Helping Kids, Families, Adults & LGBTQ with Care for Over 25 Years

Michelle Topal MSW, LCSW

Thursday, July 14, 2011

M Club Discussion

I recently had the privilege of being invited to talk to the M Club about some of the challenges we all face & healthy ways to approach these challenges. The M Club is a group for gay/bisexual men ages 18-29 years old.  It is there for support, fun, education, a sense of community & friendship.  And what an impressive group of guys!

If you are a young gay or bisexual man looking for a fun, supportive & welcoming group to feel a sense of community, connection & acceptance, then this is the place to go.  They have several events during the month to check out.  

To learn more about it you can go to:  Alex, who is a great guy, runs the group & cares deeply about making sure the group is there for the community.  At the risk of being redundant, very impressive indeed!  I highly recommend you check it out!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Are Women More Emotionally Intelligent Than Men?

Are Women More Emotionally Intelligent Than Men?
Yes, and Yes and No.  For more information go to Psychology Today article:

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Brain & Temptation

Teaching Your Brain to Say No!

This is an interesting article to help people understand the brain & how our behavior reinforces the cravings/temptation.  It also provides some ideas on how to essentially change our brain to reduce temptation/cravings.

The link for this on Psychology Today:

Published on June 12, 2011 by Rebecca Gladding, M.D. in Use Your Mind to Change Your Brain

Monday, May 30, 2011

I Went to the Out Raleigh Event & I Wish I Got a T-Shirt

So, I went to the OutRaleigh Event with the theme being "We're All Family Here" to support the LGBT community to which I have been a part for most of my years in NC (about 25 years).  And it was inspiring to see people out and "out".  I hope many of you had a chance to attend.  Whether you are LGBTQ or an ally, I think it's important that we all support the LGBT community.  These are our brothers, our sisters, our parents, our growing children and our grown children, our friends, co workers, neighbors, and church community.  We owe it to them to make the world a safe place.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Parenting Challenge: Clear Boundaries & Roles

The tasks of parents are endless and overwhelming and it’s understandable that you would welcome help wherever you could get it.  And, well, you’ve managed to raise a very mature and responsible child, even one eager to be helpful and thriving in this role.  This is wonderful and a credit to you as a parent.  You may be tempted, based on this, to allow your child to play an active role in those numerous tasks of adulthood and parenthood.  If your child is good at math, why wouldn’t you allow her to handle your finances, especially when she’s adept at using the computer and she is all to eager to help?  Or, why wouldn’t you let your son help take care of his younger siblings and remind you of their needs, or monitor your drinking, since he’s offered, fits easily into these roles and seems to really care and be concerned?  It’s a win-win, right?  You get help and your child feels good about their contribution and a sense of competence and power.  However, this is exactly the double edged sword.

The more parents blur the lines between child responsibilities and parental responsibilities, the more parents lose their authority and the more kids are left to flounder feeling they are without the protective safety net of parental oversight.  After all, from their perspective, who’s in charge and who can they count on, if you are counting on them?  In my experience, when pressed into service, kids will always rise to the challenge.  They will do so because their survival impulses kick in, they love you and want your approval.   This is an all or nothing proposition, and I’ve seen kids be capable of amazing things when parents relinquished their roles.  But don’t let this fool you.  It doesn’t mean the child is capable, especially developmentally, and kids and the parent-child relationship pay an irreparable price for this trade off. 

“Parentified/adultified” kids are often depressed as kids and continue on to be depressed, sometimes suicidal, adults.  They feel robbed of their childhoods, and lost and angry over the lack of parental modeling and investment; after all if their parents couldn’t love them enough to step up to the plate and provide all the requisite parental care, who would.  As a result there are often questions for them about their worthiness and the role they have to others and others to them.  Just remember that our earliest significant relationships form how we see ourselves and all our future relationships. 

What about if there are other children in the household?  Parents lose authority when they share responsibility with their kids, which may work just fine with this responsible child, but will cost them in their relationship to any other children in the household who are likely to see this as weakness.  This creates a dynamic of the “good child” and leaving the other child(ren) to be the bad ones, since the role of good, parent aligned child is already taken.  Seeing their parents as having delegated their parental authority out to a sibling who has settled into this exclusive role, it leaves them to perceive themselves as alone with no one really in charge or willing to be (and let’s face it, they are not going to listen to a peer, be it a sibling or parents they perceive as peers).

So, what do you do and where do you draw the line?  You always let kids know that their skills and competence are valued and valuable, but that adult/parent responsibilities are always that, no matter how mature the child is.  You reinforce that they are allowed and expected to be kids (which in these times, is stressful enough).  You also model responsibility and competence to your child, so they know that though you are not perfect, they can count on you to be the parent.  Whether they acknowledge it or not, they need you in this role.  
This is not to say that it is not part of the parenting role to assist children in developing responsibility and skills.  It is a vital part of parenting.  However, the appropriate arena for this involves the tasks associated with the child themselves.  These tasks should always be primarily motivated by an attempt to teach, rather than those that are related to your needs as a parent.   For example, you help teach them to take responsibility for their homework, waking up on time for school, grades, their friendships/relationships, their behavior at home, school and other environments in which they interact, their finances and employment.  

There are many more examples, but do you see a pattern?  It is incumbent on parents to allow kids to gradually learn to be responsible for their worlds and leave the parents world to the parents.  This also means that the child’s world is theirs, not the parents, and as such is the child’s to navigate, especially as they grow through adolescence.  [However, this is a topic for another article].  Suffice it to say, children should not be pulled into adult/parent roles/world and parents should not insert themselves into the child’s world/roles.  I know this is not easy because you care, but because you care, this is why it is essential.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

"If the day ever came when we were able to accept ourselves and our children exactly as we are and they are, I believe we would have come to an understanding of what "good parenting" means."
-Fred Rogers

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Does My Therapist Get It?: Finding a Qualified Therapist for LGBTQ

I just came back from the NASW Annual Ethics Workshop.  This year it was on working with LGBTQ clients; helping social workers understand the history of "treatment" of LGBTQ people in the psychiatric community & this culture, understanding the needs of LGBTQ on the clients based cultural issues that face LGBTQ clients & social workers/therapists ethical obligations in working with LGBTQ people.  Both the APA & the NASW & social work licensing board ethical guidelines are clear that providers must practice within their scope of knowledge/training.  This includes not only being knowledgeable about clinical issues, but also being culturally competent to work  whatever group with whom you are offering services.  As one of the out gay LCSW presenters put it in his presentation, "it's not enough to be gay-friendly, you need to be competent". 

In finding the ideal therapist, make sure you find a therapist who is more than just accepting and LGBT affirmative (a lack of bigotry does not make them qualified), but that they understand the unique needs of those who are LGBTQ (individuals or couples/families), and the complexities of sexual identity/ orientation. It’s important that if you seek help, that you talk with someone who sees that their are cultural issues that may make your experience different than someone who experiences themselves as exclusively heterosexual. So, don't hesitate to ask the therapist what their qualifications are & what training & experience they have had in issues of: sexuality; sexual orientation/identity, including bisexuality (or the continuum);  LGBTQ cultural & social issues; involvement & understanding of the LGBT community; the history of the "gay liberation movement" & the social & psychiatric treatment of homosexuality; coming out issues; & homophobia, just to name a few.   

This is not to imply there is something wrong or problematic with being LGBTQ, because sexual orientation & identity are complex biological, emotional & cultural issues that are normal/healthy parts of our selves as human/sexual beings.  But issues of homophobia have a long history & are a cultural and personal reality for many LGBT people due to systemic homophobia (societal, religious, political & medical, etc).  It’s important that the therapist you and/or your family sees, is informed and sensitive to that possible difference in experience. (Click here to learn more about the APA guidelines for a therapist to be competent to provide therapy to LGBQ clients).

You are not alone & there are several of us therapists in this area that meet these qualifications & ethical guidelines.  I’d be happy to talk with you about your specific needs. Just give me a call, so we can talk about how I can help. Given my extensive experience in & with the LGBT community, and my educational background in understanding issues of sexuality, I think I can offer you the respect, understanding and informed perspective that may help you find peace and self acceptance. However, if I'm not the right fit, I will help you find someone who is.

Click here to learn more about my counseling and psychotherapy experience & qualifications.

Click here to learn more about the APA guidelines for a therapist to be competent to provide therapy to LGBQ clients.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Your Life is a Sacred Journey. 
And it is about change, growth, discovery, movement, 
transformation, continuously expanding your vision of what is
possible, stretching your soul, learning to see clearly and deeply,
listening to your intuition, taking courageous risks,
embracing challenges at every step of the way…

You are on the path.  
Exactly where you are meant to be right now…
And from here, you can only go forwards, shaping your life story
into a magnificent tale of triumph, of healing, of courage,
beauty, wisdom, power, dignity, & love….

-Caroline Joy Adams

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why it Matters: Putting LGBTQ Youth Issues into Perspective

(LGBTQ Youth Article I Wrote for "the Triangle" Paper)

It’s hard to miss how LGBTQ youth have been in the news again lately.  Sadly, this is due to several nationally publicized suicides by LGBTQ youth. The progress towards eliminating bigotry is a slow one.  But I am reminded for every step in that direction, a half step back is taken as a result of reactivity and fear.

This article is not intended to make the case for any particular sexual identity or orientation, or even to take on issues of homophobia. Instead, it is meant to highlight how the lack of acceptance and the persistence of homophobia are, quite literally, an issue of life and death for young people. LGBT youth, those assumed to be LGBT youth by their peers, and even those who dare to question their feelings or orientation are more vulnerable  to substance abuse, depression, anxiety, suicide, physical abuse, and sexual victimization.  This is not because of any fundamental dysfunction associated with their feelings or behaviors (homosexual or heterosexual), but because of a culture that still struggles with issues of homophobia and the consequences of this  societal reaction.
 With the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s, technological advances and the gay rights movement, the lives of young people today have changed dramatically. Young people have mostly benefited from the changes that have occurred during these years, but these benefits have not been without some added stressors   With the unfettered access we have to the intimate details of many people’s lives we no longer have to wait for Oprah or Phil to show us people like ourselves.  We can just go on YouTube to help us feel less alone.  We can post things on such sites, so that people can join us in what feels like global connection.  But how does this help young people in their day to day struggles at school and home, where their lives really are?  And how do they handle the use of the possibly only resource that makes them feel less alone, when it can also be used against them in a very public way through cyber bullying?
Kids are also faced with sexual decisions earlier and earlier, with middle schoolers being pressured to make decisions about sexual feelings and behavior.  This pushes them to questions of sexual attraction, orientation and identity much sooner than they are equipped to, especially given the few resources of support that exist for people that young.  Similarly, being gay or bisexual is no  longer “in the closet”, with the media and the gay right’s movement making  lgbt people more visible.  This is certainly a positive thing, since exposure is an important step to acceptance.  However, young people don’t have access to the same resources and freedoms as adults.  Kids are essentially stuck within their families and schools.  So, while the larger culture and media have changed the national landscape, local schools, churches and households may be much slower to change.  
Schools are often distilled, exaggerated and the least progressive versions of the society at large with very rigid guidelines and few avenues of recourse.  This reflects people’s protective nature about children, leading institutions geared to children to be the most cautious, conservative and resistant to change.   Even the gay community has often been ambivalent when it comes to children (e.g., rights of adoption/parenting and benefits to children), because gay or straight, we are all raised with the same homophobic messages.  Within this school environment are the developmental issues of young people.  As all young people struggle through issues of belonging, there are some that can be very aggressive about the threat they feel regarding “difference” and exploiting the vulnerabilities of other kids.   This is not unique to youth, as adults can sometimes be similarly aggressive to those who violate “rules of the pack.”  However, kids are left at the mercy of school systems that miss the mark on how to protect kids; the technological adeptness of their peers in attacking them outside of school; and their families, where coming out to them and their being supportive are required prerequisites for parental intervention in school problems (such as harassment, bullying and violence). 
As with adults, issues of coming out and what this will mean to their lives, are pivotal questions for young people.  Young people are sensitive to our implicit and explicit messages  about the feelings, thoughts and choices they have, and these messages are critical to whether they feel safe being open.  So, if our messages clearly marginalize LGBT people and/or communicate disapproval and judgement kids are left alone, leaving them vulnerable to  depression, addictions and suicide.  Kids are paying attention to the messages they are getting from peers, family, school staff and the community at large.  These messages shape their self perception and whether and where they think they fit in the world.  These messages come through loud and clear, whether the young person out or not.  However, if they are not out, they may be fearful of seeking help, which leaves them all alone to deal with the internal and external struggles without support.
If kids come out they potentially risk their parent’s rejection, abuse and abandonment.  This is not a small thing when kids are emotionally and practically/financially dependent on their families.  These kids are at risk of physical abuse, exacting emotional abuse (including psychological and religious) and/or becoming homeless (which has its own set of dire consequences).  At school they may risk harassment, bullying and sexual and physical violence.  And again, because of technology, this peer harassment can go well beyond the child’s immediate school environment.  
We are essentially pack animals. Belonging is not only fundamental to our psychological well being as humans, but it is also fundamental to our very survival.  As such, the enormous benefits of coming out cannot be overlooked.  First, kids may [eventually] get vital love and support from their parents.  The importance of parental involvement and acceptance cannot be emphasized enough.  So, rather than hide in silence for years, fearing parental rejection and disapproval, they may have the support they need at this very critical stage of their development/lives.  Second, they may be able to experience the developmentally appropriate experiences of adolescence, i.e., friendships and relationships/dating.  This means, instead of hiding and feeling like they are keeping a potentially deal breaking secret and keeping people at a distance out of fear that people will find out (i.e., opting out, rather than being found out), they are able to practice being themselves the same as their peers.  This is critical to social development and self-esteem, and therefore significant to reducing risks of suicide.  
If young people don’t come out until early adulthood or later, they miss out on all that is possible with regard to acceptance, authenticity, trust and intimacy.  They prevent friends and family from really knowing and accepting them, and discovering who they want to be, just as their peers are doing.  They may also participate in other avoidance behaviors, such as substance abuse, hyper heterosexuality (to prove to others and themselves that they’re not gay) and social and familial withdrawal, leaving them feeling alone and isolated.  Because they are anticipating rejection, being ostracized or worse, they are left with this belief or perceived reality, even if it is wrong.  This is such a major loss of life experience based on a possibility, and not on a certainty.  The impact of this is major on development and lends itself to depression and suicide.  And of course, sometimes coming out is not voluntary.  Kids may be called “gay” and harassed even if they aren’t, and those who are gay may be outed without their consent.  When kids make this choice proactively, they have control over how this is done.  However, since no one can guarantee what the outcome of coming out will be, it is certainly much safer to not.  

This feels complicated because it involves change on the cultural level nationally, locally, in households and in schools.  Schools are often a reflection, or sometimes exaggerated version, of the community at large.  They need to begin to reflect a society that is more accepting and that expects kids to be safe at school, at home and in their communities.  When parents, administrators, community leaders and school personnel, at best, turn a blind eye to the issues that face kids and the community, they send a clear message about what they will tacitly allow kids to do.  Schools cannot remain silent on issues of acceptance, must have anti-bullying policies and enforce these policies, or they are creating a culture that targets and harshly condemns select groups.  In its inaction, schools are saying certain kids are unacceptable and putting a bullseye on those kids for their peers to victimize if they choose. They are also depriving LGBTQ kids access to an education, because kids who are fearful or victimized at school are not able to concentrate and therefore benefit from the school’s education and may even drop out.  Let’s face it, even local and federal laws now acknowledge LGBT people in hate crimes and yet schools fail to adopt and enforce such policies in their schools to protect kids under their care. 
There are many ways caring people can help young people so that all young people survive childhood and have the access to the same resources helpful in becoming productive members of our world community.  In general, we can volunteer, donate money to programs that help the lives of LGBTQ kids or be actively involved in advocating to change things.  Here are the broad strokes of what is needed:
  • Parents need to create a home environment that consistently tells their children that being LGBT is okay, that they will be loved, and they will be supported.  This message needs to start early and be provided proactively (way before their child has these questions).  This is the single most impactful behavior in helping LGBTQ kids.  It is vital to kids developing self-esteem, it helps mitigate lack of acceptance by peers, and allows them access to their parents for help with school and peer issues.
  • Parents need to demonstrate this acceptance in every day activities.
  • Schools need to have harassment and anti-bullying policies. Just as importantly, they need to enforce them.
  • Schools need to allow kids and school personnel to be involved in GSAs (gay straight alliances).
  • Community members can actively advocate for LGBTQ youth at school, including policies that include sexual orientation as part of their discrimination policies.
  • We can let school administrators and local leaders know that we care about LGBTQ youth and expect them to be protected and safe at school so that they can get an education without fear and abuse.
  • We can be involved or create programs/organizations that promote acceptance and safety for kids and the LGBT community at large, since both are vital to young people.  go to & for some options to do this.
  • Help restart ASPYN (A Safer Place Youth Network).  This is one of the few community based out of school youth support programs in the area (ASPYRE is a program for lgbtqa youth to help them become leaders for GSAs etc..). Young people need support and they need out of school options where they may have more anonymity.  This program has been in need of adult volunteers and leadership for some time. go to & for more information.
Written by Michelle Topal MSW, LCSW
Owner Change for Living Counseling PLLC
Former ASPYN coordinator
You can see more about Michelle or email her at

Some of the Youth Resources and Links (most are national, not local):

Monday, January 17, 2011

Change for Living Counseling PLLC Website Has a New Look

As Change for Living (CFL) Counseling PLLC has expanded to include several very experienced clinicians, so too has the CFL website changed to reflect our growth & commitment as a company.  I am committed to providing diverse, competent & caring services to those who come to our practice.  

To that end, I have expanded the practice, created a comfortable & aesthetically pleasing counseling environment & changed the CFL website.  Check out the new look & expanded information, as well as the individual websites I've created for our providers at See picture below of the office waiting area to give you a feel for the warm, homey counseling environment. Your feedback on our home site & the provider's individual sites is always welcome, as these are always a work in progress as needs & preferences change.

Change for Living Counseling waiting area

Monday, January 10, 2011

Happy New Year

Look to this day for it is life,
The very life of life.
In its brief course lie all the realities
And truths of existence;
The joy of growth,
The splendor of action,
The glory of power.
For yesterday is but a memory,
And tomorrow is only a vision.
But today well lived makes every
Yesterday a memory of happiness.
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day.

-Ancient Sanskrit poem by Kelidasa