Ep. 22 | Carolynn Turner – Repairing Emotional Erosion
~ Carolynn Turner
In this episode, Family Therapist Carolynn Turner describes how, in the process of living, our emotions can detach from our experience. When this happens, we deny our body its voice and erode our sense of self. Over time, this can leave us feeling emotionally flat; disconnected from ourselves, and from others. Carolynn offers practices and perspectives toward emotional wholeness, discovered and developed throughout her two decades of leadership in family therapy.
Carolynn TurnerFamily Therapist Carolynn Turner advocates for a welcoming posture to the wide range of emotions in our day to day lives. She sees emotional awareness as key to understanding ourselves, our partners, our colleagues and our children.
Carolynn’s is founder and director of Lavender Counselling Practice. Her work introduces practical techniques and concepts to help alleviate thought patterns and lifestyle habits that lead to feeling out of control and overwhelmed.
Ep. 22 | Carolynn Turner | Repairing Emotional Erosion
Rachel Cram – Carolynn, thank you so much for coming into the studio.
Carolynn Turner – Thank you so much for having me. It’s really an honor to be here.
Rachel Cram – I’m going to start with a question that we ask all our guests and you can take it where you want to go. Aristotle stated, “Give me a child at seven and I will show you the adult.” Carolynn, is there a story or an experience from your childhood that reflects the adult that you are today?
Carolynn Turner – That is such an interesting quote because there’s a part of me that is really different than when I was seven. But as I think about that there’s really a story that comes to mind. I am in my grandma’s living room and my granny was my heart and soul, the wind beneath my wings. She says, “Hey, let’s have some fun!” So she puts on The Chicken Dance and here we are in the middle of her living room like just rocking out to The Chicken Dance. And I think so often we underestimate the pressure that kids are under. They’re so much more aware than I think adults realize. So, in that moment I got to let all those cares float away and just be my true self.
Rachel Cram – What was in that moment for you that did that?
Carolynn Turner – I think it was the connection I had with my granny. It was so safe to just lock arms and be in that moment of “naa naa naa naa” (hums The Chicken Dance Song). I think I felt so incredibly loved. And as I think about how that shows who I am today; there are parts of that I’ve lost over the years. We get so busy in moving up in our career, we get busy in the work of being a mom, and parts of that get eroded.
Rachel Cram – That feeling of connection?
Carolynn Turner – Yeah, the feeling of connection and the pure joy, pure pleasure, just embracing who you are without worry of judgment, where all the backstory in my head just fell away and I was truly in that moment in pleasure.
Rachel Cram – How fabulous when grandparents can have that kind of influence in your life.
Carolynn Turner – Yeah. And so I think this kind of journey of reclaiming that is really how it relates to who I am today.
Rachel Cram – Well, and I think you bring some of that into your practice. You are someone who really seeks to know children and families, not just on a theoretical basis but with a deep understanding of who they are as individuals. And I’m looking forward to hearing more about how you do that and why you do that.
Carolynn Turner – Thank you
Rachel Cram – So Carolynn, you specialize your practice in the area of mental wellness. I know that’s a huge topic. Can you describe mental wellness? What needs to be inplace in our minds and lives in order to meet that definition of health?
Carolynn Turner – Yeah, so I would say wellness is really starting to learn what’s going on for me. What do I need? What emotions am I experiencing right now? And making space for all of those so that we can have a life where we’re balanced and where we’re honoring our own wants and needs. There’s a freedom that comes with it. There’s an ability to embrace who I am and in doing that embrace my life more fully.
You know it really relates to that story, that we can get so caught up in the ‘to do’s’ of life that we allow our sense of self to be eroded away. You think about those moments where you have this gut feeling or you maybe have a lump in your throat or you have a tension in your chest. Moments where inside, somethings saying, “ No, don’t do that,” or “It doesn’t feel right,” and we do it anyway because we worry what people think or we worry about expectations. The moment we deny that, that’s when the process of erosion begins to occur.
Musical interlude #1
Rachel Cram – Now, when we are children, would you say we’re at a point where we perhaps have not been too eroded yet? Where does the erosion process begin?
Carolynn Turner – It’s a great question. So when we’re young we come out without any erosion. I mean, think about kids. They have no filter. They really just say whatever’s in their heart. And actually there’s a socialization process that occurs just by our system. No one’s intending to erode a child’s heart away but it starts to happen. So think about the moments where our child falls. They fall and skin their knee. It’s bleeding. They start to cry. In a perfect world somebody goes and scoops them up and starts to pat them on the back and there’s a love, there’s a connection there. And the parent in that moment maybe feels some of their own distress, like, “Oh my child’s hurt. What do I do? How do I help them? I’m going to do my best to make the hurt go away.”
And the parent says, “Shhh, you’re fine.”
And in the kid’s heart they’re thinking, “I’m not fine! Look at me! I’ve got this red stuff running down my leg. It hurts. Like, this is fine?”
It’s a disconnect from the child’s true experience in the moment and then they’re being told they’re fine. “I’m not fine.”
Rachel Cram – So you are eroding away a child’s sense of what ‘fine’ means for them? So what would a parent say instead?
Carolynn Turner – So what we want to do is just respond through even a paraphrase. “You’re so hurt and it feels awful. And I’m here.” That’s the piece they need to hear. They need to hear their experience validated. And maybe, “You’re so mad at that truck that fell, that tipped you off of it. Maybe you’re frustrated that the swing broke.” Or whatever that might be right. “And it hurts you so much. And I’m right here.”
Rachel Cram – So you’re trying to help your child clearly identify what they are feeling in those situations?
Carolynn Turner – Yes
Rachel Cram – I think as a parent, in the moments we speak often without thinking because we’re responding out of great care and it is a natural tendency to say, “You’re fine.” because you’re meaning, “You’re fine because I’ve got you.”
Carolynn Turner – Yes yes.
Rachel Cram – So how much damage, or how much erosion, does it do when we say the wrong words?
Carolynn Turner – I don’t think there’s any wrong words. I want to be careful with a ‘right or wrong.’ It’s about words that truly reflect what we’re trying to say because what I think every parent’s trying to say is, “I’ve got you and I want you to be OK. And in the future you will be OK.” The parent knows that but the child doesn’t know that. And so when we move to that, a child’s brain development isn’t quite there yet. So being with them in the moment is the piece that’s so magical in creating that attachment and that connection between parent and child.
I guess my question might be, ‘What’s coming up in the parent that they want their child to know they’ll be fine?’ If we look at resilience literature, we want kids to be able to fail in small places and experience hurt and disappointment and pain because that’s what teaches them that they will be fine. So there’s a big difference between a parent saying you’ll be fine when the kid doesn’t feel fine, and the kid feeling hurt and supported when they’re hurt and then realizing 10 minutes later that they’re fine
Rachel Cram – And that’s what you mean by being in the moment and not trying to project 10 minutes later.
Carolynn Turner – Yes.
Rachel Cram – Carolynn, that was a very clear example for a young child. Do you have an example that you could give for an older child?
Carolynn Turner – Yeah! I so do. I have a great example. So, think about a kid having their first crush experience. And that kid, they’re overjoyed in that relationship. They want to go to school. Maybe they’re doing their hair a little bit nicer. Maybe they’re dressing just a little bit nicer. And they want to be in this kind of amorous place with this other kid. You know, maybe they’re 12 and they’re so enthralled in this person. And maybe there’s a part of the parent that’s like, “Oh I hope they’re not losing their academics because of it.” Or, “There are other things that are important too.”
And we miss the moment to reflect for kids this matters to them. How often do we say, “Ah, you know, you’ll have lots of loves that’ll come in your life.”
And the kid, again this is back to that moment of erosion, it’s like, “No! But here in this moment, this one matters. I’m not ready to think about all the ones that might come in the future, that will be more meaningful because I’m older,” our kids can’t take that in.
All they hear is that, “My experience here in this moment doesn’t matter.”
And we want them to always know that their experience matters; that, “this person just brings you so much joy and they just make your eyes light up. And wow I see how happy you are when you talk about them.”
How often can we allow ourselves to be in that moment of innocence with our kids? That moment where we capture the snapshot of their heart, even if it’s hard for them? Even when it’s pleasurable for them? And maybe we have a wise part of us that’s like, ‘this might be short lived. This may be a seven day relationship,’ right. They don’t know that. In this moment, it’s their everything.
And so how can we connect with the child in that moment and let them see that we see it. This is how we start to build the walls in our children. Being there with them. This is the protection mechanism or the repair, it’s both, for the erosion that occurs in society.
Rachel Cram – So when you say build the walls you’re talking about building strong healthy walls.
Carolynn Turner – Yeah.
Rachel Cram – So that when life continues to rush on by they can hold on to what’s true for themselves.
Carolynn Turner – Absolutely. Absolutely and life will keep on rushing by but what happens in the process of living? We start to deny our body, we start to not be able to hear its voice.
Musical interlude #2
Rachel Cram – What if the walls are built of disappointment, or grief or any difficult emotion? Does this shape your mental health significantly?
Carolynn Turner – Yes.
Rachel Cram – I’ve even heard you talk about the problem with silver linings and I wonder if that would work well here?
Carolynn Turner – Awesome! So, in the process of just living, when we think about emotion, there are so many pressures in the world for us to really embrace “positive” emotions and to really deny “negative” emotions.
We can talk about all the good ones. We can talk about our happiness, our fun, our playfulness, our excitement, our successes, pretty freely. You know I can even go into a grocery store, the teller might say, “How are you doing?” and I might say, “So excited! I’m going on a kid free weekend with my partner,” and they’re like, “Oh that’s great!”
On the other hand, how often does somebody go into a teller and say, “You know, I’m feeling pretty lonely today.” As a society we become really uncomfortable with other people’s emotions that might be seen as difficult or not positive. And so again this process of erosion, part of it is about feeling like we have to push all of our emotion into this happy place. We need a silver lining around our distress, and so that process all on its own is really painful. Biologically our bodies aren’t capable of doing that.
Rachel Cram – Are there any emotions or are there any states of being that we just want to avoid with our child? That we want to protect our child from? What about an emotion like anxiety?
Carolynn Turner – The perspective I would encourage parents to sit with is twofold. First of all, all emotion is simply information. There is no positive or negative emotion. It’s all information about our wants and needs. So all of those pieces are crucial to help our child understand. And the other piece would be, what’s going on for me? What’s my worry for my child, that they’re anxiety’s scary for me? What’s this all about? Because we know anxiety’s normal and a healthy level of anxiety is what helps us study for the test and perform well on the test. If we simply didn’t care about a test coming up we wouldn’t study, we wouldn’t prepare, we wouldn’t make sure we were ready for it. So actually anxiety is not a bad emotion, it’s something to be worked with and to be aware of. And yeah, we want to make sure that it’s not running rampant in us but actually all emotion is valuable to give us cues onto our next steps in life.
Rachel Cram – There is a lot of conversation on anxiety actually running rampant right now. A lot of parents are very concerned about that for their children or teachers are concerned. So knowing that there’s no positive or negative emotions, when a parent comes to you with their child concerned about anxiety running rampant for them. How do you begin to approach that? Or how should a parent even begin to approach it with their child?
Carolynn Turner – So we want to acknowledge the anxiety in the child. It’s like, “I’m so scared or you’re so scared that you might fail at this and everyone laughs at you.” We want to make sure we’re giving almost like a radio announcer, this background play by play of what’s going on for our child. This is going to help them make sense of their own emotions moving forward.
Rachel Cram – What do you mean by like a radio announcer? Can you give an example of that?
Carolynn Turner – Yeah. So let’s say your child comes home and says, you know, “Susie at the playground, she threw rocks at me. And then she got all the other girls to not play with me and they all kind of walked away in a group and I was left there by myself and I’m so mad.” Maybe it ends with, “and I hate Susie!”
And we might be tempted to say, “Well you can’t hate Susie. Hate’s a strong word.” right.
What would it look like to back up and give our child this ‘play by play,’ this kind of radio announcer version that says, “When Susie threw rocks at you and then all the kids walked away,” so this is the ‘play by play’ piece. And then we want to insert the second piece which is an understanding of their emotion, “I could imagine you felt pretty lonely.” Kids don’t know their emotions. And they’ll know when it’s right when they hear it, it’s like, “Yeah I felt lonely.”
Rachel Cram – And are you watching for that cue of acknowledgement?
Carolynn Turner -Yes because we might not get it right as the parent.
Rachel Cram – And then you go at it again.
Carolynn Turner – And then you go at it again. Or the kid will say, “No! I wasn’t lonely. I was mad. Who does that?”
“It’s like, yeah! It’s like you couldn’t even believe she would do that to you.”
Then the child might say, “Yeah, that’s it.”
And so we’re trying to create this mirror for the child to make sense of their own emotion. Of course we can’t sit behind them and parrot them all day, just kind of repeating what they say. That’s not the intention; but that we catch those key moments, those key stories in their day that matter to them and we help them make sense of them. We need our kids to know that they can deal with hard things. It’s really important when we talk about anxiety specifically, for our kids to know that they can face the anxiety and succeed.
Musical interlude #3
Rachel Cram – But what about when they’re still not succeeding? We want our children to feel emotions, all the emotions that surface, and we can give background ‘play by play’ to help articulate what they are feeling, but where do we go from there if the anxiety is still getting in the way of, as you said, living fully?
Carolynn Turner – So we want them to feel it and then we want to start to pair that with something that helps their arousal level reduce inside their body. So let’s start with breathing. What we can do is we can start to add diaphragmatic breathing and all that means is breathing in through your nose while at the same time pushing your tummy out.
Rachel Cram – I’m trying to do that right now as you speak. So, you breathe in through your nose and you make your stomach go out.
Carolynn Turner – Yeah.
Rachel Cram – Because the more automatic thing I think sometimes is to have your stomach go in and your chest go out.
Carolynn Turner – Yes. And that means we’re breathing into our chest. And that is more consistent with an anxious response. So what we want our amygdala to hear, which is the center for anxiety in our brain, is actually ‘we’re safe’. And so this diaphragmatic breathing, the breathing down into our belly, pushing our belly out while we breathe in, is going to help our brain, our amygdala hear, “You know what, I can calm down. It’s OK.”
And so that’s the message we want to start to send to a child. So as opposed to, ‘Don’t feel anxiety.’ ‘Welcoming the anxiety. Here it is.’
Rachel Cram – And showing them how to breathe their way through it
Carolynn Turner – And showing them how to deal with it when it arrives. This is a crucial step because every time we deny the anxieties there, again it’s back to that erosion, it erodes a piece of their confidence to deal with it. We want to embrace it. Here it is. I knew it would come.
Rachel Cram – Now being a little bit control oriented perhaps myself, how many breaths do you need to take? Like how long are you doing that experience?
Carolynn Turner – So I often use bubbles when I do it with kids in session and there’s a couple of reasons for that. First of all, what often happens when kids are new to this is they take this nice breath in through their nose and then they go (fast breath) and it’s like this quick exhale that’s not doing what the body needs to do. We want them to do a nice slow exhale and when we’re blowing bubbles we often will blow a nice slow exhale because we want to get as many bubbles as we possibly can. And kids intuitively know this. So when we pair it with bubbles that’s helpful. And we want to continue breathing until the body’s arousal level goes down. So what you might watch for in your child is their shoulder start to drop or you might notice some of this squinting in their face start to just suddenly drop. You might notice their breath come easier.
Now the challenge is, we can wait until our child is in the middle of a ten out of ten anxious situation. If that’s the first time we try this, it’s not going to work. They’re in the heat of the experience. What we want to do is practice it lots of times before they get into an anxious moment.
Rachel Cram – So can you as parents actually just pull out some bubbles when you see your child is a little bit anxious and say, “Let’s just blow bubbles together?” Do you need a discussion around why you’re doing that?
Carolynn Turner – So what I would probably do is actually have a very frank discussion. “Mom notices or dad notices, when the anxiety gets really big that it’s really powerful and it’s hard for you to deal with. Can we start to practice something to help our body calm down when the anxiety comes?”
And you’re going to want to start practicing with the bubbles every day, every day before they’re anxious. And then when you’ve done that enough then you can say, “OK, now here’s the anxiety. We knew it would come. Let’s pull out the bubbles. Breathe in through your nose, let your stomach go out.”
So we’re looking for things that also activate the play or fun center in the brain because that’s inconsistent with anxiety. Not only are we helping the body calm down with the breath but we’re activating fun.
Musical interlude #4
Rachel Cram – There’s so much talk about anxiety now for children and adults. As a therapist do you think anxiety has increased in our culture or are we just more aware?
Carolynn Turner – I struggle to respond because I want to be so careful about the research.
So we used to see one in five kids with a mental health issue so debilitating it’s interfering with their lives. We now see about one in four as our current stat. There’s all sorts of variables whenever we do research. The way we ask the question can influence the responses. If we ask a yes or no question, “Do you experience anxiety and does it interfere with your life?” We’ll get far less people saying yes then if we say. “Does your anxiety prevent you from…?” And we give them a list of different things. But as I reflect on one in four kids with a mental health issue to the point where it’s interfering with their ability to live, that’s heartbreaking
Rachel Cram – It is
Carolynn Turner – That’s heartbreaking.
Rachel Cram – When you’re saying that one in four children struggle with some form of a debilitating mental health concern, I’m thinking that is probably true for us as adults as well? You’re nodding your head. And I don’t look around at society and see one in four adults aware of that. I’m wondering if the analogy of a frog in boiling water fits here. That when you put a frog in water and slowly heat it and heat it, they don’t know that they’re slowly boiling to death.
Carolynn Turner – Yeah
Rachel Cram – That’s alarming when I think of it that way. I can think that is probably true that many of us don’t realize that we’re not living a whole and full life because it’s been so long that we’ve been slowly boiling.
Carolynn Turner – Absolutely. And I think this is the heart of the erosion metaphor I started with. It’s like it’s so subtle. It’s so insidious. We don’t even see it happening. Each time we deny our voice we deny our sense of self, we deny even this system in our body that might be saying, “Hey stop. Hey wait. This doesn’t feel quite right.” And it’s so subtle that we don’t see it. And so, could parents say, “Am I living a life I’m happy about? Am I feeling joy in my life? Do I have space for fun and playfulness?” That can even be a barometer of how well we’re feeling in the moment.
Rachel Cram – I don’t think that our culture gears us for that kind of thinking. In fact I’ve even found myself saying, “Well happiness and joy isn’t my right.” You know, you can move into just a productivity, get through the day, mindset and miss out on those things.
Carolynn Turner – Yes
Rachel Cram – What happens when we cut ourselves off from play or off from any of our emotions?
Carolynn Turner – So actually what happens is, our bodies are incompatible with that. Our body doesn’t understand that one emotion has been deemed “positive” by us and one emotion has been deemed “negative”. All our body know is that all emotion is information. It regards them all equally. So when we put away one emotion our bodies over time pull down all of our emotions because that’s all they know to do. And over time we end up feeling really numb and flat. And again this is part of that process of the erosion that happens over time when we don’t speak our truth, so that if we think about mental wellness, mental wellness is about recognizing all of the emotions equally and giving them all space.
So that doesn’t mean that we recognize anger let’s say and we erupt and we explode but that we recognize the anger’s there and we observe it. Here it is, just like with anxiety here it is, and just observe just recognize that, notice it’s there.
It doesn’t mean we have to act on it but that we can observe it and be mindful about it and then go back to the second piece which is to be curious about it. What’s this anger all about? What’s this anxiety all about? What’s this sadness all about? What do I need? And then that can help us to start to speak our truth in the world and again promote wellness and well-being.
When we give space to sadness or anger or fear or anxiety, joy will start to come back. Love, playfulness, fun, can start to come back. And so I would really just invite an awareness of our own experience. Do I have a full range of emotion in myself? If not, can I get help to find it again? Does my child have permission to have a full range of emotion and if not, how can I support them to come back to it?
Rachel Cram – So Carolyn, just before we wrap up this conversation I’m wondering, with what you’ve just said about wanting to welcome a full range of emotion and experiences in ourselves and our kids, is there one piece of wisdom that you would give to parents to help us nurture the health and well being of our children? One particular piece?
Carolynn Turner – Yeah. So I have two pieces to share.
Rachel Cram – OK.
Carolynn Turner – OK. So the first one would be, listen to the body; little moment by moment pieces of guidance that you’ll have, whether it’s a tightness in your chest or a gut feeling that says, “This doesn’t feel quite right,” or there’s a sadness there. Listen to it. Make space for it. Invite it in. Welcome it. Get to know it because your kids need to see you do that and your kids need to learn how to do that too.
And then the second piece of advice; we haven’t really talked about this throughout the interview so much but, every child no matter how old, every child needs to hear from their parent, “I love you. I’m proud of you. And I would not want to live my life without you in it.” Those are pieces of wisdom I learned from Dr. David Kuhl. And I’d add one more to it, that “There is nothing that you can do or say any more or less to influence how much I love you. Everything you are, just who you are as my child is enough. You are loved.”
Rachel Cram – Wow. We all need that.
Carolynn Turner – Don’t we all need that. Yeah.
Rachel Cram – Carolynn, thank you so much for your time and your gentle wisdom today.
Carolynn Turner – It was really an honor to be here today. Thanks Rachel.