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An Occupational Therapist’s Perspective on the Silent (or not-so-silent from where I sit) Tragedy Affecting Today’s Children

When I saw this short article posted on Facebook, I was super excited that this important message was again getting out to so many people. Occupational Therapist Victoria Prooday hits the nail on the head in her blog post “The Silent Tragedy Affecting Today’s Children.”  In this article, Ms. Prooday states:

It is scientifically proven that the brain has the capacity to rewire itself through the environment. Unfortunately, with the environment and parenting styles that we are providing to our children, we are rewiring their brains in a wrong direction and contributing to their challenges in everyday life.

She goes on to give very specific examples of what is going wrong and how we can parent differently. You will find it is very much in keeping with my past posts while also providing some very practical ways that we can re-tool what we are doing as parents. Please read this article and share with your friends as well!

The Overachievement Culture- A perspective from the UK

I have been passionate about speaking and writing on the overachievement culture here in the U.S. for almost 10 years. I find it abhorrent that our educational system does not recognize the undo pressures placed on children from the moment they enter the public school system. Pair this with parents who may unconsciously or consciously live vicariously through their children and/or find all their esteem from their high-achieving children and you have a recipe for children with high anxiety and stress and at a high risk for depression, self-injury, and even suicide. Children need free time, time spent reading alone or with their parents for pleasure, time spent walking or playing out of doors, time away from all pressures and all electronics. They can and should be encouraged to do their best. The do not need to be harangued with unobtainable (for many) standards and expectations every moment of every day of their lives.

I will admit that I had not thought about this same problem occurring across the Atlantic. Click this link to read a timely blog post by a teacher from the UK. Please take the time to read this and share it with others. Awareness must occur before change- please join me in spreading that awareness!

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is an idea that is becoming more and more known in educational circles. There is a growing body of research that demonstrates that its use can lead to improvement in problem behavior, including self-injury and feelings of depression. When we focus solely on academic success alone, we can often lose what is even more important- mental health and happiness. In a 2013 article by By Patricia C. Broderick, PhD, she states,

“There is little doubt that in addition to academic success, we also want our youth to be happy and well.”

While many educators have lost site of the importance of happiness and wellness, others have discovered the amazing benefits of mindfulness for our school youth. The amazing thing is that as youth feel better, they do better academically as well! When I am working with a school site to support a student with severe problem behavior, it is often recommended that academic demands be reduced. This is no “let them get out of it” approach- it has everything to do with creating academic success from a place of less stress.

Please consider the following resources in your quest to support your students and children:

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The Importance of *FACE* time

About fifteen years ago, when my then-husband and I made the decision to adopt a sibling group of five young girls (ages 4-11 years) in addition to our four biological children  (ages 18 months- 11 years), I made the commitment to spend one on one time with each of my children. I did not want them to feel like they were only a group and I did not want them to feel that our whole relationship consisted of me telling them what to do and what not to do. Thus began “30 minutes.” That was the amount of one-on-one time I promised each of my kids on their “day.” These two things became an institution over the ensuing years (my kids are now ages 16-26). On your “day” you got to pick your seat in our 15-seater van, sit where you wanted to at the dinner table, have first choice when anything came up, and spend “30 minutes” of one on one time with Mom. Some of the many things we did for “30 minutes” included: lay outside and look at the stars, take a walk, create a movie (back in the days when we had to use a big bulky VHS movie camera), go out to eat, and make a special food to eat together. Rarely was the time only 30 minutes. The time that I spent with each of my kids was a wonderful gift for me and I treasure each and every memory.

One of the things I emphasize when talking to parents is this need to spend one on one time with their children. Even though most parents aren’t dealing with a group of nine kids, one on one time – talking and interacting face to face- is still incredibly important . At a recent presentation a dad asked, “If you don’t count watching TV or playing video games, what do you suggest we do together?” This dad reflected an all-too prevalent phenomenon in our society. As Dr. Bruce Perry puts it, we have developed technology at a pace that has outstripped our ability to adapt and cope with it in a way that best meets the true needs of humans. The human race was designed (or has evolved, if you prefer) to interact, face to face with other humans. From the advent of television, to the invention of VCRs and early video games to today’s ever-present social media we have been on a high speed dIf you’ve played any MMORPG game like LoL, you know you’ll end up having to get an ELO boosts, or game currency – it turns into a hassle. ash that has resulted in less and less time spent face to face. Humans do not thrive in the absence of rich social relationships.

Research indicates that when a high number of rich social interactions and social-emotional support are present in a child’s life, trauma and other adverse events have a far lesser impact on the child’s overall development and life outcomes. Other research has pointed to the value and efficacy of strong relationships for adolescents in intervention for self injury. One of many research articles on the topic of the importance of social relationships and its impact on every aspect of health is available here. Further, I would encourage you to take an hour of your time to watch this presentation by Dr. Perry.

With this in mind, I want to use this article to encourage you to 1) Spend more face time with your children and loved ones (maybe it could be your New Year’s resolution);  2) Make hard decisions about limiting your own screen time and that of your children; and… 3) If you are in a position where you can share this need with others, please spread this information- it is vitally important to our future as a society. More and more children are growing up on a starvation diet in terms of relationships and therefore social-emotional development – and this has very scary implications in terms of developing empathy and other very important pro-social skills.

Meanwhile…here are some ideas of things to do with your friends, loved ones, and/or children to interact and really get to know each other better. Although the list was created by Megan Gladwell with younger kids in mind, there is not one thing on here you couldn’t enjoy with your adolescent, spouse, or adult friend!

1. Write a silly story

Sit down together with some paper and pencil. Ask your child to choose a specific location , a main character, a situation or conflict, and let the story unfold. Draw and color two or three pictures to illustrate your tale.

2. Have a story and craft hour

Invite a small group of your kid’s friends or neighbors to your home and read a story to the kids. Then create a craft that coordinates with the story’s theme. Have your child help plan and teach the craft and serve treats that go with the theme, too.

3. Break out a board game

Go back to the basics. Play checkers, Uno or Monopoly.

4. Build a Fort in your house or in your backyard!

Use cardboard boxes, blankets, bricks, or whatever materials you have to construct a cool fort.

5. Fill a donation box

Encourage your child to gather his gently-used, outgrown clothes and toys and deliver them to a needy friend or shelter.

6. Zoom around

Grab your helmets and ride bikes, scooters or skateboards together at a park.

7. Walk a dog

If you don’t have one, this idea is even more of a novelty. Offer to walk a neighbor’s dog for an hour.

8. Make homemade ice cream or popsicles OR bake a cake.

Invest in an ice cream maker and create yummy concoctions. Or, buy the cheap, plastic Popsicle molds and fill them with juice or soda and fruit pieces. Buy a box cake and look up a fun frosting recipe. Decorate your cake with cool colors!

9. Visit a pet store

For non-pet families, it’s always a treat to see the reptiles, birds, hamsters, kittens and puppies at your local pet store. Stress that you’re just window shopping.

10. Read a book together– choose an old favorite of yours or one your child is interested in.

Find a nice, long book that will stretch through a month or so, and read a chapter to your kids each day. Charlotte’s Web, Matilda and The Secret of Nimh are fun reads. Great book series include: The Chronicles of Narnia, Wrinkle in Time, and of course… Harry Potter!

This list is taken from a longer list created by Megan Gladwell.

I hope this has encouraged you to spend more face to face time with your loved ones and to spread the word to others as well! Now… I better get off this screen! 

 

 

A new school year is about to begin…

As I contemplate the start of a new school year, I am freshly reminded of a conversation I had at an end of school year breakfast in June. I was sitting next to a teacher from my elementary school. I recognized her but knew I hadn’t interacted with her very much during the school year that was just concluding. As the school psychologist, I knew this was good news for her! I reminded her who I was and commented that she must have had a good school year, since I hadn’t seen her at any meetings. 🙂

Our conversation soon turned to our children. We both have college-aged children, and both of us began to explain how our kids were attending community colleges. I noticed that both of us shared rather tentatively and then as we realized that we were of the same mind about it we unashamedly explained how great community college is and how well that option is serving our children both financially and educationally. As we continued to talk, we found that we also agreed to the importance of children doing their best, but not being pushed to a level they cannot reach…  or a level they are not even interested in. We both agreed that children should have down time, time to play, and time to just relax. If you have read my prior blogs or heard me speak, you know how excited I was to find a like-minded individual!

I would like to see a day where this conversation doesn’t have to be tentative. I would like to see a culture shift where all honorable occupations are valued and character rather than achievement at any cost is emphasized throughout our school systems. I believe that students who choose blue-collar careers should never be made to feel that they are choosing a lesser thing. I understand that we will continue to honor and acknowledge our high achievers and I think that is good. I do not think high academic achievement should be sold and discussed as the ONLY honorable and good goal for any and every student. Students should be praised for honorable character, hard work, and good study habits rather than ONLY their specific achievements! I am excited that my own district has changed our mission statement from a singular focus on college readiness to: College and Career Readiness for All Students. This simple change shifts from an obsession with a university education to a realization that some students would prefer to go straight to work or pursue employment and careers that do not include the traditional 4-year university pathway.

What does all this have to do with NSSI?

More than you might think. There is a subset of adolescents who self-injure who fit the high-achiever profile. These are students who lay everything on the line, take no breaks, and sacrifice everything to be at the TOP. When things go wrong (e.g. any grade below an “A”), a student in this category who also has other risk factors (especially poor emotional regulation and an exposure to the idea of self injury) may turn to this maladaptive coping strategy.

This school year, do not be a part of creating the stress and mindset that leads to the desperation these students find themselves in. Here are a few things that could make a huge difference:

  • Provide a listening ear when students come to you in distress.
  • Do not emphasize achievement at any cost. Especially not at the cost of mental health and stability.
  • Take time to teach your own children and students coping strategies to promote emotional regulation and mindfulness skills. (One great resource can be found here)

Have a great 2015-2016 school year!

 

Please read this article: Best Brightest and Saddest

A colleague of mine recently sent this article from the New York Times to all of the psychologists in my district. This article EXACTLY focuses on my soap box. By applying unrelenting pressure on students to excel and be the best one, we are creating pressure-filled lives for our children. I believe there is a balance that we as educators and parents have not achieved yet. A balance where children are encouraged to learn and grow and are provided with reasonable expectations. A balance where supports are provided for areas of need and strengths are celebrated. A balance where each individual student knows that his or her BEST is enough! We should be communicating to students that they don’t need to be THE best… they just need to be THEIR best. There is a huge difference. Whereas doing your own personal best and focusing on strengths is exhilarating,  being told that you must be THE best is exhausting, discouraging, and can even be life threatening.

Please read the attached article.

Suicide- Best Brightest and Saddest_ – NYTimes (2)

Thoughts for Parents

As a parent of two daughters who each self-injured over a period of many years, I struggled with guilt, anger, hopelessness, fear, and an array of other distressing emotions. When my oldest daughter first approached me to tell me that her friend was self-injuring in 2002, I was confused and wondered if I really understood what was happening. When she confessed that she had begun to self-injure herself the following year, I hoped that it was a temporary thing. I hoped it could be addressed by removing items that she could cut herself with and making sure she was in therapy.

Was I ever wrong.

I know now that self-injury is an insidious behavior that isn’t quickly responsive to therapy in most cases. I know now that it appears to be intrinsically reinforcing and therefore a behavior very difficult to successfully treat. I know now that  a young person determined to self-injure can find a way.

But when I first found out, I maintained the delusion that I could fix it. That I could find the right resources and all would be well. At the time, research was not yet available demonstrating the danger of treating self-injurers in groups and she participated in a homogeneous therapy group of self-injurers (do not do this). She saw a therapist that I found in LA and her father or I drove her the one and a half hours for the therapy every week. As the behavior continued and even worsened over the following years, I slowly lost my sense of control. I loved my daughter with all of my heart, but I had to let go of the idea that I could solve this problem for her. I continued to reach out to all of the resources I could find. I took her to new therapists when she felt she didn’t have rapport with the one she was seeing. We went to a psychiatrist and she began medication with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Still, the self-injury continued.

As this odyssey continued in my life and later included another of my daughters (read about contagion within this website), I began graduate school. Early on I decided to make self-injury a topic of all of my research projects and eventually my dissertation. Guess what? I still felt relatively hopeless at home and struggled with guilt, frustration, and anger when confronted by my daughters’ self-injury. Usually, when one of my daughters would approach me with a new injury I would greet them with the F-word and impatiently ask why they hadn’t come to me earlier? Why didn’t they use their coping strategies? Why? Why? I would worry that all of my attention, seeing to their wounds, and even taking them to the hospital would further serve to reinforce the behavior and yet, what option was there? What loving mother would do anything else?

I am sharing all of this frustration and failure with you for one main reason. I want you to give yourself a break as a parent. If a student of psychology and then doctor of psychology cannot always properly handle these difficult situations at home, don’t you think it’s understandable if you mess up now and then? I am asking you to release yourself from the guilt that you turn over in your head that this is somehow all your fault. Even if you have made mistakes, that cannot be helped by you wallowing in guilt. I am also asking you to literally give yourself a break: take time to care for yourself and your needs. As a parent of several special-needs children, I know it can be incredibly difficult to make the time for yourself. But it is so very important.

Despite all of my mistakes, I did do a few things that my daughters have reported as helpful:

– I continued to listen to them (and I always apologized for melting down).

– I spent one on one time with them every week doing something fun and with no pressure.

– I continued to seek out professional therapy for them and took them to appointments.

– One of my daughters benefited from my help in coordinating a plan for school.

I hope that parents can benefit from my experience. You can know right now that this is likely to be a long road. It is a tough road, but even as you struggle and experience personal failures and continue to see relapses of self-injury, keep providing love and warmth. Admit when you make mistakes and keep pressing on. Keep getting professional mental health assistance. Take one day at a time and make time for yourself.