Teens: Saying No When Other Parents Say Yes

How do you say no to teens when their friends’ parents say yes? If you think the activity is dangerous, you’re right to say no. But if all the other parents say yes—that their children can participate in an activity—you end up looking like the bad guy. You look like you’re saying no just to be arbitrary or mean.  It makes you seem like a control freak. Or just too strict.

Take the example of Lynn, age 51. Lynn’s 16-year-old daughter Randi begged to attend a weekend at a friend’s house. The weekend was to conclude with an all-night party. But there was a catch: the friend’s parents were out of town.

The friend’s parents had all given their permission for the weekend and party. The other invited guests, another eight children, had all received permission from their parents to attend. Lynn and her husband Jordan were the only hold outs.

Saying No For Protection

Lynn knew that her fun-loving daughter might be persuaded to take part in activities that could hurt her. There might be alcohol or drugs at the party. There could be, for example, a game of Truth or Dare involving risqué behavior.

Randi is a great kid, but she likes to have fun. She’s game to try anything once. Her parents imagined her at the party, surrounded by friends urging her not to be a prude. In this environment, would Randi have the strength of will to say no to drinking, taking drugs, or engaging in sex-tinged activities?

Lynn and Jordan weren’t judging the other parents for agreeing to allow their children to have a fun weekend. But they knew their daughter and didn’t think it a good idea to put her in a situation where she could end up getting hurt. They knew that the right thing to do was to say no: to forbid Randi from spending the weekend at her friend’s house.

They tried to be gentle and diplomatic as they said no, while being firm and absolute. The results were predictable. Randi pitched a fit. The girl screamed and cried. She accused her parents of being unfair. She dragged in the fact that all the other parents had said yes. That she alone had monstrous parents who were control freaks. She said it wasn’t fair. Randi also reminded them that her friend’s parents trusted the friend to keep things clean and safe.

Saying No: The Right Thing to Do

Randi begged, yelled, cried, and slammed doors. But Lynn and Jordan were determined to stick to their guns. They decided they didn’t care about anything but keeping their daughter safe. They knew that saying no was the right thing to do.

Lynn and Jordan made a wise decision. The teenage brain is undergoing changes, pruning away gray matter on the way to becoming fully mature. These changes mean that teens have stronger emotional reactions and may feel a sense of urgency about situations, a need to act. A teen’s impulse control is weak, compared to that of an adult. That tendency for poor impulse control is the things that worried Randi’s parents most.

Lynn and Jordan knew that when teens drink, they drink too much. Teens don’t know how to stop once they get started. The same with taking drugs or making out. Teens also have poor planning skills which is why so many teenagers get into dangerous scrapes.

But saying no to a teenager is different than saying no to a toddler having a tantrum. A teen has the endless ability to twist facts and lay guilt trips. It’s hard for a parent to stand firm in the face of a teenager’s crazed reaction to a parent’s dictate.

Saying No Can Be a Conversation

Dr. Ari Yares, a licensed psychologist, parent coach, and nationally certified school psychologist, believes that how you say no, and how you involve your child in the way the decision plays out, makes a difference. “When having the conversation, share with your child your reasoning and be as transparent as possible within the circumstances. Allow them an opportunity to voice their objections and, when possible, engage in some problem solving that might lead to a modified answer.

Family therapist Elisabeth Goldberg, LMFT, says the trick is to keep going over in your head the reasons why you said no. This can give parents something to do as the teenager screams and yells and help the parent remain firm in his or her resolve. After all, if you have a good reason for saying no, there is no reason to change your mind. The issue is wanting to avoid feeling bad as a teenager yells at you.

“It must be very hard to own your parenting style. With constant comparisons of wealth, health and happiness, it’s no wonder why so many parents give into their kids and go against their better judgement. Technology has made our culture obsessed with popularity like never before, and parents are not immune to that competition in the least,” says Goldberg.

Yares suggests parents minimize the embarrassment of being forbidden an activity by speaking to the child in private. “It can be tough when you are the parent saying no when everyone else says yes and your child may be mad at you for the decision that you are making. It’s important to make sure that when saying no in a situation like this that you minimize the public embarrassment of saying no. Pull your child aside for a more private conversation by saying, ‘We need to discuss this.’”

Saying No: Poor Distress Tolerance

Dr. Goldberg, meanwhile, feels that the most important part of saying no is to resist all the pleading and crying, to learn to let it roll off a parent’s back like water off a duck. “What makes parents say yes when they should say no is poor distress tolerance. The child asks and the parent is initially annoyed, then it progresses and goes deep, cutting into their core of self-worth as a human. When parents can’t say no to their kids, it’s because they can’t tolerate other discomfort; their threshold has already been crossed,” says Goldberg.

Any parent whose teenager pleads and cries for a long enough time is going to question whether they are doing the right thing in saying no. This is normal. But it’s important to remember that if you give in, your child will only make a stronger fuss the next time you say no. She already knows you’ll give way if she screams long enough and loud enough.

And of course, if you show weakness, you teach your child weakness. Standing firm, on the other hand, is a good example for your teenager. “Parents who stand firm and present themselves as authority figures through positive messages of respect and experience raise more secure children than those who fall apart at small signs of aggravation. Distress tolerance is a very undervalued skill for parents. Parents who cannot tolerate distress will teach this to their kids, who will grow up believing that hardship past a certain point is unacceptable. They won’t be very adaptable, and tend to make poor partners,” says Goldberg.

But how should a parent steel himself against all that begging and crying? “Saying no comes down to training yourself to tolerate various levels of distress by reflecting on the thoughts and feelings that come up when you try to say no and don’t,” says Goldberg.

Colorful animation of parents standing firm against annoyed teenage boy
The hard part is standing firm

In the case of Lynn and Jordan and their daughter Randi, though the girl reasoned and cried, her parents stuck to their original position on the subject of the weekend house party. No remained no and Randi stayed home. The girl moped and complained but once the party was past tense, she and her parents got past their relationship hump. It was only a few days before things were back to normal.

The moral of the story is: stay strong and remember why you’re saying no. If you wuss out and give in, you’re only setting yourself up for failure at a later date. And your child will have had a really bad example of weak character to follow.

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Getting Kids to be Kind

Getting kids to be kind could be and probably should be the focus of the long summer vacation from school. After all, one large study found some 49% of children in grades 4–12 said they’d been bullied at school at least once during the past month. And if bullying by definition, is a form of cruelty, the antidote then, must surely be kindness and empathy.

Here’s the truth: we can’t fix the world. We can’t eradicate cruelty; can’t wipe out the bullies at one fell swoop. There’s no app for that. But we can and should be actively cultivating an atmosphere of kindness in our homes. And that is how we can face bullying and cruelty head on: we do it by getting kids to be kind.

Let this summer be a summer of kindness then. And in fact, just by making kindness the focus of your child’s summer, you’re more than halfway there. Because once you make kindness “a thing,” you’ve shown your children that for you, kindness is a priority. You’ve modeled your values for your kids. And after that, getting kids to be kind is a snap.

How you make kindness the focus of your children’s summer vacation is up to you. You might, for instance, begin by just saying it: “Let’s have a theme this summer: being kind to others!”

Getting Kids to be Kind may mean having them clean up the local park
Getting kids to be kind may mean having them clean up the local park

By saying it out loud: that you’re hereby dedicating the summer to kindness, you’ve already set the tone and initiated a discussion, too. Ask your children to talk about kindness. What do they see as kindness? Can they remember something kind someone did for them? How did it make them feel?

What about the opposite of kindness? What would that look like? Have they experienced that? How did that make them feel?

This is summer, remember, so you’ve got time on your side. It can be an ongoing discussion. In fact, you can say, “As part of our focus on kindness this summer, let’s talk about kindness every morning.”

This also gives your children a chance to talk about anything they did since the last discussion that was kind. Discussion time also affords you an opportunity to praise children for their kindness. Talk about positive reinforcement!

child hands elderly woman a daisy

Children can be directed to use discussion time to describe new insights they’ve had about kindness. You might say, “What have you learned about kindness since we last spoke?”

Directing the discussions in this manner can turn children into keen observers of kindness. They will actively look for things they might talk about during family discussion time on kindness. Daddy pulling out a chair for Mommy becomes a kindness rather than something they’ve come to see as rote behavior. They’d never thought about it before: how being polite is being kind. Now they’re thinking about it!

The discussions can be thought-provoking. Is it a kindness to tell a white lie? Was it right to tell a friend she looks nice in her new dress when actually, it looks awful on her? What if everyone laughs at her behind her back for how she looks? Would it have been better to tell her the truth so she might change?

Whose Act of Kindness Wins?

Of course, discussion can’t be the be all and end all of your summer focus on kindness. Getting kids to be kind and having a summer focus on kindness can take many forms. You might, for instance, turn it into a friendly competition: each family member must do a daily kindness. Then talk about whose kindness was the best: who wins.

Let your children see that some kindnesses take no time at all to perform, and make a big difference, while other kindnesses require an investment of time and effort. Both types of kindnesses are important. You may want to stress that some kindnesses may be more important than others, but all kindnesses have value.

Modeling kindness for your child should be your own focus during this summer and at all times. It goes without saying that your behavior should always be kind, as children learn by example. Tempted to say something snide about a third party in conversation with a friend? Remember that your children are listening and paying attention. Do you want them to become ugly gossips? Or do you want them to be kind enough to keep quiet when they’ve got something nasty on their minds?

And guess what? When you make kindness the focus of your summer—when you see getting kids to be kind as a goal, you’ll find you are more careful to be kind even when your children are not with you. You’ll find that being kind is contagious! (And that’s a good thing.)

Kindness Begins at Birth

Now it’s all well and good to make kindness a focus of the long summer vacation. But actually, getting kids to be kind begins at birth. “Empathy and compassion are learned best by experience. If the child is treated with warmth, empathy, and compassion she has a high likelihood of becoming an empathic adolescent and adult. Of course, this empathic relating must begin at birth when the new mom responds to each of her infant’s cries/needs. This warm maternal response should carry through into the early and middle childhood years,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author, The Self-Aware Parent, and regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors and CBS TV.

This idea naturally leads to wondering what happens when there is no such warm responsiveness in a child’s early life. Can you still make kindness a focus of a summer? Can it be taught, for instance, to a teen? “The answer and final outcome depends on a number of complicated things,” says Dr. Walfish. “Number one, and most importantly, the teen must personally want to become a compassionate, empathic person. Without that desire the change will not happen. To change requires a tremendous amount of motivation and hard work. If, indeed, the teen is motivated to change, he or she usually does best if they have a mentor.”

Parents may wonder about that: who is the best mentor to teach teenagers loving kindness?  Dr. Walfish suggests that the mentor can be a parent, teacher, relative, minister, rabbi, counselor, or therapist. “It must be someone the teen looks up to, admires, respects, and can trust. This opens the pathway for communication,” says Walfish.

“You can tell the teen to treat the other person the way they would want to be treated. But without the idealized respect and trust it will fall on deaf ears.”

Kindness at the Dinner Table

Perhaps the best place to practice getting kids to be kind, whether young children or teenagers, is at the family dinner table. “The dinner table is always a great place to practice taking turns talking and listening. Kids, and many adults, get excited about their own ideas and chime in or interrupt while someone else is speaking,” says Walfish.

“This is a golden opportunity for parents to mediate or referee and make sure each person’s turn to talk is not interrupted. This is also a chance for your kids to grow in front of your very eyes. Praise them for every incremental step toward respectful listening behavior,” because, as it turns out, getting kids to be kind is about being kind enough to take the time to tell them they’ve done good.

Saying “Good job!” to your child, may, in fact, be the kindest thing you do all day, every day this summer. It may be the most important thing you’ll ever do to model kindness for your children. And getting kids to be kind, by the way? Way to end those bullies, for good.

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Underage Drinking: Having the Talk About Alcohol and Brain Health

Underage drinking can get in the way of the developing brain. And anything that gets in the way of the developing brain, for instance underage drinking, can interfere with academic performance. That means that kids who drink may grow up to be unemployed adults. If they don’t, for instance, get killed while driving under the influence of alcohol.

If you managed to follow that train of thought to its logical conclusion, your child can, too. It’s just that most parents haven’t thought to explain it to them, lay it all out on the table. Which is a shame, because doing so may just stop children from taking that first sip of alcohol.

That’s the conclusion of a new survey conducted by market research firm GfK on behalf of Ask, Listen, Learn, a program of Responsibility.org. More than 1,000 parents of children ages 10-17 took part in the November, 2017 survey, the results of which are in a report entitled, A Lifetime of Conversations: Kids, Alcohol, and the Developing Brain, issued just ahead of Alcohol Responsibility Month. The report also includes data culled from other research on the topic of underage drinking, along with important advice and perspectives from experts in the field.

Stunning details in the new report illustrate both how and when parents are having conversations with their children about underage drinking. This information helps us understand how we have managed to achieve a significant reduction in children’s alcohol consumption in the United States since 1991, when experts first began to track the point at which underage drinking begins.

Some conclusions from the report:

More Parents Are Talking the Talk.

The good news is that more parents are talking to their children about drinking alcohol. A majority (76 percent) of parents of children aged 10-17, have in fact, spoken to their children at least once during the past year about underage drinking. That represents an increase of 7 percent since 2003.[1]

Parents Wait Too Long to Have the Talk.

The report suggests that parents may be choosing to be reactive, rather than proactive in their conversations with their children about underage drinking and alcohol. Half of the parents surveyed wait until their children see something about drinking on television or social media, or until asked about underage drinking, before they begin the conversation about alcohol. They may be waiting too long at that: only 2 in 5 parents spoke to kids aged 10-14, though 23 percent of 8th graders (age 13 or so) have already tasted alcohol.

Too Many Parents Think: “My Kid Wouldn’t Drink.”

More than half the parents surveyed, 58 percent, or nearly 6 in 10 parents of children age 10-17, say their children won’t be needing to make any sort of decision about alcohol over the next three months. They think their children are too young to discuss drinking. This flies in the face of underage drinking statistics: 23 percent of 8th graders have drunk alcohol and 53 percent think it would be easy to get alcohol. These particular statistics only increase as children get to high school.

Parents Think Kids Are Too Young for the Talk.

Of parent participants of children aged 10-17 who have not yet spoken to their children about underage drinking, 46 percent say their children are too young to have a talk about drinking alcohol. This figure includes 60 percent of parents with children aged 10-14.

Parents Don’t Think About the Impact of Underage Drinking on Living a Healthy Lifestyle.

Only 15 percent of the parents surveyed listed avoiding underage drinking as a factor in children living a healthy lifestyle. Parents instead prioritized eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, and staying away from smoking and drug use, as elements critical to living a healthy lifestyle.

Parents Don’t Talk About Underage Drinking and Brain Health.

Parents tend to speak to their children only about the immediate consequences of underage drinking, for instance alcohol poisoning or car crashes. Experts believe that parents should instead be discussing the impact of alcohol on brain development and the long-term effects of underage drinking, for example, memory issues and alcohol dependence. When asked to list reasons children shouldn’t drink, 4 out of 10 parents did not list brain health.

“Parents are the most powerful influence in kids’ decisions not to drink alcohol underage,” says Ralph Blackman, president and CEO of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, the survey sponsor. “Past research demonstrates that when conversations between parents and kids about alcohol go up, underage drinking rates go down, but there is more that can be done to improve the effectiveness of these conversations.”

Experts like Blackman would like to see parents starting the conversation about underage drinking earlier, and they’d like them to continue the conversation as the child matures. Parents should begin the conversation before children are afforded an opportunity to drink alcohol, which means having that first conversation when a child is around 10 years old. By age 14, many children have already been offered a drink.

Does this mean that most children have been offered a drink by age 15? “No, not necessarily,” says Deborah Gilboa, MD, family physician and youth development expert, who serves on the Ask, Listen, Learn education advisory board. “In fact, the overwhelming majority of kids this age have not tried alcohol. but as kids transition from middle school to high school, their chances of participating in underage drinking increase. According to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s 2017 Monitoring the Future survey, 23 percent of 8th graders have reported drinking alcohol in their lifetime, which increases to 42 percent in 10th grade and 62 percent in 12th grade.

“While there is still work to be done, these numbers have significantly decreased since 1991, partly due to an increase in parent/child conversations around underage drinking. Ideally, parents should discuss the dangers of alcohol, including the impact of alcohol on the developing brain, early and often with their kids, so they truly understand the risks and can feel confident in saying no if approached with an opportunity to drink,” says Gilboa.

But some parents aren’t speaking to their children about alcohol at all. One in four parents surveyed said they either didn’t speak to their children about underage drinking, or can’t recall whether or not they had that talk. That’s a shame: children need to know about these things, about alcohol and its effects. Children are open, moreover, to hearing about what underage drinking can do to them, not just in the short-term, but over time. Learning the facts of what alcohol can do to their developing brains, appears to deter them from ever wanting to try alcohol in the first place, according to the experts.

The upshot: It’s great that more parents are having conversations about underage drinking with their kids, but experts wish they’d put a different spin on these talks, and speak about brain health as being the most important reason to avoid alcohol. “Create a foundation for these conversations with kids by answering their questions simply and clearly at any age, and actively discuss this topic by age nine or ten. At this time, kids are becoming very curious about their growing bodies and brains and are open to learning about how alcohol can impact both.

“Adolescence includes critical phases in brain development. The area of the brain that controls reasoning—helps us think before we act—matures later in the third decade of life. The sooner that parents speak with their children about the dangers of drinking alcohol underage, the better,” says Dr. Gilboa.

Survey Methodology

The Lifetime of Conversations study was conducted online with GfK’s Omnibus, using the web-enabled “KnowledgePanel,” a probability-based tool designed to represent the U.S. general population, not just the online population. The study consisted of 1,000 nationally representative interviews conducted between November 10 and 12, 2017 among adults aged 18+ with at least one child between ages 10 and 17. The margin of error is +/-3 percentage points for the full sample.

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[1] Responsibility.org, Wirthlin Worldwide National Quorum, May, 2003

5 Tips for Managing Temper Tantrums

Temper tantrums are dreaded events most parents associate with the “terrible twos.” Many, if not most tantrums can be avoided (see: How to End Power Struggles with Toddlers). But when tantrums do occur, they are exhausting and upsetting for both parent and child. Five simple techniques can ease the experience for everyone: be empathetic; narrate your child’s experience; walk him to the goal (then walk away); hold your child facing away from you; and resist lecturing your child (more on these techniques later).

In toddlerhood, children become aware that they are beings separate from their parents. This is the time children begin to explore the limits of their independence and capabilities. It is typical of children this age to demand the right to behave according to their own wills. A power struggle results when the parent tells the child what to do. The child’s subsequent meltdown expresses this idea: “I am me. You are you. You don’t tell me what to do. I tell me what to do.”

Toddlers can only learn to fend for themselves as individuals by asserting their independence, and by exercising control over their own behavior. They do this as they learn how to stay dry and feed themselves. They learn that it’s possible to delay gratification: that dessert, for instance, comes after dinner. Their language skills grow in leaps and bounds and they become social beings, capable of making friends. These are the skills of independence: things that others cannot do for them. Toddlers learn these skills by performing them.

Toddlerhood is a critical period in a child’s development: the time when the child realizes he is an independent being, separate from his parents. This phase of development is mirrored by adolescence, in which teens shrug off their parents’ authority in favor of the independence of adulthood. When toddlerhood is positive and successful, the toddler feels empowered, rather than overpowered by his parents. This is a good foundation for the child’s upcoming adolescence, way off in the distant future, when the child must again assert his separateness and independence from his parents.

Tantrums Express the Desire for Independence

If the child was forced to behave according to a parent’s dictates in toddlerhood, the child will rebel and meltdowns ensue. The same is true of teens. The trick is to guide, rather than demand. If the child was guided to make safe, positive choices as a toddler, he will likely continue to make safe, positive choices as a teenager. Supportive parenting is the key to success in both toddlerhood and adolescence. One lays the ground for the other.

How then, can parents ensure a successful and positive toddlerhood for their children? How can we, as parents, avoid meltdowns and power struggles? And considering that none of us are perfect parents, and may not always handle things as we should, how bad is it if we screw things up, at least now and then? “Toddlerhood is the most challenging phase of human development for parents and the most critical one for children in the lifespan. Any adult that I have treated in psychotherapy in my private practice was found to be stuck somewhere in a toddler milestone,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author, The Self-Aware Parent, and regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors and CBS TV.

5 Tips for Managing Temper Tantrums

If you’re scared witless at this point, chillax. Making an occasional mess of things won’t scar you or your child for life. Besides, Dr. Walfish has you covered with these 5 tips for managing temper tantrums. Read these tips, follow them to the letter, then lather, rinse, repeat until your child turns 3 or so. (It’ll be fine. We promise.)

  1. Be genuinely empathetic to your toddler’s struggle.
  2. Narrate the struggle. Learn to speak reflectively with empathy in the moment of a conflict. You might say, “Johnny (use his first name since pronouns are not mastered by children until the age of 4 years) wanted more video and Mommy said it’s bath time. Johnny got mad. It’s hard to stop when you want more.”
  3. Physically walk your screaming child to his next destination. If your child resists the idea that it’s time to take a bath, for instance, walk him to the bath. This will help settle and calm him down in the space where he needs to be. Children will escalate their yelling, and protest, thinking you might change your no to a yes. If, after getting your child where he needs to be, you then walk away, your child will calm down faster.
  4. If your child is out of control or has been aggressive (for instance hitting, biting, scratching, or pinching), calmly hold your child on your lap facing away from you. By holding the child, you provide a safe container whereby you can act as a receptacle for your child’s rage. By remaining calm in the face of your child’s rage, the child learns that she can be super-angry and still, you do not attack, criticize, blame, or collapse as the target for his/her rage. Tell your child when she stops pulling on you, you will let go. The moment her muscles relax release her and praise her for learning to settle herself. You will not have to hold her too many times before you see a decrease in the frequency and intensity of her oppositional tantrums.
  5. Do not lecture your child. Kids hate to be told what to do. Rather, after a tantrum, talk gently with your child about what he wanted and was feeling when he was so upset. Together, the two of you can come up with alternative ways he can get what he wants without a meltdown.

Still worried? Dr. Walfish stress that the main thing is to “Always accept your child where he is.”

“We are all on a learning curve,” says Dr. Walfish. “No one is perfect. We all want the same thing: to be acknowledged, validated, and accepted—flaws and all!”

In other words, don’t be angry at yourself or your child, even when you forget to do the right thing, even as he falls apart in total meltdown. Realize that there are both good and bad days ahead. And love him no matter what.

Critical Thinking Skills: Resources for Parents

Critical thinking skills are one of the greatest gifts a parent can offer a child in today’s world of too much information. As a people, we humans are bombarded by information coming at us from our various screens. How we relate to that information separates us into two groups. We are either intelligent, sensitive people, or we are “sheeple.” Sheeple take in the data they see and hear and spit it back out at the world, without stopping to examine or assess the information in the first place.

Being one with the sheeple means being ripe for manipulation. The sheeple drink in false propaganda like it’s water. They’ll happily buy whatever moral code you plug without question and adopt it as their own. They’ll buy any product you tell them will make them happy.

We don’t want our children to be vulnerable to group think. We want them to stop and use their critical thinking skills before buying products marketers claim will make them thin and happy, when no product can replace diet and exercise, or fix their emotional baggage. We don’t want our children to buy into what the media tells them to think, rather we want our children to dig deep, find the facts, and develop their own, fact-based opinions.

Critical Thinking is a Learning Process

Critical thinking isn’t a lesson you’re going to sit down and teach your children at one fell swoop. It’s a process. One that takes time and patience.

Your children are going to demand you buy them pretty, sparkly things, based on advertising. Each time, you’re going to have to point out the manipulation in the marketing. When children come to you with ideas on current events, moreover, you’re going to have to press them regarding the facts. You’re going to have to show them how the media uses suasion to drive home an editorial stance. You’ll need to show them how the story is depicted in a completely different manner on a different website and help them understand how to read between the lines to learn the truth of any given news story.

Critical thinking is about questioning: is this all there is to this story? Is there another side? Am I being manipulated? Will a given product fulfill the promise, the claim of the packaging and advertising?

Is it any wonder that right about now you’re thinking you never signed up for this when you decided to have a baby? All this scrutiny, all this teaching your child how to think! It’s a tall order, this critical thinking business.

Critical Thinking Resources

Lucky for you, there are resources out there to help you do the hard work of helping your child separate fact from fiction. There are actually amazing websites that can help you teach your child the important skill of critical thinking, no matter the topic at hand.

Many of these resources were developed for teachers, but there is no reason why we can’t, as parents, partake of these free tools. Parents, after all, were the first teachers, and remain the go-to source of information for their children. One great place to start is NAMLE, which stands for National Association for Media Literacy Education. NAMLE is sponsoring the third yearly Media Literacy Week (November 6-10, 2017), a cause  near and dear to NAMLE’s heart.

A great place for parents to begin exploring what NAMLE has to offer is this recently released parent’s guide on teaching children how to be careful media consumers. The focus of the guide is on teaching kids to always ask questions. Here, parents can read up on how to have the conversation about fake news, how to teach children to identify scams, and how to guide children in avoiding plagiarizing information found on websites. An invaluable resource for instilling in our children the message of using their critical thinking faculties.

The Newseum, on the other hand, is more like a teacher’s treasure trove, with lesson plans galore for teaching children how to use their critical thinking skills to form opinions. Choose a topic, such as civil rights, women’s rights, the Holocaust, or an election campaign, and you’ve got everything you need to show children all about it. Looking at Newseum’s collection on women’s suffrage, for instance, there are downloadable units on the history of women’s suffrage; how the Suffragettes used media to further their aims comparing these tactics to today’s use of social media; and a unit on the new techniques women used to get the vote and how these techniques are still in use today. There’s a timeline for feminist milestones a map showing how women’s suffrage spread, and search engines to learn about people important to the women’s movement. We can see women’s movement-related government documents and newspaper clippings, too.

Sortable Resources

Newseum has neat things you can download, like a colorful poster with a mnemonic device to aid children in spotting media bias. The various offerings can be sorted according to grade, format, topic, theme, and century. There are even case studies relating to current events, such as this one about First Amendment rights and the cancellation of Milo Yiannopolous’ speech at the University of Berkeley campus. Good stuff here, whether for kids just cutting their teeth on finding their thoughts or somewhat further along with their critical thinking skills.critical thinking skills involve questioning, a girl at a desk raises her hand

Common Sense Media is devoted to providing unbiased media to and honing critical thinking skills in children, and offers resources to parents on media literacy and bias under the heading of “Parent Concerns.” Here, parents can find videos, articles, and infographics to help them navigate the news with children. The Common Sense Media statement at the bottom of the website’s homepage is a pleasure to read, a terrific moral statement:

“Common Sense is the nation’s leading nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in the 21st century.”

If all this wealth of information seems overwhelming, and you’d rather have everything you need on one page, try this resource at Internet4Classrooms: How to Evaluate News Sources for Media Bias. Written for teachers to use in the classroom, this resource breaks down the various forms of media bias for the student. This article can serve as a kind of checklist for the child who is trying to figure out whether a particular news piece is or is not biased. (Speaking of bias, the piece was written by this author, so there may be some bias in recommending the piece to you, the reader!)

Avoiding Cynicism

Critical thinking is an ongoing learning process. Once you get kids started on the right path asking lots of questions, however, it shouldn’t be difficult to encourage them to continue. Kids have a strong sense of morality and will enjoy applying their critical thinking skills to all situations. Helping them avoid bitter cynicism as they wake up to the deceptive nature of too many media outlets and advertisers, on the other hand, may be a lesson that’s harder to teach.

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Effective Communicators: Broaden Your Child’s Future

Effective communicators are the kind of people who, when they speak with you in private, you hang on their every word. Listening from the audience as they speak from the podium, you know you’re being silly, but you feel they’re speaking only to you. And it works both ways: when you speak to them, it feels like they’re really listening—like they really hear you. Now you might not have thought about this, but wouldn’t it be great if you could teach your child to have those skills: to be an effective communicator?

It’s true that some people are just born to be effective communicators. That doesn’t mean, however, that good communication skills can’t be taught. And if they can be taught, they should be taught, for effective communicators are the star pupils of every teacher’s class. Not to mention: they’re sought after as both friends and employees.

By teaching children to be effective communicators, parents broaden their opportunities. Those with a gift for communication have wider social circles, and can make all kinds of friends and connections. Their career opportunities will be more varied, with every possibility of rising to the top, no matter what field they choose.

Becoming an effective communicator can begin in infancy, when a parent makes eye contact with a baby, and speaks at just the right rhythm and tempo. It’s not just instinct. A mother knows when baby has had enough speech, when to pull away. The mother reads the baby’s cues and follows them.

That is pretty much the definition of being an effective communicator: reading the cues of your listeners and following them. And sometimes being the listener, watching for and reading the cues of the speaker. And by reading and following cues, as your infant looks on, you are modeling effective communication for your baby.

Teaching children to become effective communicators is a two-pronged process. It’s first and foremost about understanding the qualities that define effective communication. Then, once you know what effective communication is, you can set about showing children the ropes of being effective communicators.

Effective Communicators:

  • Refrain from speaking quickly
  • Are not too loud or too soft in their speech
  • Never interrupt or speak when others speak, but await their turn
  • Practice active listening by making eye contact, turning to face the other person, and responding with comments and questions that show they are paying attention
  • Consider others before themselves, avoiding the use of “me” and “I”-centered speech whenever possible
  • Ask others for their opinions and ideas
  • Never fidget
  • Speak clearly
  • Pronounce words properly
  • Use good grammar
  • Never use curse words in polite company

Use Daily Conversation for Practice

Having everyday conversations with your child is a great way to coach them in becoming effective communicators. Show them that what they say interests you and respect them enough to let them have their say. By the same token, children should listen and respond to you, making eye contact and making sure to face you. Hands and feet should be still. Speech should be clear, never rushed, and not too loud or too soft.

Children are always watching and absorbing, so you can continue the lesson by having polite, effective conversations that clearly express your views with others, such as a spouse, while children are in listening and watching distance. The conversations your child witnesses or takes part in at home, are the foundations for his own developing communication skills.

During daily conversations at home, it’s fine for you to gently guide and correct your child’s behavior. When you are in public, don’t draw attention to your child’s mistakes. This might embarrass your child and cause him to be self-conscious and awkward about conversing with others in public. Note that in correcting your child only at home, he will learn that home is a safe place to learn. By not correcting your child in public, you show him you respect him enough not to hurt his feelings or embarrass him. An exception: if your child interrupts you while you are chatting with someone else, pause and turn to the child and ask him to wait until you’re finished speaking or listening, please.

If children balk at being directed to make eye contact or face you as the two of you speak, explain that doing so shows interest in what you are saying and is a sign of respect. Ask how he would feel if he were sharing an important idea and his friend kept his back to him and played with a toy while he was speaking. Looking away from someone who is speaking is hurtful, which means it is not good manners, since manners are about caring for others.

You can also talk with your child about being an effective communicator. A parent might, for instance, mention getting trapped at a social event by someone who would not stop talking about himself and who was very boring. You can explain how you tried to give the person various cues (looking at your watch, yawning, looking around the room at something else, grimacing), but the person was seemingly unable or unwilling to read you. Discuss this with your child. Ask what he would have done in your place to politely disengage and why he thinks the person didn’t read your cues.

Effective Communicators Mirror

Repeating what people say to us makes them feel heard. Mental health professionals have long known the value of mirroring: repeating a patient’s words back to him. You can play a mirroring game with your child to practice this skill. Here is a sample dialogue using the mirroring technique:

“I was taking out the trash when I saw a raccoon.”

“You saw a raccoon?”

Yes. I was scared at first, then saw his eyes were gentle.

“He had gentle eyes?”

“Yes. I didn’t want to frighten him so I moved very slowly.”

“It’s nice you didn’t want to frighten him and that you moved so carefully and slowly.”

It’s easy to see how the child who saw a raccoon felt validated and warm after relating his experience to someone who cared enough to really listen. That’s how mirroring works. It proves respect and caring for the speaker. You can practice mirroring with your child, taking turns being speaker and listener.

The Um Game

The Um Game is played by having your child speak about anything she likes, such as a favorite teacher, or toy. Time your child to see how long she can go without using “um,” “uh,” “like,” “you know,” or “er.” This game helps your child become more articulate and can even increase vocabulary. It also teaches eloquence. No great speaker was ever guilty of interjecting “um,” “uh” or “you know,” into a momentous speech.

Social Situations

Children should be shown how to enter a conversation in a polite way. The right way is to walk up to the group, smile, listen to what people are saying, and wait until someone speaks to you before joining in. Your child should also learn to gracefully handle the situation when it is the other way around. If someone wants to join his conversation, he should smile and nod to the person. Once the speaker has finished speaking, your child can greet the new person and make introductions if necessary.

Ending conversations in a pleasant way is also part of being an effective communicator. It’s rude to just walk away from people when you’ve been chatting. The child should, instead, learn to explain why he must leave and remark that the conversation has been enjoyable. He might say, for instance: I need to go help my mom in the garden, but it was great talking with you!

Children should also learn what is and is not an appropriate topic for discussion. It’s one thing for the family to celebrate mom’s promotion at the office, but inappropriate for your child to brag about it to her friends. Some things are private. Also, children should learn to draw others out in conversation, rather than speak only about themselves and their experiences. Drawing out others in conversation is  thoughtful, monopolizing the conversation and speaking only of one’s self is rude and boring.

An understanding of nonverbal communication and cues must be taught from a young age, since children only develop a sense for these later on. Yawning during a conversation, speech, lecture, or sermon is rude and children should learn to try to suppress a yawn during these occasions. Rolling one’s eyes or frowning or otherwise making faces while someone is speaking is bad manners, too. Playing with hair, turning away from the speaker, picking at your nails or nose, and looking at your watch while someone is speaking (with the exception of the bore who will not let you go!!) are all behaviors that are considered poor manners because they make people feel bad.

Children also need to be on the watch for nonverbal cues in others. A child should, for instance, learn to understand and be sensitive to signs that a conversation has gone on long enough or that a person needs to leave. That calls for finishing the conversation or winding up a story. Children should also be on watch for signs that a topic makes the listener uncomfortable and learn how to change the subject.

Children catch on quicker than you’d expect, and come to understand that being effective communicator means being polite, but getting the point across and hearing others, too. Learning to be that sought-after conversationalist and friend means developing listening skills, using good grammar, and most of all, sensitivity. In working with children early on, parents help their children grow to become refined communicators who are adept at speaking to anyone in any situation.

Manners: The Comprehensive Guide for Parents

Manners are all about the Golden Rule: “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.” In other words, manners are about caring for others. Children tend to think they are at the center of the world. Teaching children manners helps them to develop empathy: to have real feelings for all those they encounter, and not to only think of themselves.

The most important thing parents can do to teach children manners is to model those manners for their children. Always say “please” when you want something. Say “thank you,” when someone hands you something or does something nice for you. Say “excuse me” when you burp or pass gas, “you’re welcome” when someone thanks you. Ask, “may I” before coming to a child’s assistance or requesting to use something the child is using.

Modeling Manners

Just by being polite, you are teaching your child to be polite. Being rude, on the other hand, even just by omission (such as forgetting to say thank you), will be noticed by your child. Children are always watching you, even when you think they are unaware, so make sure your behavior is always correct.

Children need positive reinforcement. Watch for opportunities to praise them for good behavior. Use those times to reinforce good manners. “I was so proud of the way you thanked Mrs. Smith for letting you play with Timmy, today,” or, “I was so happy at the way you greeted Mr. Lowry when you came home from school and saw he was visiting.”

Children love praise. If you take note and mention their good behavior, they are sure to continue to earn even more praise from you, their parent. Don’t miss an opportunity to encourage them.

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Modeling good behavior for children is important, but not going far enough. Parents must also serve as active coaches to their children, prompting them to say the right words, for example, “Say, thank you to Mrs. Smith,” or to do the right thing, such as not putting their elbows on the table. Correction is often necessary, too. You can do it in a positive way. Instead of saying, “don’t speak with your mouth full,” you might say, “wait until you’re finished chewing and swallowing, then tell us what you want to say.”

General Etiquette

  • Acknowledge guests or family members, when they enter the home.
  • Use a person’s name rather than “you” or “he” or “she.”
  • An adult should be addressed with his title (Mr., Mrs., Dr., Aunt, and so forth).
  • Introduce friends to each other: “Barbara, I’d like you to meet Joe.”
  • When introduced to someone say, “Nice (or “pleased”) to meet you.”
  • Always knock and wait for a response before entering a room
  • Foul language is always inappropriate, especially when used by children in the presence of adults. It is disrespectful and offensive.
  • It is never okay to insult someone, be cruel, make fun of others, call mean names, or otherwise bully others.
  • Try not to burp or pass gas in the presence of others, but go to a bathroom or unoccupied room to do so, if possible.
  • Always say excuse me after burping or passing wind in the presence of others, even family members.
  • Show respect and kindness for others, such as for elders (you might, for instance, suggest an older person go ahead of you in line at a buffet.
  • Be aware of others’ physical space and never stand to close to others or crowd them.
  • Never point at people or things. Like standing too close, this is an abuse of physical space.
  • Those exiting the room always go first before those entering the room.
  • Allow others to pass you by moving to the right.
  • Always say hello or goodbye when entering or leaving a home.
  • When you see someone with disability, don’t stare. Imagine how it would make you feel if others stared at you or pointed at you. Treat people with disabilities as you would like to be treated.
  • When leaving someone you’ve just met, say, “It was nice meeting you.”

Phone Manners

  • When answering the phone, say “Hello.” When the person asks to speak to someone, say, “Just a moment please,” and perhaps, “Whom shall I say is calling?”
  • When calling, say hello and ask for the person you wish to speak with. For instance: “Hello, may I speak to John?”
  • If you are John, you might respond, “Speaking. How may I help you?
  • If “John” is not home, the child should say, “I’m sorry, he’s not home right now. May I take a message please?” In this case, the child should make sure to write down and deliver the message on John’s return.
  • If John is home but cannot come to the phone, don’t explain why but say, “John can’t come to the phone right now, may he call you back?” Then write down the phone number and name of the person calling and make sure John gets the message.

Table Manners

  • When you’re not sure how to use a utensil or which utensil to use, watch your host or hostess and follow suit.
  • Don’t pick up your fork or spoon to eat until your host or hostess does.
  • Spread your napkin on your lap, use it to wipe your mouth.
  • Use your napkin to unobtrusively remove olive pits, bones, or other inedible bits from your mouth.
  • Pass things at table without being asked. If you want something you cannot easily reach, never reach over others, but ask for it to be passed to you.
  • If you must leave the table before the meal is over, ask your host for permission to be excused from the table. “May I please be excused?”
  • Stay seated at the table during meals.
  • Always chew with your mouth closed.
  • Don’t speak with food in your mouth.
  • Never place your elbows on the table.
  • Don’t eat so others can hear you.


  • When asked how you are, say thank you, answer the question, and respond in kind, “Fine, thank you. How are you?”
  • Don’t interrupt, rather wait until that person nods to you or otherwise lets you go ahead. If it is something that cannot wait, begin what you have to say with, “excuse me.”
  • Keep negative opinions to yourself. Never comment on a person’s physical characteristics unless it is a compliment.
  • Always speak when spoken to.
  • Make eye contact when speaking with others
  • Be a good listener. Let the person say all he wants to say. Answer in a way that shows you are listening and caring.

Public Manners

  • If you bump into someone or step on someone’s foot, say “excuse me.” If you might have hurt the person, ask if he or she is okay and offer help. Apologize.
  • Always cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.
  • Don’t pick your nose or pick or touch other (even covered) body parts.
  • Hold the door open for others.
  • Offer help when you can.
  • When asked by an adult to do a favor, don’t complain, but smile and do so willingly and as quickly as possible.

Being a Guest

  • If you’re not sure about something, ask permission Examples:
  1. May I look at this photo album, please?
  2. May I play with this kaleidoscope, please?
  3. May I take a cold drink of water from the refrigerator, please?
  • Respect your hosts’ privacy. Don’t touch things not belonging to you without permission. Don’t enter a closed door without permission.
  • Always clean up any messes you’ve made, for instance, put away any toys that were used, clean up after crafts.
  • Offer to help your host or hostess clean, serve, or clear.
  • If served a food you don’t like, take a small amount and eat as much as you can. Don’t make faces or complain. Your host or hostess worked hard to make a nice meal and you don’t want his or her feelings hurt.
  • Never fight over toys. Take turns using things. Share.
  • Always play fair.
  • Be a graceful loser. Smile and congratulate the winner.
  • Keep your hands to yourself. Don’t push, pull, or poke.
  • Don’t hit.
  • No name calling.
  • Don’t overstay your welcome. Watch your hosts to see when it might be time to go home. Do they seem tired? Is it getting late?
  • When invited to an event or someone’s home, always seek out and thank the host or hostess, for instance, say thank you to your friend’s mother at the end of a play date.

Hosting Others

  • Make your guests feel happy and comfortable. Take their coats. Ask if they’d like a drink or something to eat. Introduce them to people you think they’d enjoy knowing.
  • If your guest spills or breaks something, try to make them feel it was no big deal and clean it away as quickly as you can.
  • Thank guests for attending your event or for visiting.
  • Make a list of all those who helped you with your event or gave you gifts. Send them thank-you notes.

Attending Events

  • Always stand when meeting someone for the first time to show respect.
  • Stand for clergy or important speakers
  • It is difficult to sit through a boring speech or performance such as a play or a concert. It is important to sit quietly, however, and pretend to be interested. Keep in mind that the speaker or performer is doing his very best.
  • Don’t roll your eyes.
  • Clap at the end.

Expressing Gratitude

In addition to thanking a host in person when leaving a home or party, thank-you notes are always appreciated as a response to gifts and kindnesses. These should be sent by snail mail.

A typical thank-you note takes this form:
Dear Mrs. Smith,

Thank you so much for the ____. I have always wanted one. I will use it to ________.



If the child is too young to write, the child can draw a picture of using the item and the parent can write out the thank you note in the child’s name. These items can be mailed to the person in question.

Taken all together, this seems like a daunting list, both for the parent who must teach these things, and the child, who must learn them. Step back, however, and see what it is this list is all about: being considerate and kind, nothing more. Discuss this with your child. Ask how it feels, for instance, when someone points at her. Ask how it felt, on the other hand, when Mrs. Smith asked her how she was feeling after she had the flu.

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Good manners can be natural for the person who is caring. It’s just about getting the details straight. Knowing there is a set of guidelines for our behavior in any situation, can be a real comfort for children and for adults, too.

What are some of your best tips for teaching your child good manners? 

Sex Education, Our Children, and Politics

Sex education, until recently, was sensibly handled. Today, alas, sex education has been politicized. Instead of thinking about what children are ready to hear, parents are told to confront children with confusing information.

Planned Parenthood, for instance, is now disseminating sex education information to parents on how to discuss gender and sexual issues with preschoolers. This runs contrary to the sensible approach toward sex education that until now, has been the norm for explaining the birds and the bees. Parents would not bring up the subject of sex, but be prepared to honestly answer a child’s questions as they come up, answering only what the child asks, and no more.

The child is the guide. The child tells you what he or she is ready to hear about. This prevents a situation where a child is told about things that make him or her uncomfortable. This method of sex education also gives parents time to formulate an idea about what they will say when questions inevitably arrive: will I go very technical and use anatomical terms, or translate to child-speak (Daddy plants a seed in Mommy and God makes it grow)?sex education

Planned Parenthood’s parenting and sex education section, on the other hand, encourages parents to look for teachable moments:

“Little kids notice, and sometimes comment on, everything. Your kid may notice another kid on the playground or in their preschool who has a different kind of family than them — a family with a different number of parents, or with grandparents raising kids, or with two moms or two dads, or any number of other situations.

“These observations are good teachable moments. Take a minute and explain to your kid that they’re right — what they’re noticing is different from your family — but that there’s nothing wrong with it, and that we can always be friends with people who are different from us. You’ll be steering your kid in the direction of respecting others as they grow up. It will also one day help them figure out the kind of family they want to build for themselves.”

This sex education method of looking for teachable moments and explaining things to children, giving them so many concepts at once, seems illogical and confusing. Instead of giving children the raw information they need to understand their world, it goes beyond and tells them how to think: “There is nothing wrong with this.”

That is the equivalent of media bias. Children should be given information at the time they ask for it and be left alone to puzzle out the rest on their own. That is how you teach children constructive thinking. Space and silence are prerequisites for thinking. Children deserve that space and silence, too. There is nothing good about being brainwashed.

If your child comes to ask about the gay couple in the park, you can give them the facts: this is a couple where both partners are men. You don’t need to say anything else at all. Unless the child asks further questions.

Seeking Facts

Children are seeking facts and it is our job to either provide those facts or point them to a source for the facts. Children respect and trust their parents to know and understand the things they do not. But children are also seeking reassurance. Sometimes they ask questions because they want reassurance. They want factual, calm answers to their questions. This is what makes their world stable.sex education

Feelings are in unstable territory. Telling a child how to feel is wrong. That includes telling a child how to feel about minorities, homosexuality, or gender issues. It’s not only wrong to tell children how to feel (it’s actually wrong to tell anyone how to feel), it’s confusing to them. A case of too much information.

Telling children how to feel also prevents them from thinking about things and coming to independent conclusions. Our independent conclusions are real because we’ve come to them on our own. When we adopt others’ conclusions by rote, we have no way to explain why we feel as we do. Such “conclusions” are based on air.

But Planned Parenthood disagrees:

“Conversations about sex and masturbation not only give you an opportunity to share accurate information with your kid, they’re also an opportunity to talk about your values. Your values influence how you talk about it, so think ahead of time about what messages you want to send. It’s also a good idea to talk about these values with any co-parents or caretakers, so you’re all on the same page.

“For example, you might want to think about what you’re going to say about why people have sex — is it something people do when they’re in love? That grownups sometimes choose to do with each other? To feel good? To feel close to each other? To have a baby? All of these? Some but not others? At this age, you don’t have to go into detail about all of the complicated reasons people have sex. For now, it’s more about communicating what’s most important to you.”

This idea of sharing values is unnecessary and confusing. Children learn their parents’ values through example. If mommy puts a nickel in a beggar’s cup, smiles, and exchanges pleasantries, the child learns about true charity. The same is true of a parent’s values in other spheres. If parents speak lovingly toward each other, and with respect, the child learns to speak lovingly and with respect toward a spouse.

If it is a value to you to treat the LGBTQ community with extra kindness, your child will see this, too. No need to explain it or what it means. And if your child has a question, he or she will ask. Then you can answer in as few words as possible, using simple language, answering only what is asked.

Blue Whale Challenge: Should We Be Concerned?

The Blue Whale Challenge. What is it? Is it real?

To the first question, put simply, it’s a game where the curator, also known as a “whale,” gives a teen fifty tasks, one per day. At the end of the fifty tasks, the teen is told to commit suicide.

Suicide is the only way to complete the Blue Whale Challenge.

Blue Whale Challenge: Real or Hoax?

It’s unclear if the Blue Whale Challenge is real or if it’s just an urban legend, a hoax. The Blue Whale Challenge was believed to have begun on Russian social media. A Russian man has come forward, claiming it was he who started the challenge. He said he manipulated teenage girls into killing themselves, using psychology.

It is believed that some 130 children in Russia have killed themselves due to the Blue Whale Challenge. The earliest known Russian teen suicide due to the Blue Whale Challenge may have occurred in 2015 when Rina Palenkova took a selfie a moment before stepping in front of a train. Incidents believed to be caused by the Blue Whale Challenge have also been reported in Estonia, Ukraine, Kenya, Brazil, and Argentina.

The name of the challenge is taken from a song called “Burn” by Russian rock band Lumen. The lyrics speak of a “huge blue whale” that “can’t break through the net.” The song continues:

Why scream,

When no one hears,

What we’re talking about?

The song was popular enough to have been heard and sung by thousands of Russian teenagers.

Russian parents are urging the world to believe the Blue Whale Challenge is real. This, as two incidents have occurred in the United States in recent weeks. That would be 15-year-old Isaiah Gonzalez of San Antonio, Texas, and an anonymous 16-year-old girl in Atlanta, Georgia. Isaiah hung himself in his bedroom closet, his cell phone nearby to record the act live. The method of suicide for the young Atlanta girl is unknown. The girl left clues through her blue tinted artwork that contains partially disguised whale skeleton shapes

None of these deaths can be traced absolutely to the Blue Whale Challenge, if it does, indeed, exist. But each time there are clues that in retrospect, appear to be alarm bells. The girl in Atlanta, for instance, asked her mom to step on the roof of the house. There were many photos found after the girl’s suicide, presumably her proof at completing the tasks on the list. One of them shows her mother stepping onto the roof.

What does the list of tasks look like? Some of them are daunting, others are harmless, even boring. Here’s a group of typical Blue Whale Challenge tasks, culled from Reddit:

  • Carve a phrase on your hand or arm.
  • Wake up at 4:20 am and watch a horror clip (sent by the curator.)
  • Make long cuts on your arm.
  • Draw a whale
  • Write “yes” on your leg if you’re ready to be a whale. If not ready, cut yourself multiple times.
  • Complete a secret task sent in code
  • Scratch a phrase on your arm.
  • Write a social media status about being a whale.
  • Perform a task that scares you
  • Get up at 4:20 am and climb up to your roof.
  • Carve a whale on your hand.
  • Watch horror films all day.
  • Listen to music sent by the curator
  • Cut your lip.
  • Poke your arm or hand with a needle.
  • Hurt yourself or make yourself sick.
  • Climb onto a roof and stand at the edge.
  • Stand on a bridge.
  • Climb a crane.
  • Take a test of the curator’s devising to prove your trustworthiness.
  • Speak with a “whale” on Skype.
  • Sit on a roof with your legs dangling over the edge.
  • Perform a task given in code.
  • Perform a secret mission
  • Meet with your “whale.”
  • Your curator assigns you your suicide date.
  • Visit a railroad.
  • Don’t speak with anyone for 24 hours.
  • Make an oath or vow about being a whale

It’s hard to believe that teens could be persuaded by strangers to kill themselves. It may be the adolescent brain at work, telling teens to follow their dangerous impulses, without imagining the permanence of the consequences. For this reason, Lisa Bahar, LMFT, LPCC a family therapist suggests that spreading awareness of the Blue Whale Challenge is essential and can only be done by having a frank dialogue about social media, gaming and Internet use among parents, schools, and communities. “I would suggest making extra efforts to monitor the child or adolescent’s use of cell phones, computers, the Internet, as well as his social circle.

“Be aware of clues by listening to your ‘intuitive parenting’ when something feels off or unclear. Notice isolation in your child and check cell phones and computers regularly. If the child becomes too obsessive about the computer, cell, or a game, there is a clue the focus is too strong.”

Oleg Kapaev told Sky News that he undertook the challenge because he was “curious and bored.” He didn’t believe kids would really kill themselves because some random stranger commanded them to do so. This is due to the progressive nature of the tasks, which help to gain the participants’ trust. There’s a name for this. It’s called “grooming.”

“The psychological grooming of progressiveness in tasks is relevant, and educational efforts by schools, community leaders, perhaps law enforcement or at-risk youth organizations, can help by providing awareness to these games,” says Bahar, who suggests that parents comfortable with religion make an attempt to reconnect with the child through the family dynamic and values of religion and faith. “Suicide and death tend to lead people in the direction of faith, spirituality, and religion. Perhaps families can strengthen their connection to their family faith more consistently to keep outside guidance in check.”

Oleg went looking for the Blue Whale Challenge and found a curator after several days had elapsed. He found he was completely sucked into the challenge and was told he was a better performer than most and was therefore ready to do the final task earlier than others. Oleg was told to jump off a 20-story Moscow building.

Blue Whale Challenge: Final Task

The young man had been without sleep for several days and he was ready to go ahead and finish the challenge. The 20-year-old said, “I didn’t feel like I needed to kill myself. I felt I needed to complete the task. I only had this thought in my head—that I need to complete the task.”

In other words, Oleg wasn’t thinking of the final task as suicide, but as a task he must complete. His curator had been all too successful in grooming the youth. Oleg was well-nigh brainwashed.

Lucky for this young man, his parents found his train ticket to Moscow and managed to get Oleg to tell them what was going on. They stopped the boy from carrying out that final Blue Whale Challenge task.

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“There is a war, it appears, with the Internet and how it can be used for both helpful purposes and harmful purposes: this is an example of it being harmful. Remember the “trickery” of the harmful—how grooming appears innocent on the outside, but something always feels off on the inside,” says Bahar.

Not everyone is as lucky as Oleg and his parents. Diana Pestov fell off a roof and died. Some weeks later, her parents discovered the girl and several of her friends were in an online “group of death.” Attempting to make their daughter’s death have some purpose, her parents formed a group of volunteers to monitor online conversations and groups and alert police to teens who may be in trouble.

How great a danger is the Blue Whale Challenge? It’s difficult to know or verify. In Russia, there were 720 teen suicides in 2016, up from 461 a year earlier. No one can say whether the surge is due to the Blue Whale Challenge or to other factors, such as alcohol use or depression. But it sure is worrisome.

In the States, teen suicide is the second leading cause of death in teenagers, with only accidents coming in ahead. The last thing America needs is a deadly, secret internet game that culminates in teen suicide. But do we believe it’s real, and happening here?

“It’s a real thing. I lost my sister to it or at least part of it. I would say by the looks of everything we found it’s a major part of it,” says the brother of the girl who died in Atlanta. “And there needs to be awareness, people need to know, parents need to know, to look for signs, to monitor their kids a little better. And try to know and understand who they’re talking to and when.”

Energy Drinks and Bars: Deadly Teenage Treats?

Energy drinks and bars attract teenagers by holding out twin promises of increased strength and ability on the playing field, and better concentration in the classroom. These food products are especially appealing to teenagers, since they never get enough sleep. When teens wake up late for school, they don’t have time for breakfast.

Even when teens have the time to sit and eat breakfast, energy drinks and bars attract, because they need no preparation. Teens don’t even need to sit down to eat or drink them. You open them up and hold them in one hand. Teens can eat or drink them as  they walk to school.

Teens may know that energy drinks and bars are not as nutritious as a home cooked meal, and still, readily purchase these treats. They figure it’s better they use these products than starve. The problem is, energy drinks and bars may not be better than going hungry, because they may actually be dangerous.

Energy drinks, for instance, may contain large doses of caffeine. The caffeine may give teens a feeling of increased alertness. When that feeling wears off, the teen may drink another one. At a certain point, the teen is developing a dependence on caffeine. Caffeine can be dangerous to the health, and in large amounts, may even cause heart attacks.

Energy bars may be loaded with sugar. The result of eating sugar-laden energy bars is a sugar high, followed by a crash. The sugar high makes the teen think the energy bar is giving him energy. When the crash comes, the teen does the logical thing and eats another energy bar. Without realizing it, he’s using sugar like a drug.

But the convenience of energy drinks and bars is irresistible. They’re more nutritious than a bag of corn chips or a candy bar, and they’re so convenient. Not to mention: they taste good, too.

So how do the experts come out on energy drinks and bars for teens? Are they danger in a convenient package or are they safe as long as teens don’t overindulge? It seems the important thing to do is to become educated consumers. We need to read the labels and research the ingredients and educate our teenagers to do so, as well.

Here is some information about common ingredients in energy drinks and bars and some pros and cons for using these products:

Obesity and Energy Drinks and Bars

Energy drinks and bars are loaded with sugar and calories. The rate of obesity in teens, meanwhile, has more than doubled over the past three decades. Using energy products is only going to contribute toward excess weight gain, and may also lead to tooth decay. Teenagers who are heavy into high-intensity sports such as weight training or football, on the other hand, do burn more calories. For these teens, the occasional energy drink or bar does no harm and may even supply the extra energy they need to perform.

Caffeine and Energy Drinks

Energy drinks aren’t just loaded with sugar. They’re also filled with caffeine. Drinking one may give teens the jitters, tummy aches, headaches, and insomnia. But drinking more than one can be deadly.

On April 26, 2017, David Allen Cripe, a 16-year-old boy, died after drinking three caffeine-laden drinks within the space of two hours. He drank a cafe latte at 12:30 PM, followed by a large Diet Mountain Dew and an energy drink. Cripe collapsed at school at 2:30 PM and by 3:40, was pronounced dead.

David Cripe didn’t have a heart problem. He hadn’t been drinking alcohol or using drugs. What happened is as simple as this: the amount of caffeine in those three drinks, drunk within a short time span, made his heart give out.

At a press conference following the teenager’s untimely death, South Carolina’s Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said, “Parents, please talk to your kids about the dangers of these energy drinks.”

The caffeine in energy drinks can cause the heart to beat irregularly or too fast. Caffeine can cause the blood pressure to spike, and in large amounts, may even cause hallucinations or seizures. That’s in perfectly healthy teens with no preexisting medical conditions.

Now let’s say a teen starts out drinking one energy drink a day. Then it seems not to have the same effect. So he drinks one before lunch and another before football practice after school. This suggests the teen has begun to develop a tolerance to the effects of caffeine. The teen may drink more energy drinks to get the same boost in energy, until the point where, like Cripe, he’s taking in much too much caffeine within too short a span of time—to the point where his energy drink habit becomes life-threatening.

Do speak to your teen about the danger of energy drinks. If your child used to drink one energy drink and now drinks two, it’s time for him to change his habit. One way to do that is to add water to dilute the energy drink, rather than drink a second one.

Energy Drinks Vs. Sports Drinks

Teens should also be taught that energy drinks are not the same thing as sports drinks. Sports drinks hydrate the body. Energy drinks do the opposite. The caffeine in energy drinks acts as a diuretic, pulling moisture from the body. Put simply: energy drinks dry you out. If it’s hydration he needs, your teen would do better drinking from the water fountain at school.

Other Dubious Ingredients

Caffeine and sugar may be the culprits most familiar to teens when they’re reading the labels of energy drinks and bars (if they read them at all). But there are other substances that are found in these products. Substances like guarana, taurine, yerba mate, and ginseng have been found in energy drinks and bars. Guarana and yerba mate contain caffeine, taurine is an amino acid that may increase the effects of caffeine, and ginseng isn’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA). Research into ginseng is not conclusive, as there are many types of ginseng, and studies aren’t always clear about the type of ginseng investigated.

Teens should be wary of the food products they purchase. If a product contains an ingredient they haven’t heard of, they shouldn’t buy the item without further research. This warning is doubly important for teens who have chronic health issues or who take regular medications that might interact with an ingredient in energy drinks or bars.

Proprietary Secrets? Nah.

Energy drinks and bars may claim to have all manner of special or secret ingredients. But there’s nothing all that secret or special about these ingredients. The mineral chromium, for instance, is found in some energy items. Chromium can help regulate blood sugar by increasing insulin sensitivity. When you control blood sugar, in theory, you may be regulating body energy. You don’t need to buy an energy drink, however, to get chromium. The mineral is found in beef, broccoli, and bananas.

One popular sports drink combines amino acids with a kind of lactic acid, which produces alpha L-polylactate, said to help athletes sustain energy and lessen fatigue during endurance training. The presence of alpha L-polylactate proves the point that this drink is meant for athletes rather than regular, ordinary teens. Some studies have shown that this compound can cause stomach problems.

Drinks like Red Bull and the like, often contain inositol and taurine. These ingredients aren’t specific to these drinks, nor do they have any special powers. Our bodies do a fine job of making both inositol and taurine from the food we eat. Inositol is found, for instance, in brown rice, corn, and beans. Taurine is found in meat, chicken, fish, and eggs.

Mixed Results

Some energy drinks are infused with rhodiola rosea, sometimes in combination with cordyceps mushroom. Rhodioloa rosea is an herb said to fight fatigue and improve mental and physical performance. But little is known about the herb and the results of studies are contradictory. The cordyceps mushroom has likewise not been well investigated by researchers. Some experts feel that cordyceps mushroom can provide an energy boost to young athletes.

Energy Treats Cost Big Time

It’s important to note that energy drinks and bars are more expensive than soft drinks or granola bars. The companies that manufacture energy drinks and bars figure they can charge more because their products supposedly have special ingredients with special effects. A teen may spend $3 on an energy bar, when he might have spent less money and received more nutrient value by buying and eating a whole grain bagel with cream cheese.

Meal Substitute?

Teens may grab energy bars because they think they have the same nutrition as breakfast or dinner. But while the bars may contain the same number of calories as breakfast or dinner, they don’t offer the same nutritional value or satisfy in the same way as a real meal. Illustrate this by asking your teen to think how he feels after a nice meal. Then ask him to pay attention to how he feels the next time he eats an energy bar. Teens should never opt to replace meals with energy bars if they can possibly help it.

It’s hard for teens to resist the marketing hype behind those energy drinks and bars. If a teen is feeling tired and hungry, a flashy package promising energy may seem like a good bet. That is why parents have to educate their teens about marketing and reading labels.

Teens must be taught that food products can’t make them better athletes or perform better in class. Doing well on the playing field or in the classroom depends on doing the work. Teens need exercise, sleep, study, and good nutritious food. There’s no such thing as a little something extra a teen can buy to perform better.

It’s pretty simple, actually. When teens and other people lead healthy lives, they feel good and have lots of energy. If they’re doing everything right and still don’t feel energetic, then it’s time to get a checkup. An energy product is never the right answer.

Devil’s Advocate

To play devil’s advocate, not all energy drinks are created equal. Some will keep teens going longer than others. Those based on sugar and caffeine may give teens a surge of energy. The rush from consuming sugar can last from 30 minutes to an hour, while the rush from caffeine can last up to around two hours. Then comes the crash and a serious loss of energy.

Energy bars containing complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, will help provide more of a lasting boost, which is useful for endurance sports. This is especially true if the source of carbohydrates is fiber rich, since fiber takes longer to digest.

Missing: Phytonutrients

Energy bars rich in protein can give an athlete greater stamina and strength. Protein builds the muscles and helps to regulate how energy is produced by the body. The problem is, while these manufactured treats may be fortified with vitamins and minerals, they’re still missing important phytonutrients, beneficial chemical compounds found only in plants.

Phytonutrients include carotenoids that give carrots their color, the isoflavones in soybeans, and polyphenols in tea, Phytochemicals do all sorts of wonderfully good things for our bodies. Some improve memory, while others are known to reduce cholesterol, or kill viruses.

Nutritionists suggest teens substitute a sandwich and a piece of fruit for that energy bar. These items can still be held in one hand, but are more nutritious than energy drinks and bars. Choose whole grain bread and you’re getting fiber, plus protein from the sandwich filling, and finally, phytonutrients from the fruit. Accompany the sandwich and fruit with a glass of milk and you’ve just added calcium and vitamin D.

Better Choices

When one is fatigued and hungry, it’s difficult to think what it is your body needs. That can make a teen grab for an energy drink or bar. But there are better choices. Next time your teen wants to grab something quick, choose one or several of the items listed here:

  • Yogurt
  • String cheese
  • Nuts
  • Dry whole grain cereal
  • A spoonful of peanut butter
  • Whole grain toast
  • A smoothie
  • Fruit, such as bananas, grapes, nectarines, or apples
  • Trail mix
  • Dried fruit
  • Chocolate bar

If faced with a choice between junk or fast food, an occasional energy drink or bar is probably the better choice. Teens in training for high activity sports may find that energy bars and gels serve as a useful addition to a healthy diet. But teens should never think that energy drinks and bars can replace a meal.

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13 Reasons Why Your Teen Should Not See This Show

Think of this as a sort of companion piece to last week’s blog piece, How to Prevent Teen Suicide. That piece was meant as a resource for parents. This piece has a different focus. It’s about the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why. I just watched the first season of this compelling drama and I had to (somewhat) concur with my teenage son, “Don’t watch it. You’ll just want to kill yourself.”

It’s not that I want to kill myself after watching the series. It’s that I think teens will want to kill themselves after they watch this show, or at least some teens, many teens (thankfully, my son is still with us).

I think a lot of us forget how intense it felt to be a teen.

13 Reasons Why captures that intensity and makes the case that it just feels like too much sometimes and that the only way to get away from it—from all that stress and pain—is to end your life.

See, I remember that and even if I didn’t, this show was going to bring it back to me. It’s brilliant. The kids, though they’re from a more modern era, aren’t all that different from the kids with whom I went to school. The dynamic is exactly the same. The kinds of things that happened then, those are the same things that happen now, if the show is to be believed.

And the show is utterly believable.

Experts are warning people not to let their children watch 13 Reasons Why. They say that teen suicide is “contagious.” They say they’ve known for more than three decades that when kids watch TV shows that depict suicides, it makes them kill themselves.

They say the show makes suicide glamorous.

I agree. I watched all those shiny, pretty teens, and I felt like I knew them. I felt totally involved in their drama. It was like I was one of them. I kind of wanted to be one of them.

Now imagine a kid watching that, instead of yours truly, a woman of 55 years and counting.

The problem with 13 Reasons Why is that it shows us, shows our kids, that there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go to get away from stress, abuse, rape, drugs, and alcohol. That suicide is really the only way out, the only option. Otherwise, you’ve just got to go through it, deal with it, live with it, cope. And it’s just too much to bear.

Is that really the message we want to give our teens?

Now, the actor that plays one of the main characters in this story, Dylan Minette (Clay Jensen), told Ellen Degeneres, that the show is about starting the conversation on a very difficult topic.

But I don’t buy it. Minette is not a psychiatrist or someone in the mental health profession who works with teens. He’s an actor and this is his bread and butter. Of course he doesn’t want to admit that the show may be dangerous to teens. He’s suddenly famous and he wants that to continue.

The thing is, Minette as Clay Jensen, the good guy/nice teen in this series, seems credible That means we’ll be sure to take his word for it when he says the show is safe. That it’s just a conversation starter. Right?

Wrong. He’s an actor. We must NOT take his word for anything that impacts on the safety of our children.

And truthfully? No matter what Selena Gomez, the co-producer of 13 Reasons Why says about teen suicide being a difficult discussion that has “to come no matter what,” no matter what Dylan Minette says on Ellen, it’s not possible for either of them to assure any parent that it is safe to watch this show, that there is absolutely no danger that kids will watch this and follow suit. Because that’s absolutely the opposite of what this study found:

We examined the relation between 38 nationally televised news or feature stories about suicide from 1973 to 1979 and the fluctuation of the rate of suicide among American teenagers before and after these stories. The observed number of suicides by teenagers from zero to seven days after these broadcasts (1666) was significantly greater than the number expected (1555; P = 0.008). The more networks that carried a story about suicide, the greater was the increase in suicides thereafter (P = 0.0004).

These findings persisted after correction for the effects of the day of the week, the month, holidays, and yearly trends. Teenage suicides increased more than adult suicides after stories about suicide (6.87 vs. 0.45 percent). Suicides increased as much after general-information or feature stories about suicide as after news stories about a particular suicide. Six alternative explanations of these findings were assessed, including the possibility that the results were due to misclassification or were statistical artifacts. We conclude that the best available explanation is that television stories about suicide trigger additional suicides, perhaps because of imitation.

And it’s also the opposite of what this, newer study, found:

Increasing evidence suggest that imitative behavior may have a role in suicide among teenagers. We studied the variation in the numbers of suicides and attempted suicides by teenagers in the greater New York area two weeks before and two weeks after four fictional films were broadcast on television in the fall and winter of 1984-1985. The mean number of attempts in the two-week periods after the broadcasts (22) was significantly greater than the mean number of attempts before the broadcasts (14; P less than 0.05), and a significant excess in completed suicides, when compared with the number predicted, was found after three of the broadcasts (P less than 0.05).

We conclude that the results are consistent with the hypothesis that some teenage suicides are imitative and that alternative explanations for the findings, such as increased referrals to hospitals or increased sensitivity to adolescent suicidal behavior on the part of medical examiners or hospital personnel, are unlikely to account for the increase in attempted and completed suicides.

Now if you think about the quality of television shows in the 70’s, at the time of the first study cited above, and even during the mid-80’s when the second study was performed, and compare it to the quality of a Netflix series, you know there’s just no comparison. Today the acting and the videography is so much more real and compelling. A series from the 80’s looks wooden, stilted, by comparison.

Imagine your child watching a true-to-life depiction of Hannah Baker in a bathtub with running water, scared but determined, slitting her wrists (deeply—the blood gushes). Then think of Hannah panting from the effort as she settles in and closes her eyes, waiting for the end. Because that is what your child will see in this series.

I went to the experts to see what they had to say.

A specialist in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), Nechama Finkelstein sees suicide as the result of depression and hopelessness, in tandem with deficits in problem solving.

“The show exacerbates and feeds this issue—faulty problem solving—by portraying suicide as a logical solution to Hannah’s troubles. In fact while this show seems to be about the 13 reasons that explain Hannah’s suicide, the true reason she committed suicide is 1) depression and 2) her lack of reaching out for proper help when the school counselor failed her. Hannah spent more energy and time on her revenge tapes then trying to get help.

“Viewers find themselves nodding along with Hannah and getting pulled into this sick and twisted logic,” says Finkelstein.

“I can see some benefits and yet I can see even more dangers that teens can have from watching this show. A struggling teen viewing this show is in danger of being influenced by the lack of any problem solving or a more proactive search for help. The message to stop teen bullying and prevent suicide is lost through Hannah’s sensationalized revenge,” explains Finkelstein. “Hannah’s choice, to teen viewers, seems empowering, and she is presented as a winner instead of a loser.

“I would recommend any teen battling depression, bullying, or any form of emotional instability to stay far away from the show.”

Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, says that if teens are going to watch the show, parents should be watching it with them. “Suggest watching this show, or others that address the complexities of adolescence, together with your teen. If not literally together, then at least watch it at the same time and decide upon a shared meal to talk about the latest episode. If your teen is too embarrassed to talk about it with you, then he/she may not be developmentally ready to watch it,” says Walfish, who refers parents to talking points from the National Association of School Psychologists, for having that conversation about suicide with their teens.

Walfish feels that parents need to fill in the gaps left by the writers of 13 Reasons Why, “Mental health issues and their effects on teens are only minimally addressed in this show. Instead, the very premise of the show is the idea that other teens ‘caused’ the main character’s suicide. By downplaying the character’s depression and lack of appropriate intervention, this show fails to address the complexity of mental illness,” says Walfish, who suggests parents visit the website on the National Alliance on Mental Illness to read up on teens and mental health. “Genetic history, self-concept, biochemistry, coping strategies and access to support systems are just a few of the many factors that play into mental illness and suicidal ideation. This is why there is a critical need to help teens understand mental health more completely.”

As a response to complaints by mental health professionals, Netflix has added a warning to the beginning of most episodes of 13 Reasons Why. But from my purview as a parent, you know what Netflix doesn’t give you? Any place to turn to if you feel you or your teen need help after watching the show. There should be hotline information on that final screen of each episode—a way for parents and teens to get help if they feel triggered or hopeless after watching the show.

Instead there is nothing of the sort.

13 Reasons Why Classified in New Zealand

New Zealand, a country with the highest rate of teen suicide in the developed world, has banned teens from watching the show without their parents. The show was given a new classification, RP18. The New Zealand Classification Office issued a long explanation on its predicament with the show. Here is an excerpt:

The most immediate concern for the Classification Office is how teen suicide is discussed and shown in 13 Reasons Why. Hannah’s suicide is presented fatalistically. Her death is represented at times as not only a logical, but an unavoidable outcome of the events that follow. Suicide should not be presented to anyone as being the result of clear headed thinking. Suicide is preventable, and most people who experience suicidal thoughts are not thinking rationally and therefore cannot make logical decisions.

Which gets us to the next big issue. The show ignores the relationship between suicide and the mental illness that often accompanies it. People often commit suicide because they are unwell, not simply because people have been cruel to them. It is also extremely damaging to present rape as a ‘good enough’ reason for someone to commit suicide. This sends the wrong message to survivors of sexual violence about their futures and their worth.

13 Reasons Why does not follow international guidelines for responsible representations of suicide. The scene depicting Hannah’s suicide is graphic, and explicit about the method of suicide she uses, to the point where it could be considered instructional. As The Mental Health Foundation New Zealand notes of the scene in which Hannah dies, “It was detailed and lengthy, and is likely to have caused distress and an increased risk of suicide in people who are vulnerable. Research has demonstrated an increased use of particular methods of suicide when they are portrayed in popular media.

Reading this statement I can’t help but wonder why the United States has not followed New Zealand’s good example. Suicide is the second highest cause of death in U.S. teens. We should be doing everything in our power to keep our children safe.

The upshot? If your child has already watched this show, sit down and have a talk together (or two or three). Make sure your child isn’t thinking about suicide. If s/he is, get your teen to a mental health professional immediately.

Don’t blow this off as no big deal. You really don’t want that on your conscience.

Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, in my opinion, fails teens utterly, by making suicide attractive and by failing to offer teens the resources to seek help. The bottom line for me, as a parent, is that Netflix may have found a good draw to bring in the big bucks, but the television programming monolith has done so at the expense of our children’s safety. I find that completely unforgiveable.

As should you.