, alone, and betrayed by their child and may struggle to maintain personal control.

Loss of control:  The fear of losing control of their child or the situation.  Parents who experience this core fear see misbehavior as a sign of things to come.  They are afraid that if they don’t get things under control, their child will grow up to be a hardened criminal or worse.


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6 Steps to Forgiving Your Spouse

6 Steps to Forgiving Your Spouse

October 5, 2020

Sometimes in marriage counseling we encounter couples that overcome their demon dialogues, create a new dance of intimacy, and rewrite the story of their relationship.  Yet, just when it appears they will move to a deeper level of connection one partner brings up a seminal incident that they just can’t seem to “let go”.  Susan Johnson describes these hard to let go moments as “relationship traumas” and states that many times they include one partner feeling a profound sense of abandonment.  It may include an overwhelmed husband isolating in his bedroom just after learning about his wife’s cancer diagnosis. Or maybe it involved a wife’s difficulty in showing empathy for the death of her husbands father. 

Susan Johnson offers six steps to forgiveness in these difficult situations

The hurt partner speaks his/her hurt

The hurt partner describes the wound without attacking the other.  The partner may use words like “I felt…alone, abandoned”. This communication is not about the details of the incident but the feelings and experience of the one hurt.  The pain, which in the past had been covered with anger and criticism, is now revealed in honesty and vulnerability.

The injuring partner is present and acknowledges the hurt

The injuring partner remains emotionally present as the hurt partner shares their experience.  The injuring partner now more fully understands how their actions hurt the other.  This new understanding leads to an acknowledgment of hurt and creates the safety needed to move forward.

Partners Risk Vulnerability

Both partners soften towards the other moving from the defensiveness of “you will never hurt me again” to “I think I can trust you now”.  The new position of trust and openness allows for both partners to express emotion surrounding the incident leading to deeper understanding and connection.

Injuring partners take ownership of their mistake

The injuring partner is now able to take full responsibility for how their actions impacted the hurting partner.  This probably includes a heartfelt apology.  The injuring partner is able to communicate deep regret, empathy, validation, and a commitment to “being there” in the future.

Partners discuss their needs now

The next step is for partners to communicate with one another what they need in the present. This will most likely include presence, touch, responsiveness, awareness, and connection.

The new story

The couple is now ready to create a new story surrounding the incident.  The new story describes how the incident damaged trust in the relationship.  It also highlights what led to the demon dialogues.  But, the resolution of the story is shaped by how the couple confronted the pain of the incident and was able to heal through the process of openness, vulnerability, risk, and connection. 


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3 Keys to Restoring Connection With Your Partner

3 Keys to Restoring Connection With Your Partner

September 28, 2020

Find the Bad Guy

This dance occurs when both partners are stuck using attack as a way to protect ones self from feeling vulnerable, alone, or unsafe.  Each partner blames the other for the problem because disconnection has made it unsafe to vulnerably acknowledge ones own responsibility in the problem.  John blames the family’s financial issues on Mary’s irresponsible spending habits, while Mary blames John for not working hard enough to provide for the family.  The pattern is cyclical in that the more one is blamed the more disconnected and unsafe they feel.  The lack of safety puts each partner “on guard” for the attack of the other.  A hypersensitive stance may cause the partners to see threat where there is none.  This leads to more frequent attacks and ever increasing difficulty in resolving conflict.

Protest Polka

The most common pattern encountered in marriage counseling is the pursuer-distancer dynamic or as Susan Johnson calls it the protest polka.  One of the partners protests against the growing disconnection in the marriage by pursuing the other. Many times this pursuit feels more like demanding or criticism to the partner causing them to withdraw.  The more the distancer withdraws the more the pursuer criticizes or protests.  The pursuer is looking for reassurance about questions such as “do you care about me?”, “do I matter to you?”, “am I important” while the distancer is attempting to protect ones self from feelings of inadequacy, not being good enough, and failure.

Freeze and Flee

The final dialogue is one of silence.  Both partners are hunkered down in their respective fox holes and hope is nearly gone.  The pursuer has no more energy to protest and therefore shuts down to protect ones self from hurt and loneliness.  The distancer is finally enjoying some peace but remains disconnected as a way to protect against a sneak attack.  Each partner has tried everything they know to fix the problem but nothing has worked.  They feel frozen, stuck in a dance that brings deeper and deeper hurt; therefore they flee by either leaving the marriage or resigning themselves to a lonely loveless relationship. 



An accessible partner is one that is “there” when reached for.  When feeling alone, scared, and vulnerable we reach out to our loved ones in an attempt to gain comfort and safety.  When a partner is accessible they remain present for their spouse and provide empathy, validation, and compassion.  Although this reaching may come across as anger the responsive spouse views the “reach” as a need driven by hurt and fear.  An accessible spouse sends an implied message of “you are not alone”, “I am here for you” and “we will get through this together”.


A responsive partner is one that is “moved” by the reach of the other.  Sometimes, when we are overwhelmed by someone else’s emotion we hide it, stuff it down, or deny it.  This appears as cold, unresponsive, and distant to a partner in pain.  A responsive partner is able to “feel” the other with a deep understanding of the hurt, loss, and fear.  Understanding ones partner in this way creates a sense of moving toward each other.  The reaching out has worked and the hurting partner experiences reconnection.


An engaged partner is one that has been “moved” by the emotion and pain of his/her partner and stays “in” it.  They are able to maintain the connection with the partner throughout the difficult time.  They do not run away from the powerful emotions, downplay them or seek to minimize them.  An engaged partner is able to feel the emotion while experiencing a safe connection with self and the other. 

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Johnson, S. & Sanderfer, K (2016). Created for connection: The “hold me tight” guide for Christian couples.  New York, NY: Little Brown and Company.


7 Ways To Integrate The Teenage Brain

7 Ways To Integrate The Teenage Brain

September 21, 2020

Dan Siegel (2014) writes about the amazing tumultuous wild wonderful teenage brain describing the radical changes that occur in the brain through the teenage years.  He also writes in his book “Brainstorm: the power and purpose of the teenage brain” (2013) about the four qualities present in teenage minds based on the radical changes that occur in the brain.  He describes novelty seeking, social engagement, increased emotional intensity, and creative exploration as required ingredients for the maturation of an adolescent from child to adult.  He describes an upside and downside to each ingredient. 

The Upside and the Downside of the Teenage Brain

The upside of novelty seeking is a new-found openness to change and passionate living.  The downside is an increase in risk taking and thrill seeking.  The upside to social engagement is a strong desire for connection and relationships with peers and adults. The down-side can be a teen that isolates from adult relationships and focuses solely on the influence of peer relationships.  The up-side of increased emotional intensity is more energy and zest for life, but the downside is impulsivity, moodiness, and volatility.  The upside of creative exploration is increased ability for abstract thinking and pushing against the status quo, the downside is that new forms of abstract thinking can lead to a crisis in identity and self-perception. 

I really appreciate the way that Siegel frames the adolescent developmental period as having upsides and downsides.  He characterizes all the challenges, difficulties, and changes as necessary and wonderful advancements on the road to “integration” (2013).  Integration “the linking of different parts, creates more coordination in the brain itself” (Siegel, 2013, p83) “These more precise and efficient connections in the brain make for wiser judgement and discernments based not on the small details that are without a larger context but on the overall gist that sees the big picture” (Siegel, 2013, p.83).  In the past, adults have spoken about adolescence as a stage to survive rather than a crucial part of a person’s human development.  I think if we, as parents and counselors can change our perspective on this stage of life, those adolescent’s in our care can feel more understood and respected. 

            We have the opportunity to assist teenagers by equipping them with tools and strategies for integration.  Siegel (2013) introduces seven ways to help adolescents develop increased integration.  He lists Time-in, sleep time, focus time, downtime, playtime, Physical time, and connecting time.

7 Ways to integrate the Teenage Brain

Time-In: Time-in, is an intentional period spent reflecting on your inner world.  It is paying close attention to our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, intentions, hopes, dreams, attitude, and longings (Siegel, 2013).  As we consider the amount of time that adolescents spend using social media and other forms of technology it is obvious how important it can be to encourage some time to just sit and notice the inside. 

Sleep Time: Adolescents need about 8.5-9.25 hours of sleep a night for optimal brain growth (Siegel, 2013).  The consequences of lack of sleep include weight gain, decreased memory consolidation (learning), and decreased attention and problem-solving abilities (Siegel, 2013). Helping parents and teens to understand the value of sleep can be a crucial step in helping to regulate mood, conflict and family difficulties.

Focus Time: Time spent in focused attention without distractions and interruptions also contributes to the brain’s development.  Focusing on one thing causes the brain to release the chemicals needed to create new neuro-networks and to “cement” those networks into the brain.  This process is active in learning and therefore, Siegel encourages a movement away from “multi-tasking” and distractions. 

Downtime: Time spent with no mental plan and nothing to accomplish gives the brain a break to recharge.  Setting aside time on a daily basis can assist an adolescent by recharging the brain for the next period of intense focus.

Playtime:  Although often considered only for children, play time both mentally and physically is also important for adolescents.  This time free from outwardly imposed structure and full of spontaneity and creativity allows for exploration of new ideas and experiences (Siegel, 2013).

Physical Time: Siegel (2013) suggests 30-45 minutes of movement and argues that physical activity helps build connections in the brain, improves learning, enhances mood and increases relational connections.

Connecting Time: Taking time to be with friends and family is also crucially important.  Siegel (2013) and many others (i.e. Bowlby, Ainsworth, Rogers) highlight the importance of relational connection for human flourishing.  Providing time to connect in a meaningful way enhances mood stability, and one’s sense of purpose. 


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Siegel, D. (June, 2014). The amazing tumultuous wild wonderful teenage brain. Mindful. P.43-51.

Siegel, D. (2013). Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. New York, NY: Penquin


Developing a Foster Care Community with Kathryn and Adam Adrian

Developing a Foster Care Community with Kathryn and Adam Adrian

September 14, 2020

On this episode of The Connected Family Podcast Dr. Mark Vander Ley talks with Kathryn and Adam Adrian, the founders of Connect Child and Family Solutions.  Adam and Kathryn are foster parents that have developed a passion for the foster community.  After becoming foster parents the couple learned about the number or teams needed to provide excellent care to children, foster families, and biological families.  They also discovered that the existing resources and agencies were doing this excellent work, without adequate resources themselves.  So, they decided to help build the foster care community by filling the gap between foster care families and much needed resources.

Connect Child and Family Solutions partners with existing foster care agencies to prioritize the hearts and minds of children, along with their foster and biological families.  They provide a resource closet to help provide for the basic needs of children as they transition into a foster care placement.  They also provide a foster-friendly space for family visits, classes, support groups, and play dates.


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The Five Empathy Skills that Create Connection

The Five Empathy Skills that Create Connection

September 6, 2020

I have been reading Brene Brown’s leadership book entitled “Dare to Lead”.   If you are familiar with Brene’s work you know that this book is full of talk about vulnerability, empathy, connection, and relationship. So, since we at Connections Family Counseling are passionate about building a community of connected families it makes sense that we would want to share it with you.  “You are going to share a leadership book in hopes of connecting families?”, you ask. Yes, this leadership book outlines in a really understandable way how to create connection using five basic skills of empathy.  It is so powerful it can be used in business leadership and in leading your family. 

What is Empathy?

First of all, we need to know what empathy is. Brene defines it as such, “Empathy is not connecting to an experience, it’s connecting to the emotions that underpin an experience.” (pg 140). Thankfully, we do not have to have the exact same experience as someone else to give empathy, we just have to feel what they are feeling.  Not only that, Brene argues that empathy is an infinite and renewable resource.  The more empathy we give the more we have and as long as we continue to give it we will never run out of it.  

Empathy Skill # 1: To see the world as others see it, or perspective taking.

We all see the world from our own unique perspective.  Our family of origin, nationality, race, gender, knowledge, and experience all influence our view of any given event.  However, empathy begins by seeing the world from another person’s perspective.  Brene Brown says we cannot do this perfectly but we can, “Honor people’s perspectives as truth even when they’re different from ours.” (pg. 143). When we honor the perspective of our partner or child as valid and important no matter how different than ours we are honoring them as people and laying the groundwork for deep meaningful connection. 

Empathy Skill # 2: To be nonjudgmental

We tend to judge others in the areas we feel most susceptible to shame (Brown, 2018) we look for people who are weak in our weak spots and we judge them for it.  This can be extra difficult in a family because we are intimately aware of each other’s weaknesses.  Alfred Adler once observed that children tend to act out the most in correlation to their parents most strongly held values.  If I strongly value success and feel shame when I “fail” I may be easily triggered when my child does not appear motivated or seemingly puts in minimal effort.  I may have a very difficult time nonjudgmentally listening to my child’s struggle with a teacher or school assignment if it goes against my personal values and triggers.  Being aware of my values and shame triggers while enable me to be kinder to myself and my family.

Empathy Skill # 3 and # 4: To understand another person’s feelings and to communicate understanding of that person’s feelings.

In order to feel what another person is feeling we have to be able to identify and articulate feelings.  When a family member is sharing their experience listening for the feelings that underlie the experience and reflecting them back is key to empathy.  I often encourage people to imagine what they would feel in the situation, come up with a feeling word and say, “you feel…”.  When we use this approach, we risk being wrong. BUT, if we are right our family member feels heard, if we are wrong they can correct us and as long as we accept the correction we move to a place of deeper understanding and connection. 

Empathy Skill # 5: Pay attention 

Brown (2018) challenges leaders to pay close attention to their internal signals (e.g. heart rate, posture, thoughts) so as to give proper attention to feelings without getting swept up in them.  If we feel empathy and get swept away in our family members feelings we tend to lose connection with the person.  If we are overwhelmed by the feelings and move way our family member may feel abandoned and not “seen”.  Paying attention helps us to balance feeling with a family member and caring for ourselves while maintaining connection to the person. 



How to Help Your Child Develop Emotional Intelligence

How to Help Your Child Develop Emotional Intelligence

August 30, 2020

What is the most important thing you hope to teach your son before he turns 18? Many parents focus on skills like, driving a car, spending money wisely, working hard, or study habits.  But, research seems to show that teaching our sons emotional intelligence may be the most important thing we do. 

In 2003 researchers at Yale University studied a group of college age students and found that as emotional intelligence goes up so do positive relationships with others. These researchers also found that the ability for a person to manage their own emotions is closely related to positive interactions with others. 

The same group of researchers later discovered that Lower levels of EI are associated with adolescent risk taking behaviors like use of illegal drugs, consumption of alcohol, and deviant behavior.

So, what is emotional intelligence?  There is some disagreement about the exact definition but the one that I find most helpful can be summarized like this:  

Emotional Intelligence is,

  1. The ability to Perceive Emotions
  2. The ability to Utilize emotions to facilitate thought
  3. The ability to Understand emotions
  4. The ability to Regulate emotions of self and others

So, What are some ways that parents can help their son to learn emotional intelligence?  Here are my thoughts

  1. Focus on Connection

The research about how children develop emotional intelligence shows that it is passed on through connection with parents.  Those parents that use an authoritative parenting style (balance between control and empathy) have children with higher levels of emotional intelligence.  Sometimes our fast paced culture encourages parents to get their children involved in activities that will enhance their brains and build their resume.  What research shows, however, is that it is “us” that matter, the time spent connecting over low cost activities enhance our children’s lives.  So, build connection with your son by using the basic listening skills (I wrote about them here).  Play their favorite board game one evening a week.  Schedule them to cook dinner for the family one night and help them through the process.  Spend a few minutes talking about the day before shutting off their bedroom light for the night.  

  1. Focus on Perception of Emotions

Help your son to understand that other people’s behavior is a clue to all that is happening on the inside. Your son can learn about how to interpret facial expression, body language, tone of voice, and other communication from you.  You can help him to accurately perceive emotions by guessing at what you think he is feeling and expressing it verbally (ex. You are angry) if you are correct he feels heard and now has a word for what he was just feeling on the inside.  If you are incorrect he can tell you and therefore clarify his feelings for himself and for you.  It is also very helpful when you verbalize what you are feeling in the moment with your child.  If you have lost your keys you might say, “I am really starting to get frustrated” when you experience a setback at work you might say, “I am disappointed that…” The bottom line is; help him to perceive his own feelings by verbalizing them for him and then discussing it, help him to perceive what others are feeling by sharing your feelings in the moment.

  1. Focus on Managing Emotions of Self

Again, the best way to help your son learn to manage his emotions is to be good at managing yours.  Modeling appropriate emotional reactions to normal and difficult situations shows him exactly how to do it.  For younger children games like red light/green light are helpful.  Older children can learn skills like belly breathing, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques. Additionally, the way you listen can be a very powerful way to co-regulate your child, which enables them to learn to regulate emotions by experiencing the process with you. (read about it here).

Emotional intelligence is one of the most important skills that a boy can learn.  You can help him to learn it by focusing on connection, perception of emotions, and managing emotions of the self. 

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Five Ways to Help Your Son with Anger

Five Ways to Help Your Son with Anger

August 23, 2020

Validate his feelings

Anger is a very powerful emotion. Many times anger is expressed on the outside when on the inside he is feeling sadness.  Acknowledging your sons anger helps him to feel heard and can actually decrease the intensity of its expression.  When you say, “you are really angry about this” it communicates to your son that you understand him therefore he can decrease the expression of the anger because you recognize it.

Listen without judgment

Validating feelings begins by listening and seeking to understand his perspective without judgment.  The temptation is to correct misperceptions or misunderstandings however this is not helpful.  Correcting perceptual mistakes only communicates that you don’t understand HIS perspective.  When your son realizes that you “get it” from his perspective the anger will decrease and you become an ally in the problem solving process.  When you are his ally in problem solving you can ask questions that provoke thought and reflection encouraging him to find conclusions and solutions to his own problems. 

Give YOURSELF a Timeout

Sometimes the hardest thing about having a son that expresses lots of anger is managing your feelings in the moment.  Sons can say hurtful things, your fears may be triggered, or you may be afraid for your family’s safety.  In this situation, give YOURSELF a timeout.  The issue does not have to be resolved right now, give your son some space (as long as everyone is safe) this space allows for all parties to calm down, think things through and make better decisions.  After sufficient time has passed reconnect with your son, apologize for any mistakes you made and start over by using suggestions 1 and 2 from this list. 

Practice Self-regulation

Large expressions of anger are a clue to you about how “powerfully” your son is feeling his anger.  Sometimes, he will have a difficult time calming down, or keeping his “bottle from bursting”.  These times of feeling out of control are normal for a boy that is still learning to self-regulate.  You can help him to learn to self-regulate by modeling calmness, using controlled breathing, and practicing mindfulness.

Set Limits

One of the major challenges parents encounter in the face of their sons anger is maintaining family limits when things get really heated.  It is important that you calmly, and consistently set limits on behavior in the home.  These calm and consistent limits allow your son to know “how far he can go” in expressing himself.  He will push up against them and test them but when you calmly maintain the expectation it feels safe and comforting to him.  Sometimes, these limits are broken in such cases it is important to refer to suggestion 3 and give YOURSELF a time out before calmly talking to your son about what will happen next.  Giving time for all parties to calm down is a very helpful thing.

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How To Build Your Child’s Self-Esteem

How To Build Your Child’s Self-Esteem

August 17, 2020

Self-esteem is a concept that is regularly discussed in our current culture.  Many parents fill their child’s life with activities, play dates, and positive affirmations in the hopes of creating greater “self-esteem”.  In many cases however, it does not seem to work.  The harder we work to build our kids up the lower their self-regard.  This post is intended to give you a framework for how to build your child’s self-esteem.

What is Self-esteem?

Self-esteem is made up of a child’s academic and non-academic self-concept, that is, how the child views himself in those two domains.  Each domain is broken down further into more specific areas.  Academic self-concept is divided into the subjects of math, science, english, and social studies.  Non-academic self-esteem includes the areas of social, emotional, and physical self-concepts.  Global self-esteem is a combination of how the child experiences himself in these areas combined. 

What makes Self-esteem?

So we know what self-esteem is but what makes one child have more than another.  Researchers have found

 “The greater the discrepancy between adequacy in some domain and importance of that domain, the greater the negative impact on self-esteem” (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015).   

In other words Self-esteem is made when a child experiences success in a domain that is highly important to them

 How to build Self-esteem?

The role of parents then, is to discover which domain is most important to their child and to support it.  Does your child love math but hate soccer?  Then, practicing soccer with them may not be the most important thing on the list.  You may want to spend more time doing math together and joining them in that love.  Discover what is important to your child and support them in that area.

Support from parents is a key way to build self-esteem and so is competence.  When a child feels competent in an area that is important to them, their self-esteem is enhanced.  So, focus on providing lessons, activities, and competence building experiences in the areas that are important to your child.  As they build competence in these areas they will grow in confidence.  If we focus too much energy on too many areas the child may be overwhelmed and tired. 


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