For many of us, the New Year is a time to focus on creating healthy habits, such as exercising more and eating healthier. But Chelsey Harju, psychotherapist at Amberwing – Center for Youth & Family Well-Being, argues that those goals should also include forming positive mental health habits. Harju, who has been at Amberwing for four years, works primarily with middle- and high-school students, and one of her specialties is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT.
The cognitive-based approach emphasizes the psychosocial aspects of treatment in order to help people identify their strengths and build on them so they can feel better about themselves and their life. The therapy helps identify thoughts, beliefs, and assumptions that make life harder, such as “I have to be perfect at everything,” and replace them with different ways of thinking, such as “I don’t need to be perfect at things for people to care about me.”
“The skills taught in DBT can be used by anyone,” says Harju. “They are not just for people with a mental illness.” In fact, Harju says that since learning DBT, Amberwing staff feel they are better spouses and parents. “If everyone could learn DBT skills, they would be so much better off,” she says.
Harju offers the following tips to begin integrating DBT skills into your daily life today:
Amberwing staff begin each meeting with a mindfulness exercise, which may be a minute of meditation or a thoughtful reading. “We all move through our days quickly,” Harju says. “Mindfulness provides a time to check in with yourself.” This can be as simple as recognizing your breathing or thoughts while waiting at a stoplight, or acknowledging that you had a bad day and resolving not to let it affect your relationships with family. “We can’t utilize the other skills until we understand mindfulness,” Harju says.
Meeting people where they are, rather than jumping straight to problem solving is an important skill for people of any age, but especially for parents. For instance, if your teenager receives a poor grade in school, instead of instantly responding with punishment or consequences, begin by calming everyone down with a statement like, “I understand how hard this class was for you.”
“Everyone has their own truth,” Harju says. “Validation is the practice of finding that kernel of truth in what the other person is saying.” Before an argument about a poor grade escalates, use empathy to understand where your child is, then stop and say, “I get it, and I know you are not a bad person.” This makes it possible for you both to move forward with the discussion.
Hand-in-hand with validation is the understanding that every problem doesn’t need to be solved immediately. “People try to solve problems when their emotions are taking over,” Harju says. By simply saying, “I need 10 minutes here” you can allow for everyone to calm down before coming back together to find a solution. “Everyone has the power to solve a problem effectively,” Harju says.