My personal struggles as an intense child led me to many challenging situations and relationships. They led me to death’s door on more than one occasion. I created the Nurtured Heart Approach, a perspective and practice for transforming challenging children, out of a passion to spare other intense children from such heartbreak.
For ten years following my graduate studies in counseling and clinical psychology, I felt strongly called to pursue a very different dream: becoming a woodworker. Even though I had compelling work experiences in the field of Milieu Therapy, studying with leaders in that emerging field, I sensed that I needed to step out of that world for a while to live life fully.
I knew in my heart that if I completed my doctorate without taking this break, I risked becoming a stodgy, pompous clinician, stuck within party lines in terms of standard treatments. Without this precious life experience, I would have never found the creative edge that now informs my work as a therapist.
So, into the world of woodworking I charged, and live life fully I did. The dream began more as a nightmare. Breaking into a field where my intentions were great and my skills were marginal, I had to take the roundabout route of apprenticing. I spent months sweeping floors, moving cabinets and sanding. Eventually I become an accomplished cabinetmaker, then a sculptor of unique curved wood pieces.
Mastering this craft got me out of my head and into my heart. It afforded me the time, space and the luxury to find my spirit, kindness and love for humanity. At the same time, I burned the candle at both ends and the middle – living a fast-lane life that pushed my limits, but that brought me alive in a way I hadn’t known possible. I would never return to my former restrained and vacant sense of self. These profound changes and challenges helped me to find my deepest core of being, and through this transformational time, I eventually found my way to a purposeful and intentional life. Running into numerous walls is what it took to tenderize my being.
When I finally returned to my work as a therapist, I was really ready. I had preciously fresh eyes: for the first time since beginning my higher education, I was unencumbered by the theories and philosophies of others. Quickly, I came to understand why my previous ways of working with families – approaches I’d diligently learned in the halls of academia – had fallen away as not viable. Sometimes these standard approaches seemed to make the family’s situation worse than it was before we began.
Day after day, I saw more clearly that the energy of the advice I offered was contradicting what actually needed to happen. Parents who came to me with the intention to create connected, healthy relationship with their child were losing hope that it could be achieved. This created huge suffering for them and enormous frustration for me.
Then, I began to have what felt like total recall of my own challenging childhood. I was a doozy of a kid – as difficult as they come. Although I had done my best to forget those years, something about the bind I was in brought back the whole strange trip, in Technicolor.
In watching these families struggle with difficult children, I began to relate with my own parents’ struggle in raising me. I realized that although my own parents loved me, they had been stuck. They didn’t have the tools to help me. All they’d had at their disposal were parenting methods that didn’t work on their challenging child. Not only did they not work: they were energetically throwing gas on the fire of my bad behavior. The harder they tried to make their flawed methods work, the worse the problems became, and the farther we got from the connected, positive relationship we’d all have preferred. This gave me great compassion for the plight of well-intentioned parents trying as hard as can with the many methods out there that have little or no chance of working with the intense child.
This was more than a mind-memory – I was feeling every nuance of it energetically, in my body, and it was rattling me to my core. Although it was tough to endure, it provided me with the gateway I needed to develop a method that would work to bring even the toughest kids back into positive and connected relationship.
I’d burned through method after method in my therapeutic desperation to help, and finally – through this visceral and slightly terrifying series of insights – I came to realize that so many of these schools of thought and practice were based on a few undermining and unproven beliefs.
Beliefs like: if only the feelings and hurt get expressed, all will be healed. Or: if we dig up the past and do all we can to understand why things went wrong, we’ll know what to do to fix it – and if we don’t go through that process of digging through the past, we’ll never solve the problems of the present.
I began to see that these beliefs were undermining my efforts to help intense children. The energy of interaction and response became almost visible to me. In this vivid energetic dimension, I came to experience that even the parent’s most loving attempts to talk to his or her child in the midst of an issue or problem was tantamount to handing the child a hundred-dollar bill in response to misbehavior.
Over a lifetime, the parents had responded to broken rules and boundary-pushing with energetic interaction, connection and engagement. When the child messed up, he got close, juicy connectedness. When he did the right thing, he received little to no energy of connected relationship – at most, typically, a low-key ‘thank you’ or ‘good job.’
With a less challenging, intense child, it didn’t have as much impact, but with difficult children, this dynamic was a setup for disaster. These children needed more connection, and more intense connection, and they’d do whatever they felt necessary to get the strongest linkup available. No wonder they were ramping up their bad behavior in response to traditional approaches! I had done the same thing in my own childhood.
It made perfect sense: it was all about energy. We were giving these kids our energy at the wrong times. To change this energetic equation, it would be necessary to give radical appreciation in response to anything that didn’t involve breaking rules or pushing boundaries.
I began to see rapid shifts in the dynamics of families I was treating in my therapy practice. Piece by piece, I gave them ways to move forward to create a new energetic impression. We all learned and experimented together. These parents were thrilled to the core about their newly positive impact. I was getting great results in my practice. My clients told others about the dramatic turnarounds they’d seen in their children.
A local therapeutic program urged me to present my dramatic results to their staff. The notion terrified me. For a year, I turned down their invitations; then, finally, as their pleas escalated, I reluctantly succumbed.
I had every reason to be afraid. I was unprepared and tremendously disorganized. I had no previous experience presenting. And what I was offering was contradictory to accepted theory and practice. In my worst nightmares about the presentation, I imagined being laughed out of the conference room for my strange ideas.
At the end of that grueling first day of presenting, I felt awful. I resolved never to present on my methods again.
A month later, as I was doing my grocery shopping, a man approached me. He introduced himself as Armando Zurita, and told me that he ran the Family Preservation program at the organization where I’d given my talk. He told me that after hearing me speak, he had taught my methods to the 10 therapists he supervised. Just one month later, pretty much all of them were using my approach and having great results.
The fear and excitement I felt took my breath away. What in the world was I supposed to do with that? The approach didn’t even have a name at that point.
Within a month, I asked a few therapist friends, including Armando, if they’d be willing to meet. From that meeting emerged the Tucson Center for the Difficult Child. This Center became the incubator for continued development of this approach.
We were getting referrals not only for ADHD kids, who I now viewed as a piece of cake, also for the toughest kids in town. My defiant nature, along with my passionate interest in seeing what was possible, served me well as I progressively amplified the approach to suit even extremely difficult children. I learned to use ‘notched up’ versions of the same approach on them, boosting its intensity until it had the effect of flipping the energetic equation – inspiring the child to believe that he or she could count on energized connection from adults when making positive choices and following rules, instead of going negative to achieve that same end.
Previously difficult children nurtured in this way developed vast stores of what I now call inner wealth. They became more resilient, more emotionally intelligent, and more empathic and sensitive. They developed a positive relationship with their own intensity, the fire within them that might previously have gone awry or been misused in an effort to connect. As they saw that greatness was a better fire to fuel with this intensity, they became unstoppable.
I also got to see that how extraordinary even the most resistant, frustrated parents could become, given the right outlook and strategies.
People started asking where they could buy my book. Eventually, I saw that the universe was letting me know that it was time to write one. With my first book, Transforming the Difficult Child, the Nurtured Heart Approach made its worldwide debut, finally with its own name.
This name had come to me a good ten years earlier, when a mentor of mine was trying to come up with a name for something he was writing about. I remember the moment vividly even now, though it happened 30 years ago. “How about the Nurtured Heart Approach?” I said, and he closed his eyes and contemplated for a long minute or two. Then, he looked at me with a big smile and said, “No, that’s yours.”
At the time, I was still immersed in woodworking, and had no use for the name I’d created. It turned out to be a perfect fit for the methodology that emerged from my experience, intuition and heart.
In the years since, I’ve authored many more books and given hundreds of presentations and seminars, both in person and online. I’ve consulted with thousands of parents, schools and therapists. Many of those I train go on to train others. We are forming an amazing network of adults whose primary purpose is to help children forge congruent and positive relationship with their intensity and life force.
Adults who dive into this purposeful journey with me are often surprised at how much it changes them. They soon recognize that having the desired impact on children requires that they, too, undergo a positive transformation.
This Approach supports everyone it touches to use their intensity and life force to awaken who they really are as a person with a constellation of great qualities and unique contributions that they bring to their life and their world.
My incredible daughter Alice is a brimming example of a young person living her greatness and embracing her own intensity. She is a talented graduate of Rhode Island School of Design. Through her art, yoga, and small farming efforts, she is building a creative, passionate and compassionate life. Her artwork has graced the covers of four of my books. I recently accused Alice of being a mystic; she simply agreed. She provides a shining example of the way inner wealth, built from the earliest years of childhood, unfolds almost effortlessly into beautiful relationships and endeavors.
I founded the Children’s Success Foundation to help bring the Nurtured Heart Approach® to schools and communities around the world. Its aim is to help all children discover that their intensity is, in fact, their gift – and the fuel that amplifies their unique greatness.
The Nurtured Heart Approach® gives parents, educators and treatment professionals a powerful, consistent way to awaken children to their greatness. It gives children a sense of the ways they light up the runway of life with their unique contributions.
In the years I have done this work, I have encountered so many children who’ve gotten a message that something is dreadfully wrong with their intensity. In many instances, they believe that medications are necessary to tamp it down. I have dedicated my life to fighting this message.
My experience is that the most intense kids are the best and brightest kids on the planet. With the right strategies, they get to be not the bad kid, or even the good kid, but the great kid, with great things to contribute.
It’s time to stop tamping down strong life force. We need our intensity for fulfilling our dreams and having a passionate life, for being authentically and fully aligned to our purpose. Medicating this away cuts children off from the fire of who they really are.
The notion in the past has been that one possible alternative “cure” for intensity in a child is to channel it into a sport, interest or activity. We can play much bigger. We can awaken children to their greatness. They then get to channel their intensity in wonderful directions and all get to experience the beauty of their positive contributions.
The child who comes to accept and grow into his or her core greatness then acts-out greatness and manifests it in every aspect of life. It’s a much better way to act out, and it’s what the child’s parents and teachers wanted all along.
My mission is to inspire others to inspire others to propel children to greatness, creating ever-wider circles of positive influence in treatment, education and community.
My belief is that the Nurtured Heart Approach® is a perfect vehicle to accomplish exactly that – awakening greatness in our children.