Good Fats Needed: Your Child’s Brain and Health

Could government guidelines for a diet low in healthy fats be making our children sick? The numbers and new research suggest this may just be the case. From 2003 to 2011, for instance, ADD/ADHD rates increased by 43%, and continue to rise. The number of kids on antidepressants jumped 50% from 2005 to 2012, with over 7 million children now taking psychoactive drugs.

In 2015, 6 million children in the U.S. were diagnosed with ADD/ADHD and treated with Ritalin, Adderall, and related drugs. While this means that only two out of three kids with diagnosed ADHD are treated, some experts feel that not enough children are being medicated. This is backwards reasoning that fails to look at the cause of ADHD. Over 2.1 million kids in the U.S., meanwhile, are taking anti-depressants, according to 2017 statistics.

There is no sign that trends in these ailments are reversing, but the good news is that there are practical steps you can take to prevent or alleviate these disorders. Adding vitamins and healthier food to your child’s diet will provide essential nutrients that are missing in the Standard American Diet.

SAD daily food plan
Standard American Diet (SAD) daily food plan

New research is discovering nutritional solutions to mental health issues, pointing to vitamin supplementation and better diet as the most effective solution for mental health issues. Studies show that certain fats make excellent antidepressants. Even severe depression and schizophrenia have been successfully treated with vitamins and diet.

The good news is that you can keep kids happy and healthy by changing their diet. Your children can benefit from proven research which is not yet widely known or accepted. The bad news is that you have to be willing to buck traditional nutritional and medical advice.

There are many plusses to treating mental health issues with diet instead of drugs. Let’s compare diet to Ritalin, the most common psychoactive drug given to kids:

Dietary Approach to ADHD:Ritalin:
No side effects.Long list of side effects including nervousness, tics, insomnia, weight loss, psychosis, etc.

 

Lower cost.The cheapest discounted Ritalin will cost about $400 per year for 30-40 mg per day. Full price and higher dosage could easily triple that amount to $1,200.
Long-lasting improvement: Mental health benefits from dietary supplements can last for at least one year after stopping supplements.Ritalin works only for as long as it is taken.

 

 

Before we discuss diet, let’s take a look at how started down this path of declining mental and physical health.

Replacing Fat with Sugar

In the 1970s, the nutrition advice of the U.S. government underwent a radical change in an effort to stem rising heart attack rates in men. Wanting a quick solution, politicians seized on the results of the earliest studies, ignoring researchers who cautioned them to wait until all the data was in. Worse yet, the new nutrition guidelines targeted adult men, ignoring children’s differing needs. The assumption that the new guidelines were safe for all has since been proven incorrect. The diet, moreover, did not prevent male heart attacks.

The new policy recommended eating a carbohydrate-loaded diet and restricting fats, especially saturated fats. People stopped eating animal fats, and ate more sugar, a simple carbohydrate. Manufacturers “improved” tasteless, boring, fat-free snack foods by adding sugar. The resulting products were sold as health food, while butter and fatty meats were said to be dangerous. Sugary foods were even marketed as low-fat and heart-healthy, despite being mostly devoid of nutrients.

Snackwell Devil's Food cookies were low in fats, high in sugar
The Snackwell Effect: high-carb, low-fat cookies touted as a health food

The new food items were a win for food companies because they were cheap to produce and had shelf lives stretching far into the future. Some breakfast cereals were over 50% sugar, while claiming to be good for children. Now that we have adult-onset diabetes in kids under ten, we’re beginning to see that sugar was never just a source of empty “fat-free” calories.

Inexpensive high-fructose corn syrup (HCFS) was first marketed in the late 1960s, and plugged as healthier than sugar, because fructose doesn’t raise blood sugar. But HFCS is 45% glucose, 55% fructose, while table sugar is 50% glucose, 50% fructose. There’s no great difference between the two. And while fructose doesn’t raise blood sugar, it does go straight to the liver, just like alcohol. Children who drink large quantities of sugary soda, use lots of sugar-laden ketchup, and eat sweet treats, may just end up developing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

Hidden Sugar

Today the CDC recommends limiting sugars, but other than recommending that kids under two avoid added sugar, fails to specify how much sugar is too much.  We’re used to a sweet edge on food, so manufacturers add sugar to commercial foods to make them taste better. As parents and consumers, we do however, have the right to check packaged foods for hidden sugar and to choose sugarless items.

Avoiding sugar except for rare treats makes sense. According to pediatric researchers, NAFLD is now common among children, affecting 3-12% of children, in general, and occurring in 70-80% of obese children. After 2020, NAFLD will become the most common reason for liver transplants. For kids, and especially teens, obesity creates its own world of mental anguish, as obese kids often face rejection and bullying.

Sugar may create behavior issues, too. Many parents note that children are more manageable on a low-sugar diet. Kids seem to have better focus and concentration without sugar. Sugar may be harming our children’s mental health. Mental health statistics suggest that lowering dietary fats and replacing them with sugar has only made things worse.

The Wrong Fats

Until 1990, McDonald’s used beef fat to make its crispy fries taste hearty. But a consumer advocate group believing the early, flawed research results, waged war on saturated fats. McDonald’s switched to a “heart-healthy” fat for its fries.

The food industry already had an inexpensive answer to the fat conundrum. Crisco and margarine had been around since the early 1900s. These hydrogenated trans fats made from vegetable sources replaced “unhealthful” animal fats. Trans fats were vegan and miraculous for food texture—until 2001, when we found out just how bad they are. Heart inflammation and brain issues such as memory loss are just two side effects of these solid fats.

The food industry switched to liquid vegetable oils. But when repeatedly heated to high temperatures these oils produce dangerous, cancer-causing acrylamides. Eating foods deep fried in these seed oils during pregnancy deters fetal brain development. That means that families eating lots of deep-fried foods are at risk for brain issues.

Because we traded bad fats for worse fats.

Most commercial vegetable oils, for instance canola oil, are unstable seed oils, and are best avoided. Such oils are high in unhealthy Omega 6 fats and low or without beneficial Omega 3 fats. As a rule, if an oil can’t be produced outside of a factory, it is inflammatory. Inflammation is responsible for many harmful disease processes throughout the body.

complicated canola oil production versus simple olive oil extraction puts olive oil in the family of good fats
Canola oil is extracted with multiple chemical processes; olives are simply pressed to release their oil.

Better Fats, Better Brains

If canola oil is bad for your child’s general health and brain health, what fats are good? For non-meat, non-dairy options, coconut oil, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, or avocado oil are all good choices. Coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) which are great for brain health and mental clarity. Avocadoes are a food source containing healthy fats.

We need healthy fats because the nervous system needs fat for proper function and because the human brain is 60% fat. Brain growth and development reach their full potential when we eat a traditional pre-industrial diet of home-cooked foods. In spite of what we now know, current CDC recommendations still advise a low-fat diet for children.

Cleveland dentist, Weston A. Price, demonstrated a number of the benefits of animal fats in the 1930s. Adding good grass-fed butter to the diet resolved nutrition and health issues in malnourished inner-city children, including tooth decay. These days, the CDC-recommended low-fat diet has left even affluent children malnourished.

Important: Fat-Soluble Vitamins D, A, and K

Parents once gave kids butter and cod liver oil rich in Vitamins D, A, and K, to keep them healthy. We ate fatty foods and foods fried in animal fats. The high-carb, low-fat trends of today’s Standard American Diet have left us literally SAD and reeling from depression. By putting nutritional fats back into the diet we can turn that frown upside down.

Vitamin D

Most people including children are, today, deficient in Vitamin D, a major cause of depression. The two sources of Vitamin D are sunshine and food. When kids play mostly indoors, they lose out on sun exposure. This means kids make less Vitamin D in their skin. Instead, they get their Vitamin D from milk with added Vitamin D2, which is inferior to the D3 we make in response to sunlight or consume from animal sources.

Animal sources are the most bio-available form of D. Bio-availability means that a nutrient source is eaten in the same form that our body uses directly. Non-bio-availability means that a chemical conversion is required, and this usually means a shortfall in that nutrient.

Why do we need Vitamin D3? Vitamin D3 acts as a hormone in the body. It helps us fight viral infections; absorb calcium for growth and maintenance; and regulate blood pressure. The mental wellness effects of D3 were well-known to traditional peoples who prized fatty fish.

Dr. Jay Wortman, a Canadian M.D. and researcher, interviewed an older First Nations man about his traditional diet, which includes oil from the oolichan fish. High in D3 and other fat-soluble nutrients, oolichan oil was described by his grandfather as “your sun in the winter”. In the far north, the mood-boosting effects of the oil are important in the long, dark winter. Another key component of that northern diet is salmon, also a fatty fish. Traditional peoples did not avoid fats; they prized them as health-giving components of a proper diet.

Native American smelting process for oolichan or eulachon fish, a source of healthy fats
Oolichan or eulachon fish were a prized source of healthy fats for the indigenous population. Here they are rendered to extract the fat.

A diet deficient in D3 can mean poor mental and physical health. Correcting D3 deficiency may help fight autism. D3 acts to combat depression. Diagnosing and correcting a deficiency in Vitamin D3 levels should be the first line of treatment for depression. If your child suffers from depression, you will need to tackle the problem with sunshine and outdoor exercise, fatty fish, or D3 drops. You can check recommended sun exposure times for season and location here.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is another important vitamin that fights infections, and long-term deficiency causes night blindness. A lack of Vitamin A leaves one prone to infectious diseases like pneumonia and measles. Enough Vitamin A means the ability to fight off serious infections. For school kids, that’s a big edge, especially in flu season.

Some think that a low-fat carrot muffin made with vegetable oil has enough beta carotene to provide Vitamin A. But the beta-carotene in carrots and yellow vegetables doesn’t readily convert to enough usable Vitamin A. That does not mean you shouldn’t eat yellow vegetables. It means you need to add a meat source, for instance liver, once a week, to get enough bio-available Vitamin A in your diet.

Start serving liver when children are young, and you won’t have to introduce it later. The secret is not to overcook liver, and to serve it with a smile. If kids won’t eat liver, try flavored cod liver oil for a balanced dose of A, D3 and other essential nutrients.

While Vitamin A is essential, you can get too much, so:

  • Always check dosage information for your child’s age and body weight.
  • Keep your pediatrician in the loop whenever you use supplements.
  • Remember it is always best to get nutrients from food.

Vitamin K2

Vitamin K2 is another key nutrient we are coming to appreciate for its many health benefits. Vitamin K2 has many important and distinct functions.

K2 Functions:

  • Supports brain function
  • Supports growth and development
  • Keeps skin healthy
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Prevents heart disease
  • Maintains bone strength
  • Prevents cancer

Eating foods with Vitamins K2, D3, and A will keep your child in good mental and physical health. We’re still learning about the best K2 food sources.

K2 Food Sources:

  • Fermented foods like natto and sauerkraut
  • Meats, including beef, chicken, and cured meats such as salami
  • Chicken liver
  • Butter and fatty cheeses
  • Egg yolks

Health and dietary trends show that the outmoded low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet recommendations aren’t working. Replacing fats with sugar, damages the health. Yet we stick with poor government advice. Mental health issues, childhood obesity, and diabetes are epidemic. Yet these urgent issues have not made a dent in the anti-fat CDC guidelines. Happily, parents have the power to make food choices for their children.

Real Food and Fats for Better Mental and Overall Health

Simple diet choices can have major impact. Serve kids real foods like eggs scrambled in grass-fed butter instead of breakfast cereal. Use full-fat cheese and olives on a lunch salad, and nourishing meats and fish for dinner. You don’t have to labor for hours, just plan ahead when shopping. Fish and hamburgers each take 20 minutes, tops. Frozen veggies like cauliflower, broccoli and spinach can be cooked with butter and full-fat cream or coconut cream. Blend veggies and cream with an immersion blender and a few seasonings for a hearty, filling soup. Add eggs instead and bake a casserole that can also be packed as tomorrow’s lunch along with a handful of nuts.

Cooking real food doesn’t have to be hard, and kids will find the fats so satisfying and filling that they won’t be looking for overpriced between-meal snacks.

This writer strongly believes that the evidence is sufficient and urgent enough for parents to make bold dietary decisions for their families. Our children’s mental and physical health are at stake. Our national institutions show little interest in revoking long-held and long-discredited nutritional advice. But there’s no time to wait. It’s up to us to protect our children.

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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.

Found what you just read useful? Why not consider sending a donation to our Kars4Kids youth and educational programs. Or help us just by sharing!

Roots of Empathy: Can Babies Heal Bullies?

Can spending time with a baby prevent bullying? One school program, Roots of Empathy, brings babies and their moms into classrooms. And research suggests that participating classrooms show a reduction in bullying and aggressive behavior.

Is it really just that simple? What is the exact nature of the Roots of Empathy program, and how can we reproduce these results in our own children’s classrooms? Because even one child bullied, is one child too many.

Roots of Empathy has developed a research-based school program for primary school children in which the teaching tools consist, in the main, of a local baby and parent. The program has spread across Canada and to 10 other countries, as well. More than 800,000 children have experienced the program since the nonprofit’s founding, in 1996. Roots of Empathy Founder Mary Gordon, says the long-term goal of the program is to build a “more caring, peaceful, and civil society, where everybody feels a sense of belonging.”

The Roots of Empathy program has local parents volunteering themselves and their babies, coming every few weeks to classrooms, so that children can witness a baby’s vulnerability and development over time. Gordon says she started the program because she wanted to find a way to help children talk about their feelings. “Roots of empathy is a bit of a trick. We use a baby to help children find the vulnerability and humanity in this little baby so that then you can flip it back to their own experiences.

“They realize this sudden universe of ‘everybody in the world feels the same as me. We’re not so disconnected.’

“It’s very hard to hate someone if you realize they feel like you. It’s very hard to be bullying someone if you realize that.”

Lisa Bahar, a licensed psychotherapist in Newport Beach, California, explains that the goal of the Roots of Empathy program goal is to realize that “we” are all the same, “in the sense of wanting to belong, to be loved and cared about. This kind of unique vehicle of bringing a baby into the classroom is what I consider a wonderful way to allow children to relate to someone who is nonthreatening, and who can give a young person the awareness of true connection to other human beings. This creates empathy, sympathy and compassion,” says Bahar.

But is this really something we need to have in our classrooms? Shouldn’t parents be teaching empathy at home? “If we are educating children who can read well and compute well but can’t relate well, we will have a failed society. Learning how to relate to one another requires empathy. You have to understand how the other fella feels,” says Mary Gordon.

Can It Heal A Bully?

Can the Roots of Empathy program help turn around a child who is already a bully? Bahar says yes. “Spending time with a baby activates the senses as we observe the eyes, the responses, the touch, and the expressions of the baby. These sensory impressions can be internalized and experienced through the baby. The pathology that exists within the bully will fight to resist the impact of these sensory lessons, the insight will nonetheless be gained, as the child experiences a sense of connection to another living being,” says Bahar.

Studies from 2000 onward, confirm that the Roots of Empathy program is effective, reducing bullying and aggression over the course of the school year and over time, in general. Children who take part in the program have an increased sense of positivity about the classroom environment. They feel more of a sense of belonging and acceptance. Students are also more likely to engage in “pro-social” behavior, for instance sharing with and helping their peers, and including them in their activities. Perhaps most important of all, the program appears to reduce fighting among classmates by 50 percent, on average. This is notable, since in general, classroom squabbles tend to increase over the course of the school year.

Roots of Empathy and the Root Cause of Bullying

But Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, and regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors and CBS TV, says that as a method of targeting bullies, Roots of Empathy misses the mark. “Roots of Empathy is a truly wonderful and beautiful program that by bringing a baby into the classroom teaches school age children about human relatedness, reading/understanding emotions, and human-to-human engagement. However, they missed the mark for targeting prevention of bullying. Clearly, the creators do not fully understand the root cause of all bullies,” says Walfish, who explains, “All bullies carry a secret that they, personally, have been the target of bullying, mistreatment, and mishandling by someone important within their family. That important someone is usually their father or mother, and in less frequent instances, an older sibling. Often, the mistreatment is abusive—emotionally or physically.

“The child who is the victim in his own family cannot ‘hold’ or contain the hostility and rage, and thus becomes the bully. He goes to school or out into the world and looks for an easy target. Then, he expels his hostilities onto another innocent victim.  It is a vicious cycle,” says Walfish, suggesting that playing with a baby is just not going to cut it, not going to stop that cycle, and is certainly not going to prevent that cycle from occurring in the first place.

Erin Clabough, PhD, a neurobiologist and author of Second Nature: How Parents Can Use Neuroscience to Help Kids Develop Empathy, Creativity, and Self-Control  (December 2018, Sounds True Publishing) sees Roots of Empathy program as, at the very least, a valuable tool in developing empathy, even among bullies. “Being a bully doesn’t mean you are pathological. Everyone can be a bully if they are placed in the wrong kind of situation. Part of our role as parents is to put our kids in roles where they can experience healthy things and feel how rewarding they are. Roots of Empathy is an incredible program that works to increase social awareness in kids and its effectiveness is supported by lots of peer-reviewed studies.”

But according to Clabough, the Roots of Empathy program isn’t enough. “Bringing a baby into the classroom to decrease the incidence of bullying in a school is a great start. But if that’s all we do, it will make as much meaningful change in a person as playing with a puppy for the afternoon. It’s a cute stress-reliever, a great wake-up call, and you can certainly learn a lot about nonverbal emotional communication from a baby, but these kids also need to practice cross-age relationships in an ongoing way.”

Buddy System

Clabough suggests that the buddy system is a great way to provide this sort of relationship practice and provides a means to build on the Roots of Empathy program. “Having a buddy in lower grades that kids see once a week is a great way to do this through the school setting, as is providing older mentors (for example, an 8th grader mentoring a 6th grader new to middle school). Our elementary school (Free Union Country School, in the Charlottesville, Virginia area) does a great job with this—every child in grades 2-5 has a smaller buddy in grades PreK-1. The buddy partnerships change each year, and as the children advance through school, they look forward to the time when they can finally be the big buddy,” says Clabough.

The practical benefits of the buddy system, suggests Clabough, are broad. “This buddy system normalizes having friends of different ages, it allows kids to grow meaningful connections to individuals outside their normal social groups, it creates a broader sense of belonging, and it strengthens every kid’s support network. Perhaps most importantly, it gives kids a chance to practice empathy through both teaching and looking at things from a different person’s perspective,” says Clabough, a mother of four, who concedes that, “The Roots of Empathy program has other components that are worth exploring.”

Ban Best Friends in Schools??

At Prince George’s school, best friends are banned

Should schools ban best friends to encourage inclusivity? British parenting expert Liz Fraser thinks so, but the public wildly disagrees (and so does this author). Fraser cites four-year-old Prince George’s school, Thomas’s Battersea, as setting a positive example for its ban on best friends.  According to the Daily Mail, Fraser, a mother of four, told Good Morning Britain that having a best friend is too “territorial.” “It immediately [separates] this friend out as being different from all other friends, which immediately sets you into a mini group,” explains Fraser.

“Some children don’t have a best friend. I didn’t have a best friend. If I did have a best friend, I think it’s because no one wanted to be friends with us.”

The British expert also asserts that men don’t have best friends (which would appear to contradict the concept of “bros before hoes”).

“Boys don’t have best friends,” said Fraser. “They have mates, whereas girls have a best friend. It’s very territorial, it’s quite possessive, and for me there’s an element of it’s actually not to do with this friendship, it’s more about telling everybody else this is my best friend.

“I think it’s a good idea to try and keep things a bit more broad.”

Two good buddy-roos.
Boys can so too be best friends!

Fraser urges elementary school teachers to encourage children to be friends with groups of children, rather than with just one best friend. But psychologist Dr. Mark Rackley, appearing on the same segment, disagrees, stating that having a best friend teaches children how to form relationships. Moreover, said Rackley, best friends can be crucial for only children, who don’t have the benefit of long-term, supportive sibling relationships.

Viewers agreed with Rackley, with the backlash against Fraser, severe. Some called the idea of banning best friends “ridiculous,” while others called the concept “rubbish” (and worse). The controversy was so huge, it made its way over to the United States, where Dr. Barbara Greenberg weighed in in a column for U.S.News:

“The phrase best friend is inherently exclusionary. Among children and even teens, best friends shift rapidly. These shifts lead to emotional distress and would be significantly less likely if our kids spoke of close or even good friends rather than best friends. And, if kids have best friends, does that also imply that they have ‘worst friends?’ A focus on having best friends certainly indicates there’s an unspoken ranking system; and where there is a ranking system, there are problems. I see kids who are never labeled best friends, and sadly, they sit alone at lunch tables and often in their homes while others are with their best friends.”Two young girls lying on the grass in opposite directions, smiling best friends

Nonsense, says Bryan G. Stephens, in a reader op-ed he contributed to the conservative website Ricochet called, Ban Best Friends?

“Adults deciding who kids get to be friends with? That will not only breed resentment, it will reduce engagement in school. I have seen children without a best friend at school (in 6th grade I was one), and it hurt my performance in school. In 12th grade, when my then best friends and I broke up, I made it a point to find a new best friend, one whom I am still best friends with, so take that, social do-gooders.

“Think of all the friends I ‘excluded’ by having this one.

“To look at it another way, having someone force the kids in 6th grade who did not like me to be my ‘friend’ would have made things 100 times worse. I was already being bullied. Having teachers force apart cliques to include me would have [bred] resentment on their part, and guess who would have [borne] the brunt of their ire?” wrote Stephens.

Little boys, best friends, hugging, facing camera

 

Stephens’ brief defense of best friends had a positive response from readers. So positive that not a single reader disagreed with him. Readers at Ricochet, it seems, saw a nefarious political motive behind the drive to ban best friends in schools. One commenter described such bans as coming from “Big Brother,” with others suggesting the ban on best friends as a construct of the radical left, or in reality, a desire to ban the “free market.”

Like Stephens, this author has been on both sides of the equation. Bullied and excluded in the early years of primary education, then quite popular for a time, with best friends coming and going from 6th grade through high school graduation and beyond into adulthood. To ban best friends would have meant grudging acceptance, which would have caused immense hurt. It would have hindered, not helped my self-esteem to be tolerated.

Best friends, on the other hand, are invested in keeping a relationship going, much as a married couple wants to keep a marriage healthy and strong. It takes work to build and maintain any long-term relationship. Through the months and years, best friends learn to listen to one another and grow. Best friends acquire experience in what makes things worse, and perhaps more important, they learn what makes things better.

Little girl best friends take a selfie

Is there a down side to best friends? Not if you’re teaching children to be kind and nice to everyone. Having a best friend doesn’t mean you have to be mean to, or exclude anyone who is not your best friend.

Children should be taught to include other children at play and in activities so their feelings won’t be hurt. They should either invite all their classmates to their birthday parties or give out invitations outside of school (so the one or two children not invited won’t find out they’ve been excluded). Children should be taught not to mention party invitations within hearing of children who might not have been invited. Empathy for less popular children should be stressed and inclusion encouraged. Children should be asked, “How would you feel if no one wanted to play with you?”

But that doesn’t mean that schools should ban best friends or that children should not form best friend relationships. Being nice to all and having a best friend are not mutually exclusive concepts. Think about it this way: you can be friendly to people and still be committed/married to a single partner/spouse. You can be inclusive and still be exclusive and this is not at all a contradictory idea.

Two teenage girls show joy in each others' company.

Yes. Teach these concepts to children: Be nice to all. Don’t bully or tease less popular kids. Try to include them in your parties, play, and other activities.

But say yes, as well, to BFFs. In allowing your child to have a best friend, you’re giving your child an opportunity. You’re allowing your child to learn how to have a close relationship. This is a crucial life skill.

By having a best friend, your child learns about commitment and trust; how to listen and get past disagreements; and yes, even how to be married and parent children. Long-term relationships—whether with a parent, a sibling, a spouse, or best friend—all involve the same critical skill sets.

Two young girlfriends eating treats on the beach, smiling at each other.

So schools, please don’t ban best friends. A ban on best friends would only keep children from acquiring the experience they need to cultivate and maintain life-partner relationships. A school ban on best friends would eliminate the possibility of experiencing what it means to be extra special to just one person. It would mean not having the chance of gifting that feeling of being extra special to someone else.

And finally, you’d be robbing students of the joy and pleasure of having someone who understands them better than anyone else in the world, in a world that is darned confusing.

Know this: a best friend is an anchor and a rock and a pleasure.

Now why would anyone want to take that away from our children?

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.

blue whale

“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.”

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.

How to Prevent Teen Suicide

Teen suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people aged 12-18. Only accidents come in ahead of suicide at robbing young lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Some 12 teenagers commit suicide each day which comes to around 5,000 teenage suicides every year. Of those 5,000 teen suicides, 84% are young men.

Just like with adults, more teens try to commit suicide than actually succeed. For every teen suicide you hear about, some 25 suicide attempts have been made. Young girls have a higher rate of suicide attempts but more young men succeed.

After being on the decline in the 80’s and 90’s, the number of teen suicides is sharply rising. Teen suicides, as of 2015, now account for 13% of all U.S. suicides. Teenage girls have the steepest rise in suicide rates, that rate having tripled over the past 15 years.

depression

The causes of teen suicide may be psychological, environmental, or social. Mental illness such as clinical depression is an example of a psychological cause of suicide. Suicide as a way to escape an abusive home environment would an environmental cause of suicide. A lack of friends or social life, meanwhile, could be a social motivation for suicide. Mental illness is the leading cause of teen suicide.

If you have a teenager, you know that teens are emotional. Teens experience emotions and issues more deeply. That means their stress levels are higher, too.

Here are some stress factors that might cause a teenager to think about suicide:

  • Violence in the home
  • Death of a friend or relative
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Being bullied in person or online
  • Humiliation and frustration due to sexual development or orientation
  • Academic failure
  • Rejection
  • Conflict in a romantic relationship
  • Conflict with a parent

Sometimes, just trying to understand how the world works can seem overwhelming and confusing to a teen. Add out-of-control hormones to the picture and it’s easy to see why some teens try suicide.  They’re looking for a way out of their problems.

As a parent, you want to keep your child safe. Ensuring your child’s safety begins with recognizing the causes and factors that put your child at risk for suicide. If your child has risk factors for suicide, you’ll want to take preventive measures to protect your child.

Teen Suicide Risk Factors

Having risk factors for suicide doesn’t mean your child will try to commit suicide. It does mean that his risk for attempting suicide may be higher than for some other teens. It’s also important to know that some risk factors are things you can fix while others are not.

You may be able to lower your child’s stress levels, for instance, by giving him fewer chores. A family history of suicide, on the other hand, is something you cannot change. While a parent may not be able to take away all of a teen’s risk factors for suicide, it’s still possible to take many steps to keep your teenager safe.

Here are some common risk factors for teen suicide that parents should view as very serious:

  • Past suicide attempt(s)
  • Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia, for instance
  • Physical illness
  • Family suicide history
  • Drug and/or alcohol abuse
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Problems with impulse control
  • Acts out, aggressive
  • Loss of income/has financial problems
  • Social issues
  • Loss of or lack of social network, isolation
  • Loss of relationship
  • Ease of access to suicide methods/means
  • Knows someone who committed suicide

Teen Suicide Protective Factors

Protective factors can serve to cancel out risk factors to lower your teen’s risk for suicide:

  • Easy access to treatment for physical, mental, and drug and alcohol abuse disorders
  • Limited access to methods and items that could be used to commit suicide
  • Unconditional support from family, friends, and community
  • Good relationships with and easy access to physical and mental health care professionals and personnel
  • Skills in problem-solving and in non-violent conflict-resolution
  • Strong household or personal religious and/or cultural beliefs that discourage suicide

Depression and Teen Suicide

When we speak of depression and teen suicide, we’re not talking about passing moods. Anyone can feel blue from time to time. But clinical depression is different. It lasts longer than a few days and the signs and symptoms can be severe. If you suspect your child is suffering from depression, it’s important to see a mental health professional for diagnosis and treatment.

Depression is diagnosed when there are at least five of these symptoms present:

  • Feels sad, or irritable and angry, most of the time
  • A loss of interest in day-to-day activities
  • A loss of or increase in appetite, noticeable weight loss or gain
  • Has trouble sleeping or sleeps too much
  • Feels nervous and revved up or listless
  • Is tired all the time, has no energy
  • Feels worthless or guilty without cause
  • Can’t concentrate, is indecisiveness
  • Thinks about or talks about death and dying and suicide. May have a suicide plan.

Preventive Measures and Teen Suicide

Parents of teens at risk for suicide should make the effort to limit the teen’s access to items that can be used to commit suicide. If you own a gun, make sure it remains locked away. Other items that should be kept away from teens at risk for suicide are ropes, knives, pipes, and medication.

Suicide Threats

There’s a belief that people who seriously want to commit suicide, tend to just go ahead and do it, rather than merely threaten to commit suicide. Even so, parents should take any talk about or threat of suicide as if it were the real deal and treat it as a true emergency. If a teenager talks about killing him or herself, contact a mental health care professional immediately. Not sure whom to contact? Begin with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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Bullying And Its Flipside: Parenting The Bully

Bullying victim Daniel Fitzpatrick, a thirteen-year-old boy, was in the news last week after taking his own life. Daniel tried and failed to get help but ultimately the system failed him. That’s not what this blog piece is about.

This piece is the flipside of that one.

This piece is about parenting a bully. A sort of We Need to Talk About Kevin, writ large, complete with advice. That was a book and movie that was compelling because it felt so true (it wasn’t) and because Kevin was truly horrible. We felt for his mother.

But we also understood why she stood alone.

Bullying stories, you see, tend to feature the victims and their parents. You’ll see the sad victim, read a father’s Facebook post, and somewhere near the end of the story, encounter a photo of the grieving family, minus one member. It make sense. From the writer’s standpoint, at least. It’s what the people want.

People are goodhearted. They like to cry, to empathize. And what could possibly drive empathy more than a bullying victim?

But the parents of a bully? They too, are deserving of empathy, but somehow, no one really believes that deep down. You always look at a bully and wonder what kind of parent produced that monster. There’s a judgment that somehow it’s GOT to be your fault.

It’s pretty hard to get past that knee-jerk reaction.

Not to mention, in seeking help for the child who engages in bullying, there’s this feeling of betrayal. You feel you’re trash-talking your own child. All of which makes it difficult for parents of bullies to go and get caring help for the awful problem.

That is why you will continue to see stories like Daniel Fitzpatrick’s story and less like this one. Bullying isn’t even close to being past tense. It’s going to keep happening, and as long as it does, there will be other victims, other suicides, to feed public curiosity, the desire to feel and empathize, and yes: cry.

But rather than help the parents of the bullies help their children to STOP being bullies, we will continue to focus on the damage to the victims.

Yes. They deserve our empathy and compassion. But you can’t help a suicide.

An active bully on the other hand. Well, there is something to work with.

If that sounds cruel, take a step back and think about it: if you want to stop bullying and make sure there are no more Daniel Fitzpatricks, you need to address the root cause. You need to put a stop to the bully.

Owning Up: Accepting Your Child’s Role

That begins with recognizing the bully. We think of someone big, with a swagger. Someone stronger than all the others, thus  able to command and overpower.

But that isn’t necessarily how it works. Anyone can be a bully. Including your (sweet, delicate) child. Even though your first reaction as a parent is denial: Not my child.

Know this: helping your child to be healthy and whole begins with looking at the canvas and seeing what you have.

Listen to the accusations of bullying and investigate. If true, your child needs help. Your child needs to know you love him no matter what. Your child needs these things to be whole, healthy, and productive.

Shoving the matter of bullying under the rug, on the other hand, will not make it go away, but will only make it fester. Taking the matter in hand and owning the truth, is the road to recovery and health, and a better future for all involved (no more Daniel Fitzpatricks).

Profile Of A Bully

Let’s begin with the profile of the bully. Children who bully are more likely to have experienced academic failure, depression, violence, and crime. The bullying is a reaction to the child’s situation, the environment in which he finds himself. He has a need to gain control over his situation. He does this by dominating a peer.

A bully can be of any family background, gender, race, income level, or religion. In spite of the differences, children who engage in bullying tend to share one or more of these traits:

  • Tends to blame others for his/her behavior, tries to avoid accepting responsibility
  • Doesn’t understand how others feel, doesn’t make the attempt to understand, and feels little or no compassion for others
  • Has been a victim of bullying
  • Has poor social skills, is awkward
  • Wants to be in control all the time
  • Is depressed, feels anxious or frustrated
  • Seeks to find acceptance with a crowd that engages in bullying

Bullying: How Is It Done?

Bullying isn’t about fighting over who gets the plastic shovel in the sandbox. Bullying is about actively seeking to gain control over others, to dominate them. Bullying behavior, whether physical, verbal, emotional, virtual (think email, texts, and social media bullying), or sexual, is about creating an imbalance of power between the bully and the focus of his behavior, the victim.

Bullying

Language Gap: Separating The Child From His Behavior

When you discuss bullying with your child, make sure to use appropriate language. Instead of calling a child a “bully” speak of a “child who uses bullying behavior.” This lets the child know that above all, he is a child, your child, with a wide-open future. It is not carved in stone that having once bullied, the child will be and always will be, a bully. Language can help separate the child from the behavior he needs to change.

Bullying Consequences And Positive Reinforcement

A child who bullies needs to experience meaningful consequences for bullying behavior, and incentives for changing that behavior. Know what is important to your child. Take it away for bullying behavior. Praise him to the skies when he behaves as he should.

Bullying: What To Do?

So let’s say your child exhibits some of the traits of bullying, or parents or school officials have approached you about your child’s behavior, which sounds like bullying. What should you do? For one thing, be assured that bullying is a behavior that is learned. A child can “unlearn” this behavior and replace it with other behaviors: behaviors that are pleasing and good!

Have A Conversation

The journey begins by speaking with your child, and teaching him the right way to handle his feelings and dealings with others. Talk to your child about what you’ve seen and what you’ve heard from others. Ask your child what he thinks about that. He may not know he is bullying others. He may think he’s “just playing around” and “having fun.”

Explain what bullying is and how it makes people feel (both bully and victim). Tell him about Daniel Fitzpatrick. A child may need to be told which behaviors are appropriate and which are not.

See if you can find out why your child is bullying others without making your child feel you’ve judged him. Explore how your child would feel if the situation were reversed. “If someone did that to you, how would you feel?”

Ask your child if there is someone bullying him or if his friends are asking him to bully others. Peer pressure can be a powerful motivator.

Determine The Cause: Bullying By Disability Or Intention?

Some children with disabilities engage in behavior that looks like bullying. These children may have limited social skills, or they may have behavioral or emotional disorders that cause them to behave in inappropriate ways in social situations. This behavior may be mistaken for bullying by others.

It is important to note that whether the behavior is intentional bullying, or connected to the child’s disability, it must still be addressed. If the child’s behavior is due to a disability, it can be a good idea to include bullying prevention as a goal in the child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Examine And Reexamine

Bullying can be unlearned and replaced with positive behavior, but it won’t happen easily or overnight. Parents must understand that the road ahead is long and that it will take a lot of work to make real changes. Parent and child must have an ongoing conversation to talk about situations, how they were handled, and how the reaction and behavior can be improved. Feelings will need to be talked about. The situation will need to be assessed and reassessed and goals identified and worked toward.

Raise Awareness Of Feelings

Children who bully others have a problem: they have little awareness of others’ feelings. That is why children who engage in bullying need to be shown active examples of kindness, respect, and compassion for others. Show your child the smile you put on a neighbor’s face when you did a kindness for him. Ask him how he thinks your neighbor felt.

Ask your child how he feels when someone insults him or does him a kindness. The idea is to grow your child’s awareness of his own feelings and those of others, too. Explain to your child that everyone has feelings and that feelings are important no matter who experiences them.

Express Firm Expectations

Your child needs to know that you will not tolerate bullying for any reason at all. Bullying is never okay. Full stop.

If you find your child has engaged in bullying behavior take immediate action, for instance, taking away a privilege (example: staying up late to watch a show) or an activity (example: going to a baseball game) that is important to your child. Be firm and don’t go back on your decision or allow yourself to be persuaded to change the consequence, once you’ve laid it out. You are the parent. You are in charge.

Tell your child what will happen if he engages in bullying behavior in the future. Be clear about it. Don’t say: “I will take something away from you,” but rather, “I will cancel the delivery of your new laptop,” And then carry through!

Be A Model

In addition to showing your child examples of kindness, show your child how to resolve conflicts without fighting or bullying. Show your child how to deal with feelings like anger, frustration, or anxiety. As your child catches on and imitates your behavior, offer praise and rewards.

Play Games

Play games together and show your child that it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. Show empathy when he loses, encourage him as he wins. Encourage HIM to do the same for you.

Engage in role play to practice how to handle various situations with friends. Take turns playing the parts so he can put himself in both bully’s and victim’s places. This can help illustrate for your child what it means to be hurt.

Be Patient

Sometimes it will feel like one step forward, and two steps back. Remind yourself that Rome wasn’t built in a day. It will take lots of time and work to make real changes that stick. Try to catch your child in the act of doing good. Then praise him.

Remain loving and supportive, even when he fails. He needs you in his corner in order to improve and be the best he can be. Speak to his teachers and get help for yourself if you can, from a support group or a professional. You’ve got a hard road to haul, and there will unfortunately be little understanding for you from others, unless you reach out and speak out, on a regular basis.

It doesn’t seem fair or nice to say it, but it’s a victim’s world. The only thing you can do is dig in your heels for the long term and keep on keeping on.

No matter what.