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Sunday, August 6, 2017

Calming Young Minds (interview)

photo courtesy Sherri Snyder-Roche
Sherri Snyder-Roche, MA, LMHC is a psychotherapist in the Boston area who has worked with children, teens, and families. Pediatricians have referred hundreds of children to her for concrete techniques to help decrease their anxiety. Sherri is also a trained yoga instructor as well as a painter and photographer. She is the creator of the Calming Young Minds audio program based on her integrated approach to therapy, which include creativity, play, games, meditation, music, guided imagery, and yoga.

Your work with children incorporates a variety of different traditions. What are the benefits of an integrated approach, as opposed to separate classes for art, movement, mindfulness and so on?

Great question.  Every child – every person
 – learns differently. Personally, I am a visual learner – not an auditory learner. So my philosophical approach is to provide techniques that reach as many people and from as many directions as possible.

In addition, children are naturally playful and respond well to learning through play and creative imagination. We can teach new ideas through these dimensions; for example, I might use puppets to explain “mindfulness” through play:

My puppet might be walking down the street and noticing all the sounds, scents, sensations… etc. I might take this another step and have the children stand and walk very v e r y slowly as if through mud. In this manner, I am “teaching” awareness and mindfulness without teaching it in a didactic or lecture format.

An integrated approach provides visual, kinesthetic, auditory, tactile, even taste sometimes to stimulate imagination and learning. It is a “whole body” learning approach through play.

You also give workshops on art and yoga for empowering young women. How do you help these girls let go of the intense self-criticism that can arise when they’re creating and trying something new?
image courtesy Sherri Snyder-Roche

Another great question. We are in the era and culture of perfectionism, where being authentic, being real, being kind to others and to one self really is not acceptable. There is tremendous competition with and criticism of each other. I have seen girls as young as elementary school being bullied or their bodies ridiculed by their peers. 

Girls in particular are reaching new levels of self-hatred, self-destruction, and depression. My goal is to provide a safe environment where young women can “Be themselves,” try out yoga or express themselves through art and not feel worried about being criticized.

As a group, we set up the rules or guidelines in the first meeting: 

· No self-criticism,
· No judging self or others,
· No interrupting, and
· Any other rules they might want to help them feel more safe.

We also talk about the concepts of perfectionism, competition, bullying, and social media. And we talk about how it has impacted them personally, and how they can choose to express themselves in a more positive, uplifting way. This is incredibly empowering.

The final group of each session, I have the young women create a large mural on paper, connecting themselves to each other and adding affirming words. One of the powerful messages that I maintain is that no one can take away your inner power – your center- the core of who you are. 

I receive letters and emails from these girls and their moms many years later telling me how powerful the groups were. 

Your work with young women includes treatment for eating disorders.  How does your integrated approach address this issue?

Eating disorders are often a symptom of something much deeper. So how I approach this is I dig deeper to find what is “feeding” the eating disorder. Eating disorders are not just found in young women, but also in young men, children, and across various cultures. I have had 6-year-old girls tell me that they want to lose weight. 

One time a ten-year-old boy was referred to me because he had lost so much weight that he was hospitalized. He told me that his football coach told him, 
“You know, if you lost a few pounds you’d be so much faster!” 
He wanted to please his coach, so he lost weight, and then more weight- he was a perfectionist and he could not stop.

The real issue is not the food nor our weight, but the feeling of being “not good enough”, layers of insecurity, anxiety, and feeling like we don’t fit in. We don’t fit into the mold that is “advertised” in the media. 

We all crave to be loved and to fit in – crave to be our own unique self. Yet in our culture of perfectionism, this poses a vicious cycle of never feeling good enough and perpetuates inauthenticity. If we are supposed to be perfect, and I am not perfect, then I have to work harder to meet that expectation. 

So my work, integrating the yoga and art, is a way for people to get back to our authentic self, unite our heart, mind, and creativity, and practice self-acceptance and being ok with our self.

In the past year, I became a Certified Embody Love Facilitator. This program, developed by Dr. Melody Moore (of Dallas, TX) is a 3-hour transformational workshop which specifically explores culture’s myth of beauty, how the media distorts the “idea”, explores our negative self-talk, and guides participants in creating new uplifting self-images. It is a fabulous and unique program that is now reaching all states and numerous countries trying to change how we talk to our bodies.

image courtesy Sherri Snyder-Roche

You’ve been treating clients for more than thirty years. How has your approach evolved as our society has become increasingly dependent on technology?

I smirked as I read this question.  As I type my reply on the computer, I think to myself, “I hate and love technology.”

Technology has provided our ability to research and learn more expansively than ever in history. We have access to the world without waiting for that high pitched swirling sound on the modem. Everything is faster and faster. Expectations are higher. We expect faster results… no, let me correct that…. we want immediate replies and answers to every inquiry. We no longer have patience to “wait.” 

Immediate gratification is an epidemic. Cell phones are permanently glued to every teen’s hand. When I facilitate a group with teens, my first instruction is 
“Please turn off your phones and move them at least two feet away from you.” 

You would think I killed someone!

I advise parents constantly to limit their children’s screen-time. They look at me like I have two heads. (When I sit in a restaurant and watch and entire family on their phones, I wonder if they might be texting each other!)

Direct face-to-face actual conversation between kids and teens is decreasing, while cruel, destructive texting, sexting, chat-room dating is on the rise. There is no “filter” when teens communicate- they say anything and everything through the internet without concern for the consequence or impact. Children and teens are less and less capable of having direct conversation- technology “allows” for indirect communication and fosters a detached way of communicating.

So I find that in my therapy groups or individual sessions, I am advising “mindful internet communication.” 
  • Pause before you type. 
  • You don’t have to write everything you think. 
Children’s and teens’ brains are not fully developed, and their brains are not fully equipped to make thorough, well-thought-out decisions (that even adults struggle with) i.e. “should I send that text or email or not?” 

Children and teens are by nature more impulsive and lack a mature filter. Cell phones were not originally created for kids. They were “car phones” for adults. 

“Would you give your teen the keys to your car without a driver’s license? NO…Then why would you give your child or teen a cell phone without guidelines and rules?”

There is an ongoing debate about whether meditation and yoga conflict with some families’ religious beliefs because of their historic connection to Buddhist and Hindu practices. Have any parents expressed concern about this, and if so, how do you address these concerns?

I have been practicing yoga for over 20 years, and completed the Kundalini Teacher Training Program in 2014. It was an amazing training, expanded my understanding of yoga, and deepened my understanding of the benefits of it. In my work – in my office- I never preach any religion- I embrace all religions – embrace all people. I quote from various religions, philosophers, psychologists, and teachers. We are all teachers, and we are all students. Yoga has been around for maybe 5,000 years and in my research, it states that it was based on philosophy- rather than on religion and scripture.

There are various definitions of the word “yoga” due to translation from Sanskrit. Yoga apparently is to “yoke,” to unite the mind and body, to connect us as “whole beings.” 

“Yoga defines itself as a science--that is, as a practical, methodical, and systematic discipline or set of techniques.” (

It involves breathing exercises, movement/action, and mental discipline or mental, physical, and spiritual paths. It is more of a science and belief system than religion. Yoga is NOT a form of exercise per se.  However, yoga works on the entire body (physical, emotional, spiritual). This is what I share with my clients, parents or workshop participants. I always say,
“You will learn some new things in this workshop. Some might seem weird or different. Try to keep an open mind. If this doesn’t fit, let it go. Be open to new experience, notice how it feels – if it is not comfortable or doesn’t fit with your belief system, let it go.”

Kids and teens seem to love to learn about new things, even though they may seem a bit hesitant at first. I apply these ideas to their every day life- “How do you feel when you face something uncomfortable in your life? How do you cope with discomfort?”

I teach how yoga uses breath and certain poses to impact the brain -central nervous system – and decrease stress hormones, decrease the reactivity of the amygdala in the brain. They love the science stuff! 

I also try to explain how and why certain yogic breaths, yoga asana sets or poses are used and encourage the kids to practice at home- even teach their family or friends. I provide handouts, and personal examples on the impact that yoga has had on me. I ask the kids to be “scientific explorers” and ask them to see how the yoga affects them. 

Most of the time they return the next session with 
“I used that yoga breath! It really helped!” or 
“I taught my friends in school that thing you taught us!”

 That is what is most important.

On occasion, a parent will stop and ask me if I am teaching religion or tell me that they are uncomfortable with what their child might be learning.  I always share with the parents what I share with the teens, so they are educated and fully aware of what I'm doing. 

And yes, there are times when kids or teens drop out of a workshop or group due to their discomfort with the group concepts and that is okay. I have learned that I cannot accommodate or please everyone- and that yoga is not for everyone….

What does ‘mindful teaching’ mean to you?

I think that a “good” teacher teaches “mindfully,” meaning that the teacher is mindful and aware of their surroundings, the environment, observant of the students, emotional changes, shifts, body language, facial expressions etc. 

I am not a grade school teacher, but I have taught graduate school for 16 years. When I teach, I not only teach the information, but I try to be aware of the reactions of the students – their facial expressions, body language, sighs, shifts in posture, or day dreaming.

What do you do in your own personal mindfulness practice, and how does it help you with your work?

I have a daily yoga and meditation practice. I am trained in Kundalini and am a certified Kundalini Teacher, and am very connected with the philosophy of it.

My daily practice includes getting up at 6:30 am and feeding all my animals (I have 6: two golden retrievers, one 8-month-old Newfoundland, an itty bitty Yorkie, a cat and a pet pot belly pig who sleeps outside). Once they are all taken care of, I do an hour of yoga and meditation. Then I water my garden. Connecting with my animals, nature, and my gardens (vegetable and flower), meditating, and doing yoga provides me a “grounded-ness” and prepares me for the day.

On the weekends, I add painting watercolors to that list or I might go for a walk. I notice that my mind fees more at peace - I am less rushed - It is like pushing a “slow motion button” where everything goes slowly. Even watering the gardens, I am aware of my breathing  – watching the water flow. Or I notice a hummingbird flitter as it takes a sip from the hose. 

It is the little things that we notice when we move more slowly through life. When we move through life quickly, we miss out... a lot. We only notice the things that are horrible or tragic, because they are huge. So we miss the tiny, delightful, nuances in life that are the glue to happiness and peace.

As a therapist, I hear many tragic stories in my office. I have worked with children, teens and adults with some horrific pasts. And there have been many times when I have left my office exhausted. But never burned out. 

My yoga, creativity and mindfulness practices help me to let go of “what is not mine.” I give myself permission not to carry others’ burdens or pain. I play, laugh, have fun, paint, garden, walk, rest, rejuvenate my heart and soul so I can start each day fresh and new.