Book Reviews

“How to Raise an Adult:  Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success” by Julie Lythcott-Haims

Parents are stressed. Kids are stressed. Yet, we continue to encourage and support methods of parenting that are exhausting and unsustainable, and that do not adequately prepare children for adulthood.  Parents who over-function often report strained marital relationships, constant worry and little joy in life.  Kids who have over-functioning parents are more likely to experience anxiety and/or depression, and to have poorly developed problem-solving, critical thinking and general life skills.  This is a fascinating book, full of examples, research citations and recommendations for further reading.

“The Deepest Well:  Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity” by Nadine Burke Harris, M.D.

In 1998, a landmark study was published, identifying 10 “adverse childhood experiences” (ACE’s) that negatively affect both brain and biological development. More recently, pediatrician Nadine Burke-Harris has synthesized decades of research on this issue, concluding that people with “ACE scores” have a significantly higher risk of mental disorders or related difficulties that negatively affect day-to-day functioning. What was surprising to the psychological and medical communities, however, has been her discovery that, even accounting for lifestyle factors that people with ACE scores are susceptible to (smoking, alcohol/drug abuse, poor diet), people who have experienced ACE’s are at a much higher risk of developing inflammatory diseases (e.g., asthma, heart disease), autoimmune disorders, and other serious health problems. They are also more likely to die prematurely. One goal held by Dr. Burke Harris is to have medical professionals who work with patients, mental health providers and educators administer ACE inventories to determine who within their population is at risk and would benefit from more intense interventions. If you are working with, raising or mentoring children who have experienced adverse childhood experiences, this is an invaluable tool.  I recommend this book to my clients who have experienced adverse childhood experiences because it frees them from the cycle of blame they feel when their functioning is compromised, and offers them hope that they can begin the healing process.

“You Are Not Your Pain:  Using Mindfulness to Relieve Pain, Reduce Stress, and Restore Well-Being” by Vidyamala Burch and Danny Penman

This book is written by two experts in the Mindfulness field who themselves have struggled with severe pain after sustaining serious injuries.  This is an eight-week program that introduces the concept of Mindfulness and guides the reader (or listener, since it’s available on Audible) through meditations and other techniques that have been proven to be highly effective for those who suffer from pain and the chronic stress and distress this experience can cause.

“Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence” by Esther Perel, Ph.D.

Renowned psychologist and Certified Sex Therapist, Esther Perel, does a brilliant job of highlighting the tension between our desire for domesticity in marriage and our longing for excitement and eroticism. The ideal solution does not lie in affairs or multiple marriages, but in recognizing and nurturing both desires within one relationship.  Dr. Perel examines the complexities of sustaining desire, mapping a course toward a more lasting, satisfying marriage.

“Self-Compassion:  The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself” by Kristin Neff, Ph.D.

The mental health community got it wrong when we embraced the importance of self-esteem, and we are rapidly walking it back. Self-esteem is based on the premise that we are each special, even superior, and are thus worthy of admiration and praise. High self-esteem, in its unhealthiest form, has been linked to behaviors such as narcissism, bullying, exclusivity and a lack of empathy. As we are discovering, the key to building good relationships with self and others lies in self-compassion. Research in the field of self-compassion indicates that people who are compassionate toward their failings and imperfections experience greater well-being than those who repeatedly judge themselves. They are also better equipped to exercise compassion in their interactions with others.  Psychologist Kristin Neff leads readers through both her theories and exercises that will help us build the capacity for greater self-compassion.

“Eight Dates:  Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love” by John Gottman, Ph.D., Julie Schwartz Gottman, Ph.D., Dough Abrams & Rachel Carlton Abrams, M.D.

Researcher and clinician, John Gottman, is widely regarded as a world expert on the topic of what makes relationships work.  Teaming up with three other researchers, they have written a fun, easy-to-read book that can build depth and greater satisfaction in any relationship.  This book includes information, stories, conversations for couples, and suggestions about activities that can help build a stronger foundation for your relationship.

VIDEOS: “Six Minutes That Can Change Your Child’s Life (and Yours!)” and “Why Kids Lie and How to End It Now!” by Dr. Bryan Post

“The essence of discipline is to teach, not to punish. If what you are doing is working, you won’t have to keep doing it.” If you are parenting or helping caring for children, this two-part series offers one of the finest approaches I’ve found for addressing negative behavior in children. It is solidly grounded in decades of psychological and neuroscience research. 

“Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and you) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life,” by Dr. Stuart Shanker.

There are no bad kids, there are only stressed-out kids. Dr. Shanker brings decades of neuroscience research together to help us better understand how to help our children (and even ourselves) reduce stress by learning to self-regulate, thereby engaging calmly and successfully in life and learning.

If you are a parent, caregiver or teacher, or if you have ever been a child and are now trying to navigate adult relationships, this is one of the most important books you could read.

“Breathe like a Bear: 30 Mindful Moments for Kids to Feel Calm and Focused Anytime, Anywhere” by Kira Willey.

This is an ideal resource for parents/caregivers and kids to do together.  (It is also a wonderful resource for teachers.)  Drawing from the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction discipline, this book offers mindful exercises and beautiful illustrations that will grab the attention of children, while also teaching them techniques for calming and soothing themselves.

“How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough

Drawing upon decades of neuroscience research, the author demonstrates that the qualities that help children succeed have less to do with IQ than with character.  He uses fascinating stories – of children and of schools – to create a refreshing model for how we might best prepare children for successful, productive futures.

“No Drama Discipline” by Dan Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.

This title is available in a book as well as an accompanying workbook.  If you only have time for the workbook, that will provide much of the information you need.  This parenting approach is based on an understanding of how neuroscience impacts a child’s behavior and a parent’s disciplinary decisions.  It teaches parents peaceful, nurturing, research-based approaches to dealing with challenging issues.

“Will I Ever Be Free of You?  How to Navigate a High-Conflict Divorce from a Narcissist and Heal Your Family” by Karyl McBride, Ph.D.

While this book should probably come with a cautionary note to avoid diagnosing another person – especially a spouse or ex-spouse – the author provides critically important information about navigating a high-conflict divorce from a difficult/toxic person.  This book has been an invaluable resource to my clients who are going through this experience, especially those who admit they’re “feeling crazy…doubting my own perception of reality.”  Dr. McBride offers tips on what might occur in the divorce process (and possibly for years to come), how to set boundaries even if the other person does not honor them, how to communicate clearly even when another person is “gaslighting” and how to protect kids from the impact of a high-conflict divorce. 

“Emotional Agility:  Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life” by Susan David, Ph.D.

The path to wellbeing is not to sweep things under the rug, deny our feelings or act tough and impervious.  It is to move into our experiences with curiosity, understand how they are affecting us, identify the negative narratives that may keep us stuck and discouraged, and begin facing our challenges with courage and self-compassion. Emotional agility does not protect us from pain and hardship, but it does enable us to navigate our inner world and the world around us more successfully.  Psychologist Susan Dave has spent decades studying emotions, happiness and achievement, and has created a book that is both fascinating and useful.

“Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain” by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.

Dr. Siegel identifies 3 myths about adolescents that sabotage parenting styles and inhibit the positive growth experiences of adolescents: 1) Adolescents are immature; 2) Adolescent behavior can be explained by “raging hormones”; 3) Adolescence is a phase of life that must simply be endured.  Because of the misunderstandings about adolescents, their lives are too often characterized by loneliness, distress and a lack of purpose.  Drawing upon new research in the field of neuroscience, Dr. Siegel outlines the exciting opportunities for growth that can occur during this phase of life.  This is a book written both for adolescents and parents that holds the promise of vastly improving the lives and experiences of both.

“The Compassionate Mind,” by Paul Gilbert

Our minds have developed in a way that makes them highly sensitive to perceived threats.  This fast-acting system can trigger anxiety, depression and aggression.  This is an incredibly difficult and stressful way to exist.  Psychologist Paul Gilbert uses groundbreaking research to illustrate how developing kindness and compassion for others can calm our “threat” systems, help us learn to soothe ourselves and increase feelings of contentment and wellbeing.  Gilbert guides readers through basic mind training exercises that can bring great benefit to our lives.

“Braving the Wilderness” by Brene Brown

If you would like to begin the new year on a reflective note, there is no better author than Brene Brown.  In this book, she addresses the pain of isolation and perfectionism and the erosion of civility and meaningful discourse that so many are experiencing in our culture.  Brown offers both ideas to consider and spiritual practices that can help us better connect to ourselves and each other.

“Secrets From The Eating Lab,” by Traci Mann, Ph.D.

When it comes to nutrition and health, everyone is an expert.  Unfortunately for us, most of the information shared is either misleading or wrong.  Psychologist Traci Mann of the University of Minnesota teams up with nutritional experts to study issues such as self-control and dieting.  She challenges the assumptions that have caused so much misery in our society (from “fat shaming” to the idea that diets work), and highlights a saner, more practical path toward healthy eating and living – one that highlights our strengths and incorporates Mindfulness.  This is one of the most helpful, hopeful and inspiring books I’ve read in a long time.

WEBSITE:  https://www.screenagersmovie.com

“Screen time” has become a significant concern of parents as well as a focus for recent research as we struggle to discover how it affects brain development, mental health and social functioning.  This is a website dedicated to parents of teens.  Among other features, you can sign up for the blog, “Tech Talk Tuesdays” which will send weekly emails with ideas about productive approaches and conversations parents can have with their teens. You can also sign up to host a viewing in your school, church or community center of the movie “Screenagers” – a film designed for both parents and teens.

VIDEO:  https://youtu.be/aCP2kKceMb8

As I talk with people about how they are coping with this moment in history, I am aware that many of us still lack the mental bandwidth to concentrate deeply for prolonged periods of time.  With that in mind, I am offering another video, rather than a book.  “How to Live with Prolonged Uncertainty and Grief” is one in a series of videos presented by Esther Perel, Ph.D.  Dr. Perel specializes in relationship therapy, and has done an insightful and compassionate job of discussing a topic that is central to all our lives right now.

“Prisoners of Our Thoughts” by Alex Pattakos, Ph.D. and Elaine Dundon

Drawing on the work of Viktor Frankl, renowned psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, psychologists Pattakos and Dundon outline 7 core principles for living an authentic and meaning-filled life, even in the midst of turmoil and tragedy.  In a way that is never shallow or trite, they explore Frankl’s ideas about what it means to “choose our attitude” and how it is that we might live our lives in a more holistic and integrated way.

 “The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science” by Norman Doidge, M.D.

Scientists once thought the fully-developed adult brain was unchangeable.  This has not turned out to be the case.  The science of “neuroplasticity” is demonstrating that our brains have the ability to change and “reorganize” throughout our lives. Developing new neural pathways enables us to change the ways we think, feel and respond, hence allowing us to become more adaptable.  Neural plasticity helps us learn and grow, rather than becoming rigid or stagnant.  This is a very engaging examination of how we create a “growth mindset” that can transform our lives and alter the way we age. 

 “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” by Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt is a brilliant and engaging Social Psychologist who combines ancient wisdom with scientific research to study how the mind works.  Have you ever wondered why you have difficulty sticking to the plans you make?  Have you wondered why all the activities or accomplishments you strive for don’t actually bring happiness?  Have you ever wondered how to live a more meaningful life?  Dr. Haidt delves into these topics and so much more in this book.  If you don’t have time to read, check out YouTube, where you can find his TED talks and other lectures.  He is both interesting and very humorous.

 “The War for Kindness:  Building Empathy In A Fractured World” by Jamil Zaki

This book weaves science and stories together, examining why we struggle to understand people who aren’t like us, but find it easy to hate them.  Research on the phenomenon of empathy has demonstrated that we are less caring than we were even 30 years ago – yet it doesn’t have to be this way.  Empathy is not a fixed trait.  We’re not either born with it or lacking it.  It is a skill we can learn and strengthen over a lifetime.  This book offers invaluable insights about how to develop and strengthen our capacity for empathy, and the tremendous benefits we will reap as a result.

 “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel Van der Kolk, M.D.

Trauma is a fact of life.  Most lives are touched by trauma to some degree.  This book explores the ways in which trauma literally reshapes both the body and brain, limiting the ability of survivors to experience pleasure, self-control, engagement and resilience.  Dr. van der Kolk outlines innovative ways to find healing and live more satisfying, whole lives.

Book of the month:

“Healing and the Mind” by Bill Moyers

In this companion volume to the PBS series, television journalist Bill Moyers explores the fascinating, complex, powerful connection between mind and body in human health. Ancient medical science told us our minds and bodies are one. So did philosophers of old. Now, modern science and new research are helping us to understand these connections. Moyers talks with physicians, scientists, therapists, and patients — people who are taking a new look at the meaning of sickness and health – as he discusses their search for answers to perplexing questions: How do emotions translate into chemicals in our bodies? How do thoughts and feelings influence health? How can we collaborate with our bodies to encourage healing? This is a powerful book that could influence how you think about sickness and health.

 “The Book of Joy:  Lasting Happiness in a Changing World”

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams

If you only read one book this year, this is the book I would recommend.  It is one of those rare resources that I will read over and over because it contains too much wisdom and inspiration to grasp in one reading.  (Or in one hearing, if you prefer the Audible version.)  This book features a series of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu in what was likely their last face-to-face meeting of their lifetimes.  Using the central message that you must have joy if you are to bring joy to others, these spiritual masters and Nobel Peace Prize winners offer a wealth of wisdom on how to live abundantly in the face of adversity, as well as insights about how to cultivate virtues such as humility, forgiveness, compassion, and generosity. They are wise, funny and utterly down-to-earth, creating a book that is as easy to read as it is enjoyable and inspiring.

VIDEO:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CBfCW67xT8&t=29s 

“How mindfulness changes the emotional life of our brains,” 

Dr. Richard Davidson is a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, as well as the founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds.  In this video, he presents research explaining why some people are more resilient than others – and how we can all use what we are learning from neuroscience to make us more resilient, and more able to flourish in our lives.

 “BE MINDFUL:  Card Deck for Teens”

This is a deck of 50 laminated cards that offer suggestions for living more mindfully; worrying less about the past or the future and learning to live in the present with greater happiness and ease. These are tools that teens can use when they’re feeling anxious, moody, angry or just need to relax.

“Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love” 

Susan Johnson, Ph.D.

Susan Johnson is a renowned couples’ therapist who has created an approach that enjoys a remarkably high rate of success.  In “Hold Me Tight,” Dr. Johnson teaches readers that the best way to improve – or save – a relationship is to learn to be open and responsive to each other.  She recognizes that what we desire most in our intimate relationships is attunement and nurturing.  This book offers stories, practical information and structured conversations that can provide couples with the insight they need to make healing changes.

“What Does It Mean to Be Present,” by Rana DiOrio, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler

This is a delightful, well-illustrated children’s book that introduces kids to the concept of approaching activities mindfully: noticing when someone needs help, waiting patiently, learning to focus on what is happening right now.  There are strong benefits to parents as well when we teach our children mindfulness.  It challenges us to set aside our technological devices, our distractions, and our stress and learn alongside our children – mastering a technique that can reduce irritability, anxiety and stress.

“Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls,” by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo

This was recommended by a client with two young girls, who is raising them to be strong and confident in a society that too often lacks healthy female role models – or that simply doesn’t pay enough attention to them.  Goodnight Stories reinvents fairy tales, based upon the real life stories of queens, scientists, writers, dancers, boxers and more.  The dynamic illustrations help bring these stories to life.  In the words of one reviewer, “swap out Cinderella for Cleopatra tonight.”