Medicines and the Mind

One of the most common questions about mental health problems: is it just a chemical imbalance in the brain? To give a reliable answer we need to go beyond measuring the uptake of neurotransmitters in particular brain regions. We need to combine accounts from people (sufferers and voluntary subjects) with an understanding of drugs and how they behave in our bodies, and also how our brains react (or not) to drugs, especially by observing changes during live brain scans.

My father, who died over 20 years ago, suffered in his last year from a degree of dementia; this was never properly diagnosed but it seemed more like Parkinson’s disease than any other condition. He may have had a series of mini-strokes in one of the regions of his brain controlling movement. In particular we were astonished when he told us he had seen a dog
in the house, when we were certain there had been no dog. My father didn’t doubt he had seen a dog – it wasn’t like a dream. We later learned that such hallucinations are not uncommon in Parkinson’s patients.

I read very recently about Mitul Mehta’s work in London investigating the ways in which drugs actually affect the mind and brain. His team used psilocybin, a hallucinogenic drug, to simulate hallucinations. They knew that there can be an increase in the 5-HT2A receptors in the visual pathways in Parkinson’s patients suffering visual hallucinations. They also knew of a drug developed for cancer treatment that reduces the effects of 5-HT2A stimulation. Could the cancer drug help the Parkinson’s patients? Volunteers were given the cancer drug, put into a scanner then given psylocibin. It reduced the hallucinations. Later actual Parkinson’s patients were given the drug for 2 weeks; their reactions were monitored and they were also scanned to try and find changes in their visual processing pathways.

Most drugs used to treat mental health conditions were developed before scanners were available. Mehta believes that it is now time to open new windows on how our brains respond to such drugs using scanners as part of controlled experiments, and hopefully point the way to better medications. Eventually we may have better answers to those tough questions, by altering medications, seeing directly how they change the brain, and asking
patients what their experiences were.

Written by:
Dr Tim Bunn, 
New Scientist 13.06.20

When to turn, turn, turn? Let them tell you

I’m not prone to quoting biblical phrases too often, so I shall take these from a song instead:

To everything

(Turn, turn, turn)

There is a season

(Turn, turn, turn)

And a time to every purpose

Under Heaven

A time to build up, a time to break down

A time to dance, a time to mourn

A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together

Seeger, P (1959)

There is something very settling and yet unsettling about these words. They suggest perhaps a sense of order and of sequence, something which can ground us and orient us. This is surely a comfort when we try to navigate the seeming unpredictability and randomness of life. Yet, it is not always clear when the time is, especially when you live in a place with less defined seasons; is it a time to build up or to break down? Is casting away such a good idea? In many ways, perhaps, these are not things for us to know – as the song suggests. But there is, it seems, a stronger pull to provide answers in our currently abnormal world. It is something we may do well to caution against.

You don’t have to go far at the moment to find someone with an answer to life’s questions. Despite a growing tendency to denigrate established thinking, everyone seems to be an expert (even me for some reason). Consultants abound, and people seek to ‘influence’ others on all aspects of life. News can sound more like opinion than fact and in an age where you can study Klingon at university, the act of building knowledge may seem increasingly trivial. 

However, for your child, it is a developmental process which should be allowed to take its course – and not just at school. Curiosity is at its core, and never more clearly expressed than in play. I spend much of my time – somewhat to the bemusement of many parents – following children’s play. They seem to take it all quite seriously, which draws me in. To paraphrase Winnicott, a paediatrician and psycho-analyst of deceptive simplicity; it is only in playing that a child is able to be creative, and ‘…it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.’ (Winnicott, 1971, P.54) This experience is an exploration and one which is not known from the outset, even by the most organised of children. Momentum develops and takes it somewhere. This unpredictability has value and is the space for development. It is something to allow, to go along with, to follow and discover – if you try and construct or control it, it loses that value. It’s a bit like a conversation. You have to listen to do it properly.

So when your child asks you to play, get stuck in. And the next time they ask whether it’s a time to lose or a time to keep, perhaps consider seeing what they think before saying more. They may well surprise you. 

Winnicott, D. (1971) Playing and Reality. London, Routledge.

McGuinn, R. The Byrds. (1965) Seeger, P (1959) ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ Los Angeles, Columbia Records.  

(Adapted from; King James Version. (1611) The Holy Bible; Ecclesiastes (3:1-8))

Written by:
Robert Leveson, 
Psychotherapist & Counsellor, 
Children and Families (Reg; TSP, BPC)

Making a Habit of Connection

What can I say about forming habits? The idea that what we do over and over again will create a change in our life, for better or worse.  While we know this to be true with respect to organizing our calendars, exercising or learning a new skill, can we apply that same mindset to deepening our relationships?

As we know, good and bad habits are both formed by repeating the same behavior over time with practice.   Many times when I am working with couples or families, I am their final stop before divorce court or complete disengagement in the family.  I begin work with them after years of repetitive negative interactions and behaviors towards one another, habits if you will.   And interestingly, they will often come in with a litany of things that have been tried and failed.  One question I have recently been following-up with has been, “for how long did you try…surprising your spouse, making time to talk about what you appreciate about one another, asking them about their day…(fill in the blank).”

When disenchantment with relationships set in, instead of being in a relationship where we allow ourselves to be influenced by our unintentional habits, what if  we consciously create habits that allow us to connect and feel closer to our spouse, our child, even our boss or co-workers?   Could it change how we view our relationships, how connected and happy we feel in our relationships? 

According to Shawn Achor, Author of the Happiness advantage, the answer is yes.  In his Tedx Talk: The Happy secret to better work,  he explains, “it is not necessarily reality that shapes us but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality.  If we change the lens, we change the outcome…Ninety percent of your happiness is predicted by how your brain views the world.” He goes on to talk about how if you make one positive 2-minute change for 21 consecutive days, your brain actually works more positively.

While a 2 minute change in how you relate or changing a habit doesn’t sound like much, it can be a simple step to enhancing your positive feelings in your relationships.  This idea is shared by  Author James, in his book, Atomic Habits: tiny changes, remarkable results, he explains  “the difference a tiny improvement over time is astounding…success is the product of daily habits-not once in a lifetime transformations.”  A 1% improvement isn’t much initially but with consistency and time, you will see big changes and feel more connected.   A 1% investment in positive connection habits compound over time (just like money in the bank); you will be able to see marked improvements with just a little effort.  So when deciding between the extravagant get away and the daily note to say what you like about your relationship, perhaps the daily note will be a better way to impact your relationships than the grand gesture. 

When we begin to make changes, it is important to stick with the habit.  So many times we are seeing no change, we give up or revert back to old patterns of thinking and relating.  Progress while it is slow and steady is often unseen.  Mr. Clear describes this phenomenon as “the plateau of latent potential.”  He explains this by using the example of the formation of bamboo; “Bamboo can barely be seen for the first five years as it builds extensive root systems underground before exploding ninety feet into the air within six weeks.”   It is important to keep at something to see change, we can’t expect that deepening connection is going to be an overnight process when it has usually taken years to lose it. 

Remember, connection is a habit.  It doesn’t always come easily and life can get in our way, negativity can develop into resentments.  But when this happens, we have to stop and think about how we might be able to positively influence our relationships.  How might we build the types of relationships that feel supportive, connected and strong?  We have to work at it.  We have to dedicate ourselves to the process of being better, by being committed to small change, by being consistent with that change and being patient enough to reap the long-term gains.  If we do this, perhaps we can spend more time enjoying one another and less time trying to triage our relationships after the negativity is all that we can see.  

Ted Talks: The Happy Secret to Better work
Clear, J (2018) Atomic Habits: Tiny changes remarkable results. London: Penguin Random House UK publishers

Written by:
Kimberly Fisel
Marriage and Family Therapist

Releasing The Anger Towards Our Parents- Seeing Reality As What It Is

This article deals with a highly difficult, sensitive, but important topic.
It is about the pain of having a childhood where our needs are not met, the
unresolved anger we hold towards our parents, and what we can do about it.
It will feel particularly relevant if you have been through childhood trauma, caused either by neglect, abuse, or other toxic family dynamics. The goal is not for us to harbour self-pity or to blame anyone, but simply to validate some of the painful experiences, and to look at what we can do now to release some of these emotional poisons that we have carried for far too long. Even when we are living as successful individuals in independent adult bodies, we can feel caged by these strong emotional turmoil.

The pain of unresolved relational trauma from childhood often presents as self-critical thoughts, feeling intolerant of our mistakes, or engaging in self-harming behaviors. Self-compassion allows us to transform our pain.
It is not difficult to feel compassion in response to another person’s suffering. It evokes a desire to understand their pain and be of service by offering help or kindness. This same intention of warmth and caring can be offered to ourselves in the form of self-compassion when we set an intention to respond to our own suffering with warmth and gentleness.

“Self-compassion involves two key actions. First, we must set limits with ourselves to reduce habitual negative thoughts and behaviors that perpetuate harm. Second, we must repeatedly practice new kind and loving thoughts and behaviors.”
Self-compassion Dr. Arielle Schwartz

In order to heal from childhood trauma, it is important to acknowledge the pain that you felt there. There is a clinical reason to reflect on your memories of your parents and, doing so does not make you wrong or bad, it’s important to understand that your experience with your parents may not only have been either/or, it possibly has been both/and. The ability to hold both positive and negative aspects of another person, such as your parents, is a healthy, positive thing. When we recognize that, it opens up the possibility for us to feel more fully, to make more sense of our experiences, to seek out the right supports, and to decide more clearly what, if anything, we may need or want to do in that relationship and/or just for ourselves.

As the old therapy saying goes: “We cannot heal what we cannot feel.”
Healing happens by acknowledging your full spectrum of feelings about your parents. When we can hold both views about the painful and the positive aspects of our parents, we grow more accustomed to holding integrated views of others and of ourselves.

Therapy and therapists often get negative criticism for making our clients exhume the past simply for the sake of complaining and “making mom and dad” wrong. While therapy absolutely does invite you to turn backward, to look at what was, there is intentionality and clinical reasoning to that.
When we’re able to recall our memories, to make sense of them, and to feel all of our attendant feelings about those memories in the presence of a kind, compassionate witness, we’re able to support our nervous systems and psyches in healing.

Written by:
Laura Spalvieri
M. Soc. Sc. Prof. Counselling, Prof. Dip. Psychotherapy, GDAPP, GDPC
Counsellor/ Psychotherapist/ TA Practitioner  

I believe I can; therefore, I am succeeding

I choose to start this article by sharing with you two quotes that illustrate the notion I want to cover below.

The first quote is by Dr Seuss from Oh, the Places You’ll Go!. “You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes; you can steer yourself in any direction you choose!” 

The second is from a slightly different source of inspiration, Mahatma Gandhi, who said: “If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.”

These quotes illustrate the notion of self-efficacy described by Albert Bandura as “the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage any potential situations.” In other words, it is people’s belief in their own ability to succeed and influence events that affect their lives. It is determining how people think, feel, behave, and motivate themselves. Self- efficacy plays an essential role in how you approach every aspect of your life (academic, work, friendships, parenting, sports, hobbies, health, and wellbeing) and determines what goals you choose to pursue, how you go about accomplishing those goals, and how you reflect upon your own performance.

Self-efficacy is formed in early childhood, and its growth continues to evolve throughout the lifespan as people are confronted to new adversities, setbacks and frustrations.

Self-efficacy is a psychological skill that help you deal better with difficulties. You can foster and strengthen it by working on its four main foundations:

– “Mastery Experiences”: it refers to the experiences we gain when we take on a new challenge. By getting out of our comfort zone and trying out new things, we create an opportunity for growth. We are teaching ourselves that we can acquire new skills, improve and succeed. So it is important to celebrate our successes, big or small and reflect on how we made it possible like trough perseverance or continuous efforts.

– “Social Modeling”: According to Bandura, “Seeing people similar to oneself succeed by sustained effort raises observers’ beliefs that they too possess the capabilities to master comparable activities to succeed.” Hence, find positive role models that are similar to you; observe them and get inspired. You can have several depending on your area of interest, and it can be anyone from your immediate environments like a parent, a teacher and a mentor to someone from the public sphere. 

– “Social Persuasion”: This refers to the positive impact that words can have on someone’s self-efficacy. Bandura explains that through encouragement and positive feedbacks, people are led to believe that they have or can develop the skills and capabilities to succeed. This drives them to overcome self-doubt and employ their resources to achieve the task at hand. So seek positive affirmations and listen to the encouragements and positives feedbacks you are getting.

– “Psychological Responses”: Bandura explains that “it is not the sheer intensity of emotional and physical reactions that is important but rather how they are perceived and interpreted”. This means that by learning how to manage your thoughts and emotions, you feel a higher sense of control over the situation and over yourself, which make you feel more capable of managing potential threats. This improves your belief of self-efficacy and decreases avoidance type behaviour like shying away from challenges.

By developing high self-efficacy, you are able to look at difficulties as challenges rather than threats. Struggle, step-backs, and failure don’t mean defeat; instead, they reveal an opportunity for growth, a chance to cope, to adapt, to learn and to find new ways to overcome.

According to Albert Bandura, “In order to succeed, people need a sense of self-efficacy, to struggle together with resilience to meet the inevitable obstacles and inequities of life.” He specifies that yes, “Self-belief does not necessarily ensure success, but self-disbelief assuredly spawns failure.”

Bandura, A. (1995). Self-efficacy in changing societies. New York: Cambridge University Press
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Worth Publishers

Written by:
Lucie Ramet

Clinical Psychologist

Are you Playing? Play Therapy for Adults

Play is commonly acceptable and encouraged amongst children and as individuals develop across the life span, play is discouraged and frowned upon. Some of the key characteristics of play include spontaneity, the freedom of expression, and the provision of varied contexts (Gordon & Esbjorn-Hargens, 2005). Play is not goal-driven, threatened, or blocked by real-world consequences (Gordon & Esbjorn-Hargens, 2005). In my last blog post, I addressed play therapy for children, and for today’s blog post, I will be discussing the role of play in adults’ lives and its applications in therapy. 

Do Adults Play?

Even though play is not well-respected amongst adults, play is undoubtedly lurking in every corner of our lives. Play is manifested in board games, hobbies, team sports, theatre, and video games,  just to name a few. While we may not take to all forms of play, some play forms appeal to us more than others. Play allows us to make meaning of what is going on around us whether we engage in solitary play or playing with others. Play also provides a unique context for us to engage in symbols, stories, norms, and ethics, as well as varied perspectives.  

Play Therapy for Adults

When working with adult clients, I utilize different forms of play depending on their interests and preferences. For clients who are more inclined towards literary pursuits, we engage in poetry writing and narrative work through language to enable clients to craft and recraft their storied lives. For other clients who are predisposed toward experiential play practices, we engage in expressive art that allows clients to express themselves in non-verbal ways to process their issues in a safe way.  Clients learn a lot about themselves through different mediums of expression that words may not be able to express adequately. For clients who prefer to rehearse or engage in the discovery of different roles, regardless of whether these roles are make-believe or realistic, drama supplies creative ways for them to adopt multiple perspectives through role-play and improvisation.

Effects of Play Therapy on Adults

Play allows individuals to express themselves and engage with a part of themselves that is not bound by the constraints of everyday life. Based on Gordon and Esbjorn-Hargens (2005)’s integral model, different play forms encourage the development of varied capacities that in turn allows us to grow and stretch towards our fullest potential. Not only do we engage in various capacities to connect with our emotions, but we also figure out morality, make sense of our existence in the cosmos, develop our thought processes, and enhance our interpersonal skills to help us relate better to others around us. Additionally, play allows clients to navigate difficult terrain in therapy through non-threatening ways at their own time and space. In the wise words of George Bernard Shaw, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”  

In my next blog post, I will touch on sand tray therapy, a play modality that can benefit clients of all ages and cultures. 


Gordon, G., & Esbjorn-Hargens, S. (2005). Are We Having Fun Yet? An Integral Exploration of the Transformative Power of Play. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 47(2), 198-222. doi: 10.1177/0022167806297034

Written by:
Isabelle Ong, Ph.D., LCMHCA, NCC (USA)
Clinical Mental Health Counselor & Psychotherapist for Individuals, Children, Adolescents and Couples

Radical Acceptance and how to get there

Radical acceptance is the practice of accepting things as they are and acknowledging that circumstances cannot be changed in the right now, including aspects that we don’t like and cannot control, when life is unfair and not as how it should be, when we fail to live up to our ideals of how we should live our lives, and the accompanying negative thoughts and feelings that come with any of the above. Radical acceptance is the act of giving in to reality as it is, and not adding further to our own suffering caused by our own reactions.

Sounds easy right?? Oftentimes this practice may seem easy in the beginning as we confuse it with the notion of tolerance, or just “putting up with it” or “putting it to the side” until it goes away. We often experience some measure of success as we start to feel better and an initial reduction in the negative thoughts and distressing feelings is reported. However where it begins to get harder is when we have been industrious in practicing radical acceptance as we understand it.. and “things are still the same” or “I am not getting better”!

So what went wrong?

Essentially, radical acceptance requires that the individual let go of all pre-conceived notions, judgments and expectations, that is, to accept things as they are now and more importantly, not place any expectations on when things may change, improve or pressure ourselves into being “better people”. As such it means acknowledging that we are “this person or this situation” right now, and to not place judgment or to ‘fight’ against our negative feeling or current reality as it is. Of course, this does not mean condoning behaviours or agreeing with things that run contrary to our values. It also does not mean giving up our needs or pretending that the situation does not exist or that changes are not necessary where they are possible. On a counterintuitive level, radical acceptance requires regular practice without expectation of success.

Radical acceptance is also about embracing ourselves as a whole, our strengths, areas of vulnerabilities, and everything in between. It involves acknowledging who we are at this point, and choosing to own our perceptions and reactions, and to forego judgment and the ever-present fear of negative evaluation of others on ourselves, of others by ourselves, and of ourselves on ourselves. Radical acceptance means making changes that align with where we want to be and what we want to be doing, rather than what we want to get rid of or feel pressured to do or become. Some steps that can assist us along this journey include:

  1. Seeing things for what they are – Identify your roles and that of others in the situation, and having a better understanding of how things came to pass. Refrain from blaming, judging or railing against aspects that you don’t like or seem unfair, notice when your own expectations or ideals are not met, or when there are fears involved.
  2. Consciously choosing to accept the situation, ourselves – Make a conscious decision to embrace and acknowledge the pain, not so much to stop it, but more because the pain is part of the process, just like how our vulnerabilities and parts of us that we don’t like are also part of us.
  3. Planning and making changes where we can in alignment with our dreams, desires –Make changes where is possible for a better outcome, to consciously begin to love the whole of yourself and to make changes that resonate with your values. Stop judging or castigating yourself on your flaws and beware the monkey mind that tries to stop you from trying things through ruminations, self-blames, catastrophisations, “what ifs” and “if onlys”.
  4. Making time to reflect on our choices and becoming aware of any expectations or judgments that we may unconsciously begun to place on ourselves, others etc – Take time out to identify any roadblocks or internal pressures that may have subtly begun to take hold especially after the first two weeks of practicing radical acceptance, and in the next three months that follow. Often we tend to feel that things don’t work when the emotions or negative thoughts do not abate or disappear. Remember, those are signs that we are not actually practicing radical acceptance in its intended form, but as a means to get rid of what it is we do not want.
  5. Repeat from Step 1 again.

    Those who are interested in learning more about Radical Acceptance and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) can read and try the exercises here:
    (on how Marsha Lineham, creator of DBT, came up with radical acceptance)

Written by:
Dr. Daphne Goh
Clinical Psychologist

Are you getting enough ‘strokes’?

How many exchanges of ‘Hello’ did you have today? Did anybody say ‘you are good’, or ‘I am glad that you are there’ ? If it happened, you must be feeling OK about yourself. If you had not talked to anyone, you might be feeling a little down. You might even be a little irritable and make a fuss about any little thing that your partner does. It is an unconscious way of seeking a stroke (a unit of recognition.)

Eric Berne talked about one of our psychological needs as ‘recognition hunger.’ COVID-19 has challenged us in this human basic need, through remote work and distancing. We see less people, hence experience less strokes. A word of “hello,” a smile, a hug, are called positive strokes, and a frown, a complain, are negative, but still strokes. They all show that our existence has been recognized.

When we do not get enough strokes, we seek negative ones, because it is better than nothing. It is similar to children’s bad behavior which is often regarded as ‘attention seeking.’ Expression of anger, frustration, or feeling sad may be signs of stroke deficiency.

C. Steiner identified unhelpful beliefs that restrict stroke exchange unknowingly. So let’s be conscious and make sure we get enough strokes.

  1. Freely giving strokes to others.
  2. If you need a stroke, ask for it.
  3. When others give you a stroke that you like, let’s receive and cherish it.
  4. When somebody gives you a stroke you do no like, it is OK to reject it.
  5. It is OK to stroke yourself.

Request your partner, or friends, to share with you ‘what you like about me'(#2) and when they do so, make sure you take those in (#4). You can also initiate positive stroke exchange by telling others what you appreciate about the person.(#1) All these contribute to better relationships, and a positive sense of self. Having an awareness of ‘shortage of strokes’ and creating a strategy to fill up those needs can change your life for the better.

Berne, E.(1964) Games people play. New York; Grove Press. 1964
Steiner, C. (1971) Scripts people live. New York; Grove Weidenfeld. 1974

Written by:
Rie Miura
Counsellor, M.S.W.

Self-Care: How do you take care of yourself?

“We need to do a better job of putting ourselves higher on our own ‘to do’ list.” – Michelle Obama

When was the last time that you took time off for fun? When was the last time you nurtured your own interests? Are you someone who spends much of your time giving and doing things for others, but feels guilty when taking time for yourself?

Practicing self-care is known to have tremendous benefits, such as reducing occupational hazards like burnout and compassion fatigue. It can also help you to fortify relationships and enhance self-esteem and resilience. Despite the benefits of self-care, engaging in self-care is a challenge for most of us. Barriers to engaging in these activities may be related to our perspectives, such as seeing these activities as a weakness or an indulgence. Others may feel guilty or struggle to manage their time/responsibilities in order to practice self-care.

There is nothing wrong with taking care of ourselves. Just imagine that our life’s journey is like a long-haul drive; self-care is comparable to vehicle maintenance, which helps ensures our vehicle can handle the long road ahead. When we are able to prioritize our own well-being, we can be our best selves.

You may wonder, how do I practice self-care?

The following are the five categories of self-care with recommendations*:

  1. Physical Self-Care
    Engage in healthy practices, such as diet, exercise, sleep hygiene, and staying active. Stay up to date with your health care and listen to your body.
  2. Psychological Self-Care
    Make time for self-reflection, be curious, nurture your interests, and say no to extra responsibilities. Learn ways to manage stress levels and seek professional help as needed.
  3. Emotional Self-Care
    Spend time with important people in your life, be kind to yourself, feel proud of yourself, and allow yourself to express your emotions.  
  4. Spiritual Self-Care
    Identify what is meaningful to you, make time for prayer, meditation, and reflection, find spiritual connection, spend time in nature, celebrate your milestone, express gratitude, and listen to inspiring music.
  5. Workplace/Professional Self-Care
    Foster work relationships (i.e. eating lunch with coworkers), set limits with clients and colleagues, negotiate for your needs (salary and benefits), make time to complete daily tasks, and make your workspace comfortable and relaxing.

Practicing self-care does not need to take a lot of time. You can find a balance for caring for yourself as well as others. You can start making self-care your priority by setting realistic and reasonable expectations for self-care activities. Creating a structure and routine may help you to develop a consistent plan for self-care.

*Source: Adapted from Saakvitne, Pearlman, and Traumatic Stress Institute Staff, Transforming the Pain: A Workbook on Vicarious Traumatization, 1996.

Written by:
Dr. Ooi Ting Huay
Clinical Psychologist

Attachment and Adolescents

The importance of attachment in babies and young children is commonly well-understood, as is the expectation that when our children hit their teenage years, they will begin to move away from their attachment figures. It is assumed that this is a key part of their growth and development into adulthood. It can be easy, (particularly when teenagers are testing our parental boundaries!)  to also assume that attachment is less important as children get older. However, maintaining a secure sense of attachment is just as important for adolescents – and Covid19 has shown us some interesting results that help highlight and remember what we can keep in mind for our teenagers.

John Bowlby, a renowned attachment researcher, helps to show us that attachment is “from the cradle to the grave”. It impacts us as children, through our teenage years and well into adulthood.  Brain development and our nervous system responds to, and is shaped by, secure attachments throughout our entire life.  We all, children, adults and adolescents, need to have a sense of a secure base and supportive relationships. Part of our ongoing role as parents is to actively and consciously consider how develops and remains important in our relationships with teenagers.

As adolescents begin to move away from their initial attachment relationships, they thrive when they are carrying with them a “secure base” from which they can reach out into the world and explore.  This exploration happens through peer relationships, connecting with other important adults (coaches, mentors and other relatives) and institutions (schools, clubs etc.).  A vital part of this healthy development, and a necessary condition, is a strong and secure base that remains available, and continues to be a space for children to return to. Adolescents thrive with both roots (secure attachment) and wings (growing independence and sense of purpose). In order to move towards independence, teenagers require a place of dependence. A place to be continually nourished, have their needs seen and met – an emotional space that is unconditionally accepting (but note this is not the same as unconditionally permissive!). 

COVID -19 lockdowns all around the world have facilitated a unique opportunity for many families to engage with, observe and reconnect with the adolescents in their lives.  As a result, in many instances, adolescents are reportingless stress, better sleep and often better connections with their siblings and their caregivers. Recent figures from student resilience surveys from researcher Dr Suniya Luthar during COVID lockdowns in the US have noted overall improvement in clinical anxiety and depression (compared to the same time last year). Bearing in mind the increased pressures most families have been facing in this chaotic time – ongoing work commitments, complexities of work from home arrangements, potential increasing financial pressures, anxieties about family around the world – it’s useful to ask what has been important about this unique period that has engendered improvements in mood and measures for good emotional health?

Time: Families though stretched in unforeseen and novel ways, have noticed the return of rhythms that in the past have been compromised in the unrelenting march of extra-curricular activities (before school, after school, weekend tutoring, volunteering – on and on it goes). It’s a reminder that spending time with teenagers outside of scheduling is an important factor.

Sleep: Adolescents have long been thwarted by a body clock that really prefers to sleep later – versus school times that are geared for early morning risers. The opportunity to gain the additional hour or two of sleep is important in physical and mental well-being. Parents too, have been able to travel less, with little or less commuting, less rush for school picks ups, extracurricular activities etc.  Finding ways of keeping healthy sleep patterns as we come out of lockdown is something to focus on.

Togetherness: A sense of being in it together – the embodied sense of safety and all physically being in one location, and sharing a common experience is another important component.

In many parts of the world, and certainly here in Singapore, families are balancing a return to activities outside the home, and in doing so are considering which parts of this lockdown worked for them. Given the choice, what would you like to maintain and protect in the future? There is still the reality of ongoing academic demands for students, college applications, community service, volunteering, sporting commitments. So what really matters? Resilience research has consistently shown that the key factor in being OK when things are difficult is close and robust relationships. Prioritizing parent-child, parent/ caregiver relationships (couple relationships) is crucial – without strong relationships teens are increasingly isolated, they miss the opportunity for conversations that help develop their reflective capacity. Robust relationships and secure attachment helps adolescents develop their sense of who they are:- at first within, then outside of the family unit, which is a protective factor against isolation, hopelessness and anxieties.

Given our collective experiences in lockdown, as well as what adolescents themselves are reporting – this time has been instructive. And time itself is necessary. Adolescents need time with their closest secure attachments, they continue to draw on and thrive with their support. Consider how you can protect some of your caregiving time – being able to share a meal, being present to ensure decent sleep patterns, being engaged in shared activities or interests. To assume that teens do not need or even want these things, because they are “growing up and becoming independent” is to diminish the ongoing importance of relationships  – which is a human need and especially important in the development of the adolescent brain.

Bowlby J. Attachment and Loss: Vol 1 Attachment. New York: Basic Books; 1969/1982. [Google Scholar]
Dr Suniya Luthar (   

Written by:
Veronica McKibbin