Friday, December 10, 2010

Feeling SAD This Season?

Guest Blog by Jaclyn Pistorio, M.A.

Snow, sleet, and sub-zero temperatures? Yes, it is officially winter time! Many of us seem to be a bit more “down in the dumps” during these darker and colder months of the year. Ever wonder why you feel low around the same time, every year? Although SAD is not officially accepted as a distinct psychological disorder, it is a seasonal condition that impacts individuals every year.

Usually, SAD symptoms appear during the shorter, darker months of the year and tend to go away during the sunnier months. Winter-onset SAD symptoms include: depression, hopelessness, anxiety, loss of energy, social withdrawal, oversleeping, appetite changes (increase in craving for carbohydrates), and difficulty concentrating.

Unfortunately, the specific cause of SAD remains unknown. Like with many mental health conditions the causes may include genetics, environment, and health condition. A few specific factors that may come into play include your biological clock, melatonin levels, and serotonin levels. The reduced level of sunlight in the shorter seasons may actually disrupt your body’s internal clock, leading to feelings of depression. The changes in season and sunlight have also been shown to disrupt the normal levels of serotonin (a brain chemical) and melatonin (a natural hormone).

So why are we talking about SAD? Well, the prevalence of this disorder actually increases as you head north from the equator! Studies have actually shown that only 1 to 2 percent of all people who live in Florida suffer from the disorder, compared to 5 percent in Maryland and 10 percent in New Hampshire. I knew I should have moved to Florida.

Most of us have experienced these symptoms at one time or another so, how do you know if you have SAD or not? It is normal to have some days when you feel down. But if you feel down for days at a time and you can’t seem to get motivated, it may be time to see your doctor or therapist. Fear not, because there are several things you can do at home to alleviate your mild symptoms! Several treatments have also been shown effective in reducing severe symptoms.

Just because the seasons have changed doesn’t mean you have to change along with them.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

TSA: The Government Arm of NAMBLA

Parents, I know I don’t have to convince you that government agents feeling up your children should make you uncomfortable. I especially don’t have to convince you that government agents who barely make minimum wage and have no advanced education should be the last persons who should be putting their hands in your child’s pants. That’s right, INSIDE your child’s pants.

The North American Man/Boy Love Association must be enjoying a very special Thanksgiving, courtesy of the TSA. One of their chief objectives is to break down the barriers between adults and children so that adults can enjoy sexual relations with children without incrimination. TSA is making their dreams a reality by breaking down these barriers—right in front of their parents.

One of the holiest missions we parents have is protecting our children’s innocence. From the time they can comprehend, we say, “No one should ever touch you in your privates except Mom, Dad, or your doctor when Mom or Dad is there. You say ‘no’ to anyone else.” That explicitly drawn line in the sand is now being backed up. Now parents have to say “OK, now government agents who are total strangers to you and me get to touch your privates if they say so.” This is making our job far more difficult.

I can just see NAMBLA amending their “How-to” manual: “Simply tell the child that you are a government agent and that it is for national security that I touch your privates. Say, 'I’m part of a special agency that also requires you to touch our privates. If you don’t, you’ll have to go through the scanner, which has dangerous x-rays, which could give you cancer. So, which is it, little girl?'”

Federal agents can tell me that this is for national security, but so would anesthetizing every passenger during flights. It wouldn’t make it right or acceptable or tolerable.

Strangers feeling up your children is never OK; it’s not OK here. Parents should not tolerate it. Ever.

A special message to the TSA: bite me.

An even more special message to any government official who supports the TSA molesting my children: you’re fired.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why Psychiatry is Irrelevant, Part IX

There is a principle in science called the law of parsimony. The law essentially states that if there are competing hypotheses to explain a phenomenon, the one that has the fewest new assumptions should be the presumptive hypothesis. The common reduction of this law is that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is likely the correct explanation.

In the mental health field, we have had reasonable explanations for depression and anxiety for millenia. The explanations we have had have been perfectly adequate. Biological, economic, social, cognitive, and other causes are plentiful and more than enough to comprehend depression and anxiety. We do not need additional explanations, any more than we need another explanation for why it appears that the sun goes around the earth (the heliocentric explanation).

If you begin with the presupposition that depression is a normal response to the often overwhelming experiences and choices of life, then you can presume that the causes of depression are intelligible and discoverable. Then they can be comprehended and controlled.

If you begin with the presupposition that depression is a disease, you will not feel compelled to search as diligently for humanistic/existential/relational causes. This is ultimately dehumanizing. Therefore, psychiatry is dehumanizing.

We do not require a medical or even a scientific answer to why people become depressed.

Common sense is sufficient. Common sense is more than sufficient. Common sense, therefore, is where we should look when dealing with depression and anxiety. The answers aren't in a SPECT scan or the synaptic cleft; they are in LIFE and our HUMANNESS.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why Psychiatry is Irrelevant, Part VIII

In case you haven't been following (or your reading comprehension is really poor), this series demolishes the idea that one even needs to look at a broken brain as a likely reason for depressive or anxious symptoms. There are far too many more sensible and universally experienced alternatives. Psychiatry really is irrelevant.

Today, we look at socioeconomic factors that could cause or exacerbate depression and/or anxiety. Some of these would be enough for even the most resilient person to slip into depression.

Socioeconomic factors:

--Poverty (both abject poverty and relative poverty)


--Injustice (e.g., being unjustly accused/convicted of a crime or witnessing a member of your group experience the same


--Racism, Ageism, and Sexism (experienced or witnessed)

--Religious persecution

--Politicism (being mocked, ridiculed, devalued for one’s political affiliation or opinion)

Essentially, any social or economic forces that communicate to a person or group that they are less valuable, worthwhile, or lovable because of their social or economic status creates an emotional vulnerability that, without great resilience and sufficient health in other areas, is likely to result in depression and/or anxiety.

Just another set of human beings for whom the psychiatric model is not only irrelevant, but demeaning, dehumanizing, and worth ridicule.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Why Psychiatry is Irrelevant, Part VII

Are you a worthwhile, valuable, lovable person? No matter what you answer, the next question should be, "Says who?" Do we determine our own worth, value, or does someone else? The answer to this question determines a great deal of our emotional well-being.

What do we use as the standard for worth and lovability? Popularity? Skill level? Beauty? Money? Success? Or is it something else--something that has little to do with what you are or do? Is there something inherent in us that has value? Or does value have to be infused in us from an outside source?

Persons who are confused about their value or who misperceive their value have a difficult time experiencing joy and peace. Yet another cause or contributor to depression and anxiety.

I loathe the term "self esteem". In its place, I use self worth. Here are some threats to one's sense of self worth:
  • Focus on personal qualities rather than inherent value
  • Focus on looks
  • Focus on ability
  • Focus on money
  • Focus on status
  • Focus on achievement or success
  • A reliance on others for view of self (e.g., friends, family, co-workers, the public)
  • Allowing hurtful or ignorant people to be authorities or arbiters of your value

If one has to possess certain traits or abilities or things in order to have real value or be lovable, then life becomes a neverending treadmill of working for worthiness. This cannot bring real peace or joy, no matter how talented or wealthy or beauty one possesses.

Equally fleeting is putting ones value or worth in the hands of other people. People are fickle and sometimes self-serving--even downright evil sometimes. Why would one trust deeply flawed human being for their ultimate sense of value and worth? That's pretty scary for many.

Rather, when a person recognizes that his or her value comes from the Almighty--the only perfectly loving Creator who made each human being in His image. In that way, He infused each person with a value that is infinite, a worth that is hardly communicable, and a lovability that endures. Those who put their reliance on that as their worth--and remain conscious of it--can rest.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Why Psychiatry is Irrelevant, Part VI

Thoughts. Cognitions. Ideas. Beliefs. Fantasy. Perceptions. If there is one lesson I teach my clients most often, it is that thoughts precede emotions. That is, your thoughts, which include perception, belief, and imagination, are what cause your brain to determine whether emotion will occur.

Take, for example, thinking that occurs when one is rejected for a job. One could say, "I'm never going to get a job. I'm useless; I'm going to be unemployed and undesirable forever." This depressive thinking will result in depressed feelings, then depressive behavior. And the cycle will perpetuate. Contrast that thinking with something more positive: "This job didn't work out. It clearly wasn't a good fit. I'm sure there will be something else for which I am a good fit." That kind of thinking won't prevent disappointment, but it will soothe the ego and prevent more depressive feelings.

So, as promised, here are some of the thought errors that can cause or worsen depression and anxiety:

--“Woe is me” (generalization)




--Black-and-white thinking

--Should thinking

--Believing one’s emotional and relational suffering are due to a broken brain—not a broken life—and that one is mentally ill, biologically inferior, or disabled, and therefore powerless to effect meaningful change.

We all are guilty of silly thinking; some more than others. It is easy to see how almost all depressed persons and those who struggle with anxiety are encumbered by inappropriate thinking. Yet another cause for depressive and anxious symptoms that do not require a broken brain.

Tomorrow, more.

Why Psychiatry is Irrelevant, Part V

There are so many potential causes for depression and anxiety that every time I look at the lists, I add one or more new ones I hadn't thought of before.

As promised, the next batch of sufferogenic causes of depression that have nothing to do with a genetic predisposition or a mythical chemical imbalance.

As anyone can attest, we are highly relational creatures. Students of Introduction to Psychology might recall the Harlow experiments, where baby monkeys were removed from their mothers, then given various replacements with varying degrees of similarity to the mother. The monkeys were generally quite disturbed after the long separation.

We know that humans are even more susceptible to deep pain and pathology when devoid of human contact. The symptoms it produces are nothing short of depression and anxiety. All relational crises, then, can stimulate or exacerbate depression or anxiety.

Relational Crises:

  • Divorce/break-up and resulting loss of relationship (e.g., parent losing custody of a child)

  • Rejection by loved ones or someone desired

  • Discovering one is socially undesirable or lacks skills to make friends

  • Loneliness

  • Family schism

  • Relational strain/broken alliances in relationships

  • Rejection/ridicule/lack of respect from co-workers or superiors

Any reader who says they haven't experienced one of these is lying. We all experience them. We all hurt deeply from them.

Why Psychiatry is Irrelevant, Part IV

Yesterday I listed several of the existential questions and crises that have crippled people with anxiety or depression throughout history. Many of my readers can already see enough evidence that depression and anxiety are expected consequences of being a deeply imperfect human in a deeply imperfect world.

But wait, there's more!

Today, I will list some of the traumas that trample on the souls of human beings. When I say trauma, I am not referring to skinned knees or watching the Cubs fail. I'm talking about the kind of events that overwhelm the mind's ability to absorb information, to make sense of the evil in this world. As you can see, traumas stimulate existential crises.

  • Abuse and/or neglect, by parents or other relatives, teachers, or other trusted adults

  • Sexual (rape, incest, molestation, sexual slavery)

  • Physical

  • Slavery
  • Emotional misuse (severe control)

  • Witnessing the abuse of others, especially family members

  • War (witnessing atrocities, being forced to commit atrocities)

  • Natural disasters

  • Victim of violence or torture (e.g., severe bullying)

  • Abduction

  • Loss of a loved one

  • Accidents (killing/injuring someone else)

Does anyone really think that a person who is reduced to depression or significant anxiety who has experienced any of these becomes so because of a broken brain? That is exactly what the medical model of psychiatry teaches.

Tomorrow, more causes for depression and anxiety.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Why Psychiatry is Irrelevant, Part III

Yesterday, I listed many biological causes for depression and anxiety. Almost all people have struggled with one or more biological weakness; many struggle with multiple biological causes, enough to cause significant depressive symptoms. For some, the body fights the mind and even the soul.

Today, I will be listing several existential causes of depression. These are almost utterly ignored by psychiatry (and, to my dismay, even many psychologists), although they have been the cause of many of the deepest depressions throughout the millennia.

Existential or psycho-spiritual crises/questions:

• “Meaning of Life” questions: searching for a reason for being or existing without resolution

• The question of the existence of God

• If God exists, is He good?

• How do we explain evil? If I do evil, does that mean I am evil?

• Boredom (nothing meaningful to do/experience)

• Guilt/shame: inadequacy

• Human Mortality versus Immortality

• Am I finite or infinite?

• Is life pointless if death is the end of existence?

• Why must we die?

• Is there an afterlife?

• If there is a Heaven and Hell, will I go to Hell?

• Can I have assurance that I will go to Heaven?

There are those who seem to go throughout life unaware of existential questions and crises or appear comfortable without resolving these questions. But to the existentially sensitive, the answers to these questions are more precious than air. Even one unanswered existential question can reduce even the stoutest soul to a dark puddle and shrivel even the hardiest mind into a bundle of frayed nerves.

Tomorrow, another sphere sufficient to produce deep depression or anxiety.

Why Psychiatry is Irrelevant, Part II

As promised, I will now begin listing the near infinite number of reasons why a person could become depressed--reasons that not only do not require a medical view of depression, but make the whole "broken brain" model defunct and irrelevant.

I will begin with biological problems. Note that most of these problems are not genetically based, but are environmentally caused. Often, these biological "insults" create a biochemical or structural problem in the brain, but this is qualitatively different than what psychiatry says is the foundational cause of most depression.

Biological causes of depression:

  • Alcohol use/abuse
  • Illicit drug use (e.g., cocaine, opiates, MDMA, hallucinogenics)
  • Prescription medication (opiates, drugs prescribed for chemotherapy)
  • Drugs marketed as "antidepressants", such as SSRI's (Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Lexapro, etc.), often from direct use of the drug but also from withdrawing from the drug
  • Stimulants, such as Concerta, Vyvanse, Adderall, Strattera (yes, Strattera is a stimulant)
  • Neuroleptics (especially from their common horrific side effects)
  • Countless treatments for neurological disorders (e.g., ECT)
  • Environmental Toxins (household chemical agents, toxins in water, air, fertilizers)
  • Insufficient exercise
  • Poor diet (not only imbalanced diet, but preservatives and fake ingredients)
  • Food allergies/sensitivities
  • Poor sleep (one of the most underappreciated factors for emotional/cognitive dysfunction)
  • Brain injury
  • Chronic and/or debilitating disease
  • Chronic and/or debilitating pain
  • Physical disability
  • Bad weather or insufficient sunlight
  • Lack of fresh, clean air

I realize that this list is nowhere near exhaustive. I am certain that scientists will discover many other environmental toxins that mess up our emotional systems. But for now, ask yourself if you have escaped all of these. Almost no one has. Is each of these enough to trigger depression? For some people, yes.

I can't tell you how many children have been cured of phony-baloney disorders by correcting one or more of these biological problems. One adolescent I recently treated was diagnosed with ADHD and depression by a local expert psychiatrist. His parents refused to put the child on medication; they had a hunch that something was wrong with the diagnosis. They brought their son to me for a second opinion. I discovered in about 15 seconds that his sleep was woefully insufficient. We made improving his sleep the number one priority. In three weeks, his sleep had improved. Within days, his ADHD symptoms were gone, his depression lifted, and he described being a new person. All because one sphere of biological functioning was awry. That is how sensitive we are to disregulation.

Tomorrow, I will unleash the second list of reasons why people become depressed and anxious. I'm just getting started.

Until then, sleep well, eat well, and don't eat paint chips.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Why Psychiatry is Irrelevant

Modern psychiatry’s greatest weakness is not its particulars. It isn’t that it has failed thus far to find the Holy Grail: the perfect pill or surgery that can fix human suffering without doing great harm to the human person or its systems. No, the greatest weakness of medicine’s weakest specialty is in its foundational principles and presuppositions.

Psychiatry is a hopeless profession because its philosophy is fatally flawed. Because its foundation is antithetical to good science and its naturalistic worldview precludes a supernatural (i.e., spiritual) view of the human person, it has become increasingly irrelevant. The emperor is naked, and fewer and fewer people are bothering to notice.

The primary debate is between psychiatry’s medical model and a humane, psycho-spiritual model of mental illness. What this debate boils down to is the question, “Why do people suffer problems such as depression (the most common ‘ailment’ treated by psychiatrists)?” Is the depressed person doomed to suffer the consequences of a broken brain unless and until psychiatry corrects whatever biological, chemical, or electrical error exists? Or, is it possible to tell every person what they desperately want to hear: “After understanding your life, your history, your beliefs, your struggles, your environment, and your world, I can understand why you would be depressed.” I have never met a person in my professional or personal life, where, after having gotten to know them well enough, I have not been able to validate their misery as comprehensible, meaningful, purposeful, and redeemable.

There is no shortage of reasons for a person being depressed or anxious. One need not look to psychiatry’s biochemical bogeyman for an answer.

Beginning tomorrow, I will begin unleashing a torrent of alternative causes of depression. By the time I am done, it will be clear that psychiatry’s view of depression—that one is born with a biological predisposition to an illness that causes the symptoms of depression—will seem hopelessly irrelevant and, frankly, silly.

Friday, October 22, 2010

911, What’s Your Parenting Emergency?

There is a great story about a 10-year-old boy from the Chicago suburbs (no, it wasn’t my kid) who was complaining about the dinner his father had made for him. The father didn’t appreciate the complaints and, thank goodness, wasn’t budging on the boy’s demands to make him an alternative meal. The boy threw a tantrum. Surprise, surprise.

In response, the father said something like, “You know what? Call 911 if you think that you have a disagreement with me and you’re right. Call them, let them come over here and see who’s right.” And the child did just that.

Apparently, the boy dialed 911, but then when the operator answered, the boy chickened out and hung up. Per policy, the 911 operator called the home. The father explained, “He thinks that is just a joke this 911. I’m telling him that is not a joke and we have to impose some rules in the house and the have to follow the rules.”

A police officer was dispatched to the residence, where the cop advised both the child and father on the proper use of the 911 system.

First, I’d like to award the dad here with a Parent in Charge certificate. Way to go not giving in to your child’s entitled attitude. He should be thankful he has edible food three times a day.

Second, I’d like to encourage parents not to suggest their child call 911. Great idea and I understand the impulse, but a Parent in Charge doesn’t need the police to come help deal with his 10-year-old’s temper tantrums.

Third, I’d like to remind parents that Junior will not starve to death if he misses dinner. If he doesn’t like what you’ve made, he doesn’t have to eat it. No skin off your nose. Now, this is provided you have never won the Worst Cook of the Year Award and aren’t trying to feed your child arsenic pie or some whacky exotic food that most billy goats would reject. Sure, it’s good to expand your child’s culinary horizons, but don’t make your kid a guinea pig.

If you disagree with me, please don’t call 911. They might see my cooking, which is bad enough to put me behind bars.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Back to School! Yea and Ugh!

Today is the first day of school for my two elder children; the youngest begins Kindergarten this Thursday. For about a week, our family has been preparing for this eventuality: daydreaming, shopping (and returning), some worrying, and reviewing expectations. For many families, the back to school season can bring a great deal of stress and hand-wringing. For the next few entries, I will be examining some of the most important conflicts and stresses and offer a few suggestions to help smooth the bumpy road into the school year. For now, I will review two of the most important.

As I have previously written, I am convinced that the most important factor for your child is achieving sufficient sleep. Imagine trying to drive your car to work with one wheel missing. You could possibly make it, but it wouldn’t be pretty. You wouldn’t be able to respond to emergency situations or maneuver deftly. It’s the same with sleep. Get your child back on a sound sleep schedule ASAP! One recommendation: do not fall into the habit of allowing your child to stay up later because he or she is older. If you do that, he or she will be up until midnight or later by the time high school starts.

Second, I know that homework brings a number of stresses and conflicts into many families. In order to lessen the chaos, it is absolutely crucial that parents discuss homework expectations with the child’s teacher. Find out the following:

1. What are the goals for homework: Learning? Mastering? Practicing?
2. How long should the homework take? What if my child takes significantly longer?
3. Is homework to be done independently or am I expected to help?
4. What are the consequences for not doing (or incomplete) homework?
5. What if my child does not understand the homework? Should I leave it for the following day, try to teach my child the concepts in my own way, call the teacher, do the homework for my child?
6. What should I do if the child completes the homework, but it is fundamentally incorrect or sloppy? Should I even be checking?
7. What if my child has after school activities one or two nights a week that make it impossible to get the homework done without stealing crucial sleep hours?

Discover these and you will be able to build a healthy homework relationship with your child.

Feel free to offer me suggestions of back-to-school conflicts and stressors; I’ll weigh in on as many as I can in the following weeks.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Top Ten Lies and Politically Correct Episodes in Children’s Literature

10. In Dr. Seuss’s anti-capitalist, pro-environmental classic The Lorax, the greedy truffula-hacker and thneed-maker never plants another tree. He simply rapes the environment until there is nothing left, leaving the reader to perceive corporations as motivated by nothing but unmitigated evil. But even the dopiest capitalist knows to replenish the natural resources that feed his industry. Besides, if he really were that greedy, he would have enslaved the pesky Lorax.

9. Roald Dahl would have us believe that Willy Wonka rescued the Oompa-Loompas from their remote island in the Pacific. This is clearly a front. A recent discovery—made from a joint British-American document gained by a Freedom of Information request—is that the British Academy of Dentists kidnapped the Oompa-Loompas and sold them to Wonka, knowing that his candy empire would keep dentists fully employed for decades. An Oliver Stone film on this heinous example of industrial slavery is in the works.

8. Most younger parents have read Shinta Cho’s chilling and most academic work, The Gas We Pass: the Story of Farts. Much of the book is accurate, until it makes the patently false claim that eating vegetables does not cause gas, while meat causes near apocalyptic flatulence. Recently, independent journalists discovered that Shinta Cho is a jumbled name: Tina Hochs, a founding member of PETA and longtime proponent of forced veganism. As of yet, it is unclear whether her book’s falsehoods spring more from self-delusion or outright deception.

7. Speaking of PETA, there is no way Curious George could have existed in public without their members becoming apoplectic; the museum would have been shut down by demonstrations. (By the way, there is also no way the man in the yellow hat isn’t gay; no one else would dress like that in New York.)

6. Dr. Seuss wasn’t completely left-wing; he was alternately disgusted and confused by the vegetarian movement. Green Eggs and Ham was his most admittedly biased work, written to counteract the movement’s influence. It strangely shows a sublimely joyful carnivore convincing an anonymous man that he should eat meat. In reality, normal people have to be convinced not to eat meat.

5. Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson did not willingly retire his monumentally successful comic in 1995. He was forced by the pharmaceutical/newspaper complex to quit because he refused to depict Calvin, a six-year-old “poster child for ADHD”, taking Ritalin or another psychostimulant. Officials were frightened that other parents might begin to view childhood as normal, which would have severely squashed profits. Watterson flirted with the idea, creating several unpublished strips that show Calvin under the influence of stimulants, but he determined that no one would enjoy reading a comic about a boy doing homework who has no creativity or personality.

4. I hate to pick on Dr. Seuss, but any normal parent who reads The Cat in the Hat notices the oddity of two young children staying home alone for the entire day. What kind of father would depict two children attempting to cope with a home intruder, where the fish has more brains than the children? Besides, parents know that the Department of Child and Family Services would have been there in an instant (although the cat seems to possess the intellect of most DCFS workers, so maybe the cat worked for them, disqualifying this one as an outright lie).

3. Max, the boy in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, would never be sent to his room without dinner. Such a draconian punishment would never be enforced by an American parent. In reality, whatever the boy did would be excused, or at most, his punishment would be that he couldn’t play his Wii for the rest of the day (although permissive parents would consider even that to be child abuse).

2. Readers of The Giving Tree are supposed to feel warm and grateful to the “tree” in their lives—those who willingly sacrificed for their good. But if my kid were as snotty and selfish as the boy in that book, I would have dropped a limb on his head and said, “Maybe if you had asked nice, you little brat..!” The End. Now that would be a good story.

And the biggest lie in children’s literature:

1. A Charlie Brown Christmas was severely edited, omitting crucial details. Notice, for example, that the play the children rehearse is never put on for the public. This is due to Linus’s egregious violation of the separation of church and state, when he actually explains the Christmas story according to sacred scripture—in a public building! Network officials edited out the sequence where Peppermint Patty alerts public officials of this over-step, who then shut down the entire production. The children are forced to huddle together outside in a private area, where they appear free—for the time being—to sing a Christmas hymn.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

More Evidence that Regular Sleep is Supremely Valuable

A brand new study concluded that making up for repeated nights of poor sleep cannot be done in just a night or two.

Researchers found that after five days—an average school or work week—of insufficient sleep, a 10-hour night of sleep only recovered a small amount of the “sleep deficit.” Participants continued to exhibit poor attention, limited memory retention, delayed reaction times, and marked difficulty in regulating emotions. These findings bolster the growing consensus that people can accumulate a “sleep debt” if they regularly go without proper sleep, even if they attempt to make up for it on weekends.

Study researcher David Dinges said, "Lifestyles that involve chronic sleep restriction during the workweek and during days off work may result in continuing buildup of sleep pressure and in an increased likelihood of loss of alertness and increased errors."

This is particularly important for parents during the month of August—when children tend to continue summer sleep schedules. With the school year rapidly approaching, it would be wise for parents to begin re-regulating their child’s sleep schedule. It is impossible to transition Junior to sleeping from 9-7, for example, if he has been sleeping from 11-9 all summer. It will take a couple weeks, with bedtimes incrementally backing up to the earlier time.

During the school year, it is imperative that parents prioritize their child’s sleep, since almost every cognitive function requires adequate sleep and deficiencies cannot easily be remedied by sleeping in during the weekend.

Start now; have a sleep schedule. Encourage healthy sleep hygiene, so that your child develops patterns that will be habitual by the time school starts. You will lessen the stressful transition—although I can’t promise you will get rid of that stress altogether. That’s a bit above my pay grade.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The DSM-V: The Dumbest Senseless Manipulative Volume

I want readers to be forewarned: the American Psychiatric Association has lost the rest of its waning credibility now that the details of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is set to be published in its Fifth Edition. This volume is likely to endure more ridicule than a Bible at an atheist book club.
In the coming weeks, I am going to explore several of the more laughable aspects of the DSM-V, so that we can all enjoy the humor of this publication and develop an appropriate response to the most inane scientists our nation has to offer.

One of the most egregious stupidities involves the glaring conflict of interest of many of its authors. One example is Catherine Lord, who helped determine the new diagnostic categories of Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Of course, it makes sense to reexamine the criteria of this branch of disorders, which is relatively new to psychiatry.

However, Dr. Lord is involved in another area of Autism research; she has developed a test for the disorder called the ADOS. As Allison Bass reported, the subcategories included in her test (which, if widely used, could make her a fat paycheck) are suspiciously similar to the new criteria she proposes for the autistic spectrum disorders in the DSM-V! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how hopelessly biased she would be in determining these criteria. If she makes the new criteria too different than her test, no one will buy the test.

This is just one small example. There are dozens of others in the DSM-V. And there are dozens of other deadly criticisms of the document that is already responsible for labeling millions of Americans with “mental illness”.

I invite every person with critical thinking skills to ask: why would anyone trust the only specialty in medicine that has achieved no cures, achieves "success" only through damaging the organ it is supposed to fix, performs no better than placebo, and constantly changes its diagnostic categories?

Next: how scientific is a decision that five symptoms is a disease, but only four is not?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Diagnosing ADHD Far too Quickly

One of the key elements of the ADHD diagnosis—or any diagnosis, for that matter—is determining the cause of whatever ADHD-like symptoms exist. Most clinicians (at least in my experience) simply look at a few rating scales and do a quick history. When they perceive that Junior has struggled with ADHD-like symptoms since childhood and that these symptoms have been distressing to either the child or the child’s parents or teachers, the clinician then determines a diagnosis of ADHD.
This is pathetic.

Any clown can read rating scales and comprehend that a child struggles to pay attention or concentration, is disorganized, or lacks self-control. This shouldn’t require an MD or Ph.D. What requires critical thinking, patience, and a deep understanding of child development is recognizing that there are several possible causes or reasons for the child’s behavior patterns.

The more I work with children and their families, the more I am convinced that parents can absolutely prevent and “cure” the vast majority of ADHD cases. Yes, parents have that much power.

As soon as I discuss parents’ role in creating an ADHD child, out come the complaint that “You’re saying that ADHD is caused by bad parents!” Pro-ADHD organizations like CHADD outright mock the idea that parents have any causal relationship to ADHD symptoms (which is highly suspect). Rather, the psychiatric community believes that ADHD symptoms are caused primarily by an insufficient brain—presumably caused by unfortunate genetics.

But this is not only patently false, but demonstrably so. I have had scores of children in my office who were diagnosed with ADHD by licensed psychiatrists—often with really impressive credentials—whose ADHD symptoms vanished when the parents properly trained their children. How is this possible if the child's brain is broken (unless, of course, my treatments are so potent that they "fix" the child's damaged brain; if so, call the folks on the Nobel committee).

So are the parents of ADHD children bad parents? No way! They are simply imperfect parents who have failed to provide their child the adequate and unique training that they needed. Most of the parents I work with whose child has been diagnosed ADHD are wonderful, loving, supportive, protective, and engaged parents. They simply weren’t equipped to deal with a child with unique needs.

Are there other causes of ADHD-like symptoms? I’m convinced there are. There is good reason to believe that insults to the brain in utero or during the early brain development can have significant negative effects on executive functions. But the vast majority of children whose behavior mimics the “ADHD Poster Child” have the same cause: parents.

Remember the good news here: if the failure of parents can cause the problem, then when those parents understand their role and are equipped to properly train their child, they can fix the problem, once and for all! A cure for ADHD!!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Banning the “Play-Date”

Having been recently elected Grand Poobah by the Society of Sensible Parents, I hereby decree that it is now illegal to refer to children’s social gatherings as “play-dates”.

Being a benevolent dictator, I will explain my decision.

First, some historical perspective. There was no such thing as a play-date when we were children. In fact, I never heard the term until about 10 years ago—when I had my first child.* I think parents began using the term when they started arranging every minute of their child’s time, including their time with friends.

Why did parents begin using this heinous term? Partly because children no longer just leave their house and find friends to play with in the neighborhood. Paranoia over sexual predators has destroyed that freedom. Now, parents feel like they have to hold their kid’s hand two blocks away to their friend’s house for a pre-arranged social time. Since the parent planned it, it is likely on her calendar. Anything on the calendar is a date. Voila! It’s a play-date!

When I was a kid, we used more sensible terms, such as, “Can I go to Paul’s house?” How about, “Can Paul come over?” Or, “Paul and I are going to hang out.” It makes my stomach curdle to imagine asking, “Can I have a play-date with Paul?”

Play-date? Blech.

There is one exception to this new rule. If you have a girl younger than six, the term “play-date” is acceptable. Usually girls will play dress-up or dolls or other girly activities; they are not threatened by the idea of having a play-date. Boys on the other hand do not consider time with a friend to be a date. They consider it mutually pleasurable using of each other for sport. Boys do not want to have their time belittled by calling it a “play-date”.

Imagine asking your eight-year-old daughter in the middle of time with her friend, “How are you enjoying your play-date?” She probably wouldn’t be insulted—although she might roll her eyes at you and privately call you a dork to her friend. Now imagine asking your eight-year-old son the same question. He would be mortified. This is almost child abuse!

There is no second exception for a boy and girl get-together, even if your child admits to having a crush on the opposite-sex friend. You should not be encouraging dating in any form before…oh, to be on the safe side, let’s say…25. Surely, encouraging your six-year-old to view his time with his female friend as a date is not wise. It may be cute, but it’s also kinda gross.

Please, I implore you all. Withstand the temptation to use that horrid term. Try this old-fashioned language instead:

“Hey, Victor called to play; wanna go to his house?”
“You’re bored? Why don’t you invite Violet over?”
“Finish your homework; then you can go hang out with Sven.”

*Anyone complaining about my using the phrase “had my first child” because I’m a man and didn’t actually birth my child will henceforth be considered a “dweeb” and should seek professional help, as well as a powerful anti-anxiety agent. Get over yourself.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Suicidal Toddlers or Just Normal Kids?

"If I don't get another cookie, I'm going to kill myself!!" Most toddlers don't say things like that, but many go through a phase of hitting themselves when frustrated. Why do they do that and what is a parent to do?

Little ones are just as expressive as older children and adults--often more so. However, they lack the vocabulary to express themselves appropriately, so they have to use alternatives. One is to say goofy things like "I hate you." Another is hitting, biting, kicking, screaming, and tantruming. Yet another is hitting themselves. It expresses frustration, anger, sadness, and an inability to control oneself.

In a way, a child who hits himself is not only expressing frustration but begging Mom or Dad: "Please, help me get under control!" Parents have a few options when Junior starts whacking himself.
1. Interpret. Say something like, "Wow, it looks like you are really mad right now!" This helps the child learn to connect feelings to words. In time, he or she can learn how to use those words instead of hitting. The only disadvantage with this option is that it may inadvertently reinforce the pattern by giving the child your attention when being self-abusive.
2. Punish. Spanking, yelling, and other negative stimuli might stop Junior in the moment. But I don't recommend it because it will never teach a new way of dealing with the frustration that led to the behavior in the first place. Junior needs you to be in control of the situation by teaching new strategies for handling emotions.
3. Ignore. Eventually, your toddler will learn that hitting himself won't get your attention or whatever it is he wanted. This is extremely difficult to do, especially in public and especially since your child might injure himself.
4. Time Out. This is a good option, because it removes the child from the reinforcing aspects of the situation--namely, your attention. However, it might take a while for Junior to settle down once he is out of control and some toddlers are not ready to do Time Out until well into their third year. So this is better for 4 and 5-year-olds.
4. Redirect. This is the best option. Yes, it gives the child attention, but that's OK here, since safety is paramount and it provides an excellent teaching opportunity. When your child starts hitting, shift the focus to something completely different, like a chore, a song, a physical activity ("Hey, let's both twirl around until we fall down and want to throw up!"), wrestling, repeated hard high-fives, etc. Be creative. Just do me a favor: don't redirect to TV or video games. You'll have an Electric Addict in no time.
Give that a try when your toddler starts going postal on himself/herself! Remember, don't freak out; normal toddlers do crazy things.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Armure du coeur

An interesting German study was recently published that found the "pain matrix": a location in the brain that registers emotional pain and memories of pain.

The psychologists in the study had 16 subjects read pain-related words while imagining situations that corresponded to each word. They were then asked to repeat the exercise, but were distracted by a brain-teaser as they read the words. During the experiments, participants had their brains scanned with functional Magnetic Resonance Imagining (fMRI).

The experimenters found that when people heard or read words such as "plaguing," "tormenting," and "grueling," the section of the brain that retains memories of painful experiences was triggered. Not exactly rocket science, but so far, so interesting.

What was advertised, however, was something far more profound--and questionable. The marketing department of the study reported that painful words are just as traumatic as physical pain--essentially suggesting that the brain does not distinguish between physical and emotional pain.

But does this suggest that name-calling produces the same kind of pain as a kick in the shin, a punch in the gut, or being choked? This is an important question, given the attention that media are playing to the issue of bullying in our schools.

There is no doubt that name-calling can be destructive; children who bully with their words should be held accountable just as surely as children who bully with their fists. Believe me, in my world, bullies would much rather face a firing squad than deal with the consequences I would dream up for them. However, part of the solution to this form of bullying must be helping victims of verbal bullying build their immunity to this nonsense.

Being called names like "retard," "fag," "loser," "Mama's boy," and other derogatory terms can hurt. But they don't have to. Children can't stop a kick in the gut from hurting, but they can learn how to filter verbal assaults in ways that prevent pain.

One of the things that allows verbal bullying its effect is that the child values what the bully thinks. Think of it, what do I care if some stranger comes up to me and says that I'm retarded? But if a colleague or family member said it, it would hurt. Why? Because I care what my family and colleagues think of me; I couldn't care less what strangers think.

Children can be taught to distinguish this way. What family and teachers and best friends think matters. What bullies think does not matter. In fact, the opinion of a bully means nothing because bullies are morally and intellectually inferior.

This should become the mantra: WHAT BULLIES SAY MEANS NOTHING. If adults and the majority of children unite in this, the victims of verbal bullying can minimize the pain and can actually mean it when they say, "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me."

Monday, April 26, 2010

I Was Spanked as a Child but Somehow Didn't Become an Axe Murderer!!!

I’m going to start this post by stating that I am NOT a fan of spanking. In fact, I hate spanking. I hated spanking my kids (each of them on two occasions). I don’t believe it is an effective disciplinary tool. It certainly never teaches a child new, better behaviors.

However, I feel compelled to support spanking as a tool because of how maligned it has become and how inaccurately it has recently been portrayed in the media. To read some of the current stories and studies out there, you would think that children who are spanked are at best all going to bully their peers or future spouse and at worst are at high risk for becoming axe murderers.

This is nonsense and I’m not tolerating it.

Spanking a child necessarily involves infliction of a painful stimulus—unless Mom and Dad are too wimpy to do it with sufficient force. Believe me, this is a problem with some parents; it feels somewhat strange to inform a parent that “you’re not spanking him hard enough.” If painful stimulus were enough to traumatize a child, then we have really wimpy, hypersensitive children who need to grow a set. In that case, get your kid away from bicycles, sandboxes, swimming pools, and anything remotely dangerous. Y’know, anything fun…

If the supposed problem with spanking is that the painful stimulus comes from the person who is supposed to help and love the child, then all doctors and nurses who give children a series of shots and other painful procedures should be thrown in jail, or at least reported to the Department of Child and Family Services. Ask any kid if he’d rather have a spanking or a shot; my money is on “Spanking, please!!!”

As I have said a thousand times, a child is not traumatized by the painful stimulus of a few swats on their butt. Kids are far more resilient than that.

What IS traumatizing is the parental rage and out of control behavior that sometimes accompanies spanking. That is what no study has examined and what no study would dare examine. But this is why those studies are worthless at best and harmful at worst, because many parents can use spanking quite effectively as it should be used: not as a primary discipline tool, but as a back-up, as a method to establish other, more effective methods (such as time out).

Let me use a little analogy. If police beat you with their baton or shot you every time you were pulled over for speeding, that would be overkill, right? That’s what spanking is for abusive, out-of-control parents. Those police officers should be stripped of their weapons; those parents should not spank. However, one of the reasons we pull over for a police officer and why most sane people don’t raise a ruckus when pulled over is BECAUSE the officer has a baton and a gun. A healthy level of fear teaches most people not to mess with police officers.

Spanking, used appropriately and sparingly, offers parents the ability to establish the boundaries in the parent-child relationship which allows the parent to use other methods of discipline quite effectively and 99% of the time.

Let’s not decide to eat raw steak just because some crazy chefs tend to burn their steaks. Rather, let’s learn how to cook them properly.

All this hostility…and guess what? I don’t want to spank my kids! Instead, it has me hungry…

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Shocking the Brain is Bad..Duh...

A fascinating study offers evidence that shocking the brain with electricity is not a good thing. Duh...

I can't wait to hear how biopsychiatrists rationalize this one.

Researchers surmised that soldiers who experienced the trauma of bombing had high levels of electricity produced in their brain. In turn, this electricity damaged the brain in a number of ways.

The brain damage that researchers found meet the criteria for Traumatic Brain Injury, which results in gross cognitive dysfunction, including memory loss, apathy, and a host of other abnormal functions.

This is EXACTLY what happens with Electroconvulsive Therapy (aka, ECT, Shock "Therapy", Electroshock Treatment). Proponents of ECT have consistently denied this manifestly obvious fact, for reasons that only common sense can surmise.

They would have us believe that shocking the brain with electricity is terribly harmful when it occurs on the battlefield, but if it is done by people in lab coats to heavily sedated patients, then it is helpful. I'm not buying it.

ECT is barbaric, useless, and one of the more damaging "treatments" that psychiatry has perpetrated on the human race in its long and illustrious history.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Get Dirty with Junior

I'm convinced that children need to garden. Yes, they need to get their hands dirty with a shovel, trowel, rake, or just their bare hands.

First, it is excellent exercise. Digging in the dirt, looking for worms, amending soil with compost, coffee grinds, and other things is hard work! My son, who normally has an inexhaustible amount of energy, helped me create a new garden bed this weekend; he was in charge of chopping up clumps of top soil into smaller chunks. He was thoroughly pooped after a couple hours. Truth be told, so was I.

Second, it offers great opportunity to learn about how food is grown. You can teach some basic biological principles about the plant world--how plants need good soil, water, and sunlight.

Third, kids love to produce something that they will eat. A bonus is that they will have to learn patience, since most crops take weeks to grow to fruition.

Finally, children need to discover the connection between the food they consume and its source. Sure, they know that they get food from the supermarket; but where does that come from?

Wendell Berry writes that modern humans have become too disconnected from their food source and that this produces a strange and unbecoming sense of entitlement and ignorance. I agree.

Here are a couple games that parents can play with their children while at the dinner table:

1. Which Food Group? Name a food--especially the foods that are on the child's plate--and see who can name which food group the food is from. In case you've forgotten, there's meat, dairy, vegetable, fruit, grain, and fat (oil, butter). And no, beer is not a food group.

2. Where Does This Come From? After they name the group, then ask where the food originated. Did it grow in a garden? Was it raised in a barn? These questions will help your child see the connection between the mound of food on the plate and the people who produced the food, as well as how God provides for all of the different types of food that you enjoy. You might be surprised to witness your child appreciating animals and farms a bit more. Then you can head to the Internet or library and investigate with them how crops are harvested, animals are raised, and how certain foods get to the grocery store.

Get your child connected to the food he or she eats. Start with a little garden, however small. It's a glorious teaching tool.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

“Do you have a receipt for this boy?”

Anyone whose heart isn’t torn by the story of a mother who adopted a Russian child only to return him there should see a cardiac surgeon. The story is incredibly complex; I suggest that before we pass judgment, we all take a deep breath and determine to think cautiously.

Most importantly, the public does not know all the facts surrounding this case.

First, we do not know how honest Russian adoption authorities were regarding the boy’s history and emotional state. The adoptive mom could have been duped into adopting a child who had far more profound emotional problems than was made known to her. Not that this would excuse her choices, but it would certainly put them into perspective.

Second, we do not know the extent or what types of treatment the mom sought for the problems she encountered with him. Reportedly, the boy was a holy terror—violent, grossly defiant, disrespectful, out of control, supremely disruptive, and unresponsive to her attempts to discipline him. We have heard she sought counsel from a mental health professional. That could have been one phone consultation or months of intensive parent training. If it was the latter, perhaps she tried everything and it didn’t work. Perhaps she tried nothing. Perhaps the child was drugged with psychiatric drugs that made him worse. Perhaps the mom valiantly attempted to solve the problems all by herself, with no support from family members. We simply do not know...yet.

Third, it is unclear how severe the problems really were. One report suggested that in the mom’s follow-up dialogue with the adoption agency, there were nothing but glowing reports about the boy. That seems odd. Another report suggested that the mom was attempting to adopt a second foreign child. Again, this is odd, presupposing that the first child was out of control and intolerable.

There are legal issues here. Can a parent return a child whom he or she has adopted? What does U.S. law say? What does international law say? Can the parent annul the adoption if he or she has gone through a series of steps to prove that everything has been done to help the child and other family members peacefully exist in their home? What if the parent hasn’t taken those steps?

Of course, the more important issue here is moral. First, we must presuppose that there are objective, universal moral laws that do not depend on our whims. All parents—biological or adoptive—swear an implicit, solemn oath to care for their child. For biological parents, this oath is often accidental; for adoptive parents, the vows of parenthood are far more explicit and purposeful. They also are made over time, with several opportunities to reverse course.

Once that child belongs to the parent, however, both are stuck with each other. There can be no turning back. There must be no turning back. I don’t care how devilish a child is; no parent should break the parent-child bond by giving up that child.

There were several options for this mother to make things better. If she indeed exhausted all of them, then I can empathize with her plight. But I cannot justify her giving up on him.

I often joke with parents that if you haven’t at one time fantasized about selling your child on eBay or imagined tossing them out on the street, you haven't parented; you’ve simply babysat. All parents reach the end of their rope at some point. This is where it is crucial to have a team of support people—friends, grandparents, teachers, coaches, mental health professionals—to give more rope. Parents desperately need that. Their children desperately need them to have it.

Again With the Spanking…

The anti-spanking crusaders are at it again. Another study—this one included a nice large sample of 2,500 participants—showed that those who were spanked more frequently at age 3 were more likely to be aggressive by age 5.

Supposedly, the study controlled for other factors that might lead to aggression at age 5:
“Led by Catherine Taylor, the Tulane study was the first to control simultaneously for variables that are most likely to confound the association between spanking and later aggressive behavior. The researchers accounted for factors such as acts of neglect by the mother, violence or aggression between the parents, maternal stress and depression, the mother's use of alcohol and drugs, and even whether the mother considered abortion while pregnant with the child.”

But the study misses several crucial confounding variables!

First, how was the child spanked? Was it in a rageful manner? That is the most important factor in discipline—whatever method the parent uses (spanking, yelling, time out, taking privileges), calm, self-controlled parenting fosters calm, self-controlled behavior in children. Many parents who spank do so in a violent, rageful manner. THIS is what creates a violent child, not the spanking.

Second, did the spanking parents also yell and scream and otherwise verbally abuse the child? A child can avoid spanking but still get the parent’s rage; sometimes violent words are enough to induce violent fantasies and urges in a child.

Third, did the parent also “rage out” on other siblings? So child #1 doesn’t get spanked, but witnesses Mom or Dad raging at a sibling. This isn’t healthy either.

Fourth, was the child spanked by just one parent, both parents, other adults, other siblings, etc.?
Fifth, did the parent use spanking for all disciplinary measures or were Time Out and other methods also used? This is key. I would agree wholeheartedly with the anti-spanking camp that spanking should not be the primary method of discipline. It can lose its effectiveness over time, never teaches new patterns of behavior, often only frightens a child into compliance, and holds some risk.

However, a parent who calmly spanks a child after explaining why the child is being spanked and does so only to create a foundation for other primary methods of discipline (such as Time Out) is never going to develop a pattern of violence in the child. Never.

The American Academy of Pediatrics admits that spanking can stop a child from misbehaving in the short-term. Exactly. During that initial short-term period, parents should transition to Time Out to train their child to obey and respect others. Many children respond to self-controlled, reasonable spanking with an adjustment in their attitude toward parents.

Should children live in abject fear of their parents? Heck no. Should there be a modicum of fear, such that induces the child to respect the parent and submit to his or her authority? Absolutely. Spanking achieves this, if done properly. Then Time Outs and other methods can do their work.

In the end, this study has little benefit to the scientific debate. It does, however, help the anti-spanking zealots’ crusade.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Give a Poop and They’ll Take a Crap…

I was raised by sailors. Well, not actually. To be more accurate, I was raised in a home where there was quite a bit of salty language. Cussing was standard fare for the adults. Naturally, when I was older, I incorporated my native language and “dialect”.

As I grew into adulthood, I decided this was not appropriate—that I wanted to use less coarse language. I determined to clean up my mouth (be patient with me; I’m still working on it).

When my wife and I started having children, we agreed that we would train our children to use respectful, mature language. We united in believing that appropriate language fosters a respectful attitude and produces gentlemanly and lady-like behavior. So we have tried very hard not to curse or use otherwise inappropriate language in our children’s presence.

Now that our children are all school-age, we recognize the need to eradicate potty talk from their vocabulary. Oh, how fun it is for them to experiment with words, discovering which are appropriate and which aren’t! Recall George Carlin’s The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television. We have The Seven Words You Can’t Say at the Dinner Table.

What we have learned is that if we have a high threshold for what is inappropriate, they will push that limit. Hard. Of course, we don’t allow our children to say the BIG ONES. But for a while, we thought it was cute when they joked about “poop” (I know some of you see how foolish this is). We quickly learned that this is not the ideal training method. If you allow the minor ones, they will use them. All the time.

The new rule in our home is absolutely no potty talk, no gross talk, and no inappropriate words while family is together. So our children may not discuss boogers, barf, or pee-pee at the dinner table; they may not make poop or butt jokes, get away with “wiener” or any other pseudonym for private parts. All of it is off-limits at the dinner table and during family time. If they want to talk about that stuff when they are on their own, they can have at it.

It is important for children to have permission to ask you in private about words. Any words. Our kids have complete amnesty when inquiring about a new word or phrase they may have heard on the playground. They know they have permission to say the word in order for us to judge whether it is appropriate or not (and whether we should strangle the child who introduced it to our little cherub). After this, they are expected to use the word appropriately (or not at all).

Remember, it is your job to train your child. It is a good idea to decide early on with your spouse the limit on “free speech” that is appropriate in your benevolent dictatorship. Communicate this limit with your child and enforce it as early as possible. Don’t tolerate any testing of your limits or you will have a little George Carlin salting up your home.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

To praise or not to praise…should there even be a question? Well, yes. It’s not that simple.

Many of you have heard of a movement afoot insisting that praising children is not a good thing. Forget millennia of experience and common sense showing that positive reinforcement—external positive reinforcement—is by far the best way to train all living creatures.

The science is sound. Behavioral scientists have conclusively shown that animals will increase those behaviors that are reinforced. Behaviors that are not reinforced either stagnate or will extinguish altogether.

If you are offered a significant enough reinforcer (reward), you will perform any behavior. For example, if I offered you a penny to pick your nose in public, you probably wouldn’t do it (unless, perhaps, you knew it would go viral on YouTube). If I offered you fifty bucks, you might consider it. If I offered to pay your child’s college education, you’d be tickling your brain in half a second.

Most younger children are not reinforced by money, just as most adults are not reinforced primarily by praise. As much as I love what I do, I wouldn’t do it for long if all I received was praise. But children are reinforced primarily by social reinforcers. Sure, TV and candy are powerful reinforcers, but I hope I don’t need to convince you that your child should not be trained with Smarties and Teletubbies.

The most important social reinforcers for children are: attention and affection. Attention need not necessarily be in the form of praise; children are reinforced by simply being noticed. “I see you are brushing your teeth properly” is almost as powerful as “Good job brushing your teeth properly!”

What’s the difference? One points out to the child with little emotion that their efforts are noticed. The child feels good to be noticed and looks inward for a sense of accomplishment; the reward is, in a way, self-delivered. The other uses external pride and relational closeness as a reward—in essence, an extrinsic reward.

Both are important. We don’t want our children to behave only because we are proud of them. They need to learn how to be proud of themselves. But here is the crucial difference.

Children learn much faster when motivated by both external and internal rewards. We reinforce them for learning new tasks—for succeeding in new challenges. Do I praise my 10-year-old for brushing her teeth properly? No. But I do praise her for mastering a challenging a multi-step math problem or crafting a superb metaphor. I don’t rob her of her internal pride by offering her my pride. She can enjoy both and be reinforced by both. This is how the real world works. We are reinforced by both internal and external rewards.

In summary, children benefit greatly from all forms of positive reinforcement. Social positive reinforcement—attention and affection—are the most powerful and appropriate tools and should be part of a balanced, varied repertoire of training. Praise is a fairly intense form of attention.

Praise your child when attempting and mastering novel challenges. Use affection liberally. For particularly difficult challenges, there is almost no such thing as too much praise. Once the child has mastered a challenge, frequent praise becomes unnecessary and less potent, so it can be toned down and offered much more infrequently until the child has over-learned the task or skill. Don’t praise your eight-year-old for mastering her alphabet (unless it has been a particularly intense challenge), but do praise your three-year-old!

Remember to vary the forms of reinforcement. We don’t want our children to have external praise as the only motivator. We want our children to be increasingly motivated by a balance of reinforcers, including internal pride, external praise, affection, fun, and a host of other things.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pernicious Playground Politics

See if this scenario is familiar.

You’re at the park or playground with your young child; there are many other children present. Some parents are following their children closely, making sure they are safe; others are making sure their child doesn’t terrorize the rest of the bunch.

Your child is playing on and around one of the playground apparatuses, having a good old time. Another child is eager to play in the same spot and does not seem eager to share. The other child begins pushing, shoving, kicking, or hitting your child out of anger and frustration.

You look around. That child’s parent is not in the immediate vicinity (in my little scenario, we’ll be gracious to that parent and presume she’s with another of her children and not texting her “bff” about the sale on handbags at Bloomingdales).

You say to the child in a friendly, calming voice, “Hey, we don’t hit, OK?” That doesn’t do the job; the aggression becomes more pronounced.

You’re left with a few choices:

1. Get your child out of the way, allowing the aggressive child to temporarily have his/her way.

2. Not wanting to cross any boundaries with another parent’s child, you fervently search for the child’s parent so you can enlist his/her help.

3. Protect your child in the least restrictive manner, but using whatever verbal and/or physical means necessary.

If you chose option 1, you’re emphasis is maintaining peace über alles. I understand the impulse, but this is not the healthiest choice for you, your child, or the other child and parent. Your child needs to see that you will protect him and seek justice whenever possible. In this situation, it is possible.

If you chose option 2, good for you. At least you want someone to stop the aggressor. The problem with this option is that while you look for Rocky’s Mom or Dad, your child is getting pummeled. That’s no good.

The best option is option 3. It is your job to protect your child. While it is not your job to discipline other children unless you are expressly invited to do so by another parent, it should be understood that in a playground area, parents will protect their children and will intervene by stopping another child from doing harm. If a parent cannot monitor their child, that parent implicitly leaves their child with other parents.

If you need to physically stop a child from hurting your child—or another child, of course—or you need to be verbally firm with a child, do not apologize to the child’s parent if they are offended or angry. Simply say, “When I witness a child being aggressive with my child, it is my duty to protect him. If kind, soft words work, I will use them. If not, I will yell or physically intervene. I do not apologize for protecting my child.”

Sometimes, this will result in a big huff or mean words. Most likely, the absent parent will be projecting guilt onto you; many parents are embarrassed at their children’s behavior but can’t tolerate this, so they project the blame onto you. Don’t take it personally. Just be proud that you protect your child. You will find plenty of allies who agree with your position; most parents will be grateful for your willingness to intervene and be a Parent in Charge.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Necessity of Touch…

I’ve been a bit hesitant to discuss this, because I am aware of the general über-allergic response of the public to anything related to touch and children. Those are two words that, when put together, inspire images of NAMBLA freaks or otherwise creepy old men. I think it’s a mistake to avoid the topic of touch just as much as it is a mistake to ignore a child’s need for proper nutrition.

I have met many parents—mostly men—who are deathly afraid of touching their children in anything but a formal manner. It’s incredibly sad. One parent admitted to me that he simply doesn’t want to give anyone the idea that he likes touching his kids—that he might be seen as a pedophile! Ask any healthy father what his greatest fear is and he’ll tell you that it’s his child being molested or worse. So the fear of being perceived as this kind of demon is palpable.
But like any solution to a problem of one extreme, it is important not to swing to the other extreme.

Children need touch. They need lots of it. In fact, their need for quality and quantity of non-sexual touch can hardly be overstated. Children need to be hugged, kissed, caressed, cuddled, swung, carried, high-fived, tackled, tickled, wrestled, and even massaged.

In our family, we have the “daily beatings.” My kids love the daily beating; when I get home, they often ask for it. They know that it means I will scoop them up, carry all three of them at once if I can, throw them on the bed, tackle them, tickle them, yank their toes, smush their faces with pillows, pretend to beat them up, and then give them their vengeance by letting them jump all over me. I can hardly think of anything more enjoyable than these moments.

Sure, every once in a while, someone gets hurt; I’ve gotten scratched, kicked in places I’d rather not discuss, and pulled a couple muscles. But it’s magical how fun and love provides an anesthetic for these minor wounds.

Although it shouldn’t need to be said, children have an absolute right to sexual integrity. They must never be violated sexually. So any kind of touch that breaks or confuses those boundaries should be avoided. But if you start with healthy, appropriate touch, that shouldn’t be a problem. If your child hasn’t ever had those boundaries broken, then even some massage is healthy. There is nothing wrong with a family sitting in bed watching a movie with everyone’s body close together, Dad stroking his daughter’s hair or Mom squeezing her son’s hands or feet.

If this sounds icky or inappropriate to you, think about why.

Some might object to what it might look like to others. Who cares?

Some might think that the child could misinterpret touch as sexual. Not likely—unless the child has previously had his or her sexual integrity disrespected.

Some might think that it could lead to pushing sexual boundaries later on. Nope.

Mom and Dad should lead this pattern by displaying lots of friendly, non-sexual touch. This signals to children that it is normal and healthy. Of course, sexual touch should be kept in private.

So go ahead and cuddle, kiss, hug, and even tickle your kid. They need it. You need it too.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Profiles in Bad Parenting: Profile 1

Parents know me as a “tough parent”: I don’t tolerate anything but respectful behavior from my children. I believe in maintaining high standards and holding children accountable for their behavior. I believe that more parents need to get tough about respect. But how tough? One mother in the news went a bit far with her tough stance and is our first Profile in Bad Parenting.

A woman accused of strangling her daughter on a college campus apartment in Purchase, N.Y., told them she did it because the daughter was "disrespectful all the time," according to court papers made public Thursday.

Police accounts filed with a murder indictment quote Stacey Pagli
, 37, as saying that Marissa Pagli, 18, had "pushed my last button." Ms. Pagli is accused of strangling her daughter Feb. 22 in the family's staff apartment. Marissa was a freshman at the school. Her father, John Pagli, was a maintenance supervisor. He found his wife unconscious and his daughter dead.

According to the police account, when police asked what prompted Marissa to be disrespectful, her mother said, "I asked her where she was going." She said she told her daughter, "Don't ever speak to me like that. This will be the last time you speak to me like that."

She said she choked Marissa with her hands and knew she had killed her. Pagli expressed regret, saying, "I wish I could take it back, but I can't. I can't make it better, she's not here anymore."

There is passive/wimpy parenting, assertive parenting, and authoritarian parenting. And then, apparently, there is asinine parenting.

So be tough parents…but not that tough.

*As tempting as it might be to make your child read this news item, please withstand this temptation and stick to practicing being a Parent in Charge.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The True Story of Leprechauns

Leprechauns. You don’t hear too much about them except now, in the middle of March, when the Chicago River turns green, parades fill the TVs, Shamrock Shakes make their yearly appearance, and moms boil up a dose of corned beef and cabbage. It seems everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.

But what do we really know about Leprechauns? Are they real or just a figment of some Irish storyteller’s drunken imagination? Where did they come from? What do they do? What are they like? Where (if anywhere) is their famed pot of gold? Do they all have beards? Are there any girl Leprechauns?

Here is the untold story.

Leprechauns are not simply little humans. They are not even human, although they have several human characteristics. As everyone knows, they live in Ireland. But they weren't originally from there. Many generations ago, they lived close to the lands where elves, dwarfs, and hobbits all resided peacefully. All three peoples intermingled. A few generations' worth of intermarriage sprouted the race that we now call leprechauns. They lived on their own, mostly, not craving the company of others. But they did have a clearly defined moral sense. They were committed to helping the poor; sort of a pre-dated Robin Hood clan. They were also highly skilled at deception and craftworks.

Because of their skill and friendliness, a large group of young lippies (as they were known to other folk) were invited by none other than Santa Claus to work at his massive workshop. And so a good portion of the leprechaun tribe emigrated to the North Pole. For generations, the leppies and elves coexisted peacefully in Santa's working crew, with the more technically savvy leppies forging and building what the creative and inspired elves dreamed of. Every year, they piggy-backed on each other’s Christmas spirit with buoyant joy and playfulness.

But alas, there were a few leppies whose actions were a bit too playful. Whether it was their natural tendency toward troublemaking or the harsh cold of the arctic winters, some could not help themselves. No one knows their true names--these were lost in their sacred chronicles that have since been lost--but we do know what they did.

One Christmas season, about three days before Christmas Eve, when the weather was wretchedly frigid, a small detachment of leppies played a practical joke on the Chief elf, Bon-tilith. After all the elves were soundly asleep, the leppies despoiled their co-workers of all of the years' toys that had been stored away. They hid them in their own cave-storage, then laughed late into the night. When they awoke, they crept in to the shop, where the elves were dumbstruck. They couldn't contain their laughter. But when the dumbstruck looks were accompanied by tears, they admitted to Bon-tilith what had happened. He was none too happy.

Just then, a report over the loudspeaker blasted "Here this: a terrible storm has resulted in an avalanche at Doringray Residence Cave. The cave has collapsed." The leppies were without words—a phenomenon quite unusual for them. They had transported the entire load of toys to Doringray! When the wreckage was discovered, every single toy had been destroyed. Santa was devastated; he and his workers simply could not get enough toys made and delivered by Christmas. It was a sad, albeit rare Christmas for the children of Earth that year.

Thankfully, the leppies fessed up. They hid nothing from Santa. However, he was less than his merciful self. In one of the rarest displays of wrath witnessed by his most ancient workers, Santa banished the leprechauns from the North Pole forever. The leppies traveled from North Pole to Greenland, then from Greenland to Iceland. No one wanted to harbor these strange folk; not only had word travelled quickly, but they were a strange-looking breed. Eventually, they made their way to the shores of Ireland.

They took up residence in the Northern parts and wooded sections in the south of the island. For many years, they did very little but show their remorse with tears and drowning in the local stout. But after a while they banded together again and dedicated their lives and their children's lives to righting the wrong they had committed. From that time forward, they decided, they would steal things only for a purpose--to give them to the poor.

And so they devised a scheme. They made up a very clever (albeit ridiculous) story about a rainbow that had a pot of gold at the end of it. They told this story to whoever would listen. Well, to anyone who was rich and would listen. And they promised to escort them to the rainbow, where they could partake of the pot of gold.

But, like any ruse, they needed some gold up front as payment for their services. So they took gold, toys, and other goodies from all unsuspecting fools.

Because of the inherent greed and wild-eyed dreams of the people, they were soon richer than all the world’s kings and princes put together.

Of course, they never quite led anyone to the rainbow or the pot of gold.

So if today you meet a leppie, do not be deceived by his friendly nature or promises. He (or she; yes, there are she-leppies) is only trying to get your goodies. Even though they would go to someone who needs them more than you!

The End

Motivation and Attention

Why can children who are diagnosed with the baloney disorder ADHD pay attention when playing Legos or video games? It’s one of the many conundrums surrounding the diagnosis that eventually convinced me that the diagnosis is invalid; it also led me to believe that the vast majority of children diagnosed with ADHD* are in fact quite normal children.

So let’s start with some indisputable truths. First, children who are diagnosed ADHD can in fact pay excellent attention with some tasks. Parents tell me that their children can focus for long periods of time on constructive activities like building and drawing, but fail to pay attention to reading, writing, or rote tasks like math. Many of these children can be so engrossed in video games that they cannot hear their parents call them, yet they seem completely distracted while doing their homework.
So at least we have the knowledge that these children can sometimes pay attention. Whatever attention mechanisms they possess are not completely disabled.

One of the more ridiculous facets of the ADHD diagnosis is an admission that ADHD “symptoms” go away under certain environmental conditions. A primary example is that ADHD disappears when a child has individual attention. Another condition that cures this "debilitating disease" is engaging stimuli. And yet a third miracle cure is adequate structure and discipline. Amazing how these all correspond with what children actually need…

So the second indisputable truth is that children’s behaviors are changed—often radically—by the environmental conditions they are in. Nurture trumps nature yet again! An additional observation that must be noted is that adults can provide these environmental conditions.

The third indisputable fact is that the variable present or absent is motivation. Motivation is key for all behaviors. Without motivation, all behaviors—except reflexes—would extinguish (go away).

So what does this have to do with ADHD-like symptoms? Some children tend to be naturally (intrinsically) motivated by some tasks, but not others. Some children, of course, are motivated by the visual stimuli in video games and building things, but are not motivated by reading or writing. There is nothing unusual or abnormal about this. It is the parents’ challenge to motivate their child extrinsically (from without) until the child internalizes that motivation.

So Junior does not like to complete his math homework? Fine; there is no rule that Junior has to be naturally motivated to do math. But let’s say he earns a visit from Kobe Bryant if he finishes his homework on time and correctly, and at the same time, he knows that he will have a finger chopped off if he doesn’t do it on time or correctly. All of that motivation coming from two directions—positive and negative—will absolutely result in increased attention and concentration.

Now, I’m not a big believer in chopping off fingers and I’m sure you can’t afford to hire Kobe Bryant to come to your house to motivate Junior. But I’m sure you can think of some things in Junior’s life that are or would be motivating to him if you connected performance to those things.
Think about it. I’ve used this principle with countless school-age children. It works EVERY TIME.

*I refuse to refer to children as “having ADHD”, since I don’t think children can have ADHD any more than they can have cooties.